|Causality II: Cause
Author: Guede Mazaka
Beatrix was driving because Arthur had never been particularly good at keeping his emotions out of his actions, and as far as she knew, that hadn’t changed in five years. She always wondered just how he managed to stay sane, considering what they did. Moreover, how he stayed competent, because her earlier taunt aside, a fight with him would have been touch-and-go. She probably had speed and flexibility to her advantage, but he’d had much experience matching eastern styles, and his broadsword gave him greater weight and range.
And there’d been the other two in the room, she belatedly remembered. Something Arthur had always been good at was collectivism; unlike Bill, he’d actually managed to create a group whose members weren’t desperate to kill each other. “Do we have a plan, or should I just go in there and kill anyone that you aren’t madly in love with?”
Arthur jerked out of his reverie and turned away from the window. His eyes were curious in that they could be so normal most of the time, and then they could suddenly slash the streetlight fluorescence into eerie, feral yellow-green irises. “We’re going to the back of an apartment building. It’s empty—they say—except for a room on the third floor. They bring Lancelot out onto the balcony, I step to where they can shoot me, and that’s the end.”
“According to them. You’re not getting shot.” Somewhere deep inside her, she was laughing at the whole situation. Sofie suddenly turning lethal, Arthur jumping open-eyed back into the assassin game, and herself thinking through attack strategies in order to push aside the knee-high ache in her heart. “I think I’ll go in the front. You can have the handguns; they’re in the dash.”
“I hope you don’t ever let B. B. sit up here,” he muttered, clicking open the glove compartment and digging around till he found the semiautomatics. One went under his shoulder, and after a few minutes’ improvisation with his tie, the other ended up strapped in his sleeve. “And already loaded, too.”
The coolness that had carried them this far began to release its hold on Beatrix. “I know how to handle firearms.”
“Children can be just as explosive.” His fingers twitched every so often, betraying a tension that Beatrix should have been taking into account, but Arthur could be the most damnable man. “I’m not raising another one. I think it’s been shown that I’m terrible at it.”
She choked back her laugh because they were turning down the last street. “As far as child-rearing goes, you’ve been more successful than most. Did O-ren ever tell you her life-story?”
“The only time I ever saw her tipsy.” The narrow edge of a smile cut across Arthur’s profile.
As they pulled up to the curb, Beatrix checked the rear for possible sharpshooter positions. Then she parked the car and slouched down in her seat, hand wrapping around her sword. “Arthur? Tell me something: why me? Why not buddy up to Budd, or to…well, Vernita? I can understand why Elle and O-ren would have put you off…”
He paused with one hand on the door handle, gaze fixing itself on her eyes and burrowing so deep she thought she could feel it scrape against the inside back of her skull. “Vernita was—shallow, I suppose. She didn’t seem to understand anything except in terms of herself. And Budd was a waste. I think if Bill hadn’t built up an organization and dragged Budd along, the man never would have amounted to anything.”
“Better to be a criminal than a couch potato?” Beatrix asked, buttoning up her jacket. It was a chilly night, and it was going to take a bit before she worked up a sweat. “What makes me better than O-ren, in that case? Because she definitely amounted to something.”
“As you said before, you were in love. I could see that.” Arthur let her jibe pass without comment and instead, adjusted the set of Excalibur between his shoulders. He’d forgotten his jacket; the man was going to be freezing if he didn’t get moving soon, and freezing meant a loss of useful energy. “You were the most human. Even more so than Bill. And you were also the one with the…call it spirit.”
Incredibly enough, Beatrix found herself blushing a little. But her cheeks soon cooled once they were out of the car, and she could remember of what this slow, almost stately walk to the door reminded her.
“If we ever happen to cross swords again…” Arthur abruptly said, just as they had reached the edge of the darkened parking lot. “I’d rather not do it in front of anyone.”
“I doubt that will happen, but fine.” She took a slow breath as she let her sword-arm fall to the ready position. “I respect you. That’s not something I say to many people.”
“How many of them are still alive?” But Arthur was walking away before she could answer, his white shirt glowing with an uncanny effervescence in the dim light. He almost seemed to be moving in mist.
Fancies and dreams, Beatrix snorted. She slipped into the shadows and came up to the building by a ground-floor window, which was easy enough to break into. The slight shatter of glass did bring attention wandering in, but only two that she dispatched before they even saw her. Clearly, they’d been expecting Arthur to play by the rules.
He was justly famous for that, but something the vast majority of people in their profession didn’t realize was that humanity never really did disappear. It might remain dormant while they massacred and rampaged, but it always came out in one form or the other. Arthur’s main peculiarity was that he’d never tried to subsume it, but instead had apparently worked around and with it. And now, Beatrix could finally understand what that effort must have cost him.
It was an old building, so the elevator had a folding iron grating in front of it and the lobby had a genuine stone staircase spiraling up from it. Given the antique look of the elevator, Beatrix naturally went for the steps.
On the twelfth step, a little pink stuffed bunny had been forgotten. Some time ago, to judge by the size of the dustball that was trying to eat it. For a moment, Beatrix experienced something like double vision.
Then she shook herself and gripped the hilt so it reminded her just what was going on. As she padded up the stairs, she scooped the bunny from the ground, dusted it off, and shoved it in her coat pocket.
Third floor. They really had all congregated there; Beatrix momentarily wondered just what her file had said on the subject of Arthur, to make Sofie so sure that they wouldn’t join up. Then she forgot about that, because the first man was coming up and her sword was through his throat before his partner could even go bug-eyed. She belted the second one in the mouth with the scabbard, mashing his yell, and then cleaved his head in two. A second to flick off the brains, and she was moving on.
Just as she’d gotten near enough to hear Arthur’s voice shouting, something whooshed at her head from the left. Beatrix ducked into the nearest doorway with plenty of room to spare, but then had to scramble to jump out of the way of a second blow. She didn’t quite make it. Her thigh froze, then spasmed with a bruising pain.
The lights went on. An adorable Asian girl, maybe sixteen if that, gave her a devastatingly familiar cutesy-wave before lunging at her with a steel spear. A flare of sparks screeched up as she blocked and shoved back, and then the air vibrated loud and long with a ferocious, teeth-rattling singing.
“Hi hi!” chirped the girl. Her smile suddenly dropped into a distorted sneer. “Gaijin that killed my sister.”
“Yuki. I heard you’d drunk yourself into an early grave.” Goddamn it, but the alarm was well and truly on; they were in an empty, unfurnished loft apartment, but Beatrix could hear people running around nearby. Yelling. The first gunshot, which she hoped hadn’t been aimed at Lancelot because she wasn’t looking forward to dealing with a truly vengeful Arthur.
The girl snarled and lifted her spear. “Think again.”
And there wasn’t enough time to warn her off, even if Beatrix had been intending to. Underage for drinking and voting Yuki might be, but revenge had no age limit except that which was personally set.
“If you insist.” Beatrix slid her foot back and braced herself, letting her mind sink into a trance. She watched from some distance as Yuki did the same, waiting for that—one—flicker—of—
--then they exploded towards each other.
* * *
Gawain rubbed at the spot between his eyebrows, which currently seemed to be the favored location for all the gathering tension in his head. In his peripheral vision, Vanora was calmly settling B. B. in a spare bed while Bors and Dagonet did quick surveys of the window and door security. Thankfully, Vanora hadn’t said anything about being put in an awkward and potentially lethal position; Gawain had been flinching in expectation of the recriminations he thought he’d get. It was nice to be disappointed there.
Sitting by his feet, Galahad was nervously doing and undoing the laces of Gawain’s shoes. “What happened?”
“Hang on. And stop that.” With a last glance towards Vanora, Gawain turned back to the cell phone. “Guinevere? Did you say what I think you said?”
*Exactly what you think I said.* She sounded a bit strained, but was, on the whole, impressively controlled. *Get back here. I think we’ll have to move again.*
Immediately after saying that, she hung up. Gawain winced at the loud click and stared at the phone. “Christ. I didn’t even get to talk to Tristan.”
“Then let’s get back already,” Galahad snapped, bouncing up and banging down the stairs. He hated missing a fight—not because he got some sick pleasure out of it, but because he had a hard time dealing with the uncertainty.
For that matter, so did Gawain. He poked his head in the bedroom and waved Dagonet and Bors over. “Listen, we’ve got to go. Lancelot’s already gotten himself in the shit—well, further in the shit than before.”
Bors rolled his eyes, but his face was entirely given over to seriousness. He opened his mouth to say something, caught Vanora’s eye, and apologetically moved off to soothe her. On the other hand, Dagonet was doing that weirdly reassuring stare he had, which logically should have been as unnerving as Tristan’s but somehow wasn’t. He squeezed Gawain’s shoulder, then glanced at the bed. “We’ll watch her.”
“I hate doing this to Vanora. If they do attack here, I’ll never be able to…God, this is such a mess.” Gawain raked a hand through his hair and thus accidentally pulled out his ponytail. He yanked at the loose strands, gagging on sudden anger. “Now I think I know what Arthur feels like.”
“He’s a good man.” Dagonet looked over his shoulder at the—unbelievably—still-sleeping girl. “That’s a good girl. It’s enough.”
Not that Gawain had much of an idea about what Dagonet was talking, but the tension bands in his chest loosened a little. He sucked in a deep breath and dug up the energy to concentrate on the drive back. “Right. Then…we’ll be seeing you.”
“Yes, you will.” The other man followed Gawain as far as the staircase, where Dagonet stopped. He paused for a moment before turning back to talk with Bors.
At the base of the stairs, Galahad was nearly jittering with impatience. As soon as he could, he grabbed Gawain’s arm and dragged him toward the garage. “Come on.”
“You sound like you’re twelve,” Gawain snorted, yanking his arm free. He heard the catch in Galahad’s breath, but didn’t look up fast enough to prevent the other man from slamming him back against the wall.
Surprisingly enough, Galahad didn’t often start. Though when he did, his agitation translated to fervent squirming and messy hot kisses that Gawain really needed to encourage more. But before he could even react, Galahad was stepping back into the shadows. “When we were twelve, it wasn’t this complicated. But I’m damn well not going back to being that young. You?”
As Gawain followed Galahad into the dark and kissed back, he was grinning. “No. And you’re driving. I’m exhausted.”
* * *
Despite Elle’s gaunt appearance and all the restraints they’d put on her, both Guinevere and Tristan had agreed that someone still needed to stay up and watch her. Though Guinevere had tried to plead exhaustion from fighting off some rude house-callers earlier, Tristan had insisted on flipping a coin. He had let her do the flipping, and it had still come up in his favor.
Consequently, he was now curled catlike in the armchair, bangs all in his face so he looked strangely adorable, and Guinevere was perched on the chair arm with a handgun, a glass of water, and a strong desire to just shoot Elle in the head. Even unconscious, the woman was just a complete bitch. She kept shifting every few seconds, smooth and purposeful as if she were awake, and her upper lip kept twitching into a sneer. Between that and the scare that had been Arthur, Guinevere’s nerves weren’t doing too well.
She didn’t even want to think about the best-case scenario, which would have to be Arthur permanently getting a son of a bitch assassin that had tried to cut off her head as a bedtoy.
“He bring you up a lady?”
Guinevere slammed her hand down on the gun in her lap and nearly blew a hole in the coffee table. Calming down, she glared at Elle. “He showed me how to see to myself.”
“That does seem to be Arthur’s pet hobby: reforming trash into robots. He’s such a grand fucking humanitarian.” The other woman slowly raised her head and started nudging at her bonds; a moment later, Guinevere realized that Elle was feeling out how she was tied down. It was a begrudged but undeniable admission that the bitch did have strength. Blind, sick and still thinking. “You’re getting upset. Crush?”
“Hardly. I wouldn’t be female if I haven’t considered him in bed, but it’d end up being too much like fucking a brother. And I’m not a deviant in that respect.” The water was stale and tepid and gross, but getting a fresh cup would involve taking eyes off of Elle. So Guinevere stayed put, wished to God that Tristan woke up soon, and gritted her teeth. There wasn’t even a clock in her line of sight, so she couldn’t check the time.
Chuckling like a drunk streetwalker, Elle lurched and twisted till she was on her back. Then she rubbed her badly bruised temple against the seat cushion, not so much wincing as grimacing away her humor. It wasn’t long before she was back to the harpy expression. “Incest…and you think that’s an insult. God, girl, you’re such a young thing.”
It was so damn tempting to rise to the insult, but if it’d been one thing Guinevere had learned from living with Arthur, it was to sit and wait for the rest of the ramble. Though she did have to sink her nails into the chair arm.
“Honey, all a brotherhood or a sisterhood needs to be formed is enough blood. After a certain point, it doesn’t even matter whose it is, as long as you have enough. And once the stain’s on, you’re Lady Macbeth if you try to get it off.” Elle snickered at herself. That hurt something and made her flinch, eyelids fluttering shut as the white prosthetics wildly rolled. Her knees and elbows jerked towards each other as if she were trying to curl in on herself. “Fucking cunt.”
“The Bride?” ghosted a voice in Guinevere’s ear. She carefully refrained from jumping off the chair, and instead looked down to see a very conscious Tristan staring back. Then Guinevere had to restrain herself from doing something stupid like hugging him.
She nodded. He noiselessly twisted around so he could see Elle and then, apparently, went back to sleep. By this point, a small part of Guinevere was curious as to whether there was a way to know if Tristan was really asleep or only faking it.
“You might want to watch your pretty little ass,” Elle drawled, stretching. Hospital pallor and lank appearance notwithstanding, she still had enough scraps of sensuality and grace for Guinevere to see the kind of brutal beauty the woman had been. And given enough good meals, probably could be again. “Because for all his ascetic pretensions, I don’t figure Arthur for a man that likes looking at ugly things, and B is one fucking cannibal of a slut. She will eat you up and chew you apart, dear.”
Guinevere made her tone as neutral and flat as possible. “It doesn’t look like she’s currently in the market.”
“It’s not a matter of being in the market. It’s a matter of taste. You get a little bit, you’ll never forget it. As much as she and Arthur would like to believe otherwise.” In a way that disturbed Guinevere’s stomach and prickled heat lower down, Elle bent up so her breasts and hips were thrown into high relief, curves stretching tight beneath the thin blouse and slacks. “But it really is a ride,” she cooed.
“Thank you, but no.” Desperation was a depressing thing to watch, Guinevere decided. She eased forward and set her glass on the table, then glanced behind her for the time. A few seconds till the switch. “The offer’s appreciated, but I think Beatrix would have something to say about that. And anyway, I don’t like blondes.”
Elle snarled and tried to sit up, then went into a brief frenzy when her bonds caught her up. “You stuck-up little whore—”
“It’s interesting that she didn’t simply kill you in the hospital,” Tristan unexpectedly remarked. He sat up and started to change places with Guinevere; it seemed that a weirdly accurate time-sense numbered among his many talents. “That would have also kept you out of Sofie’s hands.”
Belligerence lingered in the set of Elle’s jaw, but she didn’t answer. She also stopped flailing about and resumed her coil, but this time she was less a snake ready to strike than a pile of tired limbs.
“You’re possibly the most sensible man I’ve ever met.” Guinevere found herself grinning at Tristan.
He blinked, reddened a little around the cheekbones, and shrugged. She suspected a loss for words. As a test, she slid down into the seat before he could get out, handed him the gun, and adopted him as a pillow for her nap.
Tristan was comfortable, and warm, and not grumbling. Then again, that could just be politeness; Arthur would do the same thing.
Arthur. The worry shocked back into Guinevere’s stomach and clenched it in a way that her hands poorly tried to imitate with Tristan’s knee. But he didn’t try to loosen her grip. And in the end, she was able to fall asleep on him.
* * *
The moment Arthur stepped into view, Lancelot’s heart attempted to rip itself in two as one half leaped and the other sank. The godddamn idiot.
He must have jerked forward, because the bastard holding his neck jerked him backwards so hard Lancelot almost fell off his knees. Balance was a little difficult to maintain with hands chained behind the back, and even more difficult when simply breathing made Lancelot’s head swim with pain. They’d been ever so considerate and rebuttoned his shirt and jacket, so he doubted that Arthur could see any of the damage; as per Fatale’s instructions, Lancelot’s face had been left alone. That was most likely a good thing, since one fail-safe way of pissing Arthur off was signs of maltreatment, and never mind that the German standing behind Lancelot was about to get a perfect shot at Arthur.
This whole situation was exactly what Lancelot had been trying to avoid. He knew very well that Arthur was only here because, even after five years of trying to renounce it, he still felt responsible for Lancelot. It was a fucking guilt complex, and Arthur was going to get himself killed for it. If Arthur was going to come back, Lancelot wanted him to do it because he wanted to, and not because he felt obliged to.
Ironically enough, that had been why they’d ended up separating in the first place. Because Lancelot had been too short-tempered to realize what he wanted involved Arthur alone, and not Arthur in the context of Bill’s organization. Later, when he’d finally swallowed enough frustration to taste that bitter insight, he thought it’d been too late. Not to mention that in the days after the Two Pines Massacre, everyone had been on pins and needles around each other. Bill had not dealt with grief in a constructive way.
“Arthur.” The apparent leader of this sorry group, a walking haystack who compensated with an impressive battleax, walked up to the railing and leant over. All around, his gunmen trained their sights on the lone figure below.
Bastard second-in-command wrenched at Lancelot’s neck, making him get up. He was shoved against the rail, then had his head yanked backward by the hair. Cold steel glissaded its flat across his throat, the knife edge just pricking enough to let him know it was there, and drifted up to rest a chilly point beneath his left eye.
“Cerdic. I thought you’d been permanently retired.” Arthur sounded so little like himself that Lancelot couldn’t help jerking his chin down enough to look. The knife dug in, but after a moment’s clumsy thought, the German fuck allowed it. Probably because he figured it’d be more effective if Lancelot stared at Arthur with big, pleading puppy-eyes.
Fuck that for a victim-play. As far as Lancelot was concerned, Arthur needed to get out and go live without any fuck-ups hanging around.
Arthur was freezing. Not in the sense that he was shivering, or otherwise betrayed any sign of being cold. No, what Lancelot meant was that when he finally saw who had shown up, it felt like his marrow had gone to ice, expanded and thus was threatening to crack open his bones. As far back as he could remember, he’d never seen Arthur with that expression on his face.
And God, but the man still managed to reach through the intervening space and pull every single one of Lancelot’s strings. Lancelot was drymouthed and gasping as he stared at Arthur, and Arthur didn’t look back.
“I was on vacation for a while, waiting for a chance. Not quite like your idea of retirement, I presume.” Cerdic folded his arms on top of the rail and pulled at his long, drooping moustaches. He almost looked regretful, but the calculating sharpness of his gaze belied that impression. “Cynric. Would you like to take off an ear first, or the nose?”
Below in the parking lot, Arthur didn’t move. Excalibur’s hilt was sticking up behind his shoulder, but his hands didn’t even flex towards it, as they would do whenever he was about to lose his temper. At least, as far as Lancelot knew; right now, Lancelot suspected that Arthur wasn’t in any danger of losing that.
“You see, the Bride was malicious enough to ruin our good patroness’ looks, and you didn’t even bother to send flowers. I think it’s past time to even that score.” As Cerdic stepped away from the rail, the man standing next to him raised his rifle and pulled the trigger back almost to the point of shooting. And Arthur still didn’t react.
Hot stinking breath whuffed a chuckle in Lancelot’s ear. “Doesn’t even care, does he? Cold bastard.”
The knife touched the very edge of Lancelot’s ear, tiny pinprick of pain and hot wetness dripping—
--Cynric suddenly howled and fell back, leaving Lancelot stumbling at the abrupt loss of constriction. He fell heavily against the rail, jarring his ribs so his vision wanted to go black. But that lag time he couldn’t afford, so he forced himself to stare through the shrinking tunnel of sight.
Excalibur. Excalibur had gone through Cynric’s shoulder and pinned the motherfucking son of a bitch to the wall, while all the others were shouting and pointing fingers and taking wild shots. Lancelot wanted to thump his head on something hard. “Arthur, you fucking moron, you lost your sword!”
In retrospect, he should have saved that for later, because it attracted Cerdic’s attention back to him. That man was one coldblooded bastard—as far as Lancelot could figure, Cynric was the man’s son, was currently howling and trying to claw Excalibur out of his shoulder, and Cerdic just shoved past. He took a step forward, Lancelot took one back, and then Lancelot was trapped in the corner of the balcony.
“Don’t make this any harder for you than it’s already been.” Like a demented cross between a yeti and a grandfather with candy, Cerdic aimed his gun at Lancelot, then waved it towards him. “Get over here.”
This was going to hurt. Then again, that was nothing compared to thinking that he was, once and for all, never going to have a chance to see Arthur again. Lancelot gripped the bars behind him, waited for the man to take another impatient step, and kicked up so Cerdic’s gun went flying. His knees and arms wanted to collapse, so he let them and went into a controlled fall, shoving backwards as soon as he could. The wall came up entirely too soon against his hands, mashing them into his spine, but if he could just make the last few feet, he could at least duck inside—
Something slammed down on Lancelot’s ankle. Bastard German’s boot.
“Fuck!” “I’m beginning to consider that, you little shit—” Snarling, Cerdic yanked the battleax off his back and raised it over Lancelot’s head.
About a foot to Lancelot’s left, Cynric finally got Excalibur out of his shoulder. The sword came within an inch of hitting the floor before a hand scooped it up. Lancelot only saw Arthur’s furious eyes before Cerdic whirled and blocked a skull-cleaving blow.
Enough with the staring. Time to get his hands free, and to hell with his shrieking ribs.
* * *
For the first time, Arthur was vaguely grateful for Guinevere’s habit of scaling basically anything with handholds, and the resulting necessity that he be able to follow her. And instead of a fence that would have been awkward and slow to climb, Cerdic been nice enough to choose a place with a tree near the balcony
Of course, there was a sniper in the branches. But Arthur shot him before the man even got a bead on him, and from there it was a short leap to the balcony. By then, Beatrix had gotten inside, because he could see her dueling with an Asian girl in the next apartment over.
His first intent had been to slam into Cerdic’s side, but at the last moment, a gunman at the other end of the balcony saw him and fired at him, forcing Arthur to land slightly left of Cerdic. That put him in a fortuitous position for retrieving his sword, which he then did his best to slash into Cerdic’s side.
The other man blocked. Cynric was trying to rush Arthur from the side, but something tripped him. Arthur ignored that and swung low, trying to cut out Cerdic’s legs from under him. However, the other man retained a surprising speed for his age and blocked that blow as well, then turned it into an almost-successful chop at Arthur’s leg.
“You complete jackass—” Lancelot was twisting around on the ground, squirming and cursing. It nearly distracted Arthur because he thought the other man had been hit—but the ax flashed and Arthur was back to the fight. He knocked away Cerdic’s next try and shoved up inside the man’s guard to punch him into the railing.
Excalibur was six inches from permanently removing that difficulty in Arthur’s life when a bullet burned through Arthur’s arm, right over the end of the cut Beatrix had given him. He swore and nearly lost his grip on the hilt, but recovered just in time to dodge Cerdic’s swing.
Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw a gun coming up, but if he ducked he’d leave himself open to Cerdic—
--and someone fired right beside him, deafening his ear for the next few seconds of fighting. He danced away from Cerdic’s glancing blow, didn’t manage to avoid a fist in the shoulder, but did flick a cut over Cerdic’s chest. Then the turn of the duel put him facing Lancelot again, who’d apparently been contorting in order to get his bound hands over his legs and in front of him so he could break the chain linking the cuffs. He’d also gotten a pistol, and was systematically picking off the mix of Germans and yakuza crowding the balcony. “Arthur, damn it, you weren’t supposed to—”
A diagonal slash left Arthur reeling backwards with liquid fire running down his other arm, but he braced his foot and lunged forward, slamming into Cerdic’s waist. They tangled for a moment, elbows and hands smacking and hitting. The air by Arthur’s right side signaled someone else coming up; he dredged up a last effort and grabbed as much of Cerdic as he could, then flung him over. Turned around to see Lancelot using a rifle-butt to do the same to Cynric.
Arthur breathed. Checked for other survivors, of which there were none. Then he belatedly looked back at the parking lot, only to see Cerdic and Cynric rapidly running out of range. “Damn!”
He had just sheathed Excalibur when Lancelot whirled around and shoved him into the rail. An unpleasant squishing beneath Arthur’s foot momentarily distracted him and gave the other man a chance to push him again. “You brainless prick! The last thing I want is for you to get killed because of me!”
“And the last thing I want is to lose you again,” Arthur snapped, seizing Lancelot’s hands and trapping them. He yanked the other man up and pressed him still. “I did that for five years. And now I think it was a mistake. But I could live with that because I knew you were alive and could take care of yourself. I can’t live with you dead.”
“Well, neither can I.” Lancelot arched back to give Arthur a clear view of eyes chaotic with worry and relief and plain longing, then buried his face in Arthur’s neck. His hand gripped Arthur’s arm, then slid to Arthur’s back and curled nails into the space beneath Excalibur. “Tell me this isn’t only because you raised me. Because you thought you had a duty.”
Touching this man was like an addiction of the highest degree. Arthur couldn’t stop, couldn’t help but run his hands over Lancelot’s back and shoulders and hips, still a little disbelieving that it was all still whole and alive. Now that he could, he wondered just how he’d kept himself from this.
Then he noticed Lancelot was hissing. Flinching. The cold came back, sluicing nerve after nerve solid, as he slowly pulled up the other man’s shirt to see.
Solid black bruising ringing the man’s torso, from bottom rib to arms. Scabbed cuts, which were very thin and neat, like scalpel slices. Cigarette burns.
“Nothing’s broken. They were…very precise.” Lancelot had twisted sideways, more to be able to look at Arthur than to hide his back. He knew better—Arthur hoped he knew better—than to think Arthur would be horrified by him. “Arthur?” he rasped, voice raw and failing.
Blinking was like hauling himself out of the ocean back to land, where he didn’t feel as if he was slowly dissolving into something huge and icy and dark.
The other man’s eyes were very big, very lucid and very intent. He gingerly lifted fingertips to Arthur’s lips, then relaxed in a rush when Arthur kissed them. “No, leaving wasn’t a mistake. If that just now was what you would’ve turned into otherwise…” Lancelot snickered, tight and edgy “…didn’t know you could be frightening.”
Arthur carefully smoothed down Lancelot’s shirt and helped the other man inside. For the moment, he packed away the fury and told himself to wait. In lieu of that, he buried his nose in Lancelot’s hair and let himself temporarily drown in that scent. “I missed you,” he murmured, the harshness of his voice rasping at the back of his throat.
Lancelot sighed and slumped into Arthur, staying that way while Arthur collected Lancelot’s swords from some dead trophy-hunter. It wasn’t long till Beatrix came out of the next room, bloody and grim. She jerked her head at the doorway and spoke in a curt, flat voice. “Yuki’s more clever. She ran.”
“Then there’s nothing more to be done here. We should go back,” Arthur replied, carefully curving his hand around Lancelot’s waist. When he looked up, he glimpsed confusion, envy and resentment in Beatrix’s face. By far the most important, however, was the reluctance raging in the depths of her eyes. “You should call your daughter. B. B. Tell her why mommy had to take a trip.”
Beatrix twitched at the name, then sucked in a breath and put a hand to her forehead. She dropped it, and with that, dropped the Bride as well. “Good point.”
* * *
Guinevere was a little miffed. To be honest, she knew she was being a bit unreasonable, but was it really too much to ask for Arthur to just mention that he was fine? She could wait—not all that nicely, but she could—for the details about what had happened, but when it came to more blood on him and a slight limp, she wanted to know right away if she needed to start stitching. But no, he’d walked a perfectly straight line from door to door and disappeared into his bedroom with a staggering Lancelot. As far as Guinevere could tell, he probably didn’t even know where he was, except that the place was free of attackers.
Beatrix hadn’t been much better. The moment she had set foot on the threshold, Elle had began to toss off veiled jeers that meant little to Guinevere, but had clearly meant a painful much to Beatrix. The other woman had paused, then strode into Elle’s room and stabbed her with a dart. Literally. It had been in a gun, but Beatrix had yanked it out and manually shoved it into Elle’s thigh. Then she’d gone into the bathroom and locked herself in.
The frustration was just too much. Though Guinevere hadn’t done it since she was twelve, she didn’t hesitate to throw herself across the nearest couch and snarl into the cushions. Embarrassment could wait till she knew what was going on. “For God’s sake, it’s not like Arthur hasn’t seen me kill before.”
When the chair arm creaked, she didn’t even bother to raise her head. “Killing isn’t the only measure of maturity,” Tristan pointed out, oh-so-thoughtfully.
“Do you also think I’m not worth informing as to current developments?” She growled her words into the couch partly because she was quite aware that she was whining, and that a fraction of her still cared. It might have had something to do with wanting to see just how good Tristan’s hearing was as well.
He didn’t miss a beat in translating her muffled grumblings. “If it helps, you’re not the only one with that problem. Someone will have to explain this better to Galahad.”
After a few moments, the curiosity finally got the better of Guinevere and she looked up. From this angle, she could see that those odd markings on Tristan’s cheeks were actually tattoos, and not bizarre scars like she’d previously supposed. They made him look vaguely feral.
Something that had always driven Arthur crazy had been her habit of playing with alley cats that would try to chew him up whenever he came near. Rabies and disease were only a problem if the cat bit or scratched, though the fleas had been rather annoying.
“What about Gawain? Or that really tall one—Dagonet?” She propped her chin up on her hands and gave Tristan her most intent stare.
Half of his mouth quirked up. “Them, we only have to explain to. Galahad requires…more delicate handling. Usually Gawain does it, but I think he’s in a bad mood tonight.”
“I can imagine what you all must have been like when you were younger. It makes me wonder how Arthur stayed sane.” Guinevere looked at the door through which he and Lancelot had vanished: it was ajar. In fact, if she craned her head…
Arthur had gotten a few cuts, and one of them was still bleeding a little. But he was ignoring it—was even brushing off Lancelot’s hands in favor of picking the locks on Lancelot’s cuffs. The metal crumpled on the floor, temporarily drawing away Guinevere’s gaze. When she looked back, Lancelot had his hands braced on Arthur’s shoulders while Arthur washed and dressed—some incredible bruising there—the man’s injuries. Lancelot would wince once in a while, and Arthur would turn his head a little to press a kiss against the other man’s neck. Then Lancelot would settle down again.
“They actually weren’t…like that for very long before Arthur left.” Tristan spoke low and quiet, his tone seamlessly insinuating itself into Guinevere’s thoughts so that it just seemed a natural outgrowth. She didn’t even startle as she glanced back at him. “Almost a year. But I think Lancelot had decided…possibly the first time they met. It took a little longer on Arthur’s side, and as you said, he respects age of consent.”
“No, Arthur would have known at the same time. He just takes longer to accept that he knows.” Guinevere rolled over so she couldn’t see anyone but Tristan. Her chest was tight for one breath, but after that, she found that she could in fact relax. Could even find it funny, so when she grinned up, it was in genuine amusement. Arthur and his little quirks…why would she want to put up with them more than she already did? “He mutters in a different language when he’s having a nightmare. Now that I think about it, he did say something that sounded like Lancelot in nearly all the ones I heard.”
The deadpan expression didn’t extend to Tristan’s eyes; she could see him soaking up the information with an interesting hunger. Maybe that was his way of dealing. “We’re all orphans from the Balkans. Bill used to have connections there, and while he was visiting, he’d walk through the streets to pick up likely candidates. I hear he did something similar in Japan.”
“But Arthur had a father and mother.” And damn him, but Guinevere hadn’t managed to pry more information than that out of him. He knew a good deal about her life, and even some things about Merlin that she was positive she didn’t, yet he could be about as talkative as a stone when it came to matters like that. “Not that I even know his mother’s name—”
And a thought stopped her there as she reconsidered everything she knew about Arthur. Previously she’d assumed he had held back information in order to protect her—at least till she grew up and could demand it of him—but now…she was remembering his confrontation with Beatrix. The first time she’d ever seen him truly go on the offensive with anyone. And if that was the case, if he’d always been on the defensive before…then he could have been trying to protect himself.
“Igraine.” Tristan probably thought she’d spaced out on him, because he was leaning over to check her eyes. He really was too much sometimes.
Guinevere gave in to one itch and grabbed his shirt, jerking him down. She was absurdly happy to find out that she’d caught him completely off-guard, and even the accidental thumpings and elbowings as they disentangled themselves couldn’t make her regret that. “What?”
He tried to push himself up and rake his hair out of his face at the same time, which didn’t quite work as he intended. “The name of Arthur’s mother—” and then he glanced down to note that his hand had slipped onto her breast.
Since his lips were right there, she might as well. At least, that was how Guinevere reconstructed her reasoning a long second later, when they were panting and staring and licking the taste of each other off their mouths. She absently noticed that she was ruffling his hair, and that he seemed to like it. “So.”
Tristan raised an eyebrow. His legs did a weird twist that got his knee out of Guinevere’s stomach and nestled up against her thigh.
Guinevere waved her free hand at Elle’s room. “They have issues, obviously.” Then she pointed at Arthur’s room. “And so do they. How about you?”
“Was I auditioning?” The slyness in Tristan’s voice was faint as the delicate rubbing of his fingertips along the top of Guinevere’s breast. Nevertheless, she could hear it. And figure out that he was stalling because of some fit of nerves.
“Are you going to back off and say you’d rather not offend Arthur? Because in that case, I will happily snap your neck.” She leaned in just enough to put the decision on him.
An eyeblink later, he bent down and met her. Tristan tasted like anise and honey, which Guinevere found quite delicious.
Tristan also bit when he was startled. To be fair, she had also sunk teeth into his lip when the door banged open. Fast, uneven footsteps accompanied a loud, irritated voice. “All right, we’re back and if anyone’s dead, blame the damn semis I kept getting stuck behind—”
Guinevere looked past Tristan’s shoulder, saw Galahad’s blank shock, and deliberately leaned up to lick the trace of blood off of Tristan’s mouth. Then she let Tristan help her sit up. “So you two are back.”
Galahad actually choked. “Oh, my God. He’s going to get a chance to breed?”
Fortunately for that jackass, Gawain showed up and smacked Galahad upside the head, then dragged him off before Tristan could get in a lunging position. “Arthur and Lancelot?” Gawain asked, clapping a hand over Galahad’s mouth.
“Back in there. But Lancelot’s fine, all four limbs and everything, and since no one’s yet apologized for ruining my morning, I get to talk to them first.” Before anyone could stop her, Guinevere was off the couch and into the bedroom.
* * *
By the time someone finally came in, Arthur had finished seeing to Lancelot’s and his injuries, and was trying to button his new, non-bloody and non-torn shirt. Lancelot glanced over Arthur’s shoulder, registered whoever it was, and ducked his head into Arthur’s shirt, thus preventing that.
Guinevere rolled her eyes and pulled up a chair. A sarcastic remark was twitching on her lips, but she thankfully refrained from voicing it. “I take it everything’s fine?”
“No, it’s not. You remember Cerdic and Cynric? The Germans Bill sent after me about two years ago—that would’ve been just before Merlin died.” Arthur waited for her grimace of recollection, then went on. “They’re not dead.”
“Fuck.” She slumped in the chair and covered her face with her hand, pinching at the bridge of her nose. “Goddamn it. All right, next time we don’t trust the carload of explosives and instead cut off their heads. You think we should put a stake through their hearts as well?”
Lancelot snorted, then nuzzled a grin against Arthur’s side. He pushed himself up a little to rest his head on Arthur’s shoulder, which caused the blankets to start slipping off his legs. Strictly speaking, Arthur probably didn’t have to hold the sheets against Lancelot’s waist, but he did anyway because he needed the reassurance of that smooth curve.
If he were truthful with himself, he still hadn’t quite come down from the high of the fight. Part of it was due to the unfinished nature of its outcome, but part of it was also due to the sheer instincts he’d developed as a swordsman; he’d spent five years pretending they weren’t there, and now that he was calling on them again, it was difficult to turn them off in favor of more peaceful interactions. Which reminded him—he needed to watch Beatrix a little more closely.
Guinevere had dropped her hand from her face and was now leaning forward so her loosely-clasped hands dangling between her knees. Not ladylike in the slightest, despite some determined attempts to teach her some manners. Arthur didn’t doubt that she’d learned, but absorption and adoption were two different matters.
“What?” she asked, a little suspiciously. He belatedly realized that he’d been giving her an ironic smile.
“Nothing much. I only realized that I’ve accomplished nothing in the past five years. I haven’t even learned to live normally—God knows why I ever thought I could teach it.” Since Arthur had his hand resting on the top of Lancelot’s hip, he could feel the stiffness starting from one end of the other man’s spine and traveling up to the other. Lancelot lifted his head to give Arthur an uneasy, scrutinizing look.
On the other hand, Guinevere just glanced to the side and made a noise of disgust. “I hope you were teaching me how to survive and fight, and not how to live a normal life. I’m not normal. That’s how it goes, and Merlin let you finish raising me with the understanding that I’d go back and take over his group when I was ready.”
“Don’t even bring up your morality. That’s your issue.” She crossed her arms over her chest and defiantly lifted her chin.
Lancelot snickered again. His fingers were slowly drifting over Arthur’s chest, rubbing along ribs and occasionally toying with a nipple, and when Arthur grabbed for his hands, the other man twisted so Arthur’s palm instead slid down his belly. Arthur reflexively tugged Lancelot nearer, then felt like an idiot because that certainly wasn’t going to keep Guinevere from figuring out what was going on.
She had a peculiar look on her face, as if she was torn between watching in bemused annoyance and thinking over something. Then Guinevere shook herself, and Arthur could almost see her mind click everything together. “Arthur, are you ashamed of us?”
“No!” He accidentally squeezed Lancelot as he spoke, so Arthur had to pause and check to make sure he hadn’t made anything worse. A glance showed him no blood staining the bandages, and an irate, red-cheeked Lancelot trying to pretend he hadn’t just squeaked. Relieved, Arthur turned back to Guinevere. “Of course not. But I—it’s only that I raised you—them—while I was under the delusion—”
“And I think we turned out well. Relatively speaking. Honestly, just look at Elle and Beatrix. Did any of us grow up to be them?” Guinevere finished off her line of reasoning with a smug smile, to which she’d undeniably earned the right.
Arthur had to smile himself, and for once, the feeling of pride wasn’t immediately undermined by self-analysis. Because no matter what point of view he took, he couldn’t argue the fact that Elle, Beatrix and even Sofie were in a different category from the people Arthur had come to love.
Then he backtracked the conversation and caught something. “Us?”
As mature as she was for her age, Guinevere really was still quite young. She squirmed a bit, then shot him a look. “I’m not a virgin.”
He blinked. Did his best to ignore Lancelot’s helpless laughter, which was tickling him in the side. “I know.”
“You what? How?—I mean—never mind.” Despite her best efforts, Guinevere couldn’t quite cover up all of her blush with her hands. But it was amusing to watch her try.
Eventually, she peeked through her fingers and Arthur could catch her eye. He gestured at Lancelot. “I did bring up four teenage boys before you. And you picked ones that I knew you could handle. But you’re mentioning that now because…”
“I think I want to sleep with Tristan.” She winced. “Damn it, I can’t talk to you about this without sounding like an idiot. It’s like—like—oh, forget about it. Just tell me if you mind.”
It took a long, long moment for Arthur to work through a deceptively simple sentence. He couldn’t see it—and then he could. A little. And oddly enough, it looked as if it would be good. If he were honest with himself, he’d confess that he had been worried about Guinevere; she was fierce in intelligence and intuition, and there were very few people that could keep up with her, even without adding in the complications of her background. “I don’t. If you don’t mind that he tried to shoot you.”
Guinevere stared. “No? What about the whole concern about bringing us up and showing us how to fight?”
“I…that still does worry me. Though not quite as much now.” He paused and carefully arranged his opinion into words. “But you’re no longer children. If I were to try and direct your lives, it would be dictatorial of me.”
“Ah. You know, I seriously wonder how you keep managing to doubt yourself when you say things like that.” When she wished to, Guinevere could move blindingly fast. As she did now, vacating her chair and disappearing behind a closing door before Arthur could reply.
Rough, hoarse laughter brought Arthur’s attention back to Lancelot, whose demurely lowered lashes made a sharp contrast to the wicked gleam in his eye. And to the ardent kiss he gave Arthur.
“You’ve been rather quiet—” Another kiss cut off Arthur, and this time, Lancelot nibbled at Arthur’s lower lip before withdrawing. “Wait, you’re too—”
Third kiss. Lancelot was beginning to look annoyed. “Don’t make me argue. Hurts to talk.”
Then he pressed up again into a long, lingering swirl of tongues around teeth and over lips, which gradually slipped into Arthur laving the bruises that trailed over Lancelot’s neck, testing the extent of their soreness and then soothing away the pained gasps. Hot breath prickled Arthur’s ear, and then Lancelot let his head loll on Arthur’s shoulder, arms wrapped around Arthur’s shoulders.
At least the man was being sensible to that degree. Sense and sensibilities, which were rapidly running to sensation as Arthur smoothed the sheets off of Lancelot’s legs. He worked his fingers gingerly around the edge of the bandages there, then feathered them along the sigh that rippled Lancelot’s back. The other man licked at the pulse in Arthur’s throat and scooted further onto Arthur’s lap, straddling wide so that when Arthur’s hands swept back down, they followed the slight dip of the waist to lean legs and then wandered in to tease the shivering inside of warm thighs.
“Cocktease.” Nails dug into the back of Arthur’s neck. Lancelot shifted impatiently in his arms. “In case you’ve forgotten, five is the number.”
“You waited for me?” Arthur murmured, not seriously. But when he didn’t get a negative, the shock pulled him back to see half-rueful, half-defensive eyes.
Shrugging, Lancelot lifted up and started to resettle himself. “Other people I just…couldn’t. It was too much of a comedo—”
He shouldn’t be talking if it hurt, Arthur vaguely remembered. And blocking Lancelot’s mouth with a tongue seemed like a good way to prevent that. It also let him feel all the moans and whimpers as his one hand stole around a rising cock, as his thumb traced the slight beat of the veins along it. Arthur groped around in the sheets till he found the nearest tin of salve, scooped out a good dollop, and warmed it in his hand. Then he trailed an oily fingertip over Lancelot’s ass, tracing out an arc that gradually descended inwards and rose again to find a clenching, hot apex.
Lancelot’s head dropped back to Arthur’s shoulder, mouth sprawling a wet streak across Arthur’s jaw that dried cold in the air. But there was plenty of heat elsewhere; Arthur needed only to duck and lay his cheek against Lancelot’s, or wrap his hand a little more firmly against the prick in it, or ease in another finger. Slowly, muscle by muscle, Lancelot went limp against him, closing eyelashes a strange tickle-brush against Arthur’s neck. And then he jerked, stiffened, came apart in Arthur’s hands and let Arthur recollect him.
Arthur waited till he heard the other man’s breathing slow to sleep-rate before he moved Lancelot to the bed. He took off his shirt and used it to clean his hands and stomach, changed to his third one of the night, and tidied up. Then he came back and sat down to memorize how Lancelot looked like now when at rest.
He was tired. He needed to go check with Gawain and Galahad about B. B. He needed to speak with Beatrix and, as much as he was reluctant to, probably Elle as well, and he needed to apologize to Guinevere for earlier. But for the moment, he put those aside.
* * *
For more time than she cared to guess at, Beatrix stood in front of the sink, feet planted apart and hands gripping the edge of the sink till she couldn’t feel her fingers. She could feel the blood drying on her skin, on her clothes, on her hair. Her sword was leaning against the wall, freshly cleaned and gleaming within its sheath, and she was absolutely coated in blood.
It was hard to tell whether she hated that sensation or enjoyed it.
Eventually, something penetrated her frozen consciousness: the weight of her jacket was off. Frowning, Beatrix reached into the pocket and pulled out the stuffed rabbit.
The next thing she knew, her knees were collapsing on her. Fucking floor thumped her ass good, and she couldn’t do much more than crumple over herself and gasp for air that was no longer there. Fluffiness, soft and furry and gentle, mashed in her hands, which were rough and hard and scabbed pain.
Elle. Elle had woken up again. Beatrix wondered whether the bitch was developing a resistance to the tranquilizers. Then she wondered whether Elle might be willing herself awake, but remembered that the other woman had never had that much control, and moreover, had never been interested in getting it. With her, the posh clothes and the bridling silky vitriol barely made up a veneer, let alone a skin.
“B? Damn it, I know you can hear me. You goddamn prissy little bitch, all holed up with your filthy reflection. Why don’t you come out and look at the truth?”
The rabbit dropped on the floor, from where it stared soulfully up at her. One of its button eyes was in danger of falling off.
“You bitch! You two-timing selfish whore! You can’t have it both ways! You can’t! You’re going to turn around someday after swiping your fucking Hanzo through some fuck’s throat, feeling all good and hot inside, and you’re gonna see your little darling watching!”
Vernita’s girl. Even when she’d been trying to even the odds, Beatrix had been creating new ones. She wondered whether or not that was a future she’d have to look forward to.
“You bitch,” Elle repeated, so softly Beatrix almost didn’t hear. The wood must have been warping the sounds, because the other woman’s voice sounded ragged. Almost sobbing. “Bitch. You killed him.”
It wasn’t the door. Beatrix stared at the bunny a moment longer, then abruptly whipped around and kicked the door open. She stared at the rumpled, heaving mess on the couch. “Elle, I killed Bill. All right. I did. But what does that matter to you? And don’t tell me you loved him, because you don’t have the slightest idea as to what that means.”
“You’re not any better.” With a snarl, Elle raised her head to glare blankness at Beatrix. Her lips drew back from her teeth in a glass shard of a smile. “Maybe you do love, but it’s not as a human being. And no amount of hanging around Arthur is going to teach you that, cunt.”
In less than a moment, Beatrix was beside the couch and had the needle-point of a tranq dart pressed up against Elle’s cheek. She seemed to be two people: one floating above and staring in detached horror while the other moved and hissed and roared without mercy. “Don’t. Talk. To. Me. About. Love.”
“What, exactly, is so bad about being what you are?” Elle continued, relentless as always. “Face it, B: we’re killers. We’re the snakes of the world. And I don’t give a shit, but you do. Why the hell do you bother? It’s never going to go away.”
“We are not twins. And if you open your mouth one more time—”
The corner of Elle’s lip lifted. She turned her head that little bit to put her mouth against Beatrix’s wrist. “Then kill me. If I’m not a part of you that you just can’t bear to lose, now that Bill’s gone.”
Beatrix’s hand jerked down and slammed the dose home in Elle’s thigh. The other woman gasped, twitched, then slumped back into unconsciousness. But she was still grinning, and Beatrix couldn’t stop seeing it even when she turned away.
She tossed the emptied dart in the trashcan and started for the phone, but then she saw the clock. No, B. B. wouldn’t be awake yet—and anyway, Beatrix still needed to get the number from Arthur. It was odd why she hadn’t done so before.
Eventually, Beatrix walked back to the bathroom and picked up the little bunny. She took out the hotel sewing kit and methodically began sewing the eye back on. Every stitch she made, she told herself was calming her down to the point that she could talk to B. B. But every time the needle disappeared into the rabbit, she saw Elle’s eye pinched between her fingers.