|Causality III: Corollary
Author: Guede Mazaka
*And they’ve got a whole set of plastic swords. There’s a big long one for knights, and a light-saber, and a skinny flippy one for mus—mus--*
“Musketeers?” Beatrix suggested, wrapping her arm more tightly around her legs. Although the five hotels they’d used in the past week were anything but low-class, it was still crowded, and finding a private space to take a phone call was hard. Consequently, she was scrunched up on the floor between a side-table and a huge, glossy fern rampaging out of an Oriental-looking pot.
On the other end of the line, B. B. audibly pouted. *I knew that. I was just going to say it.*
“Oh, I didn’t know, baby. I’m sorry. Forgive me?” When her daughter’s giggle crackled down, Beatrix felt her mouth slowly bending into a smile. Her muscles were stiff and creaky, so it hurt a little.
For a long moment, B. B. breathlessly held herself in. Then she laughed, sweet and tinkling. *Silly mommy. Yes, I do. I love you.*
“I love you too, honey.” The endearment popped out before Beatrix could help herself, and then she couldn’t stop the tiny flinch she had at it. A quick check around the corner showed that Elle still seemed to be asleep, but nevertheless, Beatrix’s relaxation began to slip away. “You’re playing nice with the other children, right?”
*Yee-ah.* It was always easy to tell when B. B. wasn’t saying everything, because her voice went slow and smooth and careful, very unlike her usual bubbly chatter.
Like Bill cooing at her. Beatrix clenched her fist in the carpet and reminded herself that she’d made peace with Bill. He had been her man, and she’d been his woman, and it had come to an end. The natural process.
B. B. mumbled something, then forced herself to speak up. *I was playing Cowboys and Indians with Dagonet, and Three and Five were playing with swords, and Three accidentally stepped on my foot. It hurt so I hit him. But then Dagonet made me apologize and sit in the corner for a while because you shouldn’t hit people if they hurt you by ax—accident. You can hit back if they do it on purpose, but that’s still not a good idea, he said.*
“I never told you that?” Black flashed over Beatrix’s eyes as she heard Arthur chiding her for keeping firearms where B. B. could get at them, as she heard Elle calling her inhuman. She gouged her thumbnail into the side of her knee and recalled herself back to the lighted room.
*Uh…no? Mommy, he was kind of confusing. Why can I hit someone and still have it be a bad idea? I would ask him, but he’s helping Bors pull up some tree.*
Footsteps wandered nearby; Beatrix looked up to see Arthur stumbling towards the coffee, clearly not completely awake yet. He had a large hump on one side, which eventually grew a head and separated so Lancelot could grab the first cup. With an exasperated expression, Arthur watched Lancelot drain the coffee, hand back the mug and promptly collapse back on Arthur’s shoulder.
Very cute. Very telling as well, considering that Beatrix had only ever had one healthy relationship in her life, and it was currently producing a healthy crop of confusion. She pressed her fingers against her temple, forcing her mind to clear, and turned back to the phone. “Because…hurting someone else is a very serious thing, baby. If they didn’t try to hurt you first, then hurting them is…not fair. You’re being bad then. If they did try to hurt you first, then you should keep them from hurting you again. But…but you have to be careful, because then you might forget why you’re hurting them, and then you might hurt them too much. Or you might hurt other people that didn’t do anything to you.”
*That…almost makes sense.* Beatrix could just picture B. B. chewing on her lip, forehead furrowed in deep concentration. *But I wanna see you say it. Mommy, I miss you. When are you coming back for me?*
“Soon, B. B. Soon. I swear—cross my heart and hope to die.” She inadvertently gave that childhood vow more inflections than she should have, but B. B. should be too young to catch them. At least, Beatrix hoped her daughter was; she had no idea how Bill had brought B. B. up during those four years, but what clues to that she found, she didn’t always like. “I just need to take care of a few more things. I miss you too, baby.”
The smile beamed down the line. *Okay…Mommy? I guess I shouldn’t have stepped on my goldfish, then. Daddy said it was okay, that it wasn’t the end of the world—where is Daddy, anyway?”
“He’s…sleeping. Like I was.” Lying to her little girl was like swallowing hot coals, but Beatrix did it anyway because she didn’t want to let B. B. in on that side of life. Never, if she could help it. B. B. was so smart, and so innocent and young and beautiful—she would be utterly ruined if she ever got a whiff of what her parents’ world had been like. And if she were ruined, then Beatrix might as well have died from that gunshot. “We can get you a new goldfish.”
*But it wouldn’t be the same one.* B. B. gasped, then clapped her hands around the phone in sudden excited realization. For her part, Beatrix tried not to wince. *That’s why it was bad! Because there was only one of him, and now there’s none of him. Oh—Mommy, can you apologize to a dead fish?*
Sometimes Beatrix just had to laugh. While there wasn’t a problem in doing that, there was one in the hysterical way she wanted to let her humor soar high and sharp and staccato. “I think you can. When I get back, I’ll help you, all right?”
*Okay. Oh, Mommy—it’s lunchtime, and we’ve got chocolate ice cream for dessert!* Now B. B. was bouncing, shaking the static of the line every time she landed. *See you later?*
“Yeah, baby. See you later. Bye-bye.” Beatrix waited for the other end of the line to click off, then flipped the phone around and around in her hands, staring at the simple piece of plastic and wiring. Uncertainty was clawing at her stomach, and she didn’t know how to placate it. Parenting didn’t seem to have a way to determine success—at least, not immediately—and while she desperately didn’t want to mess up B. B. for years in the future, she just didn’t know.
What Beatrix wanted was a world where B. B. would grow up and be able to make her own choices, live her own gorgeous, happy life. After all, that had been the point of running from Bill: as long as he was in their lives, they would never be able to move beyond his sphere of influence. When Beatrix had been with him, his enemies had been her enemies, and his friends had been her friends, and his future had been her future. If she had stayed and brought up B. B. in that, her girl would have always have been Bill’s first. B. B. would have grown up a princess of violence and vengeance, just like O-ren.
As it was, that was still a very real, very frightening possibility for B. B. Bill had gotten her for four years of her life, and now too many people knew B. B. as his daughter. They wouldn’t care about anything besides that fact.
Beatrix could deal with that, and handily so. The real question was whether she could do it without forgetting that she wasn’t only the Black Mamba or the Bride—neither of those were good role models for B. B. Because the last thing Beatrix was going to do was to raise her daughter to be like her--that her—and she was doing her damnedest to keep that side from coloring B. B.’s life.
“This is so much harder than it looks,” she muttered, fumbling the phone back into its holder.
“Children?” Arthur had set out a cup for her, and was currently preoccupied with getting the milk-sugar-java ratio right in his mug. He was doing that with one hand because his other arm was slung around a drowsing Lancelot’s waist. Even then, his second hand kept sneaking back to touch base with Lancelot’s hip, arm, face—whichever part he could reach.
After a moment’s thought, Beatrix could recall a time when she and Bill had been that easy around each other’s personal space. But she couldn’t remember them ever doing that for reasons of reassurance, which seemed to be part of Arthur’s motivation. It’d been more about statements of possession than anything. “What was the youngest you got?”
“Eleven, I think. We couldn’t track down exact birth dates for Galahad and Tristan.” Finally satisfied with his adulteration of the coffee, he lifted the mug to his lips and drank. “Is B. B. all right?”
“As far as I know. But then, that’s not certain till they’re all grown up, is it?” She picked up her java and used it to gesture at Lancelot. Whereupon he proved he was in fact paying attention by opening his eyes and glowering at her over Arthur’s shoulder. “How do you do it? You’re up to…what, five successes?”
Apparently embarrassed, Arthur ducked his head and concentrated very hard on drinking his coffee. His free hand, however, seemed to have other thoughts on what constituted a good distraction because it was absently groping Lancelot’s ass, feathering from buttock to hip and then dipping fingertips into the waistband of the other man’s slacks. Beatrix figured Arthur didn’t realize that side of him could be seen from her angle. “Technically. I’m still debating on whether or not I actually had anything to do with raising Tristan, other than providing food and shelter. And Lancelot never did listen to me.”
“I always listened. Whether or not I chose to remember was a different matter.” The annoyance in Lancelot’s tone was somewhat spoiled by the lazy way he was rubbing himself against Arthur.
“That notwithstanding—most of the time, I did as much as I could and hoped. People are surprising, even when they’re so young you think they can’t understand anything.” Arthur downed the last of his coffee in one swallow, then set down his mug. He let go of Lancelot and did his best to tuck in his shirt, given that Lancelot hadn’t let go of him. Then he looked up and met Beatrix’s eyes with a clear, even gaze. “They are what they are, in the end. I think the best you can do is make it so they aren’t forced into anything, and can choose for themselves.”
Since the manner in which that should be accomplished was central to Beatrix’s problem, she wasn’t entirely satisfied by that. But it was something to think on. Later. First, she had to make it so she could return to her daughter. “Speaking of, how’s the search for Sofie and the rest going?”
“Well. I was going to suggest we sit everyone down and go through what Tristan’s found. While we have dinner? He’s waiting on a few last messages.” Arthur glanced past Beatrix at the door to the room she had to share with Elle. Judging from the way his eyes darkened, he was going to have some words with her about that—which was yet another matter she’d been putting off figuring out.
“That sounds fine. But if we’re going to get anything productive done, I recommend you keep Lancelot’s hands where everyone can see them.” She was amused and reassured by Arthur reddening a bit and Lancelot huffily dragging his hands from somewhere beneath Arthur’s suit-jacket.
Even when among friends, it was best to be the only one that was calm and balanced. Especially when Beatrix wasn’t sure as to the extent or appropriateness of her composure. She needed to settle everything, and soon, before it hardened into the foundations of another life. After the efforts of the previous tries she’d made at that, she didn’t know if she had the energy to start over once more.
* * *
Well, Guinevere’s little conversation with Arthur had been precipitate, and certainly anticipatory. She blamed it on being startled by Galahad’s entrance before she’d had time to completely work things out with Tristan.
In other words, she and Tristan were still in the skirmishing stage of dating. Granted, they’d been busy with other matters, and Arthur’s presence clearly was something of an issue with Tristan, but since the day she opened the door to Lancelot’s sword, it’d been a little more than a week. Somewhat frustrating. To distract herself, Guinevere went over their current situation.
From what they could tell, Sofie and her allies had withdrawn to regroup; Lancelot had racked up an impressive body count before he’d been overpowered, and between them, Arthur and Beatrix had upped that by a considerable amount.
If Guinevere were Sofie, she would have kept up the strategy of aiming for her opponents’ weak points. Logically speaking, that was now B. B., more or less. The play for Lancelot had failed, and another try was much less likely, given the extreme…possessiveness Arthur had just developed. “Were they always this bad?”
Tristan was seated next to her on the couch, hunched over his laptop while she sprawled out on her belly, her head about an inch from his thigh. Across the way, Gawain and Galahad were sharpening their swords—well, Gawain was. Galahad mostly alternated between staring at Tristan and giving Guinevere a squinty look of disbelief while he muttered rough foreign insults to himself.
“Who?” Gawain finished with his sword and picked up a gun. He expertly unloaded it and flipped it around in his hand to start cleaning its barrel.
“Arthur and Lancelot.” The clicking of keys seemed to lag behind the actual movement of them under Tristan’s lightning-fast fingers. “Lancelot was. Arthur wasn’t.”
It took a moment for Gawain to put the context to Tristan’s spare words. Then he grinned and threw an affectionate glance over his shoulder towards Arthur’s room. “You mean, could you catch Arthur trying to fuck Lancelot over the counter?”
He was referring to earlier, when Guinevere and he had tripped their morning-bleared selves over each other in the hallway, then wandered into the kitchenette to find Lancelot apparently surprised in the middle of making breakfast. The man had still had two fingers smashing into the cream cheese, and his head had been bowed as if searching for the secrets of life in the hole of the bagel. Except Arthur had been cradling Lancelot’s hips in his hands and licking softly at the back of Lancelot’s neck.
Guinevere genuinely didn’t know whether to wince or to…bite her lip and wonder whether there were some advantages to having Lancelot around, other than the maintenance of Arthur’s balance. On the one hand, she had never been shy about appreciating Arthur’s appearance as well as his personality. On the other—well, he’d listened to at least one rant about her monthly bout of cramps that she could remember. That had the effect of making it hard to think of him in the bedroom context. “How long have they been ‘changing Lancelot’s bandages’?”
“Half an hour.” Without missing a beat, Tristan flicked a fingertip at the computer clock and continued compiling data.
“When it comes to sex and Arthur, Lancelot probably could be dying and still get it up. It was incredibly annoying—we were always trying to shove Dagonet or the nearest wall in between them. Arthur just couldn’t drive if Lancelot was in reaching distance of him.” Galahad could be very, very funny when he wanted to be. Of course, something that Guinevere had come to understand over the past few days was that he was even funnier when he wasn’t trying to be. “That was back when Arthur tried to stop Lancelot. At least while we were out taking care of business.”
He sounded a little bitter, too. It seemed as if Gawain had noticed that touch of anger as well, because the other man stopped messing with the gun and looked at Galahad. “Arthur apologized for maltreating us before. Which really wasn’t too serious, if you compare it to what…well, what they did to Lancelot.”
“I know he apologized. And I know, I know, throwing the chair at his head back then was a lousy idea. I said sorry for that, by the way. That was while you were napping the other day.” Galahad took one last desultory scrape at the edge of his sword with the whetstone, then put them down and folded his hands together. He leaned forward and pressed his interlaced fingers against his lips, visibly making the effort to think. “I’m just wondering what happens afterward, when Fatale and the Germans and what’s-her-name-Japanese-schoolgirl—”
“Yuki Yubari,” Tristan inserted. His typing speed had slowed a fraction, and Guinevere could see that his peripheral vision had shifted to include Galahad.
“—when they’re all dead. When we’re pretty much out of a job.” Surprisingly contemplative, Galahad pulled apart his hands and looked at the palms. “You know, I don’t have Arthur’s problems, but I never liked killing, either. It’s just what I’m good at. And what am I supposed to do when I don’t have that? Hell, what was Arthur doing?”
At that point, he looked directly at Guinevere, and she had to revise upwards her estimation of him. So he was capable of producing serious thought. “Bringing me up. Which involved pretending to be a single father raising an orphaned niece by day, and dealing with all the enemies Merlin left behind by night. Also handling the occasional assassin Bill tossed our way. It was all very comic-book.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t have a little girl to raise, do I?” Galahad muttered, slouching so his face smushed itself into Gawain’s shoulder. “Thank God. I have enough trouble just standing Bors’ louder brats.”
“You forgot to ask if he was happy like that. Or even content.” Guinevere turned over and stared at the ceiling, where the plaster had been sculpted into a series of waves that relentlessly tumbled from one end of the room to the other. The turbulence kept things interesting, which was a nice change from the previous suite’s plain painted ceiling. “I should be jealous of you all, you know. He was a lot duller and more boring before. Even when he allowed me to go out and fight, it was like we were making an instruction video. With running commentary on ethics and morality.”
The aura of heat Tristan’s leg threw off shifted ever-so-slightly. “Are you jealous?”
Of course she was, but not enough to bother telling them about it. That was the startling thing—but on second thought, not so much so. She did love Arthur in her own way, and moreover, she admired him. Merlin had brought her up on stories of the man and his lowkey, extremely effective way of maneuvering through the treacherous underworld in which they all lived; while the reality had been a bit of a shock, it hadn’t been a true comedown from her expectations. As much as Arthur tried to hide it, she’d always been able to detect a hint of his capacities for force and cold strategy. Those were parts of him, even if they were subject to his humanity, and when he was acknowledging them, he seemed to be in a much healthier state of mind. Repressed Arthur had always had a trace of dangerous strain hovering about him, even though he’d done his best to act normally for Guinevere.
“No.” On the whole, she decided that she preferred Arthur as he truly was, and not whatever construct he’d made for her. “And you all could always come work for me.”
Galahad coughed once in surprise, then paused in the middle of whatever insulting reply he was creating and gave her a narrow look. Beside him, Gawain had apparently trapped himself in a choking fit, while beside Guinevere, Tristan finally shifted his eyes completely off the laptop screen and onto her.
“What? Merlin left me people and properties to look after. And I fully intend to look after them using whatever means necessary.” She gave them all her coolest smile. It happened to be one of the more sincere ones as well, but if they couldn’t figure out that for themselves, then there wasn’t a point in bothering to explain that to them.
After a long pause, Tristan extended one finger and hit some key. The laptop beeped, chirred, and went to its screensaver, which consisted of a hawk-shaped polygonic figure flying through a dark forest. He looked at Galahad, who snorted and glanced sideways, and then at Gawain, who chewed his lower lip and stared back.
The door creaked and everyone whipped around to face it, but it was only Arthur’s head sticking in. He was buttoning his shirt, but Guinevere could still see mouth-sized bruises sprinkling his chest and neck. “Gawain, Galahad, can I see you for a moment? And Tristan and Guinevere, I need to see you after them.”
Galahad leaned over the chair arm and tried to look past Arthur. “Where’s Lancelot?”
Gawain smacked his forehead, then thought better about that and smacked Galahad’s. Arthur just looked pained for a moment. Then he straightened up and swung the door open so they could see he was by himself. “He’s on the phone with a weapons supplier. By the way, Gawain—I’m sorry about this morning—”
“Just tell me you’re disinfecting everything.” With a long-suffering sigh, Gawain pushed himself off the couch and wandered through the door.
After a last quizzical look at Guinevere and Tristan, Galahad followed. “At least Lancelot’s less likely to start anything when he’s well-fucked.”
Guinevere grinned at the annoyed, embarrassed expression on Arthur’s face. “You said you raised them, did you? Clearly not with a respect for authority.”
“Respect’s earned, not taught.” He started to close the door, then stopped and turned back with a curious tangle of emotions in his eyes. “Guinevere? Do you need to talk to me about anything?”
One of the problems with Arthur was that it was so damned difficult to place him, and that came on top of them not having any typicality about their relationship. In some ways, he was like the father Guinevere hadn’t had, but he could also be brother and friend and teacher and occasional scold. And then he’d gone and went vulnerable on her in ways that she honestly envied; five times three hundred sixty-five days, but the time span didn’t seem to have affected the strength of feeling between him and Lancelot at all. She had to wonder if that was just something a few people had, or if she’d ever have a connection that would match that. Even her inheritance was still that—an inheritance. Something she needed to deal with soon, which Merlin had left her.
“No,” she eventually said, voice low enough to qualify as muttering. Annoyed with herself, she repeated it more loudly. “No. Later. I want to hear what the plan is first.”
“All right.” He closed the door on his tolerant smile.
Tristan twisted around and looked down at Guinevere, face devoid of any emotion. “Work for you?”
“Everything else aside, I could use some professionals.” She felt his gaze prickle her skin, slide just beneath and scratch, and it made her want to squirm. Frowning, Guinevere sat up and mentally reran the preceding conversation.
Then she mentally smacked herself. “I try to keep business and pleasure as separate as I can. That and this aren’t connected.”
“You think you can do that? Arthur tried for a long time, and he couldn’t manage it. And somehow, I don’t think Beatrix has, either.” He pulled his legs up onto the couch and crossed them under himself, apparently settling in for a long discussion. Or, if the pattern of the past few days held true, him giving Guinevere penetrating looks while she ended up saying far more than she wanted to.
Well, she wasn’t about to let that happen without a fight. “Would you consider Arthur and Lancelot a pure example of either category?”
“No.” While he didn’t mention that that was the whole point, she could see that thought clearly enough in his eyes. “What they have works well for them.”
“Aside from the long separation and needing the threat of death to make them talk to each other?” Her hair was coming out of the ponytail in which she’d put it, but a few preliminary attempts showed that it was an irretrievable situation. So she dug her fingers into the knotted strands and tried to force them to undo themselves, but she pulled too hard and ended up only adding her fingers to the mess. “Damn it.”
Larger, rougher but much more elegant fingers pushed hers aside and deftly teased out all the snarls. Tristan had been eating something with marmalade; she could smell it on his warm, soft breath. And he was concentrating very hard on something inconsequential like her hair.
“Just how old are you, anyway?” Guinevere abruptly asked, feeling a tendril of suspicion twist around her brain.
“Twenty-three. I think. We’ve never found documentation on my birth date.” His mouth twisted a little as he admitted his lack of knowledge on that point. And as she’d come to realize, having information was very important to Tristan’s state of being.
Guinevere’s current theory was that Tristan dealt with things by eliminating all the uncertainties that could be eliminated—thus the info-gathering and observational skills, which went slightly past thorough and bordered on obsessive. Once he knew everything that he could know, he didn’t have anything for which he could blame himself. If Arthur could just adopt that attitude sometimes…but he wasn’t the point here. Tristan was. And unless her eyes were deceiving her, he was actually just as uncertain as—all right, as she was.
She trapped his hands in her hair and pressed his palms against the sides of her head as she leaned forward, giving him a kiss that was a little more than a peck and a little less than an open-mouthed tonguing. “I need to go knife-shopping. Want to take me?”
After a second, he shrugged and nodded. Then he hesitantly kissed her back, and this time, it went a while longer.
* * *
When she heard the footsteps coming, Elle didn’t even have the energy to sneer. A week of near-constant drugging, force-feeding and –washing, and being chained to furniture did that; it was just like being back in the hospital, only without the nightly usage as a fucking toy.
The other woman stopped by the side of the sofa and waited, so Elle let her. Far be it from Elle to rise to B’s bait, and never mind hypocrisy. That was for people that weren’t feeling their muscles try to ooze out of their skin, that didn’t have junkie needle tracks building up on their arms. And on top of that, someone around here smoked. Elle’s nicotine cravings had developed into clawing worms that skittered up and down her nerves, digging tiny barbed hooks that twisted itches into her.
Maybe she was getting goddamn bed sores. It wouldn’t surprise her.
“Yeah?” For the hundredth time, Elle told herself that Bill was dead and not coming back. She’d fucked up and let B get to him. But then again, if he’d just fucking let her OD the bitch back when B was all pretty and helpless…
B rocked backwards, but didn’t quite step away. “Finally wore yourself out, did you?”
Oddly enough, it didn’t hurt. Bill’s death, that was. What it was, was a hot acid slithering beneath her skin that ate it tissue-thin and seeped through the slightest break. It was a seething rage that wanted to rip out and take B down a peg or two, even though Elle could see by now that it wouldn’t be her doing that. At least, not in her current condition. “Not all of us can be the pin-up model for attack machines everywhere.”
She was expecting the needle to come slamming down right there, but surprisingly enough, B refrained. Instead, the sofa arm creaked as other woman perched on it. If it was anything like in the past, B was pulling a knee up to her chest and clasping her hands around it to hold it in place. Real pretty pose. As much as Elle hated the woman, she could understand why Bill would fall for B. Hell, she could even understand why Arthur hung around, devoted as he apparently was to his mouthy little boyfuck. Beneath her cool air of death, B had just enough trembling uncertainty for men to think she was malleable. Trainable or redeemable, depending on their poison.
“You know, Budd said something to me right before he died,” Elle drawled, tousling her hair out of her face. She didn’t need to do that to see anymore—fucking cuntwhore—but she’d be damned if she would sneeze her guts out in front of B.
Fuck it for a slide down the shit mountain; when dignity consisted of pathetic scraps like that, then Elle might as well call it quits. So she’d beaten the shit out of a pregnant B, had seen her comatose and helpless, had killed Pai Mei and then gotten the chance to gloat—it still didn’t weigh out against total blindness, total reversal of positions and total loss of the one man who’d ever gotten Elle to think about something besides killing. Why the hell did she keep trying?
Because it was B, and the woman got on Elle’s nerves. Raked them to shreds so Elle couldn’t help but growl, and then it was easy to remember that she wasn’t eating grave dirt just yet. If she really wanted to think about it, reapply Budd’s sad little attempt at truth-digging, then she supposed it was a form of showing respect. Giving up on B wasn’t only demeaning to Elle.
“Budd said…” B repeated, snapping Elle back to the present. Fucking drugs were probably rewiring her head to maunder like yesterday’s newspaper.
“He said that Bill thought you were smart. And that he told Bill that you were only smart for a blonde.” Elle snorted at the dumbass’ complete lack of comprehension, once more disbelieving that the two men could ever have shared genes. There’d been a reason Bill had ended up the one with everything. “But it’s never really about intelligence, is it? Because there are plenty of big tits in the world, and plenty of big brains, too. He never treated anyone else like he did you—we were all his damn pets, but you? You were his woman.”
Something that could have been a sigh, or that could have been a laugh, came from B’s direction. Fingers curled under Elle’s chin, twisting it up so B could take in her handiwork. “And I always wondered whether you noticed that. Charming man, wasn’t he?”
“He deserved better.” Elle curled her lip back enough to show her teeth, lest B think her completely defenseless.
“Did you think you were that? Elle, Bill was the man he was because he appreciated the fine distinctions. And you were never much more than a psychotic, though I’ll give you that you hid your ravings better than most.” B gouged her nails into the soft underside of Elle’s chin and pressed up till Elle’s teeth were grinding together, then dropped Elle’s jaw. This time, it was easy to tell that the other woman was chuckling, low and toneless and scarifying.
But Elle now had something to laugh at as well, and she did so. Rolling over, she pulled herself up onto her elbows and grinned in B’s direction. “It must be hard to walk that fine distinction, never knowing when you might suddenly snap in front of your baby. Killers go soft all the time and get eaten by their own, but tell me, B—how long does it take for a warrior to go soft?”
“You know why you’re still alive?” The other woman suddenly had Elle by the neck, shoving her back into the sofa, and she was hissing over Elle’s snickering. Her fingers twitched, then did it again but harder so Elle could hear her neck vertebrae dangerously creaking. “Not because I think Fatale doesn’t deserve to kill you—I couldn’t care less. You’re not worth anyone’s sword edge, you traitorous bitch—you’re not good for anything except as a reminder.”
“I knew you were lying to Arthur. He does, too, but his fucking sense of honor won’t let him call you on it.” Elle was choking and the chains wouldn’t let her hands move far enough to scrabble at B’s hand, but she was damned if she was going to stop letting B have it now. Strangulation wasn’t the worst way to go; the best it could do was scare people with fuzzing minds and fading vision, both of which were quite familiar to Elle by now. “You’re lying now. You fucking need me, don’t you?”
It took a moment for B’s incredulous grunt to come out. The grip on Elle’s neck scored nails deep into her flesh, following the arteries so that for a moment, she could feel her pulse painfully splitting lengthwise. “What would I possibly need you for?”
“Some twisted little reason of yours—I don’t know. But you do, and you know I’m right. You killed all the others. You went after them with everything you had—you went after goddamn Budd! That redneck pissant, and you put him before me?” Fucking hurt, but Elle reared back and spit.
Even water could blast a hole if it was shot out fast enough. In this case, Elle got lucky and apparently hit B in the eye, because the next thing she knew, her face was sideways and her cheek was burning from a punch. The other woman was cursing and stumbling around, and then B recovered enough to fall against the couch. Didn’t take long for her to yank Elle’s head back by the hair and get cold steel up against Elle’s neck.
Freezing and hard and sharp and just a little pressure would open things up, let all the ashy, bitter vitriol run out where Elle didn’t have to choke on it any more. Just a little…
“You killed my master,” B whispered, voice jagged as a broken window.
“So much for avenging him. You left me in that shitty brokedown trailer, and I wasn’t even close to dying,” Elle retorted.
The other woman was slammed into Elle’s side, pinning her in place. In that position, Elle could feel how B’s chest was heaving with the effort of keeping it in, how the fingers in Elle’s hair were developing that slight shake of overstrained nerves.
“You killed Budd. Why did you do that?” B took a deep breath that didn’t do anything to calm her.
Elle was mentally swearing and clamping her goddamned mouth shut. Though intelligence wasn’t the main cause, it certainly wasn’t to be ignored.
After a long second, B made a little knowing noise and removed her sword from Elle’s throat. There was the faint grating sound of her sheathing it, and then she ran a thumb over Elle’s neck, where the blade edge had been just a moment before. The skin there had gotten cut—not enough to bleed, but enough for B’s touch to feel like she was noosing Elle with fire. “Elle. C’mon. Just between us girls…I know Bill didn’t ask you to do that.”
“Bill didn’t seem to have a great grip on what was good for him any more,” Elle muttered, twisting in B’s hold. “And I wasn’t going to share the world with a beer-swilling, potbellied jackass if you were—”
“Dead? That’s sweet of you. I always appreciate the gift of vengeance. Especially since I thought that was the one thing that was mine.” B’s voice started at sarcastic cooing and ended at furious snarl. “You always have to try and stick your finger into my pie—Elle, no one likes a copycat.”
They were struggling so close together that Elle could almost sink her teeth in B’s lip. Tear that goddamn thing right off the other woman’s face. “You gonna give that to your baby? Momma’s legacy? Because that’s what I’m going to be, bitch. People don’t ever forget you, and I’m going to add never forgive you to that.”
Every single muscle of B’s that was pressing up against Elle went stiff and cold, and for a moment, Elle thought the fucking whore was finally going to do it. Finally going to show her true colors.
Instead, B threw her against the sofa arm and got off. Smacking sounds—palms dusting themselves off, as if the bitch had been weeding, or making some other sad attempt at playing domestic. Elle opened her mouth—
--“I think Sofie’s just desperate enough. She’s got nothing to work with but second-tier shit, and the only advantage she has is numbers.” B was back to composed and cool. Distant. “Was she going to have you killed? Maybe. But I don’t think you would’ve let her—you’re too damn stubborn. And I want you where I can see you.”
There were so many holes Elle could pick in that reasoning, but before she could, B was gone. And it was cold and hollow when it was only Elle with herself, because her rage alone couldn’t burn hot enough to fill all the empty spaces that were around now. They were all dead.
Bill was dead.
B was not.
That mattered. That was a constant that wouldn’t change no matter what Elle did, and she had to acknowledge that. Respect it.
In the end, there’d only ever been two people that had mattered in any way to Elle, and one of them was gone. The greater of the two, but the fact that the lesser was lesser didn’t mean so much as that the lesser was all that was left to her.
* * *
While Lancelot still wasn’t feeling back to normal, he also wasn’t a piece of china. And Arthur could be quite the bastard when he wanted to be. “Goddamn it, come on.”
In response, Arthur shoved his fingers far enough into Lancelot to thoroughly fuck his mind white. He scrabbled at the showerhead above him, convulsively clutched it, and tried to wrap his leg around Arthur’s waist so the worrying jackass would hurry up. The metal in his fingers screeched a warning as the spout began to bend under his weight.
Arthur swore and tore his fingers out of Lancelot—fucker—to grab Lancelot by the hips and lift him against the wall, pinning him there while hot hard cock finally--fuck--found itself into him.
All right, that did hurt. Lancelot’s ribs were complaining, and so was his back. He did his best not to flinch, but it didn’t quite work. Of course, Arthur noticed and paused so he could make sure he wasn’t killing Lancelot. If Lancelot had been in any state for sensible thinking, he would’ve acknowledged the irony there was quite piquant. As he wasn’t, he therefore dropped his hands from the showerhead to Arthur’s shoulders and wrapped himself around the other man. “If you don’t move in the next three seconds—”
Arthur moved. His one arm went down around Lancelot’s ass, fingers digging into left hip and making everything shift in ways that prickle-slammed up through Lancelot, and his other one went around Lancelot’s back. Apparently in some kind of attempt to cushion Lancelot from the wall tiles. “Can’t you ever wait? If you reopen any of your—”
“No, I can’t. I have five fucking years to make up.” Although Lancelot had his teeth clenched together, the words somehow slipped through and brought Arthur’s guilt up to the forefront. While the implied apology was appreciated, the last thing Lancelot wanted to see right now in Arthur’s eyes was shame.
Damnable man. Lancelot wanted to crack their foreheads together, but that obviously wasn’t going to forward the situation in the way that he wanted. So he made himself take a deep breath before leaning forward—had to stop midway and readjust to a new set of melting muscles—and nuzzling the side of Arthur’s jaw. Kissing the edges of the man’s lips, waiting for Arthur to turn that last inch and…God. It would be so easy to just drown.
But Arthur was still holding him up, so when the movements of their lips escalated into movements of heads and necks and shoulders, twisting of hips and sliding of arms, Lancelot could let himself go without fear. He dug his fingers into Arthur’s neck and hung on as best he could; his legs kept unwinding and he’d have to drag them up again, only to feel his muscles turn liquid and flow down the backs of Arthur’s legs. Grazed the tender hollows behind Arthur’s knees, made the other man twitch and nip at his ears, but he couldn’t hold himself up. So Arthur had to.
Lancelot buried his face in the wet skin of Arthur’s neck as he came, tasting salt and water and bitter traces of soap, smelling man and nothing else. He could feel Arthur stumble a bit as the other man was milked into his own climax by Lancelot’s spasming, but they didn’t go down.
Not then, anyway. A few moments later, Arthur slowly lowered them to the floor and collapsed to Lancelot’s side, absently rubbing stubble rashes into Lancelot’s shoulder. “Ow.”
“Getting older, are we? Did you throw out your back?” Lancelot muttered, trying very hard not to smirk.
Nevertheless, Arthur pulled them together and held Lancelot too damned still while he rinsed them…very thoroughly…off. As punishments went, there were definitely worse, but it was still annoying. Lancelot squirmed and elbowed till he was free, then got out of the stall and dried and dressed himself without help.
He didn’t turn around when Arthur came out of the bathroom and did the same, because he wanted to see whether the man would actually ask, or if he’d just let Lancelot stew in the belief that it was best to let Lancelot start.
“What is it?”
Startled, Lancelot turned around just in time to see Arthur doing up his tie. He rolled his eyes and unknotted it, then threw it into the open duffel bag on the floor. “Why are you wearing a tie? We’re not going to a business meeting.”
Instead of answering, Arthur merely snatched Lancelot’s wrists out of the air and held them. Then he didn’t do anything else, except give Lancelot a strangely effective stare.
“You didn’t do that before.” Lancelot tugged at his hands, but they weren’t coming free any time soon. Not unless he wanted to start something a bit more strenuous than he felt like doing at the moment. After all, he was still healing, and now he was sore as well. It was a pleasant ache, but it was still an ache. Not disabling, but only a little constraining.
“Guinevere can be very difficult to read when she wants to be.” Arthur continued to give Lancelot a look, as if he was content to stand there and watch while Lancelot grew increasingly more uncomfortable.
In the end, Lancelot decided that staring games were stupid and childish, and that he had no obligation to play them. “You never did answer my question as to why you came after me.”
The green of Arthur’s eyes changed from muted to sharp. He straightened up, instantly somber-faced, and parted his lips to say something incredibly self-denying and saintly and Arthur-like. There wasn’t any need to listen because Lancelot could see it all in the other man’s eyes.
“I don’t want someone to take care of me,” he said, fast and hard, before thoughts could become words. “Look, it’s nice to be coddled and petted, but if I wanted that, I could buy it. I want you, and I want it so you’re with me. Not looking after me.”
Arthur blinked a few times, as if he wasn’t quite sure of what he was hearing, and then he was pulling Lancelot up against him, mouth smashing hot moist tickling breath into Lancelot’s ear. “Lancelot, people’s worlds don’t end when their obligations are taken away from them. I went after you because that would have happened if I hadn’t.”
“Oh.” And Lancelot was starting to add that that had been easier than he’d expected when the meaning finally trickled down to his heart and gut. His fingers suddenly wrapped themselves in Arthur’s shirt. “Oh.”
There was a smile nibbling at his ear, and a hand slowly drawing itself up and down his back. He hissed a little as his skin started tingling beneath his damp shirt.
“So you don’t want me to do this?” The hand drifted further down to feather over the small of his back.
Lancelot couldn’t help wriggling. “Of course I do. I just don’t want it to be only—all right, did Guinevere teach you to be a heartless bastard, too?”
“No. That I learned from watching the DiVAS, if I learned it from anyone.” Arthur’s voice went smooth and icy, sliding back into some cold, dark memory. His grip on Lancelot tightened, then loosened as he stepped towards the door. “It’s much easier to remember that I’m not only that when you’re around.”
“So I keep you honest?” Before the other man could withdraw, Lancelot came up to Arthur’s side and pointedly matched paces with Arthur. If Arthur didn’t understand
by now that Lancelot wasn’t going to deal with another separation— --a finger traced the line of Lancelot’s cheek. “It’s probably more accurate to say keep me human.”
Arthur got the point. For once.
* * *
Beatrix had wanted this meeting, yet she was still in her room, dealing with Elle. While Arthur couldn’t hear anything, he knew better than to be optimistic about the reasons behind that.
He needed Beatrix’s help not only because of her skills as a killer, but also because she knew Sofie’s ways better than he did. On the other hand, he did not need to deal with a revived Black Mamba after their opponents were dead, and that resurrection seemed to be exactly what he was witnessing. The Bride he thought he might be able to handle, Beatrix Kiddo he knew he could talk to, but the Black Mamba was an entirely different issue. That woman didn’t have raw, hurting revenge, or motherly rage, but instead only had coldness.
The problem was, Elle’s presence and B. B.’s absence was raising one of the bloody personas in Beatrix, but he wasn’t quite sure as to which; the difference between the Bride and the Mamba could be very slight at times. Arthur wished he could get more information, but Beatrix was careful to keep as much of her and Elle’s interactions hidden as she could. If the issue was going to get resolved before they went out to fight again, it looked as if he would have to force it.
Arthur was suddenly very tired, shoulders feeling as if they’d been filled with lead and knees wanting to whine. The jest Lancelot had made earlier didn’t seem quite so ridiculous now.
At least that part of his life was going fairly well, Arthur thought. He resettled himself on the couch and turned to see Guinevere come sauntering up to Lancelot, who was stretched out on the cushions next to Arthur. She had that razor gleam in her eye that foreboded trouble.
Guinevere stopped behind the couch and leaned over its back, casting an assessing eye over Lancelot’s untucked shirt, unruly hair and generally rumpled appearance. “Well-fucked?”
“Very well, thank you.” He pretended not to hear Arthur’s choking and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, which he offered to Guinevere. She refused, but produced a lighter when he stuck one between his lips. “And thank you again.”
“You’re welcome.” She continued to regard him for a few more moments, a slight smile on her face as she watched his smoke rings blow past her face. “If you’re messing around at all, I’ll cut you into a thousand pieces, from your toes up.”
Lancelot took out his cigarette and tapped off the end into an ashtray while he reflected her smile back at her. “Same to you. And that goes for both—I don’t pretend to understand or really like Tristan, but I’ll defend him.”
“I’m flattered that you think I could get the better of him,” Guinevere replied, dry and crackling as burnt toast. She casually rounded the end of the sofa and squeezed into the armchair with Tristan, who had been watching the whole proceedings with a carefully blank expression that Arthur suspected hid a fair degree of astonishment, as well as amusement. That was what Arthur was feeling, anyway.
“It’s blinding how fast people grow up.” Arthur’s sense of humor eventually won out. The corners of his eyes were stinging a tiny bit, but not so much that anyone would notice.
A cell phone rang, making nearly everyone jump. The hair on the back of Arthur’s neck rose, stiff as nails, and he was off the couch before Tristan had even gotten the phone flipped open. When he was halfway to Beatrix’s room, another phone rang; he could hear her answering it as he pushed open the door.
Elle twisted around to face him, her ferocious defiance cracked through with cynicism and exhaustion and something darker. Then she looked at the other woman, who’d gone very still. Beatrix’s eyes were opened wide so the blue of her irises seemed to be stretched thin as gauze over a black background. “B. B.” she whispered.
“Arthur,” called Tristan, voice inflecting up with urgency.
The shift was so fast Arthur almost missed it. The Bride looked at him, and then she bent down to pick up her sword from the table.
“I sent Gawain and Galahad back a few hours ago,” he said, speaking rapidly and loud, as if that would ram the words into her brain. “Dagonet noticed some strangers lurking around the neighborhood. They’ve moved B. B.”
“Arthur!” Now Guinevere was calling.
The fingers of the Bride’s one hand locked white-knuckled around her scabbard, while the fingers of her other fished out a set of keys from her pocket. She swung around to Elle and, to the stupefaction of both Elle and Arthur, proceeded to unchain the other woman.
“Whatever they told you—” Arthur could see that that tack wasn’t working, so he switched. Stepped backwards to the doorway as he did and reached behind him for Excalibur, which Lancelot pressed into his hand. “Beatrix. There’s too many. O-ren’s bodyguards nearly overwhelmed you, and Sofie’s collected more than that. Sofie herself won’t be there; she’ll lure you away and wait for her henchmen to bring back your head.”
The Bride calmly crossed the room while a panting Elle hauled herself into a sitting position. She pulled out a second sword from a duffel and tossed it over her shoulder, so that Elle just barely caught it. Arthur took another step backwards, making sure that he did so in a way that wouldn’t let Lancelot edge up beside him.
“I know. That’s why I’m going after Sofie.” When the Bride finally spoke, she sounded as if she were cutting her words out of the air. “Someone needs to come with me to show me where. That was what you were going to tell me, wasn’t it? Your man found out where she’s holing up?”
The way she was now, Arthur wouldn’t let a condemned criminal accompany her. He swung Excalibur around and made ready to unsheathe it.
She abruptly turned around and fixed her gaze on him. “Fatale’s not good enough to kill me. None of her goons are.”
“Arthur, B. B.’s missing.” Guinevere had come up behind him, and if he was hearing right, she was cocking a pistol. “Bors and Vanora and their kids weren’t touched—it happened while Dagonet was taking B. B. somewhere else. Dagonet’s in the hospital, Bors is coming up here, and Gawain and Galahad are waiting for instructions.”
“You think she’s dead,” Arthur said to the Bride. “You don’t know that. It’d be in Sofie’s best interests to bring her out alive in front of you at the last—”
Emotion entered her voice, but it was the gravelly, fierce anger of murder. “I know. And however this ends, my daughter’s going to end up with bloodstains on her. Which was what I didn’t want.”
“Is this supposed to be a compliment?” Elle suddenly asked, fingers snapping tight around the sword she’d been given. “B, you—you really are fucked in the head.”
“That’s Bill’s sword, so treat it with respect.” The Bride straightened her jacket and calmly walked towards Arthur, the relentlessness in her posture making it clear that she was expecting him to move. When he didn’t, the cover over her eyes ripped off to confront him with stunning anguish. “Arthur. I did this for you. Now get out of my way.”
He moved. And he nodded at Tristan when the Bride glanced at the man, letting Tristan go as a guide, and he didn’t blink when Guinevere handed him the phone so she could go after them. It tore, but this part he couldn’t begrudge the Bride.
“Arthur?” Lancelot asked.
Ignoring him, Arthur kept one eye on Elle as he answered the phone. “Gawain?”
*Yeah. Arthur, it’s a mess--*
“I know. I’m—tell Bors and Vanora, and Dagonet if you can, that I’m sorry. Then get to Fatale as fast as you can—don’t go after her. Get B. B., and keep her from seeing as much as possible.” He clicked off and shoved the phone in his pocket, then slung Excalibur onto his shoulder. “Driver?”
She was shaking her head, faster and faster. Her lips were drawing away from her teeth in such a way that it was impossible to tell whether she was laughing or grimacing. Suddenly she jerked herself motionless. And then, very slowly, she eased herself onto her feet and started stretching her limbs, working out the kinks. “Got to hand it to the bitch—she really knows how to piss people off. Just go, Arthur—I’m not coming after you. My business is with the cunt that thinks she can not only use me, but use me to make her a fucking martyr.”
If he had anything to say about it, that wasn’t going to happen. He owed Beatrix for Lancelot, and he had every intention of repaying that debt.
After a moment, Arthur finished backing out of the room and shut the door. Then he quickly crossed to the hallway door, snagging his and Lancelot’s bags as he did, and ushered them outside to the car as fast as he could.
Lancelot took his swords from one of the bags and started strapping them on while Arthur pulled out of the parking lot. “You’re leaving Elle—” he began in an incredulous voice.
“Beatrix’s entire change of heart was predicated on an innocent B. B. That’s how she keeps the different sides of herself separate—by knowing that someone is depending on her to be a mother.” Arthur felt himself growing detached, and glanced over at Lancelot to reground himself in the other man’s eyes. “You take away B. B.’s innocence, make her into something that seems like it’d fit in Bill’s world, and things start getting complicated.”
“So Elle’s supposed to be a fail-safe? Kills Beatrix if she ever falls off the wagon?” The other man rolled his eyes and tucked a gun up his sleeve. “I never figured the Black Mamba for the self-sacrificing type. You, definitely, but her?”
It was difficult to explain partly because Arthur didn’t have all the details, but he did the best that he could. Child or not—if it came down to it, he grimly admitted, he didn’t think he’d choose B. B.’s life over Lancelot or any of his. “It’s not only that. I don’t know exactly what’s in Beatrix’s mind right now, but she kept Elle alive for a reason. She deliberately let that grudge fester.”
“When this is over, tell me we never have to see these people again. My God, it’s bad enough to make me long for the peaceful life.” The flash of white in Arthur’s peripheral vision turned into Lancelot’s sardonic grin.
“When this is over…” Arthur repeated. He glanced down at the car clock just in time to see the green digits change, then pressed down on the accelerator.