|Causality IV: Source
Author: Guede Mazaka
It was almost like trying to track down Tristan for dinner, back when they were all bratty teenagers. There was even the branch doing its damnedest to shove up Gawain’s ass—no, never mind. That was Galahad getting a handhold when he should have been keeping nearer to the trunk; if the branches broke and they fell into the courtyard, Gawain would be very tempted to hesitate before coming to Galahad’s rescue.
“Interesting place. They really do things in style, don’t they?” Much to Gawain’s relief, Galahad finally eased backwards through the leaves, the slight rustle of his passage perfectly blending into the stirring of the breeze. When Gawain joined him on the ground a moment later, Galahad was bending over the guard they’d killed. His fingers plucked the earphone from the man’s ear and passed it to Gawain so the spitting crackles were audible.
Screams were just distinguishable, as was the kind of hoarse yelled Japanese Gawain had never heard outside of black-and-white samurai flicks. Occasionally he could hear the clashing of swords and the wet crunch of steel into flesh.
“I think we’d better get going.” He began to pitch the earphone into the bushes, then thought the better of it and instead wiped it off. Gritted his teeth and popped it into his ear, doing his best to translate using his bad German and worse Japanese. “It looked like there was a teddy bear in that one window. We’ll start there.”
In the failing light, Galahad was a dark shape edged in flickering fire, and the rifle he lifted was a brilliant burst of white and yellow in his hand, from which Gawain had to flinch. But then the other man was ducking under the tree and preparing to climb back up.
Gawain paused, thinking about whether he’d seen resignation or resentment on Galahad’s face, and then lunged after the other man. He caught Galahad’s startled gasp between his teeth and shoved it back where it came from, ignoring how the rifle butt was banging their knees and digging into his shoulder. By now Galahad should’ve developed the reflexes to avoid shooting them in the head.
“What the fuck was that for?” Galahad hissed, drawing back. “I can’t climb a tree with a goddamn rise in my pants.”
Sometimes it was a truly Herculean effort to remember that the man was in fact a man, and was only a year younger. “Would you stop thinking about that for a moment?” Gawain hissed. “Just…look, did anyone ever do this for us when we were B. B.’s age?”
“No. And frankly, I’m not seeing why—”
Quickest way to stop Galahad from saying stupidities was to kiss him, so Gawain did that again. This time, Galahad melted in a ragged fashion and grabbed at Gawain’s shoulder, pulling him in for a second.
“Because it was that bad before we all met Arthur, and because I wouldn’t do it to any other child. Now, if we don’t go over that wall, it wouldn’t be leaving things alone. It’d be helping them along.” The end of the sentence got chopped up a bit because Gawain had run out of breath. He sucked in air and stared at Galahad, willing the other man to understand because they didn’t have any more time for explanations.
Galahad glanced down, then sideways and finally up, chewing on his lip. He started to say something but cut himself off and smacked Gawain’s head. Before Gawain could retaliate, Galahad was halfway into the tree; clearly, years of quarreling with Tristan had paid off. But the other man did stop and lean down to have one last word. “Just remember you’re not goddamn Arthur, Gawain. And besides, even Arthur’s learned better than to sacrifice everything—you have nothing, and then what good are you?”
“I know I’m not Arthur,” Gawain muttered, annoyance half-consumed by his relief. With a slightly lighter load on his shoulders, he tackled the problem of getting over the wall.
That accomplished, he promptly proved the truth of his words by not quite landing on the man for which he’d aimed and thus getting into a wrestling match. For all his faults, Arthur was much more efficient than that at fighting—and it was no time for recriminations or comparisons. Gawain whacked the man in the mouth before he could raise an alarm here and kneed him to the side where Galahad could put a bullet through his eye. Then Gawain was up on his feet and could get out his sword and ax, which vastly improved the situation. He hacked into the next oncoming guard’s arm, diverting the blade coming at him, and smashed the ax into the woman’s battlecry.
Above whirred a precise rain of bullets, for which Gawain was grateful not only for the cover provided, but also for the close-hand death it spared him from dealing out. He’d never liked the feel of blood splattering on him, but he didn’t have the eye-hand magic that would’ve made him suitable for sniper-work. Galahad wasn’t as good as Tristan due to easy excitability, but he did have an astonishingly good eye when he was concentrating.
Then again, both Tristan and Galahad seemed to prefer getting into the thick of it as soon as possible, so there was probably something wrong with that as well. Actually, none of what they did was natural, but Gawain knew better than to say that it wasn’t needed on occasion. For him, the trick was just to get it over with and ended as soon as possible.
Galahad jumped down and made a slightly off-kilter landing, but his scowl was by Gawain’s side a moment later, so it didn’t appear as if the other man had injured his ankle. Good thing, because they had a lot of scaling walls and quick moves to make.
“A little lightly-guarded here, isn’t it?” Thinking the same thing Gawain was, Galahad exchanged his rifle for his sword and pushed back. His stride jerkily bounced, like he was about ready to jump the whole compound himself if Gawain didn’t hurry up. “God, I hate kids. You’re carrying her, by the way.”
“I wasn’t expecting anything else.” The first window they approached seemed to be empty, but Gawain still held back until the glass was broken and no one had come running. Then he ducked inside and spun around with sword out front.
Swearing and stumbling, Galahad followed and soft-stepped his way around the shards of glass on the floor, as if he wasn’t wearing boots. He swept out the half of the room nearest the door, then swung himself into the hallway. Muffled thud, which turned out to be a head once Gawain had come out to see; the body was slumped against the far wall, and Galahad was picking something out of its jacket pocket.
A half-empty bag of candies.
“Well, nice to have a trail we don’t need Tristan to find for us.” The candies went rattling down the hallway as Galahad abruptly turned in the opposite direction. He was too busy storming along the passage to see the shadows in the ceiling shift.
Gawain threw himself forward and sideways, knocking Galahad out of the way. He almost made it himself, but whoever it was managed an incredible mid-air flip that sent burning pain ripping through Gawain’s sleeve. He got his sword-arm up and slashed back the knife, then was preparing to bury his ax in his attacker’s black-wrapped skull when someone else got there first.
Runny hot liquid on his cheeks, and clumps of colder gummy matter. By the time Gawain had gotten knuckles up to swipe at the brain-splatter, the body in front of him had fallen to reveal a white-lipped, clench-faced Galahad. “Fucking moron.”
“Galahad…” They were wasting time. Anyway, Galahad was coming, so Gawain didn’t know if anything he could say would be worth saying. Therefore he kept his mouth shut and tucked his ax under his good arm, letting Galahad go ahead while he hurriedly ripped up and knotted his sleeve around the cut.
“Dagonet’s in the hospital. And before you say so, I do know that this is our fight. They went after Arthur, they went after Lancelot—they’re damn well going to kill us first. I just want to know that it won’t be our fight any more. Afterward.” Without looking, the other man slowed down till Gawain had finished treating his arm. Then Galahad sped up again, almost flinging himself down the halls and up the stairs.
At the top, a bald man with drooping yellow moustaches and a halberd truly embodied the word ‘massive.’ When he saw them, his mouth gaped open to rake grimy crooked teeth over a ferocious roar, and his halberd came down with surprising speed in an attempt to crush Galahad. Two steps behind the other man, Gawain ducked under and crossed his ax and sword to take the weight of the swing on them; Galahad swerved away before the German could ready another attack and threw his sword.
It didn’t stick so much as whip through the middle of the man’s forehead and go glancing off the wall behind him, but by that time, Galahad was on the next floor and smashing a dagger through the German’s throat. Panting, he staggered back and scooped up his sword from the floor, waiting for Gawain to find a way past the huge body now blocking the stairs. “Jesus. What are we, back in the Middle Ages? Shiny knights on white horses?”
“It’s ‘knights in shining armor.’” Still not quite re-anchored in reality, Gawain wrenched the pike out of the way and studied the situation. Not even a sliver of space between the corpse and the walls or the railings…with a queasy feeling in his stomach, he closed his eyes and walked over the man’s back. “I hope not. You’d make a terrible knight.”
“Just because I’d rather not run around yelling my head off about hypocritical ideals? Give me a break. I’ve got a sword, and I know exactly what it’s for. This.” As he spoke, Galahad edged his way down the hallway towards the only door that was open. He took another step, then whirled and smashed down the man that tried to surprise him from the closet. “This isn’t about anything high and moral, as far as I’m concerned. It’s about protection in any way possible.”
Gawain took the attacker that came out of the other door and let his backswing spin him so his and Galahad’s backs were facing each other. “And that’s worth fighting for, isn’t it?”
The other man glanced over his shoulder and gave Gawain a one-second glimpse of his face, then twisted around and brought his sword down in a two-handed swing that cleaved a body lengthwise. Spitting out his attacker’s blood, Galahad stepped over the corpse and walked a little more calmly down the hallway.
* * *
Tristan hadn’t even parked; the Bride had claimed the front passenger seat, and as soon as he’d pointed out the front gate, she had slid over to slam her foot down on the accelerator. Her heel had come close to breaking his toe, but by then they had smashed through and people were shooting.
“Out.” She would’ve put a hand on his shoulder to drag him along, but Tristan was already rolling over the grass and back onto his feet.
That was a fortunate piece of anticipation, he thought once he’d seen how Guinevere was looking at the Bride. She had gotten out on Tristan’s side, while the Bride had leaped out the other and was now running full-tilt at an oncoming horde of ninjas.
“The second wave of Crazy 88s?” Guinevere braced herself against the side of the car and appropriated Tristan’s rifle from the backseat, then started dropping attackers while Tristan retrieved his saber. “I hope she remembers that Sofie’s the enemy.”
“And Elle. Possibly.” Tristan tossed up a full clip just as Guinevere was reaching down, then unsheathed his sword.
Rolling her eyes, Guinevere slung the rifle over her shoulder and flicked a foot-long dagger from her sleeve into her hand. She yanked her hair back into a loose knot, ripping out a few strands in her haste. “I don’t even want to think about what might be going on there. I just hope Arthur’s taken care of it.”
Given the impression Tristan had gotten, he had to doubt that. In fact, he had a strong suspicion that Elle turned into a free-ranging wildcard, and that Arthur had let it happen. That was confirmed a few seconds later, when he noticed that all the screaming was gelling into two conglomerations: one centered around the Bride, and one nearby but elsewhere. Then Guinevere glanced over the top of the car, swore and dropped down.
“I just saw Arthur ripping his way into the other end of the house. Lancelot was covering him. Don’t see Elle.” She gave him an irritated look, since the other man wasn’t around to receive it. “And Beatrix is inside, so I don’t think she needs a guide any more.”
“Good. Has anyone come through the roof yet?” As he muttered, Tristan craned his head around and scoped out the various trees surrounding the house. Some of them had decent overhangs, and it didn’t seem as if there were many guards still—
--the pommel of Guinevere’s dagger was, thankfully, rounded and so it didn’t hurt to have it shoved up against his cheek. He couldn’t grab her back because he had his saber and scabbard in his hands, but he was by no means defenseless.
When she drew back, her cheeks were flushed up to her eyes, which were prickling sparks of heady anticipation that sharply contrasted with her composure. “I like how you think,” she grinned, and then she was jumping over the car.
He did beat her to the tree they’d both picked out, and that was after going through a little less than double her attackers; additionally, Guinevere had the habit of hitting her opponents just hard enough to deflect them Tristan’s way, apparently assuming he’d finish them off for her. Which he did, but he had to wonder exactly how much Arthur had managed to teach her, and how much she’d merely paid lip-service.
But then she stopped with one hand on the tree trunk and seized Tristan’s wrist, flinging him up into the branches just in time for him to miss Cynric’s approach. When he started to leap back down, Guinevere tossed his rifle into his face, which forced him to brace himself on the branches in order to catch it.
By then, she and Cynric had already exchanged their first round of blows, and Guinevere was sneering with blood-slicked lips. “Always nice to see your face, or what’s left of it. One of my favorite pieces of work.”
Tristan sheathed his saber and flipped the rifle sight up to his eye, willing Guinevere to move. And she did, but not in the way he wanted: the infuriating, surprising woman catapulted forward and was inside the range of Cynric’s sword, scrabbling at his roaring face. Her hand slammed down on his shoulder and he howled loud enough to shake the branches; Tristan suddenly remembered Lancelot’s half-wondering tale of how Arthur had gotten him back.
The other half had been pure exasperation, which Tristan could understand quite well right now. He snapped off a few shots to take care of the few others that had survived the Bride’s assault, then swung back to the pair below him only to find Guinevere as in the way as ever. She had tried and failed to get her dagger into Cynric’s throat—a quick twist on the German’s part had sent the blade-tip screeching across his collarbone and buried it in his arm. Then he’d finally gotten a handhold on Guinevere’s arm and had wrenched her off. Hard. In between the tattered shreds that was Guinevere’s sleeve, he could see massive bruises forming.
She’d nearly hit the tree trunk as well, but at the last moment, had turned it into a ricochet that sent her back at Cynric. He was breathing hard and losing copious amounts of blood from his now-useless arm, but it was his left. When he lifted his sword one-handed, he didn’t seem in any hurry to collapse.
To his shocked disgust, Tristan realized he was hesitating to take the shot. Back when Lancelot and he had first invaded Arthur’s house, he’d been faced with a similar situation and hadn’t feel this strange slow numbing of his nerves. Of course, then he’d been trying to shoot Guinevere, and not to shoot Lancelot, but that wasn’t what made the difference. He avoided firing at Lancelot because of the demands of brotherhood and friendship—of a sort—and professionalism. Guinevere fit into none of those.
Cynric let Guinevere slash out her garrote and catch his wrist, then used his greater weight to yank her off her feet. With a look of abrupt, horrified realization, she desperately tried to twist out of the way of his down-swinging blade.
Because of how the two combatants were positioned, the shot creased Guinevere’s shoulder before turning Cynric’s right eye to red jelly splatter. His snarl cut off and his sword came down; Guinevere barely managed to untangle her hand from the garrote and dodge back before it hit the ground. As it was, the blade tip cut a long, curving line down the side of her leg.
“Fuck.” She had the cut mostly bound up in strips of her shirt-sleeves in the time it took for Tristan to breathe once and think on that shot. Another moment to slash away the ruined leg of her jeans, and she was climbing into the tree, frozen fury setting the features of her face. “Bastard. I wanted his—”
Tristan nearly forgot he couldn’t ask her not to do that again. At least, he couldn’t ask and still be fair, or respectful—and he was beginning to see why historically speaking, men had had such problems with that and women. “A man can only die once, and you’ve got his one. Enjoy it.”
He’d hauled himself to level with the roof and was preparing to make the leap when panting breath bathed his elbow. “He came within five seconds of raping me, the last time we met,” Guinevere said, flat and curt.
“And that doesn’t leave you with anything to make up for. He’ll have to make peace with whatever god deigns to receive him, but you’re free of that.” The rifle went across first, throwing up sparks as it clattered onto the roof. The saber Tristan kept, strapping it tight over his back. “Which would you enjoy more? Torturing him or seeing Arthur alive and in one piece?”
“Are you—” she pulled up beside him “—You are. You’re worried.”
He nearly chuckled, but refrained because there wasn’t a point in losing any more of his grip than he already had. “I would have rather taken you knife-shopping.”
“This is…just fucked. Definitely the most violent date I’ve ever been on.” And then she seemed to soar across the gap to land light and soft on her feet and fingertips. Guinevere didn’t stay in her crouch for more than a second; she grabbed Tristan’s rifle and lifted it to start shooting the people storming up the stairway at the other end.
With a sigh, he jumped. Landed running and pulled out his saber as he went so that by the time he’d reached the staircase, he could use his momentum to slice through the first attacker’s waist. His blade grated and snagged on the backbone, but it jerked out when he pulled and went across to block an overhand swing. Which skittered sideways and away when Guinevere appeared and started cracking heads with the rifle butt.
“You know, now I understand why Arthur had so many nightmares.” She rushed down a few steps, ducked under a punch and delivered one of her own, only with a dagger nestled in her fist. “Okay. You’re right. Dead’s dead. Alive’s alive. And there are entirely too many psychotics running around for us to get preoccupied out here.”
“I have the feeling that you don’t admit you’re wrong very often. Or perhaps it’s that those who hear you say it have very short lifespans.” Tristan’s balance was coming back with every singing movement of his saber, which connected him to the flow and ebb around him. Sniper-work was clean and quick, but it made him detached in the wrong way, made it easy to forget about what he was really seeing in the crosshairs.
She flashed a smile up at him, and it seemed that Guinevere too was back to…her usual state of mind, whatever that was. “For you, I think I can make an exception,” she purred.
And then they were in the house, stalking towards the chaos happening in the middle.
* * *
Lancelot made a note to avoid fighting while still wounded, because his ribs were screaming like wet cats and Arthur, apparently, had forgotten how to fight in a pair. Either that or he and Guinevere had had a very different fighting arrangement from what he and Lancelot had had—should be having right now. Second mental note: bitch out Arthur for being a forgetful jackass.
Then some ninja freak came diagonally at Lancelot—which wasn’t supposed to be possible without wires—and he stumbled backwards. Had no problem blocking, but couldn’t set himself up for a counterattack because there was some stupid objet d’art jostling his shoulder.
Excalibur cleaved the man into a blood-gushing mess on the floor. Wild-eyed, Arthur stared at Lancelot. “All right?”
“I’m light as a daisy, thank you.” At which point Lancelot executed a perfect example of watching each other’s backs by side-stepping Arthur and punching a sword into a howling Japanese man. Dealing with a random mix of European and Asian fighters was certainly an interesting experience, in that Lancelot was feeling his gears go ragged from having to change so often. “Stop getting ahead. Remember, rushing makes you sloppy and you start missing targets.”
“Sorry.” It was funny how Arthur could look genuinely contrite while hefting a gory broadsword into someone’s midriff. He ducked under his opponent’s ax and sliced Excalibur out sideways, then smashed its hilt into the side of the other’s head. Something cracked with undeniable finality and the body dropped away, leaving Arthur free to tackle the other side of the hulking Teutonic guard that was currently trying to skewer Lancelot.
Between them, they had the bastard down in a little less than a minute. Arthur took a second to catch his breath, which seemed as good a time as any to check the enemy-to-Arthur ratio of the bloodstains on his clothing.
There was a cry. Something like a scream, only its leading edge pulsed with a ferocity that was impressive, even by the standards of Lancelot’s life.
“That’s not Beatrix,” Arthur muttered, removing Lancelot’s hand from a shallow cut across his side. “That’s where she is, though.”
“You know, I want to ask you just how you know them all so well, but I’m not sure if I’d like the answer.” Lancelot swallowed his irritation and trudged after Arthur, keeping the other man free to look ahead for them both.
He had the slightest glimpse of adrenaline-intensified green as Arthur glanced over his shoulder. Then the other man was edging around a corner, sword first. “There’s a part of me that could have gone their way. My father and Bill were fairly close friends, and I don’t think that that was all a matter of circumstance.”
“Considering temperament, I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about. You—” Peripheral vision notified Lancelot of oncoming steel; he rammed his back into Arthur’s and shoved them both through the nearest doorway, then crossed his blades to block Cerdic’s sword.
The man was strong, and no denying that. Lancelot felt his knees grind and threaten to collapse under the force of the blow. When they sprang apart a moment later, the sweat was slicking down the side of his face, turning his collar into a swampy mush, and his breathing was already ragged. Not good.
Arthur lunging between him and Cerdic to parry the next blow wasn’t any better. Thoroughly frustrated, Lancelot whipped himself around the clashing swords and aimed a slash at Cerdic’s back. As if Arthur was the only one with a grudge against this fuck—
--Cerdic was really quite fast for someone of his age and build. The air displaced by his counterblow nearly shaved the skin off of Lancelot’s shoulder. But that was a definite miss, and Lancelot’s second sword had had a definite hit in that thin red line trickling from Cerdic’s wrist. “And where’s Cynric, thy dutiful son?” Lancelot taunted, dancing backwards. “I’ve got a few words to say to him, too.”
The other man slashed a backhand to fend off Arthur, which seemed to leave an opening for Lancelot. He dove in—that hurt.
Thundering smash against his ribs, and thundering was the right adjective because lightning pain went through him from gritted teeth to rattled spine, and the pain just roared. He nearly lost his balance as Cerdic continued the swing of the ax-shaft, trying to whack him into the wall, but Lancelot forced himself past the hurt and made himself go limp. Dropped down to the floor, rolled and slashed at Cerdic’s ankle.
The ax flipped around in Cerdic’s hands so the gleaming edge of the head was facing Lancelot—
--“Fight me,” Arthur hissed, cannonading into Cerdic sideways. Excalibur flashed up and down, and wood splintered. “Me!”
Lancelot scrambled backwards just in time to avoid a severed ax-head on his toes. His chest seriously wanted to implode, but a trial gasp proved it wasn’t going to yet. So he pushed himself back on his feet and went after the other two.
Cerdic had flung away his broken ax in favor of his sword, which was about a match for Excalibur. Maybe a little broader in the blade, and certainly it had a more ornate hilt, if pretty decorations actually mattered for anything. “Well, Arthur. This is familiar, isn’t it?”
If it was annoying to realize just how much of Arthur Lancelot had yet to learn about, it was doubly so to see the man act as if he were still alone. After all, he wasn’t the only one with a dispute here, and to hell with his having the longer history—Lancelot’s was fresher. It evened out.
“I suppose it is.” Arthur was ranging around Cerdic, occasionally testing the limitations of the other man’s reach. He moved with a restless energy Lancelot didn’t think he’d seen in Arthur before; generally the man was smooth and direct and deliberate.
Or he was in the grips of a freezing rage, but that didn’t seem to be in operation here, and for that, Lancelot was secretly relieved. It jarred to have Arthur be capable of frightening him, to have Arthur seem like a danger to everything and not solely their enemies.
Lancelot eased himself to the side, a little farther back than Arthur. Hopefully, he gave off the impression that he’d just sit and watch—it was doubtful that either of the other men would believe that, but they’d at least have to consider the possibility. Which could give him the hesitation he’d need to intervene.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you something.” The German casually wiped some blood off his cheek and flicked the droplets in Lancelot’s direction, though he didn’t remove his eyes from Arthur. His voice was a tired growl, and the skin of his face sagged in clear evidence of how roughly time had treated him. But while his determination was flavored with resignation, it was also without any kind of give. He wasn’t going to compromise, and for that, Lancelot could almost respect him. “Why didn’t you kill me? That very first time?”
“That was nothing more than a test. Bill wanted to see what we’d do in order to get ahead in the rankings. Which I never cared about.” Excalibur traced a wide silver arc in the air, then twisted and darted at Cerdic like a fish threading a rapids. Arthur spun on his heel and let the force of his swing carry him around to Cerdic’s other side, but misjudged how much space he had. Red spattered on the floor, and when Arthur was turning about to keep his face to Cerdic, his lips were pressed together till all the blood was squeezed out.
Lancelot heard his breath hitch, but gave himself a mental slap and moved to where he couldn’t see Arthur’s blood. He waited till Arthur had started his next charge, then leaped at Cerdic’s back.
Like a pinball rattling between pedals, Cerdic’s sword ricocheted from parrying Arthur to screeching along the edge of Lancelot’s one sword and coming dangerously near to cutting into Lancelot’s throat. That forced a retreat, but then Lancelot side-stepped Cerdic’s foot and slipped in to slash scarlet across the man’s front.
Fingers fisted in the back of his shirt; Arthur yanked him away barely a second before Cerdic’s hilt came crashing down in an attempt to crack Lancelot’s skull. Then Cerdic pivoted and struck Arthur a deep blow on the arm. The hit’s power was lessened because Arthur had gotten Excalibur into a partial block, but it was still spurting blood and God, that’d nearly been an amputation Lancelot had seen—
--because Arthur was an overprotective moron. Lancelot rode the crest of his assorted furies and drove under Cerdic’s sword, letting his blades seek out the soft abdomen. He felt bones crunch and flesh reluctantly give before the swords, hot blood splashing his hands and soaking into his clothes as they smashed against the wall.
Clattering of a sword on the ground. With a huge sense of relief, Lancelot straightened—
--nearly got himself strangled. Cerdic just fucking refused to die, and his hands were slowly crushing Lancelot’s throat. The lack of air blackened Lancelot’s vision and dropped him to his knees.
As soon as he’d gone down, brilliant whiteness burst over his head. A second later, so did blood. But the fingers had magically loosened so Lancelot was throwing himself back, thus missing most of the geyser’s spray. He almost tripped on Cerdic’s head as he did, but an arm wrapped around his shoulders and steadied him. Then it did its damnedest to break all his ribs. “Don’t you—God, Lancelot,” Arthur gasped, squeezing him.
To be honest, Lancelot was still feeling lightheaded and wobbly, so he didn’t mind too much. At least, not for a few seconds.
But there were still yells and gunfire coming from other parts of the house, which meant that they had to pull apart and put themselves back together. Lancelot zeroed in on Arthur’s arm and hastily worked to staunch the blood flow before the man went and passed out on him, or everything. “Idiot. Complete, absolute idiot. Why do I put up with you?”
“We really should be wearing armor, shouldn’t we? With the broadswords and all.” Oddly enough, Arthur had emerged from a fight in a better frame of mind than when he’d went into it. The corners of his mouth were even quirking upwards a little, and when he looked down at Lancelot, trailed light fingertips over the—goddamn it, as if he hadn’t already had plenty—new bruises on Lancelot’s neck. “That’s over with, thank God.”
“There. Try not to lose any limbs; I don’t like amputees.” Not that that’d actually apply to Arthur, because…Lancelot snorted at his own fussiness as he retrieved his swords. He needed to go and break some heads so he remembered exactly what they were and were not. “And you’re telling me all about Cerdic later. Don’t even try to get out of it.”
Arthur let him lead the way out of the room, but Lancelot had the suspicion he was being humored.
Well, it would keep Arthur where he could be seen and occasionally rescued. And sooner or later, the man had to notice that Lancelot was, in fact, killing his share.
“Hmm?” The next hallway looked as if a razorblade whirlwind had ripped through it. At the end, Lancelot could just see what seemed to be a huge two-story room: perfect space for the last showdown. He’d bet his swords that that was where the Bride was.
Arthur came up beside him, somber and shadowed once more. “When we find her, let me—” he put a finger to Lancelot’s lips “—no, listen. Let me deal with it. Please. And don’t interfere with that; there’s no time to tell you everything you’d need to know.”
On the one hand, Arthur was actually asking permission. On the other…Lancelot bit his lip, thought about biting Arthur’s finger for good measure, and took a good look into the other man’s eyes.
He didn’t even have to squint in order to see that faint shade of cold that terrified him.
At last, Lancelot nodded. But when Arthur took the finger from his lips, he grabbed the other man’s wrist and made Arthur match pace with him. “Just remember that I’m here. They’re not the whole fucking world, you know.”
“No. But they’re between us and the world.” Arthur shrugged. “The world that I’d like to live in, anyway.”
“It’ll be interesting to see what that is.” Lancelot had to let go of Arthur’s wrist and go back to a sword per hand, but he stayed close enough to feel the heat rolling off the other man. And when Arthur gave him that uncertain, guilt-stricken look, Lancelot glowered back. “Don’t do that. I chose not to follow you for five fucking years—that was a complete fuck-up. I’ve no regrets about doing the opposite this time. You’re not forcing me.”
And that, Lancelot thought, was about all he could do to shore up Arthur against whatever darkness seemed to rise whenever the man confronted the others from Bill’s organization. He slowed to let Arthur step onto the balcony of the hall first, then swerved inside the room to take in the sights.
The Bride. That Japanese girl. But no sign of Fatale.
* * *
Galahad bent down to wipe his sword off on a corpse, then stood up. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicker of movement and whipped around to face it.
“Mirror,” Gawain muttered, almost too tired to sound amused.
“Well, I didn’t know that, did—” He was really bloody, Galahad suddenly realized. His hair was a frozen mess of half-curls and stiff spikes where he’d absentmindedly raked his fingers, there were bits of dried blood flaking off his cheeks, and his sword was a shining contrast to his ruined clothes. “Damn. Maybe we should wash up before we find the girl.”
The other man rolled his eyes and stepped into the room. “This isn’t a beauty…oh. I see. You’re ri—”
This time, they both spun around to face…an incredibly little face edging out from a closet. If Galahad hadn’t been so busy kicking himself for bashing a man’s head in against that door, he would’ve marveled at how two people like the Bride and Bill could’ve produced such a sweet-looking kid. And he wasn’t usually given to admiring children, after a few nasty experiences encountered while babysitting Bors’.
“Are you two knights?” B. B. asked, staring at the gobbets of flesh dripping off Gawain’s sword. He hastily hid it behind his back. “I just woke up—oh! Dagonet!” Her tiny fists pressed to her mouth, and her eyes brimmed with fear. “They hurt him! The bad men—”
Gawain glanced at Galahad, then went forward onto his knees before her and gathered her into his arms, making sure that she wouldn’t see all the bodies by gently directing her face into his shoulder. There was an awkward moment where he didn’t know what to do with his sword, but Galahad took care of that for him. Then they were back in the hallway, and Gawain was muttering to the girl. “He’s okay. He’s a…uh…a strong guy, and we got him good doctors. Listen, B. B., we’re gonna take you back to your mommy, okay? But—um—she’s a little—”
He looked at Galahad again, as if he expected that Galahad would be able to word it any better than him. Some days, life just seemed like a carnival funhouse run by a guy with a really, really shitty sense of humor.
“I wanna hurt them,” B. B. declared. “They hurt Dagonet. They deserve it—but I’m okay. Is it okay if I hurt them for Dagonet? Because he isn’t here, but someone should hurt them for hurting him.”
“Ah…we’ve…already hurt them.” That was Gawain’s lame voice, which he used whenever he was completely at a loss as to what to say, but felt he had to say something anyway. “You don’t have to.”
B. B.’s fist thumped on his shoulder. She sobbed through what sounded like a gallon of snot, then scowled. “But I wanted to.”
“I did not sign up to give lessons in morality.” Galahad rubbed at the tension building up behind his temples, then glared at that angelic blonde head. Whereupon he noticed that her other hand was dangerously close to the ax strapped to Gawain’s back, and therefore took the liberty of carrying that for Gawain as well. His own sword he resheathed. “Look, B. B. We appreciate your—ah—feelings—and I’m sure Dagonet does, too—but we’re used to taking care of him. We’re—we’ve been friends longer.”
God knew why Gawain was giving him a dirty look now; it wasn’t as if they could tell her that she couldn’t hurt them that were already dead. And as for hurt feelings…well, B. B. was going to grow up sometime. It wasn’t something they could avoid forever.
“Oh. O—okay.” She was still crying a little, but she’d regained control of herself much quicker than a normal child would have. In fifteen years, Galahad prayed that he’d be as far from this kid as possible, because to his eye, her blood was starting to show.
“You need to take care of your mommy,” Gawain said, inspiration suddenly blooming in his face. He rubbed at B. B.’s back while Galahad moved ahead, sweeping out the apparently empty corridor. “She’s upset right now, because she didn’t know where you were.”
B. B. took a moment to absorb that. Fortunately, she had absolute concentration that blinded her to anything else happening. So she didn’t notice Tristan drop soundlessly from the ceiling and nearly scare the shit out of Galahad.
“Goddamn it!” Galahad hissed, lowering Gawain’s ax. “Stop fucking doing—shit!”
Guinevere calmly dusted herself off from her landing and gave him an arch look, daring him to say anything. If she and Tristan ever produced spawn, then Galahad seriously feared for the state of the world. He also wasn’t, under any circumstances including threat of death, babysitting for them.
“Arthur sent you to find her? Good—come on. I think Beatrix is about ready to lose it.” Without so much as an apology, Guinevere grabbed Gawain’s arm and started dragging him down the hallway.
“Does Mommy think I ran away from her?” piped B. B.’s worried voice. When Guinevere favored her with a questioning look, the little girl met it with equanimity and persisted in her train of thought. “She’s always saying I shouldn’t go too far, that she doesn’t know what she’d do if I disappeared. Oh, no. She’s going to be upset, isn’t she?”
The adults bounced the same ironic glance back and forth between each other. “Understatement,” Galahad muttered, picking up the pace.
* * *
It hadn’t even been that hard to get a ride. A pair of sunglasses, a jacket, and Elle had found her way to the concierge and ordered a taxi just in time to follow Arthur and Lancelot. Silly hotel staff had probably been spending too much time staring in her half-buttoned shirt to notice her cane was really a sheathed sword.
She’d left the driver lolling drunkenly out of his window, his brains slowly dripping out one tapped temple, and made her way into Sofie’s place minutes behind the others. By the time she stepped inside, she figured about half Fatale’s forces had kicked the old bucket, and the other half were on their way there. Good. While Elle normally thrived on blood, right now she was still feeling B’s fingers on her throat, and chains on her wrists and ankles. Her blood alternately jived and slumped as the adrenaline warred with the dregs of tranquilizers still in her system.
Besides, all she had was Bill’s sword, and none of the corpses she was tripping over was worthy of that. It was a little debatable whether B was still worthy of it, but she was certainly owed a meeting with it.
Elle had a fairly good idea of what was running through B’s pretty little head, and as far as she was concerned, it was all bullshit. Defending the innocent, her ass—if she took revenge for something, she took revenge. And she damned well wasn’t going to let it get twisted around into some sorry personal crusade of B’s. That was B’s problem—the bitch thought in such grand, romantic terms. The Bride against the world, the one-woman war. Never mind that at the most basic level, it was just an angry woman massacring everyone in sight. Nothing thematic or original about that.
Small-minded, Pai Mei had called Elle once. Well, fuck him and fuck his princess, too. It wasn’t the ancient times. In the world of high-precision death and grubby empty-souled millionaires, there were no heroes left. There were no warriors, and no code of honor; those that thought so were sharing the one delusion Elle didn’t have.
Except apparently, her memory had sided with the enemy, because now it was throwing up what she’d said to Budd about B, what Bill had been trying to create with them in his own way. She’d meant what she had said. She’d believed in what Bill had wanted to do—for a little while, anyway. He’d been a warm, soothing blanket that had covered her flaws and made her think for a little while that she was better than everyone else. But even then, there’d been B showing her up.
Raw would describe the situation pretty well. Elle was tapping her way down this corridor, stumbling over unseen arms and legs, feeling blood splash around her feet, and she couldn’t deny how pathetic it was. No matter what she did now, she couldn’t ever erase the fact that B had won first.
“She’s killed the last of the warriors, then. She turned around and fucking destroyed her own kind,” Elle muttered. And all that was left now was whatever trash was currently shrieking nearby. She followed the high-pitched Japanese into what was, to judge by the echoes of clattering weapons, a large and airy room. Perfect showdown territory.
From the sound of things, B was kicking the poor schoolgirl’s ass all over the room. Too bad for Yuki—girly should’ve waited a few years, grown up and gotten stronger while B continued her current decline.
Elle put her hand on the wall and followed it, working her way around the fringes of the duel. Creaking wood above, so there were balconies all around, and people on them.
“Arthur, here she is,” called Guinevere. Footsteps rushed up to a spot on the second level about five feet away from Elle. About two feet away, something rustled.
The fighting didn’t even miss a beat. At least, not on B’s side; Elle heard the whirling of Yuki’s spear falter for a second. Then there was a slash into something soft and wet, a different tone of screaming from Yuki, and a second round of blows.
B grunted, so Yuki had gotten through her guard at least once. But the next sound was that of a head plopping onto a wooden floor, and after repeated visits to O-ren, Elle wasn’t capable of mistaking that for anything else.
Then there was nothing but breathing. A sharp intake of breath that was probably Arthur, trying to figure out what to say. Heaving, ragged, snarling pants from a B that wasn’t done yet, and fuck it if there wasn’t anyone left for her to do something with. The unnaturally slow breath of someone drawing a bead with a gun. Elle was exhaling in bored disgust as she dove into the doorway that had to be there.
It wasn’t as open as she hoped, so her shoulder got banged a little. But there was the clatter-crack of a gun going off as it fell, and the horrified gasp of Sofie. “Elle!”
“Hey, cunt. Parlez-vous sword?” Elle’s fingers were solidly locked around an arm, and from the way Sofie squirmed and whimpered, it was the real one. The fake one was whapping at Elle’s head, which almost, almost made her smile. But she could feel the shift of B’s attention and the shortening of time, which meant she needed to hurry. So she threw Sofie out of the room and onto her knees. “I did mention that I didn’t appreciate your little attempt at assassinating me, didn’t I? Ungrateful—did I try to kill you when you gave up all that information to B?”
In the middle of Fatale’s answering burst of screechy French-English-Japanese babble, Elle braced her foot and swung Bill’s sword out of its sheath.
Her wrist bones jarred and rattled in a way that shocked up to her teeth. Goddamn muscles that were still wasted from the hospital…but nevertheless, Elle had to admit that the ensuing quiet was something to remember.
“What the hell are you doing?” That was her B, all right. The one she remembered, all hot towards Bill and all ice to everyone else, and none of that pretend-family shit.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Elle let her mouth stretch her grin till her face began to ache, flicking the sword so the blood flew off to the side. Pissy little bitch with no sense for self-defense, but Fatale had been one of them. She could stay on Bill’s blade for a few seconds, but no more. “Did you want to do that yourself? Oops.” Tongue-flicker. “Too slow, bitch. You can’t always have your way.”
Arthur was being suspiciously quiet. He had to have someone training a gun on her, but if he had B. B., then he was going to try talking B down first. Well, over Elle’s dead body—she finally had a version of Beatrix Kiddo that she could relate to, and she had a few matters to settle with that woman.
“Elle…” Slight swish of a sword being moved into position.
If Elle had still had her eye, she knew she would’ve been treated to a prime example of B fucking up. As it was, she could almost hear the woman ripping in half; B’s step certainly stumbled as she turned from Elle to the brat.
“Mommy, you’re all bloody…oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to—I wasn’t running away, I promise! The bad men took me!”
On second thought, maybe Elle should’ve tackled Arthur before tracking B down, because the man just didn’t know when a cause was fucking lost. Or when it was better lost than found. “B, honey, just do everyone a favor and stop playing blind. You’re not the goddamned Virgin Mary, and that little punkin shit had a father. Bill.”
“Don’t talk about her.” The other woman’s voice was shaking in and out, wavering because she was glancing between B. B. and Elle. Putting that tiny four years of nothing on equal level with at least twice that much time of hatred and jealousy and fighting.
So much bad blood gone down the drain, and Elle still had to compete for attention. For anyone’s attention—she and B for Bill’s, and now she and Bill’s daughter for B’s. There was some grade-A irony in that, but she wasn’t currently interested in digging it out. What she wanted to do was wrap her fingers more tightly around one of her two last relics of Bill, ride the boil of her blood, and take a nice hard swing at the other last relic.
B’s feet were moving again, deliberate shuffle over a hollow floor. The warping of the vibrations gave Elle a vague idea of where the bodies were lying, but it was still going to be an essentially blind charge. “I’m sorry, baby. But I’ve got to do something, and—go with uncle Arthur, all right? It’ll be over in a moment.”
Elle felt a laugh cut itself up her chest and rip from her throat. “B. Look at me. You’re not going anywhere till you do that.”
“No. Look at me like you know what I fucking am. And try to remember what kind of person plucks out eyes.” For fuck’s sake, it was like Elle had to spell everything out for the woman. Any longer and she was going to lose respect altogether for B; this wasn’t the woman she’d admired as a warrior, as a fighter. This wasn’t the woman that had deserved to survive Budd—this damn well wasn’t the woman for whom Elle had killed that rednecked son of a bitch.
This wasn’t the woman Bill had loved. This wasn’t the woman that had ripped the heart out of their world for the sake of extracting blood repayment alone. B was just facing Elle because of that damned kid, and not because of any of their past.
It really made Elle sick.
* * *
Tristan readjusted the angle of his rifle, but still shook his head; the way things were set up, he couldn’t get a clear shot at Elle till she lunged at Beatrix, and by then it might already be over. Arthur wanted to swear, but there really were no words.
“What’s going on—why isn’t Mommy coming up?” The girl in his arms kept twisting back and forth, trying to look at him and Beatrix at the same time. She was biting her nails ragged. “Why’s she and the other lady have those big swords? They don’t look like they’re having much fun playing.”
“Oh, Christ,” Lancelot muttered, shoving back from the rail. “Arthur, would you—”
And there wasn’t any time to stop this, either. Both women were too focused on each other for an intervention to end in anything more than needless bloodshed, and—Arthur could not, in the end, sacrifice more of the lives that looked to him to Beatrix’s quest. With an effort, Arthur forced himself to step back and distract B. B. by pulling her fingers out of her mouth. “Don’t do that. You’re going to—”
“—hurt yourself, and your Mommy wouldn’t want that.” At the end of the sentence, he drew in a deep breath, then turned so B. B. would face the wall while he saw the outcome. A chilly breeze touched his face.
Beatrix and Elle had come at each other, then skidded on to halt at opposite sides of the room. Elle had a thin line of red slowly staining her hair, but she pivoted too easily to be seriously hurt. The look on her face was strange—almost indecipherable, when she was normally so clear in her expression. “You’re beyond pathetic.”
The other woman carefully straightened, one hand gripping her bleeding shoulder. She turned only as much as was necessary to look at Elle. “You missed.”
“Of course I did. Killing you…would just be too contemptuous for words.” Very pointedly, Elle sheathed her sword and tucked it under her arm, then casually walked up to Beatrix. She tripped a few times over scattered body parts, but that didn’t seem to ruffle whatever realization had made her so calm. “On mature reflection, I think letting you live with your little carbon-copy’s a better punishment than anything I could do. At least, as you are now.”
Elle paused a foot from Beatrix, leaned in to brush a kiss against the stunned woman’s cheek, and then swerved into the hallway. “But you ever want to go back to your old self, you know where to find me. Sister.”
Her departure seemed to snap time back into its normal progression. Still shivering, Arthur shouldered his way past Lancelot and Guinevere to the nearest set of steps, which he took as fast as he could. “B. B.? You love your mother, right?”
“Yes? What’s wrong?” She bent back to give him a look that was far too penetrating for her age. “Is she hurt?”
“A little. But if you help her, she’ll heal.” He rounded the corner and came out into the open space just as Beatrix was glancing down at her naked blade. Arthur’s foot faltered, but the next step he took was as strong as he could make it. “Tell her you love her. She’s been…she’s been bad, and she thinks that you can’t love her anymore.”
Beatrix looked up at their approach, but she only had eyes for B. B., who had twisted in Arthur’s arms. The girl nearly leaped out of his hold and ran to her mother, not even seeing the blood and guts through which she was running. When she grabbed Beatrix’s knees, Beatrix folded and seemed to collapse on her daughter, burying her face in B. B.’s hair while her red-stained hands stroked endlessly over B. B.’s back. Her sword dropped to the floor beside them.
Arthur waited for the first shock of reunion to wear off before he approached and retrieved the Hanzo. A fine thing. Beautiful. Efficient. He was relieved to be able to sheathe it and hand it back to Beatrix.
“I’m debating whether to thank you.” She flicked her eyes to him, then to the people that were trickling down after him.
“I told you, I’m not raising another orphan.” The straps holding Excalibur to his back were pulling on his injuries, so Arthur took it off and let it dangle from his less-hurt arm. “Perhaps it worked out for the best that I had them and not their parents, but that didn’t mean that the loss was any less felt. Children grow up. You can’t hide them forever.”
Her face disappeared back into B. B.’s shoulder; the girl apparently took that as a bad sign and panicked, frantically patting her mother’s back and telling Beatrix she loved her so fast that her words started mashing together. Beatrix instinctively moved to soothe her daughter, saying that she knew that and that no, B. B. wasn’t a bad girl. That she still loved B. B. even when B. B. was being bad. Whereupon B. B. turned that around and informed her mother that then she could still love Beatrix even when Beatrix was misbehaving.
Eventually, B. B. wore herself out and dozed off in Beatrix’s arms; the little girl really did have a remarkable capacity for sleeping. Beatrix carefully lifted her daughter and returned her attention to Arthur. “So what? Teach her how to be me?”
“Teach her how to defend herself. Teach her when and why she should defend herself—then, when the time comes, she can choose for herself.” Arthur adjusted the bandage on his arm so it wasn’t completely cutting off his blood supply. “She’s not a saint-to-be, Beatrix. She’s your daughter.”
“You’re an interesting one to be talking of saints,” Beatrix finally said, a half-sour smile finding its way onto her face. She pressed a kiss to B. B.’s temple, then nodded. “Thank you. And goodbye.”
He didn’t watch her go, but instead turned to face the others. Lancelot arched an eyebrow. “Now what?”
“We get out of here and see,” Arthur said, and he didn’t see any dissent in their faces about that.