|Vice III: Backtrack
Author: Guede Mazaka
Belief and Lancelot didn’t get along very well. On the one hand, he had very little in terms of trust in society and government and church, having seen far too many pillars of the land get toppled in a whirl of stained sheets and bad newspaper mug-shots. But on the other hand, he’d been around the street and in the middle of some shit that didn’t make sense by any normal explanation. Whitechapel in particular was one large sinkhole of bizarreness, where reality seemed to bend ever-so-slightly.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t in Whitechapel. He was currently ensconced in a very fine hotel room, staring disgustedly at the raw pink scrapes Ambrose had given him while a dead man calmly made him an ice pack.
When they had arrived, Arthur had initially wanted to see to him first, but Lancelot had had to have that last piece of proof. So he’d refused the other man’s help and had kept close watch as Arthur had, with a fatalistic air, stripped off his coat, vest and shirt. There had been smears of blood all over the man’s chest—those faint ridges Lancelot had spotted at tea did indeed prove to be thick scars—but no bullethole anywhere, much less where Lancelot specifically remembered seeing red bloom first. Not to mention that Arthur moved like a perfectly healthy, if tired, man. “I’m not dreaming, am I?” Lancelot asked.
The other man handed him the ice pack, then leaned back against the dresser. Arthur had roughly washed himself and changed into a new shirt and trousers, but he’d haphazardly buttoned up the shirt and foregone the belt. The sleeves he’d just pushed to his elbows. “It would be nice to think so. Less complicated, anyway.”
He sounded like he was speaking for more than Lancelot, who shot him a sharp look. Then the ice touched Lancelot’s sore temple and he hissed, jerking it away. After a while, the burning ringing in his head quieted and he tried applying the ice again. It still hurt like a bitch in six-inch heels, but he could tolerate it and still think at the same time. “I’d imagine. How long have you been playing the wealthy recluse?”
One shoulder lifted and dropped. “Since medieval times,” Arthur said, carefully watching Lancelot’s reaction.
He must have been pretty disappointed, seeing as Lancelot was too busy having trouble absorbing everything to be real expressive. Even Galahad, who Lancelot had called fifteen minutes ago to warn about Ambrose, had commented on that, and normally Galahad didn’t notice shit. “That’s…what, seven hundred years?”
“I wasn’t born then, if that was the aim of your question.” Arthur stepped back and pulled out the drawer, then dug around in it till he came up with some bandages and some suspicious-looking tins of stuff. Plus a bottle of peroxide. “Would you like another towel?”
Lancelot reluctantly stopped scrubbing at his hair and put down the one he was currently using. He suddenly had the thought that Arthur probably didn’t want any word of his…special condition getting out, lest one of the cranks out there actually believe it and take off running on it, and so his position was considerably more precarious now. And his gun was…Lancelot casually ambled over to his jacket and holster, which were draped over a chair that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Versailles.
Interestingly enough, his train of thought sounded like he’d decided to operate on the premise that Arthur’s story was true. Except if it wasn’t, then Lancelot had to have hallucinated, and he was dead certain his mind had been completely sober during the graveyard incident.
Snarling to himself, he turned back to Arthur with the stale taste of confusion welling up from beneath his tongue. “So when were you born?”
“The very late fourth century. A. D.” And Arthur even managed to say it with a straight face. Apparently, Lancelot’s face wasn’t nearly as deadpan, because the other man smiled ruefully to himself. “I know it’s hard to believe. And if you were a historian, I could prove it easily, but as you’re not, anything I could offer up wouldn’t mean anything to you.”
“So no hundred-year-old pictures or portraits.” There was a slight wobble in Lancelot’s knees. Though he willed it to fuck off, it not only insisted on hanging around, but also on spreading to his fingers, which were soon noticeably trembling. He gripped the ice pack more tightly and pressed his other hand hard against the dresser top, trying to make it stop. “What about your family? Are you adopted as well?”
The other man had sorted through the tins till he’d found the one he wanted, and was now sniffing at the salve inside. Having decided it was all right, he pushed it towards Lancelot, who didn’t know what to make of it. Arthur flicked his eyes to Lancelot’s face, probably saw incipient panic, and very slowly, like Dag with a feral dog he was trying to charm, lifted a damp rag towards Lancelot’s side.
Lancelot flinched and Arthur paused, but after a moment, the other man reached for him again. For some reason, Lancelot allowed it, and then allowed Arthur to start the painful process of cleaning the scrapes with peroxide. It stung like hell, burning and foaming till Lancelot was savaging his lower lip bloody, but Arthur had a light touch that somewhat helped. And whatever the hell was in the salve that went on afterward did have a soothing effect, cooling away the hot itch.
“No,” Arthur said, so quietly Lancelot almost didn’t hear. He kept his head bent down, eyes fixed on Lancelot’s side, so his expression couldn’t be seen. “The Pendragons are—were—the descendents of the one child I had. The man I referred to as my uncle was the last. In nearly every generation, a few of them knew and helped me hide as one of them.”
“Except Ambrose, but then, you said he wasn’t blood to begin with.” One dab of peroxide scorched farther down and Lancelot stiffened, hissing through his teeth. He slitted his eyes and stared at the wall, trying and failing to comprehend the sheer magnitude encapsulated in Arthur’s few words. “That must be one hell of a family tree,” he muttered, like an idiot.
A soundless breath ghosted along Lancelot’s ribs and tickled his waistband. Then Arthur straightened up and started swiping at the scabs on Lancelot’s jaw. He smelled a little like the inside of Bede’s bookstore, only the ink-and-paper scent was mixed in with blood and grass. “It was. I loved them.”
“Even while you were watching them die on you?” The moment it came out, Lancelot was damning his tongue. He hadn’t meant that to go anywhere except inside his skull where it belonged.
Arthur sucked in a breath, but his fingers didn’t slow in their gentle work. “You…become accustomed to it after a few centuries.”
His eyes were boring a hole straight through the side of Lancelot’s face; if Lancelot turned just a fraction, he’d bet his office that Arthur had on that strange sad look again, like he desperately wanted to find something in Lancelot that wasn’t there. That nagged at Lancelot, grated on his nerves. When Arthur prodded up his chin to get at the rest of the cuts from Ambrose’s shoe, the feel of the other man’s breath on Lancelot’s skin made the itching inside even harsher.
So he made himself think about other things, since shoving Arthur away wasn’t exactly an option. Lancelot went over the tea interview, the happenings at the graveyard…recalled something Ambrose had said, which dovetailed into a stray memory of a talk with Bede. His old friend had had a thing for Arthurian legend, and often spent whole evenings forcing Lancelot to listen about what a moron and doormat for the ladies his namesake supposedly had been. Bede had also had a theory about the real king behind the stories.
“Late fourth century? So you…stopped dying during the early fifth?” God, he couldn’t even talk about it without sounding like a complete jackass. “And your family claimed to be descended from King Arthur.”
“King isn’t really the most accurate term for what I was.” Arthur’s fingers stopped moving, then slowly drew away. He kept his eyes locked with Lancelot’s for a moment before dropping them to stare at his hands. “How much of this do you believe?”
Lancelot had to sit down. That wasn’t the most impressive reaction to have, but it was the one he was having, and he had to sit. So he did, on top of the low dresser. The melting ice pack clattered into an empty champagne bucket. “Get back to me in a few days,” he muttered, wishing to God that it had just been another adultery case instead of this.
Thankfully, Arthur didn’t try to push the point and just left Lancelot alone for a few minutes while he put away everything. Then he rummaged through the closet and came up with a pair of trousers, which he proffered to Lancelot. “These should work reasonably well for you.”
It was mildly interesting how, up until that moment, Lancelot hadn’t noticed how annoyingly clinging and scratchy his soaked, muddy pants were. He briefly debated the wisdom of taking anything more from Arthur, then reluctantly stretched out a hand for the trousers. When Arthur leaned forward to meet it, Lancelot lunged and seized the other man’s wrist, while his other hand dropped to his pocket and pulled his gun half-out. “You know, I am curious about something. How did you happen to stop dying?”
Arthur didn’t exactly struggle; he did pull back, but only enough to keep Lancelot from making him fall forward. His pupils went wide and stayed that way, though the rest of his face froze into a dangerous calm. “I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“From the way Ambrose was talking back there, it sounded like he thought it was the sword. He was trying to resurrect his kid, wasn’t he?” Lancelot rolled his hips and let himself slide off the dresser, making himself look like he held many more cards than he did. Though as it was, he thought he was beginning to see just what kind of game they were all gambling on. “I don’t know whether he knows you’re literally the family relic, but he certainly knows that what you are is around. Which would seem to make him a danger to you. Though anyone would say I’m more so, since I know you and the relic are one and the same.”
Maybe Arthur’s face was emotionless, but his eyes were a firestorm. Unfortunately, whatever feelings were in there were too numerous and tangled up in each other for Lancelot to pick out individual ones. And then they suddenly snapped together into something intense and determined and bright. It occurred to Lancelot that in…fifteen hundred years or so, Arthur had probably learned a hell of a lot about handling himself.
But all the other man did was shake his head and relax, letting Lancelot hold onto his wrist without offering any kind of resistance. He didn’t even glance at the pistol. “I’m not going to do anything except ask that you don’t spread that fact around,” Arthur finally said, serenity personified. Or maybe it was fatalism. “I think you’re a reasonable man, and I trust that you’ll do the right thing.”
“You trust me?” Lancelot snorted, dropping Arthur’s wrist. Incredibly enough, the other man was still holding out the trousers. After a long second, Lancelot took them. “You’re a fool.”
“I know. But I do trust you.” Arthur didn’t elaborate on that peculiar statement, but instead rolled down his cuffs and buttoned them, then threw on a coat to look respectable. He said something about getting food sent up to them and went out, though he could’ve just phoned in the order.
Nice of him, Lancelot thought. The epitome of consideration. And he hadn’t really answered Lancelot’s question. Questions.
* * *
The trousers were too big and Lancelot had to roll up the cuffs, which made him feel like a scrawny twelve-year-old again, but they were definitely a cut above what he was used to. While Arthur wasn’t obvious about it, he certainly knew how to live.
And since Arthur was also taking his time getting back, Lancelot did a bit of looking around. After all, it was pretty clear that the other man wasn’t averse to telling partial truths, or to withholding it altogether, so independent investigation was the only way Lancelot would know for certain that the information he was getting was accurate, or relevant.
For some reason, he felt curiously hesitant about riffling through Arthur’s possessions. He blamed it on still being shaken up from earlier.
The closet didn’t yield anything except fine clothing, all of which had empty pockets. Arthur didn’t seem to be a hat-man, since there wasn’t one anywhere in the room, and Lancelot had only seen him bareheaded. Suitcase was supremely organized, with quality fountain pens and several neat files of properties, one of which appeared to be a government warehouse, contents classified but actual name of the owner being ‘that member of the Pendragon family who bears the sword Excalibur.’ So that part was true.
“Can’t believe they haven’t updated the contracts by now. Bureaucratic foot-draggers,” Lancelot snorted, carefully reclosing the suitcase. He set it back down at the angle at which he’d found it, then critically studied it. Reached out and flicked the handle to lie on the other side.
Dresser drawers yielded more clothes. Bedside table held only the usual Bible, though oddly enough, it had been turned face-down. Likewise, the bathroom didn’t hold anything out of the ordinary. It also was ridiculously organized, like Arthur had nothing better to do than to set up bottles in perfect ranks.
Then again, Guin had mocked Arthur for being lonely and desperate. At the time, Lancelot had chalked that up to a combination of Guin’s bitchiness and Arthur’s trying to meddle from the sidelines, but now he had to wonder.
But even the loneliest rich man had to have a wallet around somewhere. Probably a day-book with addresses and contact information as well, and while Arthur might’ve taken the first with him, Lancelot could see no reason why he’d take the second as well. It wasn’t as if Arthur had been planning to leave the hotel…Lancelot’s stomach did an abrupt flip-lurch, and he swore at himself, because stupidly enough, he was trusting Arthur a bit farther than he should. Immortality aside, Arthur was only a client. He shouldn’t be having this kind of effect on Lancelot.
With redoubled resolve, Lancelot went back to the main room and did another circle of the whole place, ending in the bedroom. This time, he spotted the edge of a case sticking out from under the bed. It was covered in black leather like the rest of Arthur’s luggage, but seemed more like an instrument case, or…Arthur was a self-admitted weapons buff. When Lancelot cracked it open, there were two shortish swords gleaming up at him.
They looked old. And familiar for some reason, like he’d seen them before. Very familiar…Lancelot put a hand down and gingerly touched the hilt of one. Then he snatched his hand back and held it to his chest, breathing suddenly hard and fast.
“Static electricity,” he told himself, snapping the lid down. “Just like shocking yourself on a doorknob.”
Lancelot warily shoved the case back under the bed just in time to hear footsteps coming up the hall. He hastily got up off his knees and flopped onto the bed by the phone, dialing his office number.
On the fifth ring, Lancelot gave up and slammed down the phone in disgust the same moment Arthur walked in. The other man gave Lancelot a questioning look as he set down a platter of coffee and croissants on the dresser. “You need to get in contact with someone?”
“I thought I’d bring my partner up to date, but it seems she’s already left for the night.” Lie. Goddamn Guin, who should’ve been there for another hour, but who apparently had completely renounced answering the fucking phone. If she was going to be like that, then maybe Lancelot should bother with hiring an actual secretary.
Arthur was staring at Lancelot’s cut hand, which bandages were now all ragged and…“You’re bleeding.”
“Fuck. The stitches…” Lancelot held his hand over the wastebasket and undid the cloth. As the last round fell away, he gritted his teeth and prepared himself for the worst.
Actually, it was a lot better than he’d expected. Some of the stitches looked strained, but none had torn out. The bleeding was coming from the shallower end, where the scab had ripped off, but it had already almost stopped; Lancelot wadded up the cleaner bits of the bandages and pressed them against that spot, ignoring the twinges of hurt that sparked.
“Are any of them out? I can call a doctor.” And here came Arthur with fresh bandages and the peroxide. He pried off Lancelot’s hand and gave the wound an appraising look that was entirely too professional—right, former king, back when men hacked each other up with swords.
“No, it’s fine.” Except for the fact that Arthur was now washing peroxide over the cut, which felt like acid. Some days, Lancelot seriously considered taking up a nice quiet job, like maybe librarian, where he didn’t get banged up all the time.
Though he supposed Arthur’s nursing wasn’t all that bad a consequence of getting hurt…and Lancelot needed to smack himself once the other man had let go of his hand. Arthur, however, seemed to do everything deliberately, from chasing down every single possible hint of infection with burning white foam to carefully smoothing a new wrap around Lancelot’s hand and wrist.
“You’re really nice, considering how long you’ve been around,” Lancelot remarked. Funnily enough, his voice sounded a bit thick and slow, like he’d had too much to drink. “I would’ve thought that seeing so much of humanity would’ve turned you cynical by now. Or mad.”
The side of Arthur’s mouth momentarily turned up, and he muttered something that didn’t sound like English. Too liquid and musical.
“What?” Lancelot leaned a little closer, like he would understand more if he could only hear better. He must have been more tired than he thought, because his head was a bit dizzy. “What was that?”
“Welsh,” was Arthur’s succinct answer. He capped the bottle of peroxide, rolled up the unused bandages, and set it all on the side-table.
The other man started to rise, but Lancelot grabbed his shoulder and kept him where he was. “I know people that speak that, and it sounds different.”
Beneath Lancelot’s hand, Arthur’s shoulder moved in an uneasy shrug. Something dark filtered into Arthur’s face and made it unreadable again, but there were those same cracks at mouth and eyes that Lancelot had seen during the tea. “It’s an older version.”
“Oh, right. Since you’re living history.” Contrary to what Lancelot had always heard, it didn’t seem that time erased everything: Arthur had no mark where he’d been shot earlier in the night, but he had very real scars coiling over his shoulder and ribs, and hooking around to his back. The top of one was peeking from Arthur’s shirt, which still had the top button undone. When Lancelot ran a knuckle along it, he felt its roughness flex and shiver against his skin. “Ambrose thinks that sword is the key.”
“He’s wrong. I’ve tried to tell him, but he doesn’t believe me. As you guessed, he doesn’t know who I really am.” Arthur’s voice rasped a little at the end of each word.
“How do you know? Did you try to raise a loved one from the dead?” Lancelot asked, slowly flattening the hand he had on Arthur’s shoulder from a tight grip to a molded curve. He could tell when the pattern of Arthur’s breathing changed from the altered rhythm of the rise and fall of the man’s shoulder.
Instead of answering, Arthur squeezed his eyes shut and inhaled like he’d been stabbed. Then he grabbed Lancelot’s other hand from his throat and pressed its palm to his mouth, kissing at the bandages covering it. His tongue flicked in between Lancelot’s fingers, teasing the webbing there with a flash of wet warmth, before withdrawing to twine about and thoroughly lick the knuckles and tips. It was like he’d gone into a frenzy.
People usually did that to forget something. Lancelot was fully planning on asking Arthur what that was, but his free hand somehow found itself shifted from Arthur’s shoulder to cradling the back of Arthur’s head. All right, Lancelot thought. First get the man to stop devouring his hand, and then ask.
Except Arthur had by then moved to the inside of Lancelot’s wrist. Slow and purposeful, the man kissed a line up the inside of Lancelot’s arm. He lingered at each spot, teeth coming down just enough to be felt, and left a spreading prickle behind; the individual sparks of heat spread swiftly outward to merge together till the whole arm was disabled by tremors. Lancelot’s fingers curled into Arthur’s hair and pulled, but the wrong way.
It wasn’t the kind of demure, soft kiss the romantic films showed, and it wasn’t the suave passion of the dramas. Hell, it wasn’t even the kind of cold, hard, furious kiss Lancelot could get from Guin plus a few too many shared bottles of whiskey. What happened when his and Arthur’s mouths came together was messy and unpretty and ferocious, all teeth catching lips and tongues because they were hurrying too fast and didn’t give a damn, hands clutching and elbows knocking into each other.
It wasn’t graceful at all. But it knocked the feet out from under Lancelot, and it got him onto his back onto the mattress so fast he spat his breath into Arthur’s mouth and thought he was breathing in. And then the other man had his tongue halfway down Lancelot’s throat and his hands the same distance into those borrowed trousers. Suddenly it was a good thing they were oversized on Lancelot, because that meant it only took a twist and a lift to kick the damn things off. Peeling away Arthur’s took some more doing, but they managed it without ever parting their lips.
Lancelot was ripping at Arthur’s damn shirt buttons because the things were too small for his bandaged fingers to manage, and he only had that hand free because his other one seemed determined to search out every patch of wrecked flesh Arthur had. Not to mock or anything, because while Lancelot’s worst scars weren’t nearly as bad as a few of Arthur’s, he still was in no position to be vain about that. To drag his nails along them, stroke them with his fingers like he was trying to impress them on his memory. And maybe he was. The habits of the job came out in the oddest ways sometimes.
At any rate, Arthur liked it a hell of a lot, moaning low in the back of his throat and pushing down with his hips so their cocks ground each other hard. When Lancelot ran the heel of his hand across one long one that stretched a cockeyed diagonal between shoulderblades, the other man whipped against him. Then humped up just enough to drag his prick along the inside of Lancelot’s thigh.
Some of the scrapes were probably going to be bleeding by the end of this. If Lancelot paused to think about it, he could feel them twitching pain. His jaw was straining against the hard kisses, too, and the hurt there wanted to make him stop and think about what the hell he was doing. The last time he’d gotten this close to a client, she’d turned out to be setting him up for a double murder, and he’d only escaped with his skin and his license because Gawain had bullshitted the police till Lancelot could pin the crime on that cunt.
Then Arthur sank down, his tongue lolling out of Lancelot’s mouth and laving its way down Lancelot. The other man lavished attention on the bruising beneath Lancelot’s chin until thinking decided to take a number and go to the end of the line, then went further and further down. Detoured at one nipple, spent a vaguely curiously long time at one stretch of unmarked skin between Lancelot’s lower left rib and the top of his hipbone, like Arthur was used to getting a reaction from that. Or like he was expecting to find something there that wasn’t…well, the man couldn’t have been celibate for fifteen centuries. Maybe it was a reflex left over from some old lover.
Lancelot bucked up before he realized what he was doing, let alone why. He’d just grasped that—he didn’t want Arthur’s head stuck in some memory—when the other man got the message and resumed moving. And Arthur didn’t stop till he had gone the length of Lancelot’s prick in one long, swirling lick.
Learning from experience. Fucking God. The man didn’t just swallow Lancelot’s cock—he wrapped it in hot, slippery velvet that squeezed and relaxed in the most damnable, relentless rhythm possible that still stopped short of being enough. Digging his nails into the pristine, top-quality linen, Lancelot squirmed like a whore and cursed like a longshoreman. “More, goddamn it. I can’t—God—harder—”
And Arthur did.
Coming clenched all of Lancelot’s muscles and then ripped the tension out of them from head to prick in a successive wave. He tried to do the decent thing and warn Arthur, but…well, turned out it didn’t matter. Arthur swallowed without hesitating. And then he crawled back onto the bed, nuzzling at random shaking parts of Lancelot on the way.
A glance downwards showed that Arthur’s prick was still hanging heavy and red and hard between his legs, which finally spurred Lancelot into moving. He ducked around Arthur’s nibbling and reached for it, then grinned when the other man gasped into his neck. “I like to be fair about this. It makes for a more civil morning-after.”
Arthur lifted his head long enough to smile back at Lancelot, and for the first time, the man looked like he was genuinely enjoying himself, without any of that wary reserve. “Richest blow-job you’ve ever had, I suppose. So it would be only fair.”
“My God, you can make jokes.” Surprised, Lancelot let his fingers slow down. But then Arthur made a little protesting sound that somehow ripped into Lancelot’s gut, deep enough to make Lancelot almost actually apologize while he sped up again.
He curled the fingers of one hand around Arthur’s prick, modulating the pressure till the man urgently started to mouth at Lancelot’s collarbone. Then he sent his other hand playing further back, teasing Arthur’s balls, wandering through coarse hair till his fingertip slipped in a little. That got him a shudder and a garbled stream of English. Passing his thumb through the stickiness gathering at the cock’s tip produced a low whistling whine.
And then Arthur…seemed to fragment on Lancelot, going from demanding but controlled rhythm to wild jerking, voice breaking into ragged chanting of that weird Welsh he spoke. His head flung up for a second that hung in space while wetness at the corner of his eyes caught light and sparked. Then he whipped himself against Lancelot, spraying thick warm stuff between them, and collapsed with his face in the blankets.
When Arthur finally lifted his head against, his whole face was covered in sweat, and Lancelot couldn’t tell whether or not those had been tears.
* * *
Arthur easily fell asleep, his arm over Lancelot’s hip and his head tucked into the curve of Lancelot’s neck. Lancelot, on the other hand, stayed staring at the ceiling for a very long time while his fingers traced idle patterns on Arthur’s back. He had the feeling he’d just done something lightly that he should have taken much more seriously.
* * *
An insistent phone cracked the morning open. First it wormed into Lancelot’s ear, making him try to burrow into the pillow, and then it shrilled through his skull, which finally convinced him to sit up. “Goddamn it, Guin. Can’t you ever—”
Green amusement stared up at him. Then Arthur stretched an arm behind Lancelot and unhooked the phone. “Hello?”
“Damn it,” Lancelot muttered again, rubbing hard at the flush that wanted to spread down his cheeks. He pulled his legs out of the tangled sheets and slid them over the side of the bed, groping for his clothes—well, for Arthur’s clothes. Top item on the list for the day was getting down to the office and the spare suit Lancelot kept there; wearing another man’s things was a little too comfortable for him right now.
Come to think of it, Arthur was being extremely accepting of Lancelot’s slip-of-the-tongue. Most people—well, women, but Lancelot had met a few men in his time like that—would’ve thrown a fit and probably tried to kick him out the door as well. Or at least demanded an explanation, whereas Arthur was merely answering the caller.
Interestingly enough, his expression froze up for a second, then relaxed into the kind of smile condemned criminals getting a reprieve plastered on. He lowered the phone, but didn’t hand it over till Lancelot had finished pulling on his trousers. “Your associate,” Arthur said, holding it out. “Not Guin. A man?”
Well, Lancelot had left the room’s number with Galahad, but his friend didn’t have any reason to call him, unless Tristan was passing on word that he’d found Ambrose. And that, Lancelot doubted—he’d shot the man, but Ambrose had still had the strength to hop a fence. Not to mention they’d been having trouble finding the man before, so it was unlikely he would slip up now and be so gracious as to leave them an easy-to-follow trail.
*Lancelot! Where the hell have you been?*
“Gawain?” Lancelot asked, startled. He turned to get his shirt, which was flung over a chair, and glimpsed a curious flinch passing over Arthur’s face. But before he could be certain about that, the other man had gotten off the bed and moved towards the closet.
The phone spat an angry crackle that called back Lancelot’s attention. *Yes, Gawain. Goddamn it, I’ve been calling your office for the past hour—no one’s there.*
“No one?” Guin should have been long since in, according to the clock…and Lancelot needed to get going. His car was still parked by the cemetery, he had those coroner’s reports to skim through, and he needed to lay down the law with Guin. Hopefully, she’d listen.
The least she could do was make him coffee, Lancelot grumbled to himself. He dropped the lid back on the coffeepot and snorted to blow out the smell of cold burnt-bean water. No matter how top-notch the grind was, it never tasted good on a second heating.
Hands and eyes busy with the intricacies of tie-tying, Arthur nevertheless found a second to look over. “I can send down for a fresh pot.”
Lancelot covered the phone with his hand to mutter a thanks, then rolled his eyes at himself. Arthur had already answered the call and spoken to Gawain, so it wasn’t as if there was a secret to keep. God, when everything was over, Gawain was never going to shut up about that. “Gawain, Guin opens up at 7 A. M. prompt—wait. When’s the last time you saw her? Wasn’t Tristan supposed to check in with her last night?”
*I saw her at lunch yesterday, when we were going over the coroner’s findings on Bede and German. And Tristan saw her at dinner, but she was in a hurry and drove off right after they talked.* Resigned sigh. *Christ, Lancelot. I’ve given up trying to tell you not to mix bed and business, but you could at least let us know where you’re spending the night.*
“Don’t start, all right?” Thankfully, Arthur had gone out into the main room to get breakfast, so Lancelot didn’t have to crouch over the receiver any more. “Meet me at my office in half an hour.”
After he hung up, Lancelot threw on the rest of his clothes and his shoulder holster. The fight in the rain last night hadn’t been too good to the leather, but he didn’t have the time to do anything about that, so he just put up with the chafing. At least the shirt and vest did pad the worst of it.
Though God knew where his tie had ended up—and God knew where Guin had gone off to now. As snappish as she could be sometimes, she was diligent about opening the office and being around to take most calls; maybe that was her way of monopolizing information flow and getting an edge, but it was still useful. So if Guin was not only late about unlocking in the morning, but two hours late, then Lancelot started to worry. “Guin, you bitch, if you’ve gone off and tried something…”
“What?” A servant carrying in one hell of a breakfast spread temporarily blocked Arthur, but the other man had the sense to get the penguin snoot out fast. Then he turned to Lancelot—briefly grinned at how Lancelot was sucking down the damn good coffee—and arched an eyebrow. “What happened? Is there a problem?”
“Nah. No. But something’s come up that I need to check out. I’m sure you’ve got a full schedule today, so if you could just have somebody drop me off by my car—”
Good thing Lancelot had already swallowed his mouthful of coffee, because otherwise Arthur would’ve gotten his tongue scalded rather badly. As it was, the way Lancelot’s hand had decided to grab onto the other man’s head had to be pretty painful, but Arthur didn’t seem to care.
Lancelot nearly tossed his coffee over the other man’s shoulder. He just restrained himself to setting it down, and then he clutched at Arthur’s coat lapels for support, since his knees were weak-arsed sons of bitches.
When they had to part for breath, Arthur still didn’t want to back off, and Lancelot ended up having to push his arm between them. God. The man kissed like a devil, but it was the half-lowered, trembling eyelashes that really jabbed at Lancelot’s gut. Normally that kind of expression only showed up on those sappy old army movies, where the gold-hearted hero had to tell his girl he was going out to die. Which Lancelot was not planning on doing, but damned if he didn’t want to get sucked in by those eyes instead of doing what he was going to.
He took a deep breath, watched Arthur do likewise and pull himself together. “I’ve got to go.”
That was a lot nicer than how Lancelot usually would have put it, but somehow, he still felt like a bastard. His fingers drifted from the back of Arthur’s head to the nape of the man’s neck, then drew down the side of Arthur’s collar. The other man turned his head so his lips brushed along Lancelot’s wrist and hand as they dropped from him.
* * *
Silent and wound into himself, Arthur dropped Lancelot off himself. The only time he spoke was when Lancelot was almost out of the car: “Have dinner with me.”
Lancelot gripped the top of the door, bowed his head and wondered why the hell his life couldn’t go in a straight line. No matter what he did, it took zigs and zags and sometimes just looped back to kick him in the arse. “I generally try not to fuck my clients. Conflict of interest problem.”
“I see.” The words were short, leaden, and like gunshot wounds in the belly.
Some day, this shit was going to get Lancelot killed. On that, he was in complete agreement with Gawain. But the other man wasn’t actually living it, and so had no fucking idea how hard it was to play it Puritan. And hell, Lancelot had always thought the Puritans were a bit cracked—giving up Christmas? The only way anyone got through winter sane was by pasting on a big smile and getting dead drunk a few times.
“Goddamn it.” Swinging back in banged Lancelot’s cut hand against something, but then he had fingers fisted in Arthur’s shirt and was moaning like he was about to die if he didn’t shove his tongue far enough down Arthur’s throat. He thought he felt a button snap off.
At any rate, Arthur’s hands pretty much ruined what was left of Lancelot’s coat with the kneading and clawing, but it was worth it. Hopefully.
“Ask me again after I bring your sword back,” Lancelot gasped, finally pulling himself away. This time, Arthur let him go without looking like the world was collapsing. Close, but not quite like that.
* * *
At the office, Lancelot had just enough time to change and spruce himself up to passable before Gawain showed up. The other man slammed through the door with uncharacteristic force and started growling the moment he saw Lancelot. “You know, I’m happy to help, but it’d be nice if you actually paid attention. If not, why the fuck are you bothering to ask me to do things?”
“Look, I told you things went weird for a while. Ambrose showed up, nearly cut off my head with that goddamned sword…anyway, Guin was supposed to be handling the office end for the day.” A pair of manila folders on her desk caught Lancelot’s eye, and he wandered over to flip them open.
Gawain was still venting, talking about how he had to drag Galahad out of a bar backroom to find out what number to call, but being around Guin had taught Lancelot how to tune out scoldings like that. He felt a little odd about doing it to Gawain, who was a sensible and trustworthy man that usually said things worth listening to, but at the moment, the files were more important. They were the coroner’s reports.
Bede’s said that he hadn’t been dead too long before Lancelot had found him, but otherwise, there wasn’t anything in there that Lancelot hadn’t already known. Not good. Since Lancelot had only had time for a quick inspection, he’d been hoping the police might catch a clue to Ambrose’s whereabouts that he’d missed. He should have known better than to put his trust in his official competitors. German’s file was pretty light, too; they’d gone with the angle that it was a disgruntled client coming back to take down German’s cheating arse for good.
“…and she didn’t even read all the way through those,” Gawain muttered, starting to wind down. “Guin stopped on the stomach contents page and politely booted me out.”
“Yeah, she’s rude that way. Sorry, but the last man who tried to change that about her got a lead pipe to the head—stomach contents?” Something about that struck Lancelot funny and he flipped back to that page in German’s. Then his hand crept to Bede’s and shuffled through till he found the corresponding page.
They weren’t the same, but there were common components in each. Alcohol, of course. Sauerkraut and escargot, which was an odd combination…oh. Christ, Guin. Lancelot smacked his forehead and cursed her inflated self-confidence at least two times over.
“What?” Taken aback by Lancelot’s sudden vehemence, Gawain abandoned the rebuking in favor of craning his head so he could read. “Where did they eat dinner?”
“Badon Hill. It’s one of those new fancy experimental restaurants. Guin was blathering about it a week ago—someone told her about the bizarre menu and she wanted to go see, but the bank account was a little too…shit! That’s where Ambrose has to be staying!” Lancelot flicked the files shut and grabbed his coat and hat off the hooks, throwing them on as he clattered down the stairs. He could hear Gawain following, but he just had to hope the other man could keep up. Guin hadn’t been seen since dinner…
Gawain did keep up enough to jump in the passenger’s side of Lancelot’s car. He opened his mouth, but didn’t manage to say anything till after they’d spun onto the road. “He’s staying at the restaurant?”
“No, but he’s staying near it. Bede never could pass up a dinner invitation—Ambrose probably used that to soften him up enough for Bede to take him back to the bookstore. Usually Bede did his consultations on the corner where there were witnesses.” Lancelot slammed down on the accelerator and soared through three yellow lights and a red one. Someone blared hell at him, but half of the honk was cut off by the sharp turn he made. “I knew there was something wrong with that…got distracted by…”
Teeth gritted, Gawain was hanging onto the door strap like his life was suspended solely from that frayed bit of leather. He rammed his heels into the floor and braced himself, then grabbed for Lancelot’s arm. Missed because Lancelot was whipping around another corner. “So…you’re saying Ambrose used that restaurant as neutral ground.”
“Okay neighborhood, pretty quiet, no one likes to get themselves involved in anything. The restaurant opening was the biggest splash the place had had in decades, probably.” At the next light, Lancelot swerved left and detoured into an alley barely big enough for the car. Beside him, the other man was cursing and staring bug-eyed at the bricks that were nearly scraping them, but Lancelot paid that no mind. “If Ambrose is anything like typical rich, he’s keeping a tab at Badon Hill and having the bills sent to his room. Guin probably charmed the head waiter or cook or someone into letting her see the books.”
She had a heavy grudge against men who abused women in some way, and Ambrose certainly fell into that category. On the other hand, Guin had a pretty superior opinion of herself that sometimes verged on hubris, and she definitely was going to—would have underestimated Ambrose. Hell, Lancelot had, until that scuffle in the graveyard. Ambrose wasn’t the typical criminal, concerned only with extracting the greatest possible profit from the least possible risks: he was a mourning, desperate, crazed man who was snatching at straws and paying no attention to the ground crumbling away from his feet.
To be honest, it wasn’t too uncommon a story. Money was the biggest weakness around, but both Lancelot and Gawain had seen men break from other pressures. Whatever had taken hold of Arthur for a few minutes last night, for example…
…Lancelot needed a long swig of whiskey. And, quite possibly, a sharp blow to the head. At the least, he needed to pay attention to the matters at hand, and stop getting distracted by his wealthy, fascinating, good-looking, extremely long-lived client. Fuck, his life made less than no sense now.
They pulled up to the restaurant a few minutes later, Gawain having figured out the rest of the details in the meantime. Badon Hill was just opening for the lunch crowd, but it had already attracted a bit of a line, so the food must have been rather good. Too bad, because it meant more shoving and elbowing for Lancelot and Gawain.
An officious-looking twat pushed through from the other side and looked down his greasy nose at them. “Sirs, I’m afraid that—”
“You’re afraid?” Lancelot drawled, taking hold of his left elbow. After nudging off an indignant dowager, Gawain took the man’s other side. “Well, fancy that. So am I. The whole world’s afraid, my friend.”
Like Lancelot had told Gawain, this crowd would murmur protests, but wouldn’t interfere if one went at them with a dangerous expression. Frog-marching the little black-and-white-suited shit back into the restaurant went easier than Moses parting the Red Sea. And once the waiter was safely tucked into a dark corner, with Gawain holding off the rest, it only took two seconds of crushing the bastard’s balls for him to admit that yes, a leggy brunette had been in the other day. Yes, she’d asked to see the accounts and he’d be pleased to show sir which one she’d been most interested in. Yes, a hulking blond gentleman with a German accent, who’d been rumored to be one of the last Pendragons, had regularly eaten dinner in the back for the past five days.
“And thank you, sir, for your prompt and comprehensive aid.” When Lancelot let go of the other man’s family jewels, the pathetic son of a bitch nearly collapsed on top of him, whimpering. Disgusted, Lancelot shoved him against the wall and headed for the exit.
He had to pause there to wait for Gawain, who had sidestepped to snitch a copy of their wine list. “Hmm…I’m not one of the suppliers. That should be fixed,” Gawain muttered.
Lancelot finished wiping off his hand with his handkerchief and pushed Gawain onto the sidewalk, then pulled him by the elbow towards a well-appointed but discreet boarding-house at the end of the street. “Later. You’re covered, right?”
The other man looked annoyed and swept back his coat to show the large pistol nestled beneath one arm. “Guin’s always handled herself all right.”
“I know.” As they approached the boardinghouse, Lancelot took out his gun and let it dangle casually by his hip. He noted the path leading around the back—second door—and the balcony on the second floor. “That’s what I’m hoping for,” he muttered, tasting sour worry in his mouth.
The clerk at the front desk not only was happy to look at Lancelot’s photo and inform them of which room Ambrose had been using, but also regaled them with a tale of bumping sounds and muffled arguments that had kept the other guests up all night. But he hadn’t seen any woman resembling Guin, which was bad news. It meant she hadn’t even had the sense to make it a public confrontation; she’d surprised Ambrose, or Ambrose had surprised her. The knot growing in Lancelot’s gut twisted itself another loop.
He led the way up the stairs, still keeping his gun down because there was the occasional guest wandering about. But once they got to Ambrose’s hallway, they stepped into eerie quiet; Ambrose had asked for a room as far from the others as possible, though that alone couldn’t account for the prickling on the back of Lancelot’s neck.
The door was slightly ajar, and shoeprints led from it towards the stairwell to what Lancelot presumed was the back door. While Lancelot bent down to check the dark stains, Gawain carefully edged around and nudged open the door with his gun.
“Lancelot…” Gawain croaked.
“Blood,” Lancelot groaned, flicking his nail through the crusts on the carpet. He had to heave himself up in order to go into the room.
Strange bumps, hell. It was a wonder no one had cried murder, considering the wreck that the room was. Overturned chairs, sheets ripped off the bed, and more dried blood. Some of it looked like it’d dripped down from something—most likely Ambrose’s shot arm as he’d moved about—and a half-open kit in the corner showed that the man had tried to doctor himself. But there were arcing sprays on the wall and the floor, and a hunting knife stuck in a puddle of dark brown in the bathroom doorway. Bede’s throat had been slashed open in the shape of a cross…or a sword held vertically, Lancelot remembered.
“Oh, shit.” Gun lowered, face greenish, Gawain turned back to the hallway and put a hand to his mouth.
But the grim scene wasn’t quite enough for Lancelot, and he couldn’t be satisfied with not quite. It was one of the reasons he was such a good private investigator. Not that that was giving him any comfort now.
Walking was like lifting heavy lead weights with his toes as he moved towards the bathroom. By now it was obvious Ambrose had vacated the premises, but Lancelot kept his gun up anyway. He slowly stepped into the bathroom, doing his damnedest not to tread in any of the splashes, and looked about. Nothing but the signs of a horrific struggle.
“What the hell? There should be a…” Lancelot turned around and then threw himself back a pace. His heel slid in a puddle and that almost sent him careening into the sink, but at the last moment he managed to grab the doorframe.
The wreck behind the shower curtain inched out again, revealing ripped and stained clothes and huge, huge dark eyes. “Lancelot?”
“Oh, Jesus. Guin.” Things swam before his eyes again and Lancelot had to resteady himself a second time. By then, she’d gotten out of the tub and was tottering toward him, every bit of her shaking…and then she crumpled.
He just barely caught her. Then her fingers were knotting in his shirt and she was making little sobbing gasps into his neck, and Lancelot was trying to stroke her hair with his gunhand. Cursing, he shoved that thing away and shrugged off his coat, wrapping it about her. “Christ. What hap—never mind. Come on, stop…quiet, quiet. It’s…he’s not here.”
“Again. Again. Only it was worse this time…” She went too damned silent after that, but Gawain’s eyes looked about ready to pop out, and Lancelot had some fast decisions to make.
* * *
He ended up calling Arthur. As hooked up as Gawain was with the local police force, even he didn’t have enough strings by himself to get them out of the investigation and somewhere quiet. Not to mention that Lancelot didn’t really want to hear Guin explain to the police why the hell she had no injuries on her, and just a lot of blood. Not until he heard her explanation first.
She pulled herself together fast compared to everyone else, but frighteningly slow compared to her usual composure. And when Arthur showed up to start swinging his influence around, Guin took one look at him and nearly fainted on Lancelot. Even when she was stuffed to the gills with bourbon, she still hadn’t ever passed out on him. Across the room, on the seat next to him, yes, but not on him.
Gawain, Lancelot and Guin had agreed that the best story would be Guin had gone up with Ambrose with another girl, changed her mind about ending her date with him there and gotten into a fight. Taken a few slashes to the chest and been knocked out before she saw what happened to her friend; luckily, some of the sheets were missing so it could be assumed Ambrose had carried away the other “body” and hadn’t come back before Lancelot had shown up looking for his “girl.” In truth, Ambrose had probably used them to wrap up Excalibur.
“I called Tristan. Maybe Ambrose could hide out in the middle-class alleys before, but in the condition he’s in now, he’s got to head for the slums.” Gawain was trying to light his and Lancelot’s cigarettes, but his hands were still shaking too much.
Whereas Lancelot’s had long since worked out every last shake, and were unnaturally still. Though it did mean he could get their smokes lighted, so there was a silver lining to that, at least. He bent down and ducked inside Arthur’s car, where they had Guin bundled into a spare long coat of Arthur’s, and flicked the flame past the tip of her cigarette. “Watch your step. That bastard’s completely nuts—he thinks he can raise the dead with that sword. I’m not joking.”
“Even if you were, he still doesn’t mind swinging that thing around. That’s dangerous enough by itself.” Guin pulled the coat more tightly around herself and tucked her chin down, leaving only enough space for her smoke to drift out. She sounded rattled.
Well, of course she was fucking rattled. And so was Lancelot, and part of that was because he just wasn’t used to seeing Guin raw like this. It…in a way, he’d come to depend on her being a hard-nosed, competent bitch, and it hurt him to see that broken down.
“I’ll let Tristan know. And we’ll call the moment we get word.” The other man started to pivot away, then paused. “Er…”
Of the many things Lancelot was, a good nurse wasn’t one of them. Apparently, he was going to spend another night depending on Arthur…and goddamn it, why the hell was he looking forward to that?
Lancelot dug out his car keys and handed them to Gawain, swallowing hard against his idiocy. “Take care of my car, all right? And call…the hotel if it’s before 7 in the morning. After that, you’d better call the office. I’ll be there, anyway.”
For a second, the other man just stood there and jingled the keys in his hand, like he suspected he was dreaming. Then he clapped Lancelot on the shoulder and tipped his hat at Guin, who managed a hint of her old serene hauteur in her smile back. “Yeah. Take care of yourselves, too.”
Gawain left. Arthur was still inside, giving the inspectors and their superiors some uncompromising words in dark corners. So Lancelot got into the car and slid in beside Guin. After a moment, she let herself lean onto his shoulder so their respective exhales of smoke started to mingle together.
“You came after me,” she said, tone confused and questioning.
“You are listed on the license as my partner, even if your name isn’t on the door. Which was your decision, by the way.” Conversations like this always made Lancelot extremely uncomfortable, due to their usually leading up to a demand for some kind of vow. And he hated making vows. They were never worded to cover all situations and of course, the one situation requiring that he break them, however temporarily, almost always came up. If it were up to him, he’d just let the kind of feeling behind the vow hang in the air. Like smoke. It was there, it hung around, and it could shape itself into anything.
That was one reason he liked—okay, he did like her, despite all the name-calling—Guin. She seemed to get that.
Right now, she was looking up at him and smiling, like she knew something he didn’t. It unwound a few of the knots inside Lancelot, since that meant she was recovering. “You know, Lancelot? You’re not so much of a bastard as you want everyone to think.”
“Whatever you say, Guin. Personally, I don’t think we’d work nearly as well together if I wasn’t a bastard, and you weren’t a bitch.” He blew a long stream of gray at the windshield and watched it curl back on him. “We do work well together. When you fucking answer the phone and don’t go off on your own.”
“As if you don’t,” she snorted, finishing off her cigarette and tapping the ash out the window on her side. Then she handed him the butt, which he put out on his shoe-heel and tossed out the door. “You fucked him, didn’t you?”
Lancelot winced, then checked her face. Oddly enough, she didn’t seem to be jealous…well, not nearly as much as she should have been. And shit, he was going to have come up with an edited version of the cemetery fight when they got each other caught up on what they’d been doing. Arthur wasn’t even physically around, and he was still dumping complications into Lancelot’s life. “We didn’t get to fucking. Messed around a little.”
She snickered and leaned up to peck the corner of his reluctant grin, then resettled her head on his shoulder. When she spoke again, a few minutes later, she had turned strangely serious. “You shouldn’t mess with him. I…either it’s all or nothing. So says my womanly intuition.”
“Actually, my manly intuition agrees with you,” Lancelot confessed, voice slouching down with the rest of him. He drew one last drag before sending his cigarette the way of Guin’s. Then a thought flashed at him, and he craned his head to look her in the eye. “Which would you do?”
Guin raised her eyebrows. But he pointedly kept staring at her, which eventually made her duck her face into his chest. “If you must know…all. I have a…feeling.”
“Which are exceptionally dangerous things. Plus that’d involve sharing, and neither of us do that well.” Peripheral vision showed Arthur finally emerging from the boardinghouse, looking tired and resigned and almost bitter. It couldn’t be easy, watching one’s family end in a sordid mess like this. And fuck, but Lancelot still couldn’t get away from the thought of so many years. It was like a sore he couldn’t help prodding, morbidly wanting to see himself twitch.
“You’re terrible at talking yourself into or out of anything, Lancelot. Stick to what you know and just do.” Her eyes were fluttering shut, and her words were stretching sluggish and slurred.
Unwounded or not, she’d clearly had a hellish night. So Lancelot let her get away with the cop-out…for the moment. “But you’re going to have a lot of talking to do yourself when you wake up,” he grumbled, pulling her onto his lap so they’d both fit in the seat.
When Arthur got in, he seemed to be preoccupied with other thoughts and barely glanced at Lancelot and Guin. But then he stopped, hand on the door, and gave them a long, surprised stare.
“And how are our friendly law enforcement officers?” Lancelot queried, trying to snap the other man out of it.
Arthur startled, then pulled the door shut and started the car. His jaw had a grim line to it, and the way it silhouetted against the gray day at that moment did more than anything to finally convince Lancelot that his story was true. The man would’ve looked perfectly at home on a muddy battlefield, sword in hand and blood on his face.
That image was oddly vivid for Lancelot. He must have been watching too many sword-and-slash film epics.
“I told them the story you came up with and they’re using it. Some of them aren’t happy, but…the Pendragon name has some political capital that hasn’t yet been used up. And Ambrose still is one, even if he was thrown out.” They pulled out into the road just as the clouds ripped open to birth a vicious downpour. Peering through it, Arthur carefully maneuvered around the many police cars now clustered about the boardinghouse. The neighborhood was going to be whispering about this day for years and years to come—a modern-day legend, only without the polish of the old tales.
Lancelot happened to know the truth behind one of those. Now he had to figure out what the hell to do about it before any more disasters got dropped on his doorstep.