|Vice IV: Closing the Books
Author: Guede Mazaka
When they arrived at the hotel, Arthur showed them to a different room, which had a much larger bedchamber. Nevertheless, the number of beds were still one less than the number of people, which might have amused the hell out of a “sleeping” Guin, but which merely exacerbated Lancelot’s discomfort. He set Guin down on the nearest one and then got the hell out of there, making the excuse that he was going to grab a fresh pack of cigarettes from the lobby.
It wasn’t a complete lie. His holder did only have two left, and Lancelot did stop to get it refilled. But the real point of coming downstairs was to stand by a window and watch the rain splatter against the glass in a perfect echo of his thoughts. Pieces were falling in place, one by one, and while he still couldn’t see what the final shape of the conclusion was going to be, he could see enough of the shadow to want to close his eyes.
Arthur had scars, but had apparently stopped getting them after he found out he could resurrect. Guin had been covered in blood and visibly terrified; it took a hell of a lot to do that to her, but whatever it had been hadn’t left a mark on her. And like Arthur, Guin had to have Welsh blood. Among his many eccentricities, Merlin had a rabid nationalistic streak that was probably going to put back the cause of Wales several years. He and Guin never would’ve have a relationship from which to fall if she didn’t have that background.
Not to mention that one of Britain’s greatest legends had a bit more than a basis in fact.
“Goddamn names.” There was a frail little side-table by Lancelot’s hip, which probably cost a fortune and which would only take a minute to smash. He considered it for a long second before smashing the end of his cigarette into the ash tray the table had and going back upstairs. By that time, night had started to fall and there was no way in hell his excuse would hold up, but he didn’t give a damn.
The main room of the suite was empty, but Lancelot could hear low voices murmuring in the bedroom: Guin had woken up. He padded closer, and had just identified the words as Welsh—Arthur’s kind—when the other man swung open the door. Lancelot jumped, flushed and steadied himself. It was a pointed reminder that despite the camouflage Arthur currently inhabited, the man had survived far too long to be easily dismissed.
“Did you find your brand?” Arthur asked. Too damned considerate, no matter what the circumstances.
“Yeah.” Lancelot gritted his teeth and jerked his feet till he was inside the room.
Guin had also showered and changed into a silky robe, but she wasn’t playing up the sex-kitten factor. In fact, she looked a bit like a frightened little girl the way she was wrapped into the blankets, with only the shotglass of whiskey in her hand to dispel that image. But no amount of window-dressing could disguise the new degree of wariness in her eyes. Sometimes Lancelot could get her to admit she’d underestimated him, but he’d never before seen her watching him like she couldn’t meet him halfway.
Behind him, a soft click signaled the door shutting. He turned around to see that this time, Arthur had made his exit. “That man is entirely too polite.”
“He’s careful,” Guin corrected, pulling up her knees to her chest. She drained the remains of her whiskey, then stared at the half-melted ice in the glass. “More than he used to be.”
“I’d like to think that you’re referring to meeting him before. Say, at a society ball.” None of the chairs were in a great position, so Lancelot shucked his coat and threw it over the nearest. Then he dragged it to the side of the bed and sat down, propping his elbows on his knees. “What the hell are you, anyway? Illegitimate daughter of some lord?”
That got him an eye-roll and a cutting laugh, which was more like her. But the laugh trailed off into lip-chewing and fiddling with her glass. Guin flicked out her next words like she was scraping shit from her tongue. “Not quite. I’m Merlin’s niece.”
If she’d told him that four days ago, he would’ve thrown a fit and she would’ve yelled back, and it probably would’ve ended in a month of mutual cold-shouldering. But Lancelot had been through so much already that this revelation just seemed natural. “Oh, great.”
“He’s higher-born than a lot of people think.” She favored the shotglass with a sardonic smile. “Than they want to. He married me to a local smuggler he needed as an ally. At first, I was devoted and did as I was told in the name of Merlin’s cause, but my bastard of a husband was a violent drunk. So one night I ran him over. Which Merlin didn’t like.”
“I’m not sure which family is more insane—yours or Arthur’s,” Lancelot mumbled, rubbing at the side of his face. His bruises were starting to hurt again, and his stomach seemed determined to shrivel in on itself.
To be fair, Guin didn’t look much better even though she didn’t have any physical injuries. The skin under her eyes was drawn and waxen and swelling with shadows, and she kept drifting off into some memory. Then something would snap her back and her breath would do a little hitch, whereupon she would stare at Lancelot like she’d never seen him before.
“About Arthur…” she started.
“Merlin’s niece…so you were born now. I mean, not now, but in this century, anyway.” All of the constant shifts and new discoveries must have been grinding down harder on Lancelot than he’d thought, because his mind seemed to be working very slow the past few hours. After a second, he reached out and took the glass from Guin, then shoved it against his temple. That helped a hell of a lot. “But…what happened back there? Just tell me straight.”
He could tell there was a protest banging against her teeth, but Guin pressed her lips thin and kept it in. Though she put finger-combing her hair and teasing a few waves to lie sweetly on her shoulders before talking. It figured that her way of bracing up was to make herself look pretty.
“I tracked down Ambrose—I take it you know how. When I got there, he was out, so I looked for the sword. He came back before I realized and…well, I took his eye. He’ll have problems having more children, too.” Her finger twitched into a sharp hook-claw-twist, then curled back with the others on top of the blankets. She lifted her chin so he could see a trace of eerie satisfaction go through her eyes, then looked back at him. “Some of that blood was his. But the rest was mine—he doesn’t know how to use that sword. Not properly.”
“What would you know about swordplay?” As soon as Lancelot asked that question, he could feel the world start to quietly unravel around him. Although he didn’t know exactly what she was going to say, he knew that it was going to fuck around with his head just like everything else.
She knew it, too. And she did look sorry, but in an annoyed, slightly condescending way, like he wasn’t keeping pace with her. Well, Guin was back and fuck her for it, because Lancelot was doing the best he could with the little scraps of information he got.
“I’m Guinevere. The real one. I was Arthur’s wife, and the Pendragons are descended from our son. I died back there and remembered when I came back.” Just like Arthur, she got it all out without even blinking, let alone showing any expression. When Lancelot thought about it later, he figured that that had been the deciding factor for making him believe her.
But at the time, it was another hack at his sanity that he couldn’t immediately absorb. He retreated into the safer territory of briefly filling in Guin about his side of the investigation, and then he excused himself to go have another smoke.
* * *
The balcony was a nice one. Wide, long, with only a potted plant in the corner so Lancelot didn’t run the danger of tripping over anything while he was pacing. It was also on a high enough floor that he could tap off the ash of his cigarette over the railing without anyone noticing. Maybe a few people down below wondered why there were gray snowflakes falling, but it was London, after all. Filthy city.
Even up here, the puddles of water left over from the earlier shower looked dingy and off-color, for all that they were lying on expensive Italian tiling. And they were fucking slippery—
--a hand grabbed Lancelot’s arm and pulled him back on his feet. Then Arthur stepped the rest of the way through the door and came to stand next to Lancelot, who angrily shrugged off the other man’s hand. He didn’t have to look to know that more or less slapped Arthur across the face, and he didn’t have to think about why that would bring to life even the ghost of regret in himself. He could just stand here, smoke like the irritated, confused son of a bitch he was and try to outthink a wounded and crazed man with a fifth-century A. D. broadsword. Work was about the only thing that was still making any kind of sense, and Lancelot was going to get that taken care of, closed and taped if it was the only thing he did. He had a reputation as London’s top private investigator to maintain, after all.
“Are you all right?” Arthur asked, softly like someone might overhear.
“Why the hell are you asking me that? Shouldn’t you be having a happy reunion with your wife?” The naked jealousy in Lancelot’s voice made him want to cringe, because of all the worries he had, that should’ve been the least important. Except…goddamn it, he never knew when to leave well enough alone. Always had to stick his head all the way in.
That prompted a short laugh from him, but he sounded hollow and bitter, and it didn’t do a damn thing to help his disgusted feeling.
“Guinevere and I have already talked.” Curiously enough, the other man didn’t seem all that excited about having his wife finally recognize him. And, apparently, get a share of whatever exemption deal Arthur had with death. It looked like the deep love the legend versions of them had wasn’t the reality.
Either that or Arthur was happy, but was too busy worrying about something else to show it. Like how Lancelot was taking the introduction of not only immortality, but…but fucking reincarnation as well. Because Guin—or her body, anyway—was definitely not fifteen hundred years old. “Yeah? Good for you.”
“I told her you already knew about me.” Arthur shuffled his feet, struggling to say something that would make a decent segue into conversation. As opposed to what they were currently doing, which was standing two inches apart and taking turns spitting lame little statements into the freezing air. “The story is nothing like what it was like.”
“I can imagine.” Lancelot dug into his pocket for another cigarette, but in keeping with the tone of the previous couple of days, he’d left them inside. He did have his lighter with him, so he managed to burn a few seconds of strained silence by flicking the flame on and off. “We’ve still got people who marry for reasons that have nothing to do with love, or even a good screw now and then.”
The other man made a sound like the mongrel bastard of a sigh and a growl; so there was a limit to Arthur’s patience, after all. And Lancelot had been beginning to think that unnaturally long lifespans came with free saint complexes as well. “I did—do love Guinevere. But the circumstances of our marriage didn’t allow us to really grow comfortable around each other. We cared for each other, but we both had…prior loyalties that put up barriers. And she died only a few years—childbirth was much more dangerous then.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Which was genuine, because Lancelot was sneaking glances at Arthur and could see that even after so long, that event was still a sore point with the other man. With everything that had happened, Lancelot still couldn’t disentangle himself from Arthur—hell, he couldn’t even figure out how he’d gotten tied into the other man in the first place.
When he’d been younger and stupid—all right, more stupid—there had been a small hill near where he’d lived, and a road running over it. The road had been graded into a slope so perfect that anyone going down it for the first time assumed it was the nice, gentle descent it appeared. Halfway, once the acceleration really started to pick up, they’d realize the truth and slam on the brakes, but by then it was usually too late. Lancelot had lost count of how many accidents he’d seen on that one little stretch of road.
This case was exactly like that, with one slight difference. He wasn’t certain he wanted brakes.
Eventually he stopped playing with the lighter and put that away, then turned to look Arthur in the eye. “What’s your real name? Your first one?”
“Artorius Castus,” Arthur answered, expression curious and wary at the same time. “The Wo—Britons changed it to Arthur. My mother was British, but my father was a foreign mercenary for the Romans.”
“You stuck with the same name.” Either that crack about his family’s lack of imagination was actually the truth, or Arthur was just extremely devoted to certain aspects of his life.
But the other man shook his head and tucked his hands in his pockets, staring off to the side. That faint air of broken disappointment was gracing his face again. “Not for the whole time. Before now, I actually hadn’t used ‘Arthur’ in a long time. It’s not all that pleasant, hearing stories glorifying the wrong parts and dropping or distorting the right ones.”
“Well, no one ever said legends were supposed to be front-page exposés. You tell people the truth, they just try to kill you.” If he had to, Lancelot could back up that claim with firsthand experiences. “Arthur? Who the hell did I fuck last night? You or the story?”
“Me,” the other man promptly said, startled and puzzled.
Nodding, Lancelot stretched out his arms till the cramps in them popped away, each one a brief bubble of pain. But afterward, his muscles were relaxed and relatively less sore. “And who did you fuck? Me, or someone I remind you of?”
This time, Arthur didn’t answer so quickly. Good for him, because if he’d had a reply to a question like that ready on the tip of his tongue, Lancelot would have written him off then and there.
“Whoever I met three days ago in your office.” Deprecating suited Arthur slightly better than depressed, but both expressions still nagged at Lancelot. “I won’t say I’ve been faithful while Guinevere was dead, but I do usually take much longer to get to know someone. I don’t even know how you like your coffee.”
“One lash of cream, three sugars.” Lancelot stared at the second button on Arthur’s shirt and repeated to himself all the usual reasons why screwing clients was a bad idea, then added on the fact that he’d die on Arthur. And that his life expectancy wasn’t even looking to be a full one, given that Ambrose was running free around London, and that…Merlin had been very quiet, attempted arson at Galahad’s auction house aside. Too fucking quiet.
After about a minute, he was staring at his hands, which had come up to hold onto Arthur’s collar. And then he wasn’t staring at all because his eyes were closed and he was kissing Arthur like all he wanted to do was stand there and keep breathing with the other man. Which wasn’t too far off the mark, in fact.
Neither of them, however, were idiots, so they went inside. Arthur pulled the curtains across the balcony door while Lancelot was pulling the man’s shirt-tails out of his trousers, and then he backed Lancelot up against the wall.
There was a heavy brass fixture about four inches left and two inches above Lancelot’s head. When that first fraction of prick stretch-burned inside him, his flailing hand knocked against the lamp, then wrapped around it. His other hand was pressing its bandages into the sweat starting to leak from Arthur’s hairline, fingers curled about the back of Arthur’s neck so that every time a thrust rocked him up the wall, he could pull Arthur after him. Slide back down into a ragged kiss, lips mismatching and teeth ripping open day-old little scabs.
It hurt. His scrapes seared every time the friction of their bodies rubbed stinging saltwater into them. His insides hadn’t felt this in a hell of a long time, and they were squeezing raw everything he felt, whether it was painful or not. The bruises under his chin got nipped a few times by accident, but then Arthur was licking a smooth, soft apology all over them. That got trailed to Lancelot’s neck, which was completely open to the other man because Lancelot had his eyes turned upwards so the sweat wouldn’t run into his eyes. He assumed it was sweat, anyway. There wasn’t any time or energy to spare to tell the difference.
Not that Arthur got off easy. The man wasn’t going to wake up with dark reddish to purple marks all over him in the morning, and that irked Lancelot into being a lot rougher than normal. His nails let tracks crisscrossing Arthur’s back, as if he could add anything to the scarring already there, and his knees and elbows and heels of hands hit at Arthur, urging the man on whenever he slowed, till blue-black started to rise beneath Arthur’s skin.
But in the end, Lancelot had to wrap himself around the other man and just press and hold till the shaking was over, till he not only thought he could stand on his own, but thought that he could make himself do it.
* * *
The shower was off the bedroom. Guin was a dark lump on the bed, but Lancelot knew better than to just take her at face value. The only reason he didn’t say anything was because he wanted to see how Arthur would act.
Arthur didn’t say anything, either. Hair still damp, he sat down on the edge of the bed and tentatively put a hand on the curve that was Guin’s hip, then leaned over and murmured something Lancelot couldn’t hear. Even if he’d been able to, he had a feeling it wouldn’t have been in a language he understood.
He’d counted to five when Guin turned over and put out an arm, drawing Arthur down to the bed. When he’d reached fifteen, Lancelot gave up on pretending that standing around and gawking could constitute composure and came over himself. Then he slowly allowed himself to be curled against Arthur’s front. God knew how it was supposed to work out, but for the moment, he didn’t feel up to asking any pointed questions about it.
* * *
According to the clock on the bedside table, two hours had passed when Lancelot jerked awake. He instantly put a hand to Arthur’s arm, but the other man was still asleep. Good thing, because a second later the phone emitted a fraction of a shrill and Lancelot snatched it up.
Guin’s eyes opened and she raised her head, but Arthur’s eyes remained closed and his breathing even. Slightly relieved, Lancelot carefully wormed out of the other man’s arms and off the bed so he could kneel on the floor. “Hello?”
*Lancelot? Tristan. Dagonet rang up five minutes ago. He said Ambrose just went through the Dragon’s Mouth into Whitechapel, Excalibur under his arm for everyone to see, and no one stopped him. I’m waiting outside the alley.*
“Shit.” Lancelot kept the rest of his cursing in his head and dragged his trousers off the chair. He snaked them on as quietly as he could, then looked at Guin. “Ambrose. Merlin. Meeting,” he mouthed.
She sat up fast, but like him, made certain not to disturb Arthur. “Are they making a deal?” she whispered.
“Tristan, thanks. I’ll be down there in twenty minutes. Try and get anyone that’s awake.” Then Lancelot gingerly set the phone down and came over to Guin’s side of the bed while he buttoned his shirt and vest. “I don’t know. You tell me.”
Guin caught her lower lip between her teeth, but didn’t chew it because some conclusion came together in her eyes before that old habit could kick in. While she was busy whipping it into shape, Lancelot buckled on his shoulder-holster and slid on his coat. He couldn’t remember where his hat had been and there wasn’t time to look, so he just wrote it off. It could keep his lost tie company in Arthur’s hotel room…and he should tack on those to the bill. God knew he’d ruined more pieces of clothing on this job than on any other he’d had in a while.
“Ambrose thinks the sword should do it, but he didn’t. So maybe he thinks he didn’t do something right, and maybe Merlin let it be known that he alone has the secret to how to make it work. That would be like him,” she finally suggested, though her tone of voice made it obvious she thought that was the correct theory.
Frankly, Lancelot did as well. It sounded like human nature to him. “All right. I’m going and I’m settling this.”
“What about…” She threw a pointed look over her shoulder. Just then, Arthur stirred and they both froze, but the other man resettled himself and resumed his slow, steady breathing.
Good question. It put Lancelot back on his heels for a moment, which he absently used to check how many bullets he still had left. Not many, but Tristan should have some, and if Gawain came in Lancelot’s car, there would be the shotgun.
Watching Arthur being shot was arguably when it all shifted to uncontrolled freefall, but of all the memorable moments of this case, that one wasn’t one Lancelot had thought on very which. In fact, it could be said that he’d avoided thinking about it by concentrating on what it’d consequently revealed. Because he had believed Arthur dead and even though they’d barely known each other, Lancelot had felt the world wash away.
He now knew the other man would survive, but maybe Lancelot still didn’t feel easy about trusting in that. And maybe it was a little too late, but he wanted to keep the facets of Arthur the client and Arthur the…Arthur separate. Things were so snarled in each other that if Lancelot didn’t start unraveling a few threads, he was never going to be free of uncertainty—not knowing what was responsible for what.
“Be around when he wakes up, all right?” Lancelot petted Guin’s hair, which was loose and mussed in a fine silky veil that, at this moment, looked far more attractive than she had ever had when every single hair was gelled in place. Then he grinned and pecked her on the forehead, because it was ever-so-slightly condescending and he knew it would annoy her as much as it…well, touched her. Guin wasn’t quite as cold as she let on.
She also wasn’t about to let him go without a better answer than that; Guin snatched his wrist and tugged him back. “What are you doing? Are you—he loves you.”
He pretended he hadn’t heard the second half and addressed the first. “I’m wrapping things up. I’ve had enough. And…from the sound of things, he’s had more than. Let him sleep.”
“I never knew you had an altruistic side,” Guin snorted. Her fingers loosened a little, but not enough for him to pull away.
“I don’t. Believe me, this is entirely for my own reasons.” A glance at the clock told Lancelot he was going to have to floor it once he got to the car. Shit. “You were his wife? Well, you’re my fucking partner, too. So act like it. Let go.”
Guin narrowed her eyes and swept her gaze through all his layers, deeper than he’d ever let her look before. And when she was done, she let go. He might have glimpsed wet silver gleaming beneath her lashes, but it was Guin, so he doubted it.
* * *
Thanks to some short-cuts, Lancelot made to the Dragon’s Mouth with half a minute to spare. There he found Tristan and Gawain, who tossed him his shotgun, and a sullen-looking Galahad. And, to his surprise, Dag shadowing Vivien, while beside them, Bors let out a gargantuan belch.
Gawain sighed and spread out his hands palms-up, indicating his surrender to the nonsensicalness of it all. “Turns out Dag’s been bringing Vivien meals the past few days. She’s the one that actually saw Ambrose go in.”
“Well, well. Crime makes strange bedfellows,” Lancelot wryly remarked, shouldering the shotgun. He peeked into the alley, which to his surprise was completely deserted.
“Merlin’s had everyone gathered for the show,” Vivien murmured, wrapping what looked like Dag’s coat more tightly around herself. Sometime between the last time he’d seen her and now, she’d also gotten herself a shower and a haircut, so now she looked less like a harmless crazed lady and more like a dangerous crazed one. “And it’s war.”
Lancelot rolled his eyes and started off towards the heart of Whitechapel. “Same thing, only on different scales. All right, the sword is mine. Ambrose is dead one way or the other, and so’s Merlin. Everyone stay out of it unless they have to, and guard the outside while I go in. Vivien, show where to, but you get in my way and I might forget I’m supposed to be nice to women.”
As they crossed the invisible threshold that marked the border, Gawain caught up with Lancelot, looking worried. “How’s Guin?”
“Fine. She’s taking the night off. Needs her beauty sleep, you know.” In agreement with what Vivien had said, the streets of Whitechapel were strangely deserted, considering the place did the vast majority of its business between dusk and dawn.
The other man had to jog a bit to keep pace with Lancelot. His expression still had something chewing at its ankle. “I thought your usual M. O. was to make an arrest.”
“Yeah, well, I suppose you could say this has gotten too personal. Hell, you could even call it my swan song, except I’m not planning on dying.” Just taking, at the very least, a long break from work afterwards, because Lancelot had a lot of other things to figure out. Not to mention that whatever Arthur’s motives had been, he’d still fucked up Lancelot for the kind of cool detachment investigatory work required.
Oddly enough, Lancelot wasn’t too angry about that. But then, he wasn’t in the proper state of mind for making judgments.
Vivien led them to an old Victorian tenement with windows blazing and many, many shapes moving behind the windows. According to her, there was a sizable vacant lot behind, and that was where Merlin had called everyone. He was going to speak from one of the narrow iron balconies.
Tristan peeled off before they even saw the building, but he knew what he was doing, even if no one else did. After a second, Gawain waved Galahad over and they both followed. Bors took up a post outside the main door in case one of their two targets fled that way, while Dag settled himself at the side. He gave Vivien a long, thoughtful look as she ushered Lancelot away to a back entrance.
“Looks like you have an admirer,” Lancelot muttered. The back door turned out to be a skeleton staircase barely wide enough for them to squeeze through, and as it was, the sharp iron rails ripped his coat a few times. There went another suit.
“No. He only understands that what needs to be done needs to be done.” She shot him a smile that was sharper than the rails. “When you know that, then you know how to wait.”
He rolled his eyes, but refrained from replying because now they were inside and he could hear footsteps moving around nearby.
For once, Vivien was useful without Lancelot having to prod and cajole her into it. She took him by the arm, hawk-grip digging broken nails through his sleeve, and tugged him from shadow to shadow, quickly leading him deep into the building without a single person seeing them.
They finally stopped on the fifth floor in a sepia-stained hallway that stank of vomit and rot. Some dog had whelped in the corner and no one had bothered to clean up the afterbirth, which by now had grown green and pus-filled and thoroughly disgusting. He quickly turned away, but Vivien spent a damnably long moment staring at the putrid thing.
“I told him,” she whispered, the way a snake might. “He’s old. He forgets what he’s learned and believes he can change everything. But it’s all moved past him now, ahead of him. The world isn’t his.”
“Damned right. So where…” Lancelot stopped and cocked his head, straining to hear. Someone was screaming. A man, in terrible pain. And it didn’t sound all too different from when Ambrose had been screaming over his son’s grave. “Ah. That way…”
Vivien had disappeared. Fucking women. But at least he’d been aware enough to notice that all the floors were laid out in the same pattern, so he’d be able to get out on his own afterward. Suppressing his frustration, Lancelot cocked the shotgun and silently walked toward the muffled groans.
* * *
For the second it took Lancelot’s eyes to adjust to the gore, he felt sorry for Ambrose. But then he remembered what Guin had been careful not to say, though her hands still hadn’t lost their tremble, and he crossed the man off his sympathy list. Looked like Merlin had been horrific to Ambrose, but no one could say the man didn’t walk into it of his own free will.
The other man was chained down to the metal skeleton of a bedframe and stripped to the waist. Deep cuts wrote weird symbols into his skin and dripped blood onto the floor, so they resembled drooling red mouths. For the moment, it looked like they’d stopped whatever the hell they’d been doing.
Correction: that he’d stopped. Because only one other man was in the room. He was about an inch taller than Lancelot, with a burly build and eerie blue tattoos stretching from his hands up his arms and down his back. His beard and hair were matted red, and it looked as if he’d been fingerpainting his face with Ambrose’s blood as well. It had to be Merlin.
He was currently squatting on the floor, hunched over a bowl of water into which he was flicking droplets of blood from his fingers. And something long and silvery was lying beside him, but Lancelot couldn’t see more than that because the door was in the way.
A quick glance down the hall showed that so far, no one else was around. Maybe someone was in the bathroom inside the room, but with these cramped apartments, there couldn’t be that many people. Lancelot took a deep, soundless breath, and then banged open the door with the shotgun, which he leveled unhesitatingly at Merlin’s heart.
Contrary to expectations, the other man didn’t even flinch. That worried Lancelot, but what really turned his blood cold was how Merlin slowly pivoted an unblinking, unfocused gaze on him. Seeing that kind of look from Vivien was bad enough, and she wasn’t dangerous to him. Whereas Merlin…
…was speaking. “You’ve come for the sword.”
“Yeah.” Very slowly, Lancelot crouched down and walked his free fingers across the floor to the sword hilt. As creepy as it was, he didn’t take his eyes from Merlin’s stone stare as he curled his hand around the handle. “Sorry. Nothing personal; just business.”
“You’re stealing the nation of Britain and you don’t believe it’s personal?” Merlin suddenly jerked up and Lancelot froze, snapping the trigger almost all the way back. It would’ve been grand to kill the fuck right here, but the shot would bring too many of the man’s minions running.
Ambrose appeared to have passed out. One thing in Lancelot’s favor, since it meant that his already-raw nerves weren’t rasped any more by the man’s groaning.
He didn’t bother answering Merlin’s question because it sounded like the rhetoric the cornerstone firebreathers used. Instead, Lancelot quietly lifted the sword off the ground and started to edge out of the door.
“That sword protects this land,” Merlin went on, rocking back on his heels. He’d downshifted his tone from righteous to pedantic, lecturing like some old crank in university robes, and for a few moments, it looked like he was going to sink too far into his insanity to stop Lancelot. “It is the symbol of kingship, which was supposedly lost to the waters, hence our presumed supremacy at sea. But in truth, it was never thrown to the lake. And it still rules over the land.”
All that property Arthur had mentioned, Lancelot recalled. Maybe that was Merlin’s crazed way of referring to it; God knew the Welsh basketcase was always maneuvering to expand his territory.
And said basketcase suddenly slammed his palms down against the floor, creating a huge hollow boom. “Usurper!”
Over the dying echoes of the noise, Lancelot heard footsteps just in time. He whirled about to see someone drawing a bead on him at the end of the hall. Got the shotgun up in time to blow off his head, but he had to drop Excalibur to do it. Something blurry blue and dark brown rammed out of the room and into his leg, sending him sideways against the wall.
Goddamn it, Merlin was fast for an old bastard. He also had the sword now, and was swinging it in direct line for Lancelot’s neck.
Lancelot brought the shotgun up and just parried it, wincing as the sparks struck by the two weapons showered into his face. Then he tried to duck past the other man, like he’d done with Ambrose, but unlike that son of a bitch, Merlin actually knew how to use a broadsword. And he was hammering down on Lancelot too fast and too hard for Lancelot to have the time or space to shoot him.
“It’s not yours to take!” The sword whined and came down into the floor, just a second from slicing off Lancelot’s foot.
“And it’s not your sword, either.” That over-strong swing gave Lancelot a moment’s window to step up and whack Merlin in the face with the shotgun butt. So he did, and the other man stumbled back but didn’t fall. It figured that the most insane would also be the toughest. “Look, if you’re after the property, they sure as hell aren’t going to turn it over to a nutcase like you. You aren’t even of the right family. And if it’s some kind of sick magic, then that won’t work, either.”
Merlin’s eyebrows jumped and wriggled like he was trying to bespell Lancelot with those alone. Notably enough, he didn’t rely only on that to knock away the shotgun when Lancelot tried to raise it again. “You don’t know anything.”
Well, fine. If he had to, Lancelot could shoot the bastard to death by pieces. Not that he was one for torture, but Merlin was getting him fucking riled, and he couldn’t see any other way to slow the man down. So he pulled the trigger and sent a double load of shot into Merlin’s left knee and thigh.
The other man screamed like a wildcat and fell against the wall, sword clattering from his hand. Lancelot wasn’t carrying any extra shot for the shotgun, so he tossed it aside and drew his pistol, leveling it at Merlin. Then he bent down and reached for the sword. “Maybe I don’t know as much as everyone, but I know people. That’s better than most.”
His fingers had just touched the hilt when an ear-shattering cacophony started up in the room. And then, to top off the impossibilities that had been mounting up in Lancelot’s life, Ambrose swung out of the doorway with broken handcuff chains dangling and a mad-dog glare in his eyes. “That’s mine!”
“Fuck—” At the last moment, Lancelot whipped about to shoot Ambrose instead of Merlin, but by then the other man had picked up too much speed rushing down the hall. And the window was only a foot away from Lancelot.
White-hot pain sliced through Lancelot’s back, but only for a moment because after that, he was freefalling. It was night now, and as usual, the sky was so clouded that there wasn’t even a hint of starlight.
Arthur was calling.
So was the grou—
* * *
Thank fucking God Ambrose landed on a nearby car instead of on top of Lancelot, because that would’ve made things even worse. As it was, it was nastier than any migraine or hang-over he’d ever had.
He took a moment to just lie there on the hard concrete sidewalk and the glass shards, staring upwards and recalling. Rearranging a few things in his mind. Then he slowly rolled to his feet—sparked a hell of a lot of pain—and, yanking out glass bits from his back, walked over to the car.
Ambrose was still twitching. From the looks of things, he’d broken his back so that wasn’t going to last much longer. He was mouthing two names over and over: one was Elaine, and the other was a boy’s name.
The son of a bitch had hacked Guin to death, so it was a real shame to waste a bullet on him, but Lancelot could only manage one step before he had to turn back. With a sigh, he cocked his gun—which somehow was still in his hand—and shot the other man in the temple. Then he took off for the tenement stairs, first at a fast walk and then at a dead run. Once he was on the stairs, he leaped them in twos and threes, then skidded back into that fifth-floor hallway as fast as he could.
It hadn’t been more than a few minutes. Merlin was still leaning against the wall, though he’d pushed himself up by using Excalibur as a cane. Guin was holding a pistol on him, eyes raging behind a surprisingly thick veil of tears, and Arthur was standing beside her. His hair was disheveled, his clothes haphazardly thrown on, and his face had completely drained of any blood. Not to mention any feeling. “Give me the sword,” Arthur whispered, stepping forward.
Startled, Guin gave him a worried look, but she didn’t stop him.
Come to think of it, Merlin was finally looking like he wanted to shit in his pants. His fingers convulsed tighter on Excalibur, then started to loosen.
“Give. Me. The. Sword.” Arthur looked like he was ready to kill with his bare hands.
For the first time, Merlin breathed loud enough for Lancelot to hear him. “I need it more than you do. I need it to preserve my work. I need what it means.”
“It doesn’t mean anything! It’s only a sword!” Arthur snarled.
Something audibly snapped. Lancelot knew very well how never having anyone listen would irritate the hell out of a man, but that still didn’t make lunging at a man with a sword any more sensible. Swearing in a few more languages than before, he dove for Arthur.
But someone else got there first: Vivien, coming out of nowhere just in time to have the tip of Excalibur sink an inch into her breast. Everyone froze—and even Merlin looked horrified, for some reason.
Except for Vivien, who was disturbingly satisfied. While her former lover watched her, transfixed like a mouse before a cat, she grabbed the blade and heaved herself till the sword tip came out her back. Then she slumped onto Merlin, who awkwardly put out an arm to support her. “I told you. I’d follow you forever for what you did to Morgan. And you’ll die, and you’ll stay with me.”
Her lips curled back in a wide, wide smile that let the blood bubble freely from her mouth, and her head slowly tilted back. With an oath, Merlin dropped her and threw himself backwards. But her hand was still clutched around his wrist, so that the dead weight of her body brought him to the ground.
Arthur didn’t hesitate. In one smooth motion, he yanked Excalibur out of Vivien’s chest and whirled it up, then brought it down on Merlin’s neck. The onetime ruler of Whitechapel’s head rolled a little way down the hall before coming to rest by the rotting dog’s placenta.
And then the other man seemed to collapse, going to his knees with head bowed. His shoulders gave two ragged heaves. “My God, why did I bother, if it was only going to happen again?”
* * *
Two lifetimes jumbled together in Lancelot’s head, then interleaved into each other. Not easily, and not gently, but they settled down enough for him to think. “Why the hell did you?”
The other man whipped around to show eyes that wanted to swallow the world. Beside him, Guin lowered her gun and took an uncertain step forward before stopping. Well, it was weird.
“You and I actually get along this time round,” Lancelot muttered, gesturing between her and him. He walked up till he was less than a yard from them and halted, shoving his hands in his pockets because he didn’t know what else to do with them. Everything had turned upside-down and shaken him hard, and he still hadn’t recovered enough to figure out what he was supposed to hold on to.
“We…do. I think that shocked me almost as badly as dying.” After a moment, Guin put away the gun altogether and laid a hand on Arthur’s shoulder, pulling him up.
Lancelot blinked. “I’m not speaking in English. Well, now I am, but a moment ago…God, this hurts my head. What the hell…how did…”
Amusingly enough, she actually looked a little embarrassed. Then her composure clicked back down and Guin shrugged, holding up her hands. She flexed the fingers and curled them the way she would if she were using a bow. “He was still mourning you when I died—back then. I thought after I went, he might not be able to…so I told him to wait for us. To take care of my son. Though this outcome wasn’t exactly what I was expecting…”
“You. Told him. And somehow, that worked?” It was nice to know his skepticism was a constant factor in his life.
“It wasn’t the same world,” Arthur said, dropping his gaze from Lancelot to the sword he still held. He took out a handkerchief and absently began wiping off the blood, and that little gesture nearly pulled the carpet out from under Lancelot because he could remember. It really, really fucking hurt. “People believed differently. Not like now, where even the strongest belief can be questioned. Then, a belief was truth. Magic could be real.”
Which part of Lancelot agreed with, no problem, but he wasn’t going to let things go that easily. “And what about right now? Me and Guin?”
“I don’t care. I don’t want to know.” The other man snapped his eyes up to burn shivers into Lancelot, while he lowered his arm so Excalibur hung loosely at his side. “That was then. This is now, where I’m only a man and not a king, and this is only a sword, though it’s still a sharp one.”
“Only an idiot,” Lancelot muttered, shuffling the rest of the way. He couldn’t look Arthur directly in the eye because of the brightness there, so he watched Arthur’s feet. One last burst of aggravation fisted his hands in Arthur’s shirt, and Lancelot gave him a shake. “Fifteen hundred years, just because Guin promised you…oh, my God. Arthur. You…you…”
Then he had to stop talking, because if he kept on like he was, he was going to seriously embarrass himself. Arthur let him. The jackass—Lancelot reared back and dragged the man down into as long a kiss as he could manage.
* * *
It was freezing and foggy, and Lancelot didn’t really understand why he and Guin were on this damned bridge, pretending that smoking was enough to keep them warm and waiting for Arthur. He stamped his feet and flipped up his collar, then cursed those for useless efforts. No matter what he did, the wind managed to sneak in somewhere.
“Stop that. It’s only a few minutes longer.” Guin could talk, since she had herself a nice shelter, tucked away as she was behind a pillar.
“So you say.” He shot her a nasty look, then stepped back and started to worm himself in next to her. Of course, she didn’t let that go without a few smacks, but she was wearing thick gloves, so those didn’t hurt as much as they usually would’ve. “Hey. What were you expecting, anyway?”
Instead of answering right away, she studied him for a few minutes. Probably trying to decide whether he was making a lead-in to a squabble or being serious. He was actually attempting to get a straight answer from her, so he smoothed out his face as best he could.
“More in-fighting, I suppose. Back then, I threw you into the deal because I had to. Mostly.” She plucked her cigarette from her lips and blew a few rings to watch them dissolve in the mists. “He did need you. And for the longest time, I couldn’t decide whether I hated you for that, or liked you—because if he hadn’t needed you, then I never would have had a chance. Or hell, even admired you. But there wasn’t enough time, and in the end, I was just tired and afraid for him and dying.”
The creaking and clanking of a boat passing nearby briefly silenced their conversation. Lancelot absentmindedly glanced over the rail, spending a few moments looking for a sign of it. But he gave up pretty fast; he didn’t need to see it to know it was out there, so why waste the effort?
Anyway, some things were better if not looked at directly. Like Whitechapel in general. Arthur had asked for details about what had happened that night, but even after pooling their knowledge, Lancelot and Guin still couldn’t figure out the whole story. It was likely that the only people to know what was going to Merlin’s mind—and Vivien’s—were dead. If not, then they’d long since melted into the kind of anonymity that even the best private eye couldn’t penetrate. That part of town was just a mystery; no one person ever was truly sure of himself while within its boundaries.
“I like it better now. Everything went wrong then,” Guin suddenly said. She turned to curve against Lancelot’s side, tucking herself under his arm. Yeah, it took advantage of his body heat, but he got some of hers in return, so it wasn’t quite an unequal sharing. “We wore ourselves out on the wrong battlefields. Not so much now.”
“Not so much?” Lancelot repeated, sucking on his cigarette. He half-closed his eyes against the new flood of relaxing prickles sluicing into his blood and slouched against the pillar. Having indoor plumbing and coffee and smokes definitely improved the quality of life.
A soft snort ghosted just under his chin as Guin turned a condescending smirk up at him. “Still a little, because of you. Arthur never cared about his sword nearly as much as he did you. I told you—he loves you. He didn’t need you to go after Excalibur that last time.”
“Well, I needed to go after it.” He took one last hit off the butt before smashing it out on the railing, then flicking it over the side. “Jesus. He’s still carrying my swords around with him.”
“It’s all he had of you. If he wanted to see me, he only had to go visit our descendents.” Guin grinned and nipped playfully at his jaw, which was still a bit sore from Ambrose’s shoe. Bitch. “And I know you had to. That’s why I let you go. And that’s why I woke up Arthur after you left.”
Lancelot rolled his eyes and finally allowed his own smile to come out. “It’s so nice to know where your loyalties lie.”
“I’m not losing this time.” Goddamn it, she had sharp elbows.
Fortunately, a car pulled up just then and distracted them. A few minutes later, Arthur emerged from the fog, a satisfied expression on his face and a long bundle beneath his arm. “About time someone updated those contracts. But that’s all settled now.”
He went past Lancelot to the railing, on which he set the package while he unwrapped it. When a familiar length of steel emerged from the cloth, Lancelot wasn’t particularly surprised. He was, however, startled when Arthur swung Excalibur out over the rail and looked as if he was going to drop the thing.
“What are you doing?” Before the other man could, Lancelot pushed off the pillar and grabbed his arm. A quick check of Arthur’s eyes showed that the man was sober and apparently sane. And hell, even a little laughing, because Lancelot now had caught up with the other two, and he was still a little behind. Which annoyed him a fucking lot, since he was the detective.
But it didn’t take too long for that glint to disappear into seriousness, as usual. Arthur pressed his lips together and pulled the sword back in, laying it flat across his hands. His expression as he looked at it was a bit peculiar, like he was about to…well, deep-six a weighty bit of history.
“This served me well in its time,” he said in a quiet tone, studying the slight gleam on the blade. “But it’s caused more trouble and bloodshed than good lately. And I don’t need it now.”
“Self-fulfilling prophecy?” Not that Lancelot actually knew whether that was the right phrase or not, but it sounded right. Anyway, Guin wasn’t laughing at him, so it couldn’t be too far off the mark.
The other man lifted and dropped a shoulder, sliding one hand down to finger the hilt. “I would have done anything to save you.” His voice had dropped even lower, so Lancelot had to practically mold himself to Arthur to hear. It’d also slid into a language that wasn’t English or Welsh or Briton at all. “But I couldn’t. So I believed in what Guin said and waited. And…three years after she died, I was cut down in a skirmish. But I came back. Then I thought it was the sword, because they’d buried it with me.”
“They buried you?” Guin exclaimed, coming up to them.
“I suppose I should be happy they didn’t burn me.” Arthur turned to drop a kiss on the top of her head. “But decades passed, and it was too much. So I went to war and I left this at home. You’ll note I failed to stay dead.”
Lancelot tightened his grip on Arthur’s arm. “I note that you’re still the same suffering moron you always were.”
That got him a smile pressed into his cheek. Then Arthur turned back to the mists and the water below, and stretched out his arms so he held the sword far beyond the rail. “Let the rest of the world have the legend. I’m not it.”
It tumbled down tip over hilt, a glittering, gleaming arc-whirl of silver. And for a moment, Lancelot almost thought he saw a burst of light rise to meet it.
Great. Now his eyes were freezing and playing tricks on him. He pulled Arthur’s arm back in, then let his hand glide down the other man’s arm to wrap around icy fingers; the idiot had forgotten gloves. “Well, I’ll hope you understand when I say I’d like to hang onto mine a little longer.”
“Why? A shotgun’s much more useful and more easy to hide,” Guin objected, but she wasn’t trying too hard. She shivered, then snuggled into the open flaps of Arthur’s coat. “Come on. Buy us lunch. You can afford to.”
“I can,” Arthur agreed. “Now.”