|The C-Word IV: Asking
Author: Guede Mazaka
9:37 A. M.
Gawain wiped at his mouth, then licked the smears off its back. He rocked onto his heels and grinned at a limp, dazed-looking Tristan. “Sorry. But those jeans make your ass look really good.”
Tristan summoned up the urge to raise an ironic eyebrow. He started picking at his shirt, flapping it back around himself and rebuttoning it, which took much longer than usual because his hands were still shaking. First time that had ever happened. “You’re apologizing because you find my ass attractive?”
“No. I’m just being polite. Well, that and really, really liking how you look right now.” The floor seemed to be clean enough, so Gawain wasn’t in any hurry to get up. He crawled between Tristan’s sprawled legs and casually rested his hands on the other man’s thighs, curling his fingers beneath the rumpled denim. “We’re going to be late.”
“So we are.” Shirt buttoned, Tristan dropped his hands as if he were going to do up his fly, but instead just sat there. And rubbed his thumbs over Gawain’s hands, and leaned his head back against the wall so he was pretty much asking to be made later. “We could always go to the zoo instead.”
They were in Tristan’s apartment, having just returned from Arthur’s place, and down on the floor because Gawain had either been too busy or too tired to see much of Tristan during finals week. It was taking a leaf out of Galahad’s book to pounce on someone like that, but Gawain thought it’d be pretty damn good nonetheless. And he’d had the impression that Tristan had thought the same.
Except that comment had been odd. Gawain didn’t move away, but he did stop teasing. “Galahad’s been planning on going downtown as soon as finals were finished. If I’d said we were going there, he would’ve wanted to come. But if I say we’re going to the zoo, then he figures it’s just you and he doesn’t ask questions.”
“I don’t like the zoo very much, actually. Lately they’ve done a better job of making the cages look natural, but they’re still cages.” Tristan squeezed Gawain’s hands, then pulled them up to his lips. He gave the knuckles of each a soft press of his mouth before letting go and tugging up his jeans.
“Are you upset?” Gawain asked, surprised. Concern for Galahad wasn’t a trait Tristan showed…at all, really. And it seemed equally unlikely that Tristan would be upset just because Gawain had told a little white lie. Which Gawain didn’t like doing, and which he didn’t do around Tristan.
The other man shook his head, shooting Gawain a strange look. Then he thought of something and smiled a little. “No, I was just curious. But we really shouldn’t be late for this.”
“Probably not.” Though damn it, Gawain wasn’t nearly satisfied. He had time to make up, and now Tristan was deliciously rumpled, and fuck, he sounded like Galahad. Sex hadn’t been the only thing Gawain had missed about Tristan, and this was sounding like a really important thing, and so he could restrain himself. Ignore his dick.
Still, when he stood up, he did so reluctantly and only just biting back a sigh. Maybe if he tried superimposing someone else’s ass over Tristan’s…and the first one that presented itself was Arthur’s. Which was attractive, but at this point, that was also wrong on way, way too many levels. Gawain hurriedly shook the image out of his head and decided to just walk where he couldn’t see Tristan’s backside.
“Are you all right?” Tristan eyed Gawain like he would an over-shaken can of soda.
“Yeah! Yeah, I’m fine.” Said that too fast. “Um…so why did we have to stop here? I kind of lost track after…”
“…you got me up against the wall?” And that was definite smugness lurking around the edges of Tristan’s expression, which made it hard for Gawain to not grin. “I needed to pick up a different set of keys.”
They went out onto the stairway, which was too narrow for both of them to walk abreast. So Gawain slipped ahead and determinedly pretended he didn’t remember the time they had had a quickie against that corner of the stairwell. “And where in Brooklyn are we going, anyway?”
“To meet some people I know. They’re…easier to see than to try and describe.” For some reason, Tristan sounded hesitant. But when Gawain turned around, the other man looked much as he always did.
Well, with Tristan appearances usually were deceptive. But pushing him didn’t do any good; in some ways he was like a Chinese finger-trap, where the more force was used, the less give there was. And anyway, Gawain wasn’t in a mood for pushing. It couldn’t be too dangerous else Tristan would’ve specifically warned him, so he figured he’d just wait and see.
* * *
10:36 A. M.
Traffic in NYC wasn’t natural. Or maybe it was, in the sense that somewhere along the line, it’d developed a separate intelligence and a taste for frustrating people. Today it was in top form, blocking up the roads with a spectacular jam that had had Tristan and Gawain sitting in place for the past ten minutes. Usually Tristan’s encyclopedic knowledge of side-streets and alleyways could get them around any bottleneck, but today all his detours had been defeated.
“Damn. We are going to be late.” Tristan also wasn’t much for swearing, so that made Gawain take a good look at him. He was slouched back in the seat, hands draped limply over the wheel and expression apparently unconcerned. But every so often, he’d twitch his head to get the hair out of his face, and normally he didn’t care about that.
“I’ve got my cell—fuck, I hope Galahad remembered what I told him. He’s between girlfriends now and annoying as hell. Don’t really want to think about what he’d be like without his porn-channel.” Gawain started to dig out his phone, but Tristan motioned for him to stop. “You sure?”
After a moment, Tristan nodded. He lifted his hand to press his knuckles to his mouth, thinking, then shook his head at some thought. “No, it’s fine. I’d—they aren’t easy to get in touch with by phone.”
“Gang? Mysterious people from Arthur’s past?” Though Gawain was joking, he wasn’t doing so without thinking. At least, that was what he realized a second later, after Tristan had given him a sharp glance. He shrugged and took off his seatbelt, since it was biting into his throat and it wasn’t like it was doing any good when they weren’t moving. “You don’t have to answer that.”
Which Tristan considered before rejecting with a twist of the hand. Ahead of them, the traffic crept forward three inches, which he swiftly closed before turning to Gawain. “A couple of them are, marginally. Arthur’s not in the business any more, and I never plan to be, but we’d be stupid not to pay attention to it.”
Gawain could understand and respect that, considering his background. He still kept in touch with K through his cousin Bed, and once in a while he phoned a girl he knew who still lived in the neighborhood. He had to be careful since there was still a chance the cops were poking about their participation in what people were now calling the Knight War—after the name of Gawain’s old gang—but if he ever wanted to set foot in L. A. again, he needed to keep track of things. No one could ever really predict which old grudge would die and which wouldn’t, and when he’d been younger and stupider, he’d sowed his share of those.
“You haven’t asked about this morning yet,” Tristan abruptly said. Puzzlement and worry faintly showed through his calm attitude.
“Yeah, well, you didn’t seem to be too worried, so I figured it wasn’t worth asking about.” That didn’t come out right. It sounded like Gawain didn’t give a shit, and he did, only he didn’t want Tristan to think he would be shitty about it.
There was too much shit in that thought for it to be any good. Damn.
He winced and tried again. “I mean, it’s kind of—it looked like it was Arthur’s problem as much as yours, and I can’t really bug you about Arthur. Since I’m not dating him.”
“No,” Tristan acknowledged.
An awkward pause followed, as usually did after one of them brought up Arthur. Their relations to him were…vaguely talk-showish at best, and so neither of them had really wanted to figure out how he fit into everything. Thing was, he was too significant a figure in both of their lives to not keep cropping up, so ignoring him was tricky.
When Tristan didn’t say anything after five minutes, the silence got to Gawain. He really wished they were walking, or doing something that would’ve given his hands something to do. Right now they were twitchy and he had no idea what to do with it, but he didn’t want Tristan to see. “Was it something I was supposed to ask about?”
“Is it something you want to know about?” They finally made it to the stoplight and Tristan whipped his car into what looked like a two-foot gap. But even in New York, his car was monstrous enough to demand a certain respect and the others backed off. Though not without cursing and finger-waving.
“What were we talking about again?” It wasn’t that Gawain had lost track like an airhead so much as that he hadn’t ever been sure in the first place what they were discussing. He wasn’t particularly good at the talk-about-one-thing-but-mean-another, and unfortunately, that seemed to be Tristan’s default for certain situations. It probably had something to do with his upbringing, but even if he wanted to, Gawain wasn’t in any position to criticize upbringings.
Tristan opened his mouth, closed it, and then sighed. “I’m trying to decide how much about this part of my life you should know about. It could get you killed, and it’ll definitely complicate things. But if you’re sticking around much longer, you’ll have to know something.”
“And I am sticking around longer,” Gawain firmly said. He started to lean over, then remembered they were in public and had to settle for just looking meaningfully at Tristan.
Which was when something happened up front that gave Tristan the chance to floor the accelerator. Gawain skidded across the seat, catching the gearshift in his stomach as he did, and rammed into Tristan’s thigh. That and a sharp turn threw him forward so he clawed at Tristan’s knee till he’d hooked a hand around it. Braced his feet against the floor and hoped that loud crash hadn’t been them.
“Sorry. Reflex.” After a few minutes, Tristan found a lane he liked and settled into a steady speed. He peered down at Gawain through his hair. “Did you hit your head or anything?”
“No, but I’d appreciate more warning next time. God, you drive worse than Galahad.” The hair over Tristan’s face blocked out Gawain’s view of his eyes, so he reached up and flicked back a few pieces. Like usual, Tristan startled, looked a little confused, and then smiled. Which reminded Gawain’s dick of certain unfulfilled matters and started it yammering again. “This is a really bad position,” Gawain muttered.
He flopped his way up onto the seat and hauled himself up as best he could without kicking Tristan too much. Then he redid his ponytail, which had snapped itself loose during all the crazy driving. “Okay, I need to know some stuff. What?”
“That’s the complicated part,” Tristan muttered, staring out the window. “I thought I’d just start with showing you who I talk to when I’m keeping track of current news. Most of them aren’t my friends—I know them through Arthur, and so I don’t even know a lot of what they do. Or have done.”
“This might be a stupid question, but why do you do it instead of him? Since they’re his friends.” Damn, the hair-tie was broken. And Gawain didn’t have a spare…he dangled the snapped elastic in front of Tristan, who jerked his chin at the glove compartment. When Gawain opened that, the first thing he noticed was the large hunting knife. He carefully lifted that up and dug around till he found a rubber band. “I’m more used to seeing guns in here…”
Tristan laughed a little. “The gun’s under the seat. People check the glove compartment too often, and I can always say I need the knife for cutting up raptor food.”
Hair retied, Gawain leaned back in his seat and watched Tristan. The other man didn’t exactly seem nervous, but he was definitely off. Hopefully it wasn’t on Gawain’s account; maybe he didn’t know how the world of serious high crime worked, but he thought he’d learned a bit about being tactful and careful in L. A.
“I do it because it’s easier for me to get around to these places. And because…I don’t mind doing it. Arthur hates it. He’s also got a reputation, which can be awkward. Nobody really knows who I am.” Up ahead, the light flashed yellow and Tristan sped up, not enough to jolt Gawain but enough to earn them a few more angry shouts.
Judging from the look of the buildings they were passing, that probably was normal; they would’ve been noticeable if they’d driven nicely. The houses were shrinking and growing more dilapidated, crouching between the numerous apartment buildings and tenements like forlorn refugees. The graffiti was becoming more artistically confrontational, more about claiming territory than just saying someone had been there. It looked a lot like Gawain’s old neighborhood.
“Nice thing for you, I bet. There are places in L. A. that I probably still can’t go into without getting shot at.” They were pulling up to what looked like a record store, but Gawain would’ve bet fifty that the group of men crouching on the steps weren’t dicing over candies. When Tristan got up, one of them nodded and walked inside. “Hey, I don’t mean to sound stupid, but I’m still not seeing how this is that complicated.”
Tristan glanced at him, then looked up at the sky. It was sunny out and for once, the smog didn’t dull the brilliance of the light that made it through so Tristan’s face seemed sheathed in white gold. Blinding and beautiful, and impossible to tell what his expression was. “I thought it was going to be, but maybe not. You’re taking this better than I thought.”
Gawain still didn’t understand, but he found himself grinning idiotically anyway.
* * *
4:30 P. M.
Galahad’s feet greeted Gawain as he walked in. The other man was flopped over the couch, eyes closed and shirt riding up to show his stomach, and looked as if he’d spent the whole day doing hard labor. For him, that might just mean he’d gotten up before noon.
“I take it you had fun,” Galahad muttered, flapping a hand at Gawain. “You’re whistling.”
“So I am.” Not that it actually had been fun—it’d been like every other parley Gawain had ever had to attend, which meant it’d been tense and serious with lots of inside jokes and insults flying over his head. But Tristan in the backseat afterward had certainly been enjoyable. “What’s with you?”
The feet went down and Galahad’s head came up to show how sour he looked. “Mariette showed up after you’d left. Her car broke down, and she dragged me out to do something about it, and the upshot’s I promised her to spend the next month fixing it.”
Gawain nearly ran into the kitchen counter. Choking, he pulled himself straight and hung onto the fridge door-handle for support. “What? You hate her and you suck at fixing cars.”
“I do not! Suck at fixing cars, I mean.” After a moment of staring, Galahad slunk back down to hide. “Okay, I do. But she wouldn’t fucking leave and…well, her car’s in Bed’s hands. He’ll fix it.”
“Yeah, as long as you keep reminding him it’s not raw material for one of his sculptures.” Upon further thought, Gawain decided that it might be a good development for Galahad. It’d get him away from the bubbleheads he usually dated, and if he was spending time with Mariette, that pretty much guaranteed that Gawain wouldn’t be walking in on any sex. They’d cut the time they spent cleaning the floor in half.
“So how was the zoo?” Galahad asked.
For a moment, Gawain thought about making up something, but he really didn’t like lying. On the other hand, he also didn’t feel like having a big argument with an offended Galahad. “We never made it there, actually. Ended up stopping by to see some people…he and Arthur know.”
“He and Arthur?”
“Well, it was…” Sort of weird, and the whole thing kept bugging Gawain a bit because he had the feeling he was supposed to see more into it than just Tristan making introductions. Granted, it was letting him see a side of Tristan’s life that probably no one else got to see, and he did realize exactly how much that meant.
Thing was, he didn’t seem to be feeling it. The whole matter had been done smoothly and without any mistakes, and it had all been very un-climatic. He knew it was important, but the importance just wasn’t hitting him yet. That would probably happen when he was trying to sleep, Gawain snorted.
“…weird?” Galahad sat up again and hooked his arms over the couch back. “Well, think about it. You’re dating the…the whatchamacallit—the ward of your advisor, who used to be some superspy and now teaches philosophy when he’s not banging one of the two Interpol agents that he—”
“How is it that you can make everything sound like a bad soap opera?” Maybe if Gawain started dinner, it’d drown out the sound of Galahad. He opened up the fridge and took stock: they had to go grocery-shopping soon. But tonight they could probably survive, though he’d have to get creative with the pork rounds.
Offended huffing from the couch. “Oh, don’t be such a wet rag. Come on. We’re orphans raised by your grandma in one of L. A.’s toughest neighborhoods, and we’re going to grad school on the East Coast because on the West, some jackass started a fight because he didn’t get the frosting rose he wanted and now we’ve got bodies buried in our old backyard.”
“Which is all true, but do you really have to make it sound so damn sordid? Shit happened. It wasn’t pretty. We lived through it. Where did you put the onions? I know we’ve got some left.” And maybe Gawain should ask Tristan where he got his knives, because they could use a new butcher’s one.
“You’re touchy. Did you two have a fight?” Galahad finally got the energy to get up and help Gawain find the other sack of onions, which were stuffed behind the dirty laundry, of all places.
Next stop, washing them really, really good, because Galahad’s gym socks could qualify as biohazards. “No. I don’t think so. I don’t know—it was just…Tristan was trying to do something and I couldn’t figure out what, because he was trying not to show that he was doing something, but he still wanted me to know. Or something. God, I don’t know.”
“Maybe you should call a girl—call up Elaine and ask her about it. Sounds like her kind of stuff.” For once, Galahad was being thoughtful. Mariette and the inevitable scraping she and he always got into must have really worn him out. “Or, you know, you could just ask him. That never works with women, but maybe it does with men?”
“Is that why your break-ups usually end with your ex slapping you? Hey, go get the garlic for me.” Onions washed and diced, but there was nowhere to put them so Gawain just shoved them to the side of the cutting board. That didn’t leave him much room for trimming the fat off the rounds, but if he twisted around his elbows, he could just manage. “Dating men and dating women aren’t that different, you moron.”
Thumping sounds, since Galahad took a weird pleasure in beating garlic cloves out of their skins. Hopefully he didn’t pound so hard that the juice soaked into the counter and stank up the place. “Yeah? You were Mr. Thanks-But-I’m-A-Nice-Boy for years and years to keep from having to fake interest in a girl. What would you know?”
“When I was fourteen, I messed around with Elaine a few times trying to figure out why I wasn’t interested. And honestly, you don’t have to fuck a girl to get to know her. Actually, you usually get to know her better if you don’t fuck her.” Gawain was almost ready to click on the stove when he realized Galahad had gone awfully quiet.
When he turned around, he saw that Galahad had also gone awfully pale and shocked. The other man’s mouth was working like a fish gulping water, and it was several minutes before he could manage to say anything. “You—you and Elaine?”
“Yeah, well, she was old enough to know how to make up for what I didn’t know, and I figured if it didn’t work out, she’d just punch me once before she let me explain things.” Where was the frying pan…ah, way over on the windowsill. Now why it was there was an even better question, but Gawain thought he’d leave it be for the moment and just wash that really well, too. He rinsed off his hands and went over, shaking the water from his fingers as he went.
“You and Elaine?”
It was really hard not to roll eyes. “What?”
Tristan perched on the fire escape, that was what. Gawain jumped, then glanced over his shoulder. Much to his relief, Galahad was still a shellshocked statue facing the other way. He turned back to the window and pushed it up to stick out his head.
“Hey,” Tristan said. He had a squirrel on his shoulder that looked oddly like Galahad.
“Hi.” The squirrel ran down Tristan’s arm to sit up in front of Gawain. When he didn’t give it anything, it gnashed its teeth at him and hopped off. “What are you doing? Is the front way blocked up again?”
Behind Gawain, Galahad finally got his brains together. “What? What? I had sex with her and she never said anything! You’re like my brother, and you and I and she…ew.”
Some days Gawain really, really wanted to kill Galahad. And then once in a while, he almost did it. He held onto the windowsill, took a deep breath, and told himself that he’d promised Grandma Yvie not to strangle the bastard. “Long story. I’ll tell you later,” he muttered to Tristan. “So do you want to come in, or—”
“No, I’m off in a moment. I just forgot to ask you something.” Whereupon Tristan sat back and didn’t say anything.
“I can’t believe she didn’t say anything! It’s…it’s…it’s almost like incest!”
“No, it’s not.” The window-frame felt nice and cool against Gawain’s pounding temple. He gritted his teeth and reminded himself that he also needed Galahad to meet the rent. “Galahad, for fuck’s sake. I was fourteen and the furthest we got were fingers because it turned out my dick really wasn’t interested. It’s not even like she dated us in the same year. By the time you got to her, I was very definitely limiting myself to guys.”
“Sounds like a really long story.” A flash of a grin, but then Tristan went back to looking stonefaced and…uncertain, if the way he was picking at the rusty bars of the fire escape was any indication. He rolled his shoulders some, as if trying to stretch out some tension.
Gawain screwed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yeah. What’d you want?”
“I…Arthur’s old-fashioned. He doesn’t know I’ve been letting you help me with…matters concerning his and my past.” Tristan wasn’t making much sense, and more importantly, he looked like he knew he wasn’t making any sense. He actually bit his lip. “He does know I’m seeing you, but he sort of pretends he doesn’t because I haven’t…formally introduced you.”
“As…what? Your boyfriend?” It was confusing, but not as much as Tristan seemed to think it was. Some of Gawain’s Chicano friends had families like that, and they’d never stopped complaining about it.
Vague hand movements, and if Gawain looked closely, a faint flush across Tristan’s cheeks. “Yes, but more…more like…I want him to know I’m letting you go downtown with me.”
“Okay. I already promised him that Galahad and I were going to keep his background a secret. That day in the Interpol office, remember?”
“I know that, but this is not exactly the same.” Now Tristan was beginning to look frustrated at himself. “Gawain, I’m asking you if I can—”
Oh.. Okay. Yeah, now Gawain got it. And now that he had, he felt really stupid for not getting it earlier. Especially with his own goddamned gangland background. He really should’ve known.
He was really…he kind of didn’t want to think about it because he didn’t want to break what he had. But Tristan was about to work himself into a minor fit, so Gawain had to do something. So he grabbed Tristan’s hand and pulled at it till Tristan looked at him. “Yeah. Definitely. And hey, if you ever feel like dropping into L. A., I’m hoping to visit there eventually. We’ve got wild coyotes.”
Tristan just stared at him. Then the other man dropped through the window to spin Gawain against the wall and kissed him hard.
“Oh, for…you weren’t even listening, were you?” In the background, Galahad stomped off.
When they came up for air, Tristan had a wondering look in his eyes. “You make this easy.”
Gawain grinned and rubbed his thumb along Tristan’s cheek. “Thanks. So…what does this require, anyway? Dinner or something? Do I need to buy a suit?”
“You’re making me late,” Tristan muttered. Which didn’t make sense till he pulled shut the window and started sliding down Gawain. And then it didn’t have to make sense. It just was.
Dinner could wait a second.