Author: Guede Mazaka
Arthur paused with his hands on his shirtbuttons. He looked around for Guinevere, hoping that she could tell him he was neither insane nor trapped with a madman, but unfortunately she’d already left for work.
“No, seriously. Think about it,” Lancelot went on, happily messing with his hair. He twisted his fingers out of it, checked the mirror and didn’t see the exact kind of bedhead that he wished. So back went the fingers to tease his curls. “If you—
If he just took the newspaper with him and bought tea at the airport, Arthur thought, he’d still be able to make it through security with ten minutes to spare. He could also—funny, that smelled like his aftershave on Lancelot’s neck—forgo warning Tristan in person and just do it by phone. That would—mmm, Guinevere had left a tender bite-mark right there where the slightest touch made Lancelot squirm—give him an additional fifteen minutes’ leeway in case the traffic was horrible.
Hands batted at his shoulders, but when he pulled away, Lancelot irritably yanked him forward. He snapped at Arthur’s jaw before tilting his head back to moan under Arthur’s hands. “Arthur? Why am I about to get fucked against the wall?”
“I didn’t realize you needed reasons now.” That little indignant noise Lancelot made was quite adorable, and even more so once Arthur had gotten his hands down Lancelot’s trousers.
“I didn’t realize you’d gotten…a sporting wit. Oh, God, higher.” Which Lancelot took care of himself by suddenly leap-squeezing up the wall to wrap legs around Arthur’s waist. Thankfully, by then Arthur had gotten the clothes out of the way. “And you’re—you’re planning how to get there early, aren’t you. Arthur.” The flurry of hands clutching and clawing at Arthur vanished to leave only two on his shoulders; Lancelot narrowed his eyes and sulked as if he was…well, with feet on the ground for one. “You’re not fucking me unless you—fuck!”
Arthur suppressed a grin and twisted his fingers again, blessing Tristan’s habit of leaving Vaseline tins everywhere. “No, I can’t fuck you. You’re still talking.”
“Oh, so that’s what this is about.” All nuzzles and sly smiles now, Lancelot leaned forward to nip at Arthur’s mouth. Occasionally his breath would hitch, and then he’d kiss Arthur till they were both temporarily senseless. “You don’t want to talk about that.”
“No. It’s morning, I have a conference in Philadelphia this afternoon, and—” holy God, but the first slow stroke always shocked Arthur with its…rightness. And also its heat and clench and friction and everything else about it that made his knees melt no matter how long he’d had the pleasure of it. “Stop talking.”
Lancelot wasn’t capable of answering verbally, but he did have enough strength left to shoot Arthur an amused look. So Arthur rolled his—their—hips, and underneath the near-blinding ache of that, was vaguely pleased to see Lancelot’s eyes roll back into his head.
Fifteen minutes later, Arthur was back to buttoning up his shirt and Lancelot was sprawled on his stomach on the kitchen counter. He absently checked his reflection in the chrome of the expresso machine, gave a satisfied nod and flopped over to grin lazily up at Arthur. “You know, that might encourage me to make that topic a staple of our morning conversation.”
“Do that and I won’t pull Guinevere off of you when you’re too worn out to fight back.” Arthur hunted about till he found his tie flung over the blender. Behind that particular appliance, he also came across…a lacquered chopstick, which explained why Guinevere had stalked out with her bun romantically loose instead of professionally sleek. “What were you two fighting about, anyway?”
A little furrow appeared between Lancelot’s eyebrows just long enough for Arthur to bend and kiss it. Of course, Lancelot promptly made a grab for him and he dodged, which left Lancelot looking rather sour. “Oh, Christ knows. I think I bought the wrong coffee. Or she thought I made it wrong. Something like that.”
The wrong coffee grinds. So Arthur had lunged into the kitchen this morning, thinking that Tristan had regressed five years and accidentally brought a wildcat into the place again, and instead had found Lancelot and Guinevere slamming up against the fridge because of the wrong coffee grinds. He sighed as he put on his jacket. “How on earth did you two ever survive till we met?”
“Getting a bit of an ego, are we? Arthur the peacemaker?” Lancelot slipped off the counter and stayed bent over slightly longer than he needed to; most likely he was hiding a wince. But he had straightened soon enough and had fitted himself to Arthur’s side before Arthur had finished pulling his shirt cuffs out of his coat-sleeves. “Oh, come on. You were perfectly willing to spar with your…” little pink tip flicked out the corner of Lancelot’s mouth “…tongue earlier—wait. Your sense of humor’s made an appearance, you buggered me against the wall without my having to chain you to it…you’re bribing me.”
Arthur told himself he had deceived and manipulated his way through several years of working as a deep-cover, high-level intelligence operative. But just in case, he also quietly reached behind himself to grab his briefcase. “Why would I do that? I’m going to be out of town till tomorrow afternoon.”
“Because…” Lancelot absentmindedly loosened his grip as he tried to remember.
“And speaking of, I need to leave. See you for dinner tomorrow, and I’ll probably call tonight hope your work is all right and don’t touch my books.” It was two steps to the hall, four down it and a quick five out the door. Inside Arthur was already feeling the pangs of guilt stir, and normally he would have let them talk him into going back inside, but not this time. This time, he sternly told them, there was no shame in beating a strategic retreat. None at all. Not…oh, damn it.
“Arthur!” A car drew up to the curb and Kitty’s warm smile popped out the window. “Perfect timing.”
“Oh…” Right. Like any well-trained operative, he’d made contingency plans—he’d asked Kitty to pick him up instead of calling a taxi like he normally would, since he could keep a taxi waiting with the knowledge that he’d only be increasing the size of the driver’s tip, but he couldn’t do the same to his friend. After all, she’d gone through the bother of driving here and…
…Arthur got in the car, already worrying.
“I picked up tea for you.” Kitty nodded at a tall cup nestling in the front holders from which rose fragrant steam. Not quite as nice as the smell of Guinevere’s hair, but still very appreciated. “Drink, Arthur. You look tense.”
He thanked her and gratefully did so. “I’m still a bit uncertain as to how much of a house I’ll come back to.”
“So why not stay?” She refrained from giving him one of her famous scrutinizing looks and kept her eyes on the road, but her eyebrow went up and her voice dropped.
“They’ve already met, so I don’t need to stay around and make introductions. If I stay anyway, then Tristan will know where I’m looking at all times and he’ll get away with things that I’ll never catch till too late. If I’m in Philadelphia, he has no idea where I’ll look when I get home, so he’ll…be…circumspect. ” Hopefully, hopefully, Arthur prayed. He raised the cup to his lips and took a deep sip of the tea. Usually that cleared his mind in no time at all.
A second later, he spat out his draft, which had been far too large and exceedingly hot. His tongue hurt badly enough for him to almost wish thirtysomething men could whimper outside of the bedroom. Perhaps it was repayment for his cowardice already beginning.
“I don’t quite follow your logic there, but I’m sure you know them all better than I.” Kitty suddenly grinned, her face looking ten years younger and as mischievous as a pixie. “If not, I do still remember how to spank naughty children. Or do they enjoy that too much?”
Arthur’s second sip wasn’t large enough to burn him, but he sputtered it anyway.
* * *
Lancelot listened to the front door close behind Arthur’s hurrying, nervous footsteps and silently asked himself why, why did he have to get attached to an abusive cunt and a neurotic ex-secret agent.
Though even for Arthur, this morning was rather schizo. It was—
Oh. Oh. “Shite.”
Tonight Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan were having supper together. Ostensibly because Tristan’s stove was broken and apparently his boyfriend was too busy to feed him. That still left carryout, which thousands of university students lived on without any problems, but Arthur had worried anyway. He’d vaguely pussyfooted around the notion until Guinevere had finally told him she’d cook so to stop fretting about his godson-whatever. But the real reason was obvious. It’d been three months since Lancelot and Guinevere had railroaded their way into Arthur’s house and it was time to have a “family” get-together.
“Even though I’ve already seen Tristan shooting people. Christ, Arthur.” Lancelot sighed and began putting his clothes in order. He glanced at the clock as he did. Pulled up his trousers, froze, and looked at the clock again. He was extremely late. And Pellew had called a section meeting for today. “Fuck!”
* * *
Galahad stared at the sofa cushion and wondered how much effort it would take to suffocate himself. Because between Mariette’s nitpicking about Latin conjugation and Gawain’s restless paper-shuffling, he was rapidly losing the will to keep on living.
“But no, that cannot be the intended meaning of the Patriarch’s words. See, here is how the verb…”
Shuffle. Shuffle shuffle curse rattle pens shuffle.
“Okay,” Galahad muttered, head in hands.
Mariette stuttered to a stop. “What? You agree?”
“No, I—okay, you hang on for a second.” He ignored her offended reception of that because he really didn’t give a fuck and turned to Gawain. Or what he could see of Gawain, which was limited to only a hand anxiously pushing at hair. “Gawain. Gawain. Ga—oh, for fuck’s sake. If anything, we should be worrying about Arthur coming back to a massacre at his house. Your boyfriend’s like a cockroach—he could probably live through anything.”
“He is not a cockroach.” Bleary eyes glared at Galahad over a stack of works on Christian philosophers. “For one thing, he washes his clothes every week without me having to boot him into the laundry room.”
From Galahad’s other side came a half-stifled mutter and an utterly disgusted sniff. Irritating bitch pointedly scooted two inches back, as if she hadn’t been sitting three feet from him without any problems for the past two hours. Maybe he didn’t get down to the laundry room often, but that didn’t mean he wore filthy clothes. “Just calm down, would you? The more you worry about him, the less you’re thinking about finishing your grading, and the longer it’ll take you. He’s fine.”
“How would you know?” Gawain growled. But the frantic movements of his hands were slowing down to something more like efficiency, and he didn’t sound quite so much like he was about to pop like bubblewrap in the hands of a bored kid.
“Because it’s Tristan. Jesus, I know there’s rose-colored shades involved and all, but you’ve got to have noticed that…I don’t know, he could fuck up the CIA on his lunch break and not break a sweat?” Galahad dropped the book he’d been holding and dug around till he found his ratty old Latin textbook. The paper had been worn to the texture of soft cotton cloth and he could only go through it slowly. “And it’s just dinner. He goes, he gets fed, he leaves to pick you up so I get to sleep without hearing you two fuck.”
That brought a spark of interest to Mariette’s face, though when Galahad smirked at her she lifted her chin and sniffed as if she hadn’t just been silently praying he’d go on. Her cheeks were pink as her lipstick.
Gawain seemed somewhat reassured, but his forehead was still wrinkled. He muttered something.
And scribbled what sounded like a nasty comment on one of the student papers. “I said, Tristan’s nervous about it. He’s never nervous.”
“What does he look like?” When they turned to look at her, Mariette defensively hunched over her Augustine. “I mean when he is nervous. I’ve never seen him nervous so I wouldn’t know.”
“It’s pretty hard to tell if you don’t know exactly what to look for. And even then you’ve kinda got to do it sideways so he can’t quite tell you’re looking.” More scribbling. It seemed like Gawain had finally decided to be sensible and take out his irritation on the stupid students who couldn’t be bothered to read the paper topics before they banged out something the dawn of the due day. “He gets less talkative and he spends a lot of time gutting rodents for the baby raptors. And once in a while he does this nervous thing with his fingers…which I can’t figure out how to do…I don’t think I’ve got enough joints…”
For a second, Galahad and Mariette shared a quizzical look. Then she shook herself and withdrew to the bathroom to pout or whatever and Galahad, a little annoyed at himself but more so at Gawain, turned back to his roommate. “What the fuck does he have to be nervous about? He doesn’t give a shit what they think about him—he’s doing all the judging, isn’t he?”
“Yes, but some people are sympathetic and want their friends to be happy. Godfathers. Whatever Arthur is to him.” Gawain waved a hand in the air and nearly flipped his pen into the dartboard across the room. It would’ve been a high-scoring shot, too.
Galahad just stared. “Tristan…sympathetic. Nope, can’t see it. Honestly, everyone’s taking this way too seriously. It’s just food.”
“And you’re just an idiot,” Mariette said, reseating herself across from him.
* * *
Guinevere smacked down the knife and neatly separated meat from bone. Then she had to stand still for a moment and regretfully remind herself that that was supper on the cutting board, and not Lancelot’s neck. “I’m cooking.”
“Yes, I can see that. The frills are very becoming.” The prat continued to pace around the island, fiddling with the salt-and-pepper shakers here, checking the calendar there, and thoroughly working up Guinevere’s nerves.
Not to mention that the closest thing to a frill in this kitchen was Lancelot, who was decorative but entirely unnecessary. As for herself, Guinevere had her hair neatly pulled into a high ponytail, her power suit exchanged for jeans and an old shirt of Arthur’s over a tank-top, and her hands full with preparing three courses. Something constructive, as opposed to having a bloody fit. “And you aren’t.”
“No…” Lancelot dragged out the word into an exasperated turn that perfectly matched his movements. He leaned over the island, glowering at her. “Your point being?”
“My point being—fuck off already. You’re bothering me and I have knives, so that excludes screwing you calmer.” She slid the meat to one side and started on the vegetables. Halfway through she had to break off to check the lot she already had on the stove. It smelled heavenly and went a long way towards making her see the impossibility of tipping Lancelot into the oven.
He huffed his derision and dramatically threw himself into one of the bar chairs, which teetered dangerously but eventually righted itself. Damn.
“Guin, you remember that we’re having a guest tonight. Or did Arthur palm you off with a quick fuck, too?”
Since she was messing about at the stove, she could grin without risking a foodfight that would ruin her timetable. She put the lid back on and crossed back to get the meat. “No, we had a serious, adult discussion last night while you were hogging the shower, whereupon he apologized for having this conference that was planned three months ago and therefore not being around, and where he hoped we and Tristan would get along fine anyway.”
That bought her a delightful twenty seconds of silence, in which she got meat and vegetables safely cooking and proceeded to the alchemy of spicery. Guinevere was temporarily thwarted by a missing wooden spoon—unusual in Arthur’s kitchen, where everything had its proper place and orientation—but she located it shoved behind a dishtowel and could finally check the taste.
Slight cough. “You got a discussion?”
“You would have, too, but you insisted on poking him about the early Christian fathers’ condemnations of homosexuality. And then about the sexual tension implicit in the fervor of the mystics, and so forth.” Needed more cumin, and maybe a few more dried chili peppers. Then again, that was how Lancelot and she liked it; Guinevere tried and failed to remember if she knew how Tristan preferred his food. Arthur had never mentioned anything, and neither had he mentioned from where Tristan originally hailed. “I don’t think he was very amused about your comment on relabeling that shelf of texts the medieval S&M porn section.”
“But it is!” Lancelot tugged at his tie till it came out, then flicked it in Guinevere’s direction. “No one reads that stuff more than once unless they’re for a bit of—”
She rolled her eyes as she began to rinse off the knives and the cutting board. “He’s done at least two papers on them.” Guinevere pulled the sink faucet around so she could wash off the suds without watering the floor. “And yes, Lancelot, that is a terrible way to give him ideas. You’re better off irritating him into just taking a rolled-up newspaper to you again.”
“I knew you were watching. I could hear your little panting gasps in the hallway,” he purred. But the flash of mockery went as quickly as it had come, and when Guinevere passed him to get out the chocolate, he was back to a vaguely depressed slouch. “Oh, for God’s sake. It’s not like you aren’t getting worked up about this. The one time Pellew came over, you made two courses plus a tidied-up store-bought dessert. Now look—you’ve made bloody mousse from scratch.”
And in a second, if she could restrain herself from taking the peeler to Lancelot, it would have elegant chocolate curls. “At least I’m working it out constructively. What have you done?”
He rubbed at his temple so his hand muffled his words into incoherency. Sighing, Guinevere stood by him with the peeler pointed about at the level of his crotch. Lancelot looked at it, looked at her and snorted, as if to say she knew damn well that’d hurt her as much as it would him. “I said, I disinfected the entire house. And I somehow managed to dust all his damned books. While keeping them in order.”
Normally Lancelot screamed and ran whenever the subject of cleaning was mentioned, so of course she didn’t believe him. But then he raised his hands and she saw that they were red and raw and still rather wrinkly from being wet.
Impressed, Guinevere flipped him an extra chunk of chocolate. “Well, that removes one possible point of embarrassment.”
“Yes, we won’t have to mention that while Tristan’s buggering Arthur’s grad student, we’re fuck-sucking him dry in bathroom stalls and whatnot.” After nibbling away the chocolate, Lancelot delicately licked off his fingers. Flirtation had become a reflex with him. “Maybe we can discuss why Arthur seems to have a small armory hidden in his library. He could probably arm an African coup all by himself.”
He sounded ever-so-slightly bitter, and for once Guinevere agreed with him. Aside from the memorable way they’d met Arthur, she and Lancelot had gone out of their way to let him know they didn’t mind his past, and they’d let him in on a few secrets of their own. But despite all of that, he still tended to clam up about himself.
She’d thought that asking Tristan to dinner would have pried something from Arthur, or at least would have proved they were serious about staying around for anything, but no, Arthur had to fly off to a conference. However much it made strategic sense to her as an Interpol agent, it still offended her as a woman.
“So you had a nice discussion with him and you didn’t even protest his absence from this meal?” Lancelot asked.
Guinevere stuck the now-garnished mousse back in the fridge, gritting her teeth. Of course, the catch of the whole situation was in not reinforcing Arthur’s fear that they were going to betray him. Even if it was completely irrational and he obviously knew it was irrational and…she’d already made three courses and dessert. Though if they had jello, there was still enough time to make that for tomorrow night. “He already looked terrified. I didn’t want to have him spend the night pretending to look over presentation notes just because neither of us could be mature about this.”
“All right, then.” Lancelot pushed himself out of the chair and dusted his hands on his trousers as if he’d just concluded a treaty for world peace. “Let’s have supper, fight incessantly till he comes home and then lock him in the bedroom till he acquires some confidence. By osmosis if necessary.”
“And that’s your idea of a coping strategy?”
He was going to pick his tie apart if he didn’t stop fiddling with it. “Have a better one? No? I didn’t think so.”
* * *
As she’d said before, Kitty did know how to deliver a slap. Her hand was quick and stinging on the back of Arthur’s hand; he muffled an exclamation and glared at her. But she’d already withdrawn and was turning around to take her purse off her chair.
“Arthur! I didn’t get a chance to catch you after Wellington’s presentation…” A fellow attendee pushed his way through the restaurant, beaming at him, and Arthur resigned himself to not calling just yet.
Fifteen minutes afterward, he and Kitty were walking back to their hotel and she had slapped his hand once again. “Arthur, it’s barely seven. From what I remember, you and Tristan eat late. It’d be rude to interrupt the very dinner you helped set up.”
But it could prevent homicide, he nearly replied. Then his reason caught up with him and he ruefully acknowledged the wisdom in Kitty’s words. He’d made his bed for the night, and he might as well accept the fact that he had to lie in it.
He’d made it very badly, too. And yes, obviously he would say that once he’d safely put a few hundred miles between himself and Lancelot and Guinevere. It was childish and quite disgusting of himself, actually, and he needed to stop. Once and for all, he needed to stop running from things. Ingrained training or not, he didn’t have to live that way anymore and he should have embraced that fact with open arms.
“I think we should go shopping.” Before Arthur could react, Kitty had tucked her hand through his arm and had forcefully dragged him around the corner. She had a good deal of strength, considering her slight frame. “I can smell when someone needs to buy apology-gifts. Fortunately, I’m quite knowledgeable about that.”
Arthur opened his mouth, closed it, and finally gave in as graciously as he could. “Thank you, Kitty. I’ll take you out to lunch sometime.”
“As lovely as that would be, I’m a bit too old to put up with all the jealous stares I would receive.” She patted his arm and smiled kindly up at him. “Don’t worry about debts when it comes to old friends, Arthur. Someday you’ll forget to lock the office door and I’ll be well-repaid with that.”
Or with his choking himself into tripping over the curb. Kitty giggled and helped him back onto the sidewalk.
* * *
Tristan and Lancelot stared at each other over the steaming plates of food. Lancelot seemed composed enough, but his hands were restlessly running over his silverware and if Tristan looked beneath the table, he would’ve bet his car that Lancelot’s feet would have been tapdancing.
“So how are your classes?” Lancelot asked. As soon as he’d finished talking, he winced a little. Probably at how stuffy he sounded.
“They went well. The term ended three weeks ago, so now I’m working on my research.” Arthur liked the man, Tristan reminded himself. No, more than liked him, and Arthur very much deserved to get what he wanted to for once, and apparently that included paying lipservice to the conventional idea of familial togetherness. Also, the food did smell better than what Tristan or Gawain could turn out and there was no point in wasting it.
“Oh.” A bit flushed at his gaffe, Lancelot busied himself with straightening out some irregularity in how the plates had been set on the table. It didn’t quite work out, as he glanced at the kitchen every few seconds. He barely kept himself from dragging his cuff through the meat. “Guin should be out shortly.”
Actually, Tristan didn’t mind what he knew of Lancelot. Maybe the man wasn’t exactly who Tristan would have foreseen with Arthur, but he was relatively easy to read. Beneath all the sarcasm and flippancy was a deeply loyal attachment to Arthur—surprising, considering that three months in the span of things wasn’t that long. Guinevere, on the other hand, was difficult to assay. Moreover, she seemed to know that Tristan couldn’t get a bearing on her and she took pleasure in that. He thought. It was hard to tell, and infuriatingly so.
Lancelot sat back down and impatiently drummed his fingers against the table edge. After a moment, he shrugged and passed a plate of stir-fried greens to Tristan. “I don’t think she’ll mind if we start without her. What’s your research? I think Arthur mentioned you were a forensics major…”
Judging by the noise in the kitchen, she wouldn’t notice a herd of wild horses stampeding through the house. It almost made Tristan regret promising to come to the front door and ring the bell; if he’d gone through one of the windows like he usually did, he just might have been able to catch her in an open moment. “I’m looking into the decomposition of illegal drugs in corpses and ways of detecting them in highly-degraded trace amounts. A side-project is cataloguing pre-modern methods of forensic analysis in traditional cultures.”
When Tristan had answered, Lancelot had been in the middle of spooning beef onto his plate. He slowed, but it didn’t seem to be out of disgust. Then he got back up to speed and handed the meat round to Tristan once he’d finished with it. “Really? Hallucinogens, narcotics…any particular type?”
“Are you asking for business reasons or for personal interest?” Tristan forked up his first bite and, after a hesitant moment, savored it. Excellent cooking, though the cook still hadn’t ventured out to get an opinion.
Lancelot raised an eyebrow and regarded him closely before replying. “It’s not for a case, if that’s what you’re thinking, but it is mostly for work. Our in-house forensic experts and the local labs generally try to shove their findings over a whole lot of fancy-sounding shite whenever we’re asking how accurate it is. Understandable since it’s their analysis, but the evidence also represents real live cases involving a real live justice system and not merely textbook problems.”
He certainly hadn’t looked like the type to be interested on his own in science, though he wasn’t nearly as shallow as he came off. It was surprising that he’d be that concerned about work outside of…no, he wasn’t concerned with work so much as being able to know when other people were wrong. Which fit with Tristan’s read of him, so Tristan didn’t need to revise that after all. “The study’s in its initial stages and we’re still determining which class of drugs would be a likely target.”
“Damn. Sometimes I could swear that the lab boys are trying to give me the run-around…” Another glance at the kitchen caught something; Lancelot half-mouthed a word at it and jerked his head at the table. Then he saw Tristan looking and shrugged. “Sorry. Guin takes her cuisine very seriously.”
“I see.” Tristan ate some more while he carefully considered his next few words. He had a suspicion that Lancelot worked in law enforcement more for the legalized man-hunting than out of a strong sense of morality…which in this case would work better for Arthur. “Have you tried showing the lab reports to Arthur?”
That got Lancelot’s attention. For a few moments, he scraped at his plate—he ate ridiculously fast—and stared at Tristan as if the next words spoken would decide life and death. “You…” Then he shook his head and laughed at himself, somewhat harshly. “Sometimes he helps out, but not often. Just when he needs to work off an old itch, I think. But you’d know more about that than me.”
“Maybe, maybe not.” Arthur was still playing things tight to his chest, Tristan thought. It was clear Lancelot didn’t like it, but if the man wouldn’t outright say so to Tristan, then he wouldn’t to Arthur.
Lancelot didn’t seem like the kind who would hold back if he had a complaint, which could mean a great many interesting things.
And he was arching his brow again. “Maybe?”
“I’m a forensics major because I’m very good at finding out things on my own.” Sympathy wasn’t something Tristan felt often, but Arthur tended to provoke unusual reactions from people.
“Really. That’s the only way to go about it, then?” The other man put his fork and knife down and leaned over the table. He glanced to the side, where Guinevere had still not appeared, then lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Come on. There’s got to be another way.”
“There probably is, but I’ve never wanted to sleep with him, and as far as I know, he’s never wanted to sleep with me. So I wouldn’t know how to handle your problem.” Tristan swallowed his last forkful and picked up his plate, then scooted back from the table.
He wasn’t actually offended so much as amused—and slightly worried. If Lancelot was pestering him for tips on how to deal with Arthur, then someone needed to sit Arthur down for a long talk. Though it wouldn’t be Tristan, considering how he still had difficulty thinking about how to ask Gawain to go to a lunch with him and Arthur. It wasn’t quite the same problem but it was close enough.
In the kitchen Guinevere was standing by the open fridge, a goblet of what appeared to be chocolate mousse in her hand. Her head went up and her eyes widened slightly, but otherwise she didn’t react to Tristan’s entrance. “Done already?”
“It was excellent food but I don’t need to eat much.” He dipped the plate in the sink and turned on the water, directing it with his hand so the bits of food left would wash off. “Aren’t you eating?”
“Oh, yes. I…needed to see to some things here first.” Guinevere closed the fridge with her foot and retrieved another two goblets from the island counter. Then she started to head for the dining room, but halfway there she about-faced and came back to hover a yard from Tristan. “You can just leave the plate. I’ll take care of it.”
There was an odd bite in her voice. Tristan considered it while he absently measured the distances between her, him, and the nearest likely weapons in the kitchen. He doubted it would progress that far, given her chilly temper, but nevertheless it’d be stupid to not take that into account. “I’m almost done. I’ll follow in a moment, so there’s no need to wait for me.”
“But you’re a guest. You’re not supposed to be doing chores.” The glasses clinked as her fingers tired of holding them apart. It sounded a lot like the edges of her consonants. Like Arthur, her accent grew more clipped when she was trying to hide her extreme displeasure.
“It’s fine. I used to live here and I washed the dishes then.” Just a guess on Tristan’s part, but the sudden coldness in the air told him he’d hit it. He shook the plate a few times to flick off the excess water before slotting it into the dishwasher rack. Then he turned around and leaned against the counter, steadily meeting Guinevere’s territorial gaze. “I’m not moving back in.”
She tilted her head. The warmth of her hands was fogging up the chilled glasses, which proved that she was indeed human. “I didn’t think you were.”
“You are thinking something,” Tristan said. The other reason he’d gone into forensic science was because the other career open to him was full of this very kind of double-talk and side-stepping, which he disliked with a passion. He preferred to discuss things in solid truths, however offensive.
“Guin, what in God’s name could take—Christ, now what?” Lancelot swung in the doorway and stopped, one hand still hanging off the frame. He looked rapidly back and forth between the two of them but kept his distance. And, very gradually, settled where he could drag Guinevere out of the way if he had to.
“I do have a question.” She put down the glasses and Tristan automatically twisted his body so she wouldn’t have a clear dive at the knife-rack. Guinevere briefly smiled and gave him a respectful nod, but then she was back to the matter at hand. “What are you to Arthur?”
Dropping his hand from the doorframe, Lancelot took one step towards Guinevere. “What the hell are you doing?” he whispered, obviously thinking it was low enough not to be distinguishable to Tristan.
“Figuring out how many damn claims we’re working against—with, working with.” Not only did Guinevere look flustered at her slip, but she also looked like she knew it. She wasn’t pretending she could cover up that one.
And that finally gave Tristan the key to the puzzle. “I’m not his son, and he never had those kinds of feelings for my mother. I don’t think they ever slept together, either.”
Guinevere’s head jerked up and her eyes flicked rapidly over his face, searching for the lie in his words. Beside her, Lancelot first looked incredulous and then downright contemptuous. “My God, Guin, you thought—”
“It’s not—well, he lets Tristan roam in here at all hours and he cares for him like he is his own…” She lifted her hands to her face and paced around Lancelot, then came back to shoot an embarrassed, relieved, grateful look at Tristan. The embarrassment almost immediately overwhelmed everything else, causing her to turn away to hide her face.
“People make that assumption a lot,” Tristan offered.
It didn’t reassure her so much as apparently irk her and she stomped into the dining room. Soon Tristan heard the sounds of food being angrily plopped onto plates.
Lancelot glanced over his shoulder before turning an apologetic face on Tristan. “Sorry. She doesn’t like making the same mistakes as everyone else, and speaking of, I have no idea where she…what that was about. Girls. They’re a bit funny in the head sometimes.”
Tristan allowed himself a tiny amused snort. “Duck.”
“What—fuck! Guin!” The other man narrowly missed being hit with a balled-up napkin.
Well, that had resolved itself much more easily than Tristan had expected. If Guinevere’s main worry had been that Arthur was being haunted by some former love, then she wasn’t quite as formidable as she’d appeared. Still intelligent of course, and a marvelous cook, as was proved by a taste of the mousse, but she wasn’t perfect. Good. Arthur really didn’t need someone to whom he could compare himself to find even more faults.
“So you’re just…” Lancelot was slowly climbing back to his feet. Well away from the door.
“Godson, originally. Arthur has an old-fashioned interpretation of that. Plus he tends to expand any responsibilities assigned to him, as you probably know.” Tristan helped himself to more mousse. It really was good, and that gave him a thought. He opened a cabinet, pulled out a small plastic container and scooped the rest into it. It’d probably taste even better on Gawain’s back, and given the stack of papers that had been on Gawain’s desk in the morning, he would need relaxing. “I am not what you need to worry about.”
Rolling his eyes, Lancelot picked up his mousse and dipped a spoon into it. “I know. I never was this patient before.”
“I thought you’d consider that an improvement,” Tristan said. He cheerfully ignored Lancelot’s irritated grunt and closed the box of mousse. “You could try writing a thesis on it.”
“And reinforce his reliance on bloody logic, logic, logic. No, thank you. He understands cause-and-effect too well already, in my opinion.” The spoon clinked hard as Lancelot stabbed it into his dessert, muttering dark little things about Arthur and paying too much attention to the brain and bloody Guin’s bloody cleverness. Though when Tristan put his hand on the doorknob, the other man looked up. “Oh, by the way—stop coming into the damned bedroom at night. But otherwise you’re not as bad as I thought.”
And Guinevere belatedly came back into the kitchen, somewhat stiff but still genuinely contrite. “Tristan, I’m sorry. I was afraid—it’s just very hard to know where to start with Arthur.”
The both of them really did want to start, and wanted to keep going, which was all Tristan had wanted to be sure of. “Not that I know what I’m talking about, but the mouth might be a good bet.”
He gave them a nod and slipped out the door while the conversation was still entertaining. If he had to make a conspicuous exit, he might as well do it on a high note.
Also, if he left now and cut across a couple rooftops, he could probably drag Gawain into a convenient sideroom before his boyfriend fell asleep at his desk.
* * *
It was a good thing Lancelot had had a neurotic burst of dusting yesterday, else both he and Guinevere would be covered in the gritty gray fluff. She sat back on her heels and pressed her hands against the aching small of her back while he straightened and stared down at their successfully installed stereo system. “How long before you think he notices?”
“Well, set his obsessive-compulsive addiction to order against his obliviousness to modern technological distractions…” Lancelot trailed off, staring at the half-open door. Then he walked over to it…
…and was promptly walked back away from it, Arthur’s hands on his hips and Arthur’s mouth on his neck. Guinevere heard a muffled, “Very, very sorry” and then a, “There’s no bloodstains, thank God” drift out.
Surprisingly enough, Lancelot wasn’t melting like he usually did, but instead was pushing and batting at Arthur’s shoulders. He gasped as one of Arthur’s hands disappeared between them, then firmed his resolve and smacked Arthur. “You cannot solve everything by fucking me, you knooo—ooooh. Oh, fuck. Wait. I was saying something.”
“No, but he can solve anything related to you that way.” She waited till Arthur had gotten Lancelot pinned against a desk before sauntering over and tapping Arthur on the shoulder. He lifted his head, blinked once and then caught her mouth in a deep, possessive kiss that took her off-guard. At the end of it Guinevere found herself breathlessly clinging to Lancelot’s arm so her knees wouldn’t give way. She threw her own arm over Arthur’s neck and pulled him back. “Missed you.”
“I know,” he breathed just before taking her mouth again.
Her eyes had been closing but at that, they fluttered back open. When he drew away, she was staring, cupping his face with her hand. “You’re a sneaky gutless bastard once in a while.”
Arthur dropped his eyes and looked so utterly guilty that it cracked Guinevere’s heart. “I know,” he said very quietly.
“I said stop trying to pass us off with fucking.” Though contrary to his words, Lancelot was weaseling himself deeper into Arthur’s hold. He caught Guinevere’s expression and made an innocent face back. “What? That’s a fuck-me face.”
“What?” Confused indignation temporarily chased the depression from Arthur.
Guinevere rolled her eyes and shoved Lancelot away so she could properly wrap her arms around Arthur. “Don’t listen to him; he’s an idiot. The dinner was fine, there were no murders, and you get a pass this time. But next time, I swear to God I’ll…I’ll…”
Arthur had taken something out of his pocket while she’d been speaking and had carefully folded it into her hand. Now he was handing something else to Lancelot, who stopped being a ruffled cat long enough to see what it was.
They were both sets of keys. Familiar-looking keys. Guinevere curled her fingers back around hers and slung herself against Arthur, nuzzling him. “You know we stole your set the day we moved in and had them all copied.”
“I noticed. But there’s ones on there that go to the lockboxes in the house. Which you don’t have. But I’d rather you didn’t use those till I at least pointed out the ones that trigger alarmmmm.”
Their third kiss was slow and sweet and would have been achingly lovely if Lancelot, prick that he was, hadn’t elbowed in during the middle of it to do something to Arthur’s ear. When Arthur drew away, he seemed considerably more comfortable with enjoying his welcoming. “I am really sorry.”
“Mouth. He was right,” muttered Lancelot. He drew up to take care of that problem, but at the last moment Arthur turned his head.
“Oh, and before I forget, Kitty made me go shopping after I stopped at the key store.” Arthur waved a hand at the doorway, which Guinevere now noticed was rather full of bags. And…Arthur was faintly blushing.
She dropped next to the bags and started to poke through them, but she had to stop a few moments later so she wouldn’t…well, either she was going to burst into uncontrollable laughter or she was going to pounce on Arthur and not let him up till well past suppertime. “You know, maybe you should invite Kitty over. She certainly seems to have a good idea of how to have fun.”
Lancelot was right about Arthur’s expressions begging one to kiss and lick them better, though Guinevere would never admit that to him. She’d just enjoy doing it.