|Giving Thanks I: Adventures in Stuffing
Author: Guede Mazaka
When Arthur found him, Lancelot was hunched up on the floor, curled in the doorway between the formal dining room and the main hall. He didn’t have a cigarette in his hand, but a thick cloud of smoke still hung about his face, and the edge of an ashtray peeked out from behind his legs. As usual, he’d yanked out the knot of his tie and his hair looked as if a hedgehog had tried to mate with it.
He tilted his head and frowned when he saw Arthur. “Is that Play-Doh in your ear?”
“Oh, damn. I thought I’d gotten all of it…” Arthur stopped taking off his coat in favor of digging out the offending bit of…well, of whatever went into Play-Doh. A sudden clanging from the direction of the kitchen made him dig his nail rather too hard into his ear. It also resulted in Lancelot using Arthur’s legs to do an excellent impression of a limpet. “Er.”
“She’s been in there since five in the morning,” Lancelot mumbled to Arthur’s knee. His hands nervously kneaded Arthur’s left ankle. “I went in to see if I could snitch a beer and she nearly took off my head with a gravy boat.”
Now that Arthur could see all of the ashtray, his eyebrows rose at the number of butts stubbed out in it. Lancelot wasn’t a heavy smoker—mostly because the smell clashed with his preferred aftershave, Arthur suspected—so that little detail made Arthur a bit worried. “I thought it was only her cousin who’s down at Georgetown that’s coming over.”
“Oh, yes, Elaine.” The fingers trying to pulverize Arthur’s ankle began to inch upward. A few let go to retrieve the longest butt from the ashtray so soon Arthur could feel the residual heat of the cigarette tip bobbing along by his leg. “Arthur, has it ever occurred to you to wonder why Guin is so touchy about you and other women?”
About as often as it’d occurred to Arthur to wonder about Lancelot’s similar behavior, but Arthur suspected he’d better not draw the comparison. He wadded up the clump of Play-Doh between his fingers, then finished pulling his other arm out of his coat-sleeve. The hem of his coat accidentally flopped over Lancelot, but the other man didn’t seem to mind much. Actually, Lancelot apparently took that as a signal to shift upwards. “Lancelot, has it occurred to you that you’re cutting off my blood circulation?”
“Oh. Oh, really? My apologies.” The fingers on Arthur’s leg loosened up enough to rub instead of clutch, which wasn’t exactly what Arthur had had in mind. Lancelot flipped around to mash Arthur’s toes with his arse instead of his knee and leaned his head against Arthur’s thigh, blowing meditative smoke rings. “Believe me, a cousin is not merely a cousin when they’re related to Guin. The men and women both. Make sure you know where Elaine’s hands are at all times.”
“I’ll make a note of it,” Arthur dryly said. He more or less did that anyway whenever he was in public with either Guinevere or Lancelot, so he didn’t think it’d be too difficult a stretch.
“And so to the Play-Doh: you were attacked by a rabid group of grade-school tots on your way home?” The smoke ring Lancelot blew perfectly framed the innocently curious look he was giving Arthur. For that matter, his hand currently was wandering very far from the part of Arthur’s leg that was hurting.
Arthur folded his coat over his arm, then glanced at the bit of Play-Doh he had. Even in the darkened hall, it glowed with a suspicious brightness; he only hoped that Kitty’s daughter was able to keep the little girl from eating too much of it. “No, I had a kind of Thanksgiving tea with Kitty’s family, like I told you last night. She had the most marvelous crumpets—it’s a shame neither of you could make it over. And her grandchildren grow more adorable every year.”
Lancelot narrowed his eyes as he looked at Arthur. “In other words, they utterly steamrolled you.”
“No,” Arthur weakly said. “I—”
Someone took a sledgehammer to a sheet of metal in the kitchen, while upstairs a window banged open. It was a close call whether Lancelot startling between Arthur’s legs or Arthur’s own surprise would do him in, but fortunately, he managed to retain his balance. And he pried Lancelot’s hands off his thigh.
“What happened? Did Tristan trip and trigger the apocalypse?” Lancelot asked, rolling away. He got back onto his feet, then bent over to retrieve the ashtray.
“I have no idea. It isn’t like him to be so…Tristan?” Arthur went over to the staircase and called up it. There had been a spate of freezing rain the night before, but it should have melted by now. “Tristan?”
“We’re fine,” Tristan called back. “A squirrel terrified Galahad. I’ll clean up the spot, so don’t worry about it.”
The spot? Perhaps Arthur should…no, he’d vowed to himself that he was not going to succumb to nerves during this Thanksgiving. He stepped back down to where Lancelot was badly hiding his snickers.
“I really don’t know why Guin’s so worried,” Lancelot laughed, coming up behind Arthur. He briefly leaned against Arthur’s back, then crossed to the hall-closet and got out his coat. “We’ll just sic your grad students on Elaine and that should keep her happy. Speaking of, I suppose I should go pick her up from the train station now.”
He came back for a quick peck on the lips that Arthur resolutely refused to turn into an excuse to make Lancelot late. Which sent Lancelot out with a bit of a pout, but given that Tristan, Gawain and Galahad were coming down the stairs just then, Arthur thought he’d made the best of the situation.
“So, um, thanks again for having us over,” Gawain said. He awkwardly retucked the casserole counter he was cradling so he could elbow Galahad hard.
Galahad glared at him and finished disentangling himself from his scarf at his own pace. “Yeah, thank you.” He looked around with an elaborate casualness that made Tristan turn away to stare at the wall with a very, very blank expression. “Is Mariette here yet?”
“No, she stayed over at Kitty’s to help clean up. She should be along in a half-hour or so,” Arthur said, hanging up his coat. He turned around and held out a hand for theirs, taking Tristan’s first. “Guinevere’s in the kitchen.”
“Oh. So could I put this in there? It’s pumpkin mousse, and it kind of needs to stay cold…” Gawain was already edging towards the kitchen when Tristan, cued by Arthur’s sudden frantic look, tugged him back.
Arthur finished with Galahad’s coat and hastily took the dish from Gawain. “No, I’ll take care of that. I was about to go check on Guinevere anyway and see how dinner was going.”
A good decision on Arthur’s part, because when he stepped into the kitchen, he wasn’t quite sure whether he’d entered a place for cooking or a Turkish torture chamber. It’d be Turkish because he knew Spanish ones didn’t come with billows of steam and a beautiful, curse-spewing female head that appeared to be free-floating among them.
Old reflexes kicked in and Arthur let them carry him to where the refrigerator was so he could safely put away Gawain’s dessert. He lingered a little longer than strictly necessary with his head in the fridge because he needed the cold air. It was absolutely sweltering in here.
“Arthur? Is that you?” Guinevere said. “Where in God’s name do you keep the garlic masher? And we did buy more than a pint of heavy cream, didn’t we? Damn it, it’s probably curdled…goddamn it, what time is it? Is that bit—is Elaine here yet?”
Instead of answering, Arthur ducked beneath the steam and let memory direct him around the kitchen till he’d gathered up everything for which Guinevere had asked him. He still tripped a few times since his mental map of the area didn’t include free-rolling onions, crumpled wrappers or what he devoutly hoped wasn’t actually his Joy of Cooking book smeared in drippings and run through with a steel kabob skewer, but his old training served him in good stead. When he finally stood up again, he managed to time it so Guinevere thwacked whatever was on the cutting board and not his hand, which was gripping the counter a few inches away.
“Lancelot just went to get her,” he told Guinevere. “The garlic masher’s on the right, there’s half a quart of heavy cream left in the refrigerator, and I brought you some lemon tarts from Kitty’s.”
“Oh, do I look like I have time for dessert? I’m going to die in this damned turkey.” She made a jab with something that flashed in the general direction of a slightly more humped section of steam. But her tone had softened a little bit. “Why the hell do Americans have to cook turkey? It’s probably not historically correct, and moreover, it’s too damn big to cook every section properly in a standard oven. The breast is always too dry!”
The oven in Arthur’s kitchen actually was a top-notch gourmet deal with a few extra settings courtesy of an extremely bored Tristan and one endlessly rainy afternoon, but Arthur didn’t mention it. He didn’t think Guinevere’s nerves could stand a correction at the moment, no matter how gentle it was.
She’d promptly turned back to what Arthur assumed was the counter by the sink and was chopping away at something. Sometime earlier she’d bundled her hair up into a bun, but since then it’d grown about as tight as a newborn baby’s grasp on walking. Arthur slipped around Guinevere, stumbling a little over something squishy on the way, then deftly reknotted it.
“I heard the window,” Guinevere said a little more softly. She turned her neck into Arthur’s hands, but shook him back almost as soon as he was done. “Tristan?”
“And Galahad and Gawain. I need to have a word with him—my second-floor windows aren’t built to take three people picking their locks every day.” When the thud of the knife slowed for a moment, Arthur stepped forward and put his hands on her elbows. He winced and quickly shifted them to her waist, leaning forward to rub his nose at the base of her bun. She smelled of crushed herbs with a hint of roasted meat, a bit of a change from the sleek spice notes she favored in perfume. An appealing one, he decided. “Everything smells wonderful. It’ll probably be the best turkey Tristan has ever had.”
Guinevere laughed sharply and shook her head, but didn’t shove him away this time. “Either you or Lancelot is doing the cooking for Christmas. Dear God, Elaine is going back to Cardiff to see the rest of the family in two weeks, and the first thing they’re going to ask is if Agent Interpol’s remembered she’s a woman yet.”
“I really don’t see how anyone could forget.” Arthur pressed his nose deep into her hair, then withdrew to kiss the back of her neck. “Thank you for doing this, by the way. It’s only for Tristan and my grad students, but—”
“As if Tristan wouldn’t notice if his father-figure’s girlfriend refused to have him over for Thanksgiving. And when about all he knows about his father was that he had an American citizenship. Leave the honey-tongued nonsense to Lancelot, Arthur. At least I can smack him for it.” Though the tidbit of fresh-baked roll that Guinevere slipped into Arthur’s hand as he left belied her sharp words. Her frenzied cooking seemed to have regained some order as well, which in turn gave Arthur a lighter step.
* * *
While Arthur had been in the kitchen, Mariette had shown up—at the front door, thankfully—and Tristan was just letting her in when Arthur walked into the hall. Mariette gave Arthur a wave and gazed nonchalantly around the place as she slid out of her coat. “Have any of the others come yet?” she asked.
Tristan appeared to be suffering a terminal case of silent amusement, so Arthur answered. “Lancelot’s gone to pick up Guinevere’s cousin from the train station. Gawain and Galahad are in…”
“The living room. They’ve discovered Arthur’s secret collection of spaghetti westerns and think The Good, The Bad and The Ugly makes a good backdrop to an argument about next semester’s schedule,” Tristan supplied. He got Mariette’s coat before Arthur could, which caused Mariette to skitter back a little and eye him like anyone else would a sleeping tiger. “Guinevere’s in the kitchen.”
Whereupon Mariette offered to help her and Arthur declined in Guinevere’s name. Possibly Guinevere could have needed the aid, but whether she could accept it right now was another matter. She seemed to treat special-occasion cooking as an opportunity to combine knifework with energetic self-therapy.
“I’m sorry that I could not bring anything,” Mariette finally said. She contradicted herself by producing a winebottle-shaped package wrapped in brown paper, which she handed to Arthur. “But my parents send this with their thanks, and hope that the traveling conditions did not spoil it much.”
“Well, thank you very much. I’ll be sure to give them a call later, and in the meantime, go ahead and join the others. And there’s no need for apologies. It’s enough to have some young spirits in the house,” Arthur replied, smiling.
Mariette flushed a little, mumbled a reply and hastily backed into the other room. Tristan stared at the ceiling, the corners of his mouth twitching. “You know she used to have a crush on you?”
“No, and I didn’t really need to know that.” Arthur peeled down the wrapping enough to see how long of a phone call he’d need to make. His eyebrow rose a little and he pushed the wrapping back up. He probably should stick this one where he’d kept all the lockboxes and other info-stashes that he’d had to move in order to prepare for company; there was no way he could keep a straight face if Lancelot drank a glass of it. Not after what’d happened the last time. “Please compliment Guinevere on her cooking, by the way.”
“That won’t be too hard. It already smells better than yours, and this is only her second try at cooking one, isn’t it?” The look Tristan shot Arthur was brimming with barely-subdued mockery.
Arthur glowered at the other man, but only half-heartedly. It’d only been three weeks since Tristan and Gawain’s breach had been bridged, so Arthur was too relieved to see that Tristan seemed to be back to normal to mind much about his pride. Anyway, Guinevere was right; any sensible person would carve up the turkey first and cook the white and dark meat separately since they obviously had different optimal conditions, but for some reason, it wasn’t considered genuine roast turkey unless it was done whole.
“I believe so—” Arthur started to say, but he was interrupted by the ring of his cellphone. He frowned as he answered it, since he’d been careful to make sure that no one would have reason to call him till Friday afternoon at earliest.
It was a short, curt call. After ending it, Arthur looked up to see solemnity casting a stark chill over Tristan’s face. All the humor was gone, and in its place was a calm waiting that had iced more than one brave man’s blood.
For a moment, Arthur saw Tristan’s mother there.
Then he shook himself and looked rapidly about, debating and discarding plans of action. A pointless endeavor since his feet had already made up his mind—he reached for his coat and had it on within the minute. “Don’t let them know. Tell Guinevere when she doesn’t have a knife in her hand.”
“Are you going to need anything?” Tristan asked. He already had the front door open for Arthur.
“I need to borrow your car, but nothing else. Stay here. I’ll take care of it,” Arthur said, swinging himself down the steps.
No, he wasn’t going to take care of it. He was going to throw up some stopgap measures and then retreat for the holidays to lie wide awake through the night, feeling the cold breeze of loss prickle his skin again. And in the morning he was going to get up, and take a chance that’d bring him one step closer to tipping the delicate balance between past and present that he’d made for himself.
* * *
The train station had already resumed regular business by the time Arthur arrived there, so he didn’t bother to go looking at where it’d happened. He already knew what the modus operandi would be anyway—that was the curse of the old hand.
Pellew met him at the door. “You made it over quick. I thought the traffic would be terrifically bad.”
“It is terrifically bad.” Arthur nodded shortly to the other man.
After a long look, Pellew pivoted to walk beside Arthur. He briefly outlined what had happened, the resulting casualties, and what he needed from Arthur, which was thankfully short and brief and could be taken care of on the spot.
“The girl’s all right. Not as shaken as you’d think, but then I suppose it runs in Guinevere’s family. From what I hear, she even got in a good swing at one of them,” Pellew said. He directed them down a hall, weaving them around Interpol and local law enforcement officers, and finally stopped them at a door. “I’m sorry to make you start off the holiday like this.”
At that, Arthur willed himself to look less stonefaced. He even managed to produce weary smile. “Oh, don’t. It’s hardly you ruining the day. I know the risks that come with the job.”
“Yes, well, you do.” Something in Pellew’s tone, rueful though it was, made Arthur look sharply at him, but Pellew had already turned away and was yards down the hall.
He probably meant nothing by it, Arthur finally decided. And even if he had, it was currently of secondary importance. It could wait till after Arthur had pushed open this door.
Doing that took him a few moments. He leaned forward, head bowed, then straightened up with a composed face. The door swung easily at his touch.
“…that good in bed? I mean, there’s two of you—oh, hello!” The girl that’d been crowding Lancelot bounced up from her seat to stick a hand out at Arthur. She was tall and dark-haired and good-looking, but there the likeness between her and Guinevere ended. Elaine looked as if she’d never had anything more intense than a triple shot of espresso in her life. “You must be Arthur.”
Lancelot sat back with his feet up on what had been Elaine’s seat, hand drifting up to adjust the bandage on his shoulder. His expression was a cross between sardonic and pained—not at Elaine’s impressively high spirits, but at the his bullet-graze, Arthur judged. “That would be Arthur. Arthur, Elaine. Elaine, Arthur. Everyone, me.”
Arthur smiled with closed lips and briskly shook Elaine’s hand with what he hoped was the appropriate mix of worry, relief and shock on his face. “It’s good to meet you, though I never expected it’d be under such circumstances. The car’s—”
Thump went Lancelot’s feet on the ground. “You brought the car? You drove?”
“Did they give you anything?” The first instinct Arthur had was to tip up Lancelot’s chin and check the dilation of his pupils, but he suspected that that might be a little too revealing. He settled for helping Lancelot get on his coat.
“Just your standard pathetic painkillers that I’m going to toss out in favor of something that works as soon as possible,” Lancelot said, giving Arthur an odd look. Then he winced and clutched at his shoulder. “That’s going to put a crimp in my life for the next month. And I lost my cell phone, too.”
Elaine leaned against the opposite wall and laughed. “Well, according to Guinnie, you should be used to that by now.”
“Some things you just don’t get used to.” Lancelot said it with a smile, but his eyes were anything but amused.
“Like bullets, I suppose.” A shadow that Arthur thought was genuine passed over Elaine’s face. She got the door for them, then slid up on Arthur’s other side. “God. They sound a lot different from how I’d expected—not that I was planning to get shot at during my life, mind, but…well, they’re a bit more ‘poppy.’”
“That’d be the silencers. Must’ve been on their way to a job,” Lancelot said. He leaned slightly so the folds of his and Arthur’s coats brushed against each other; Arthur almost missed the first touch of Lancelot’s fingers on his wrist because of that. They pressed hard into his tendon, then curled down to wrap in Arthur’s fingers.
Then Lancelot had to swerve to avoid being run over by a man walking the opposite way, but didn’t quite make it. He hissed and let go of Arthur to grab at his shoulder again.
“How was your trip? Aside from this end, of course,” Arthur said to Elaine. He could sense Lancelot staring at him, but made himself ignore it. Though he did let himself take Lancelot by the elbow under the pretense of guiding the other man.
“Oh, not bad. I got most of my reading done so that leaves the whole weekend free,” Elaine replied in a bright tone. She smiled up at Arthur. “I have to say, I’m quite pleased to be the first of the family to meet Guinnie’s mystery man. We’ve all been talking nonstop about you.”
Lancelot coughed. “Must make a change from wondering whether Guin and I were ever going to kill each other,” he muttered.
“I hope I haven’t disappointed.” Once they were out front, Arthur led them through the crowd and to the cab at the curb. He nodded to the driver, who’d been leaning against the door waiting for them; the man opened the door so discreetly that neither Elaine nor Lancelot noticed at first.
“Oh!” Elaine paused briefly, then shrugged and swung her bag and herself into the backseat.
Lancelot stopped on the very edge of the curb once he’d realized Arthur meant the cab and not Guinevere’s car. He started to say something, then turned around to give Arthur a disbelieving look.
Arthur gritted his teeth and pushed Lancelot into the car, deliberately pressing just enough at Lancelot’s wounded shoulder so the other man couldn’t resist. “Pellew asked me to stay back for a few moments. I’ll come after you,” he called as he shut the door.
The driver knew his business and was around to his seat before Lancelot could do more than gape open-mouthed at Arthur. A good thing, because Arthur’s lie had been a poor one and wasn’t going to last more than the time it took for the cab to pull into traffic. Lancelot wasn’t drugged and wasn’t stupid; he’d figure out that for Arthur to have the cab waiting meant he’d planned this before he’d even walked inside to meet Pellew.
Later Arthur was going to have a good deal of apologizing to do, but for the moment, he was content to let cold rage carry him to Tristan’s car. He threw it in gear, then pulled into the street in the opposite direction.
Even in New York City, there were ways to work the traffic, and even if Arthur preferred to walk, he kept himself knowledgeable about driving. He only needed a few minutes before the streets turned cracked and pitted, the buildings like smashed teeth. Tristan’s car fit in perfectly here, and for all Arthur knew, maybe it was a regular visitor. Some of the details Tristan had mentioned to Arthur had smacked of personal surveillance.
It was Thanksgiving, but the particular corner drugstore that Arthur wanted was still open. One man lay stretched out on one side of its steps, the occasional roll of his eyes the only sign that he was still alive. The man himself was the only sign of life on the streets. He didn’t look as Arthur walked past him.
Clayton glanced up from the counter, then looked up, eyes wide with shock. His hands moved, but Arthur was already across from him and yanking him forward so his palms slammed down on the counter, open and empty.
“Dear God,” Clayton finally said. “I heard rumors you’d resurfaced, but didn’t believe…so you are still around.”
“No, I’m not. I’m happily not around, and my happiness involves certain people that your current employers seem to dislike. Understandably, since your employers are considerably less than legal and the people for whom I’m concerned work for the opposite side.” Arthur stopped to adjust his grip on Clayton’s shirt, then slowly turned around to look at what apparently was one of the tilted mirrors shopkeepers used to see around aisles. “If I have to come back, I’d be deeply unhappy. Unhappy.”
After a breath, Clayton nodded. Then, oddly, he smiled. It started as a jerk of his face muscles, but soon grew into a full-blown grimace. “Arthur. I know what you can do. I’ve seen it, I believe it. But you and I both know what desperation and fear and violence can do. And you know what other things, like love and all those beautiful things, can do, but I don’t. I’m still around.”
First Arthur jerked Clayton forward, then he dropped him and recoiled. He put his hands on the counter and hunched over, breathing hard. Tried to clear his head. Something clicked and Arthur rolled his eyes. “Don’t be stupid. You know I wouldn’t walk into here without a weapon unless I had good reasons behind me.”
“I’m not stupid.” When Arthur looked up, Clayton had just finished lighting his cigarette. He flicked his cigarette lighter shut with a nervous gesture. “It figures, you know. They’re the best I’ve seen—driving my employers, as you so delicately put it, up the wall. Of course they’d be yours.”
Arthur shook his head, then stepped back from the counter. He pinched the bridge of his nose and stared out the door. The street was still empty except for the man on the steps.
“You can only do so much by pressuring us, the footsoldiers,” Clayton quietly said. “Sooner or later you have to choose whether you’re willing to pressure the generals.”
“And that’s the same as saying step back into the round.” After a moment, Arthur came back to the counter. He picked up the first thing his hand touched—a pack of cigarettes—and tossed it to Clayton, then pulled out enough bills to cover its price. “Why did you? You could have left.”
“Ah, yes, but I suppose some can and some just can’t.” Clayton shrugged and made change, which he pushed over. He smiled briefly at how Arthur waited for him to take his hand off it before reaching for it himself. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
The change Arthur took, the cigarettes he left on the counter. He waited for Clayton to shake one out of the pack before he turned towards the door.
“If it helps, I’ll keep this discussion between us,” Clayton suddenly said.
“If you think it’s right.” Arthur paused another second, then headed out to the car without any further delay. He automatically checked the rearview window, then did a double-take. After a moment, he let that bitter smile widen.
He took the long way home. He needed the time to think.