|Giving Thanks II: Lumps in the Gravy
Author: Guede Mazaka
“We almost were shot coming here, so I hope your potatoes have improved, Guinnie” caroled Elaine’s voice.
Guinevere gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to—then she whirled around and stuck her head into the hall. “What?”
“Ran into a goddamn team at the station, probably on their way to kill off rival diamond fences in Brooklyn,” Lancelot snapped, brushing past her. Then he turned around and caught her elbow to drag her back into the kitchen. “One of them was Gregory; he saw me and it went downhill from there. But never mind that because Arthur’s lost his damn mind.”
“Where is he?” Guinevere instantly said, trying to push past Lancelot. Then she got a look at his face and shut up. She put her hand on his shoulder to shove him all the way into the kitchen, then jerked back in surprise.
Lancelot badly hid his grimace of pain. His coat was already half-off, so she pulled it the rest of the way, then ran her fingers over the bandage that swathed his shoulder. The bandages were wide but not thickly layered, and he snatched away her hand with enough force to tell her that whatever had happened to him hadn’t hit anything serious.
“Muscle nick. They didn’t even send me home in a sling. Though for all that, I might as well have gone to the hospital because Arthur just took off. He shoved us in a cab and I had to put up with your chatty little cousin all the way home, and I swear to God I’m going to—ow! Injured man, here!” He jerked his hand away from Guinevere’s spoon and sank back against the counter, pouting.
Spoon still up, Guinevere slid the tray of ginger snaps farther down the island counter. “Wounded but not dead, so no stealing cookies and no distracting me from the fact that you let Arthur go tearing off. On Thanksgiving. After I’ve cooked this gigantic meal and with my cousin over and his adopted-whatever son and—”
Lancelot turned to the cabinets, opened one, and pulled out a bottle of tequila and a pair of shotglasses. It must have been his, since if Guinevere was taking something straight, she preferred to do it with whiskey, and Arthur just didn’t indulge unless they were making him. He shoved a shot at her.
Certainly was not whiskey, but in a pinch, it’d do. Guinevere coughed a little, then leaned back against the sink to rinse out the glass. “Do you know where he went?”
“No clue. Did he tell you anything? Has Tristan started pulling maps yet?” After taking a shot himself, Lancelot looked seriously at her. “Can we go rope him in and drag him home now?”
“You’re a British twat and you do a horrible cowboy impression and we have guests,” Guinevere snapped. She glanced around the kitchen: the turkey was done, the cranberry compote could come out of the fridge now, the vegetables simmering on the stove were giving off a wonderful smell. “I didn’t even know he’d left. Damn it, Tristan had better compliment that turkey or I’ll stuff the wishbone up his secretive arse. He had to have known.”
“I’d hope so. Your car’s still in the garage, so unless Arthur’s taken his walking mania to new heights, he’s in Tristan’s car.” The tequila bottle seemed to fascinate Lancelot for several seconds. He curved his hand around to slide a nail beneath one corner of the label, then shook himself and shoved the bottle back into the cabinet.
Guinevere put her hands up to her face and pressed hard at her eyes. She took a deep breath and made herself think. In the other room, she could hear Elaine’s voice occasionally soaring over the deeper rumbles of Gawain and Galahad. Her cousin seemed to have recovered damn quick, but to give Elaine her due, she’d lived four years in Belfast when she was a teenager.
“Christmas comes round, Arthur is cooking because then we can make sure he stays put,” she finally said. Some searching around turned up the spatula and Guinevere used it to scoop the potatoes into a more decorative bowl. “All right, go out there and be witty and entertaining. And send in Tristan to help me carry all this out to the table.”
“Wait, why don’t I stay in here and you go out? We’re both men, so I’d probably have a better chance at getting him to open up.” Lancelot straightened up and pulled at his shirt, doing up the buttons. He started to fiddle with his tie, then muttered beneath his breath and irritably flipped it away. And then he cursed loudly and distinctly as he reached for his shoulder.
She nodded towards it. “Because of that, and because you just had to get shot on Thanksgiving. Now get out of here so I can panic in private.”
“It wasn’t like I was trying for it! And—oh, fine, curse in Welsh. It’s not like I can’t still figure out what you’re saying from your tone. Also, I’m changing into a nonbloody shirt first.” The way Lancelot stomped off had about all the grace of an injured bull. To which, frankly, he bore more than a passing resemblance.
Guinevere turned around and picked up the first dish. She put it back down. Then she picked it back up. Then she put it back down and put her head down while she was at it. A moment later she was vaguely grateful for the fact that she’d chosen one with a lid, since that meant she wasn’t smushing her hair into the food. After everything that she’d done with it, she didn’t need to seal the deal by getting that close.
Oh, damn him.
Feet clicked across tile and Guinevere jerked up, then hastily ran her fingers through her hair. A few seconds later, Tristan wandered into the room. He wasn’t making any noise; Guinevere spent a moment admiring how tactful that had been and then another one thinking about how much that reminded her of Arthur. She picked up the dish so hard that she nearly chipped it on the edge of the counter. “Grab that one there,” she said, pointing with her chin.
Tristan obligingly did. He set it down where she wanted it to go without her having to tell him, then went back into the kitchen for the next one.
“You know, I specifically asked Arthur whether he knew any of these smugglers. Especially the one that seems to be point man—Benedict Clayton.” Guinevere lifted the lid and couldn’t help but inhale as clouds of fragrant steam came wafting up at her. She put the lid down, then put it down again—the first time, her hand had been shaking a little too much. “He said he’d heard of the man. No, he said he ‘knew of’ him.”
“That’s probably the best way to put it.” A golden-brown turkey, which looked just as damned good as any magazine cover, was plunked down in front of Guinevere. Then Tristan leaned back against one of the chairs, absently licking his finger. “It’s hard to say you know a man after something like ten years.”
She slapped her hands down on the table. “Are you defending him?”
Tristan’s eyebrow went up. “Are you attacking him?”
“Yes. No. This wouldn’t be a problem if he wasn’t so—so—oh, my God.” Guinevere yanked out a chair with her foot and dropped hard into it. The thump hurt her hipbones, but she couldn’t even muster up the energy to hiss. “Tell me he’s not being an idiot right now.”
Silence from Tristan’s corner. After a moment, his feet walked around her and back into the kitchen. He quietly set the remaining dishes on the table.
“I’m going to kill him,” Guinevere muttered. “Kill him and keep him and why is this so complicated? Goddamn it, say something. Don’t just stand there.”
“Arthur’s being a man that can’t not care,” Tristan said. He poked at the centerpiece a few times, nudging some of the flowers back into position. “He’ll be back. It’s impolite for the host to be absent.”
The laugh cracked its way out of Guinevere’s chest. It rattled around in her mouth for a few seconds before it finally made it all the way into the open. She slid her hand over her lips afterward and pressed hard, then swiped her fingers over her eyes. A damp streak of eyeshadow came off on her fingers and she rubbed at it. “He’d better be back for a better reason than that.”
She thought her voice was steadier that time. Tristan certainly looked a little less blank, so he must have thought she was calming down, too. “I’m sure he is, but I honestly don’t want to know that much about Arthur’s and your’s private lives,” he said. “Bring in the rest in five minutes?”
“Seven. I need to go repowder my face.” Guinevere slowly pushed herself up from the table. She stopped to take a good look at the table and smiled a little; it was nice to know that had gone well, at least. “Tristan?”
“I have no idea where he is. If I started making calls, I might be able to find out where he’s been, but he’s moving too fast.” There wasn’t a shred of doubt in Tristan’s voice. He didn’t stick in any kind of modifying probability. He just knew, and Guinevere believed he knew correctly.
The smile on Guinevere’s face got its knobs twisted so her skin felt too tight. She wrapped her arms around herself, then dropped them and headed for the bathroom. “Thanks.”
At least no one could throw up anything worse. Who cared about family dramatics at a time like this?
* * *
“…and then he drank it! My God, you should’ve seen the guy’s face when we finally got somebody that knew enough French to tell him what was really in it,” Elaine giggled, stabbing at her turkey. She kept on laughing so her hair fell charmingly in front of her face.
Mariette appeared to be contemplating the many ways in which a butter knife could be creatively employed, while beside her, Galahad was desperately trying to swallow his laughter. Judging by the way that end of the table was moving, Gawain was helping along that process with multiple kicks to the shin.
Elaine’s charm was lost on Lancelot as well, whose eyes were rolling more than the cranberries in his spoon. “I swear, I’m going to kill Arthur just for skipping out on yet another uncomfortable but socially crucial dinner,” he muttered. “Tristan, some more greens?”
“Thank you.” Tristan took the bowl, flicked out a clump and passed it across the table to Elaine. “Did you have any yet?”
“No, but thanks! Guinnie’s greens are one of her best dishes. They always made up for what she did to the meat.” When she took the bowl, Elaine smiled with eyelashes fluttering at full speed. Gawain stopped kicking Galahad and started paying more attention to the rest of the table.
Guinevere would be lucky if she didn’t bite her own teeth in half before the night was over. Between the nickname and Elaine’s playacting at being a stupid bimbo, it would have been a trying enough dinner to necessitate restocking the aspirin, but with Arthur out running around to do God knew what, Guinevere’s blood pressure was soaring to interesting new levels.
“The turkey is very good,” Tristan said.
“Oh, I agree. Much better—not bloody or black this time.” Elaine vigorously nodded. She forked up a generous helping into her mouth, then made exaggerated noises of delight while beaming at Guinevere. Her eyes were dancing in a very different way. “Wonderful stuff, cousin. Your mother’s going to be thrilled to hear about it.”
Smiling was an effort. It was a good thing the table was very thick so Guinevere had plenty of wood in which to sink her fingernails. “It’s very considerate of you to volunteer to inform her.”
“How long have you been in America?” Mariette called over. She was cutting her turkey into precise diamonds before she dipped them in the gravy and finally popped the pieces in her mouth. Her eyes were narrow, cold, and on Elaine instead of her plate.
“About three years. I came over for my law degree. Mariette, could you pass down the butter?” Clearly Elaine didn’t think much of Mariette, because she was smiling at Tristan again. Tristan was concentrating on deboning his turkey wing, using a little more flourish with the knife than was strictly necessary. If he thought that’d put off Elaine, he was dead wrong; she only grinned wider.
Mariette handed the butter boat to Galahad, then cocked her head. “You would be almost done, then? Law school is about three years, yes?”
Oh, good guess and nice shot. Guinevere silently applauded how quick the other woman was. Maybe Elaine was blood, but she could stand to blush a little.
“I’m taking a fourth year,” Elaine admitted. Her smile was still bright, but its wattage had noticeably diminished. “My advisor just put together this new clinic class on immigration law and I didn’t want to miss an opportunity like that.”
“Of course not. I would like to remain at Avalon as long as possible to take advantage of all the opportunities, but money, money, money. You must be very fortunate if you can afford a fourth year—you have a scholarship?” Honey and cyanide had nothing on Mariette’s tone. Even Galahad had noticed.
Elaine flushed and clanked her knife around in the butterboat. “Not exactly. I did, but it was discontinued.”
Lancelot coughed. He didn’t look like he wanted to all that much, but occasionally he’d bite down and do the sensible thing. “So Gawain, Arthur says that you aren’t teaching next semester. Relieved?”
“Man, yeah. I mean, not that I hate being a GSI…okay, okay, I did and you can stop looking at me like that, Galahad,” Gawain said, hastily sitting up. He looked more relieved that Elaine and Mariette hadn’t ended up strangling each other, to tell the truth.
Galahad looked disappointed, but then, he was straight and probably had been fantasizing about a female-wrestling scenario. Guinevere was disappointed as well, but she supposed it wouldn’t work out too well if she sent a humiliated Elaine back to Wales. Or if she let Mariette murder her cousin in Arthur’s house.
God damn Arthur, but where was he? If he didn’t show up soon, Guinevere might forget about why she cared so much that his house stayed clean. That his life stayed clean.
“Speaking of Arthur, where is he?” Galahad asked.
Tristan promptly gave him a hard stare, but it didn’t penetrate far enough. Galahad kept looking at Guinevere and Lancelot so they couldn’t look at each other and try to settle on some kind of story.
“Oh, they kept him back at the train station,” Elaine said. She gazed thoughtfully at her glass. “But it’s been a long time. And isn’t it funny that they’d keep him and not Lancelot or me? I mean, I was there getting shot at too. Or does he work for Interpol? Oh, I know! He’s a secretly a secret agent, isn’t he?”
Everyone except Galahad and Mariette coughed uncomfortably. Mariette just looked confused while Galahad snorted. He slouched in his seat and absently twirled his spoon. “Are you kidding me? Arthur’s a college professor. He gets twitchy if his Powerpoint slides are out of order. He’d be a terrible spy.”
“I think he’d look good as one,” Elaine retorted, but only half-heartedly.
Gawain looked as if he couldn’t decide whether to bang his head hard on the table or to give Galahad a clap on the shoulder for such great acting. Tristan just looked as if he wanted to bang somebody’s head.
“Well, looks can be deceiving,” Lancelot finally said. “Arthur probably just is stuck in traffic; he doesn’t drive that much to begin with, and we’re in the middle of holiday rush hour. Now, would anyone feel guilty if we brought out dessert? I’m of the opinion that Arthur is a compassionate, kind man and wouldn’t want us to suffer in his absence.”
If Tristan asked, Guinevere could now give him a suggestion as to whose head he should be banging. Honestly. Goddamn it, Arthur needed to get home.
“I don’t mind, but I’ve just got to skip out a moment. Guinnie, where’s the loo?” Elaine asked.
Mariette stood up before Guinevere could answer, a sweet smile on her face. “I can show you. I need to go as well.”
Blinking, Elaine rapidly searched for an excuse to decline and equally rapidly, failed to come up with one. “Oh…thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” Mariette breezily said. “This way!”
* * *
Head down, Galahad mumbled through the flesh of his arm. “Is anyone screaming? Is blood dripping through the ceiling? Has my girlfriend turned into a murderer yet?”
“No,” Tristan said.
“Girlfriend?” Gawain said.
Galahad lifted his head. “Slip of the tongue. She’s not my girlfriend. She will kill if that word is mentioned. So will I, come to think of it.”
“So was that a Freudian slip, or just a stupid one?” Gawain asked. He held up his hands when Galahad turned to glare at him. “Kidding. Nice save on the Arthur question. And while we’re on the topic—where is he, anyway?”
The second question was addressed in the general direction of Tristan, Lancelot and Guinevere; Gawain’s eyes couldn’t seem to decide on whom to settle. Tristan conveniently had his mouth full of turkey and couldn’t answer. Lancelot tried to brazen it out. “Like I said, probably traffic.”
“Right. And begging your pardon, but you two wouldn’t look a little nervous over traffic. And you—” Gawain twisted to his right to look at Tristan. He didn’t say anything, just stared. Tristan stared back. They had what came off as a weird staring conversation.
Galahad rolled his eyes and put his head back down. “Stop that. That’s fucking creepy—it’s always fucking creepy. And don’t tell me I’ll get used to it. It’s been a week and I can already tell you, I ain’t getting used to it.”
“Let’s go get the mousse,” Tristan finally said, getting up. He and Gawain quickly retreated to the kitchen, and after a moment, Galahad wandered after them.
As soon as they were gone, Lancelot turned to Guinevere. “So? What’d Tristan have to say?”
“Not much, and vague as usual. If I understood him right, Arthur at least knows who Clayton is. Or did know him—Tristan said something about you can’t say you know someone if you haven’t seen them in ten years.” Guinevere picked up her wineglass, then put it down. It was good wine, but in her current mood, she didn’t think it was worth it if she couldn’t reach catatonic after one glass.
“Didn’t you ask him if he knew Clayton?” Lancelot sat up and pushed into Guinevere’s space, as if it was her fault Arthur was a better liar than either of them had thought.
She didn’t give an inch. “I did, and he said he didn’t, and I’m going to burn his arse for this.” Guinevere put her head in her hands, then lifted her head again. “You know, it’s less that he went off again without even leaving a voicemail. It’s that he looked at me and lied.”
“If you go by Tristan’s theory, Arthur merely told a half-truth,” Lancelot said. Then he rolled his eyes. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m just mentioning it, I didn’t say I believed it. You weren’t the only one that got that—I’ve been complaining to Arthur for months about this case and he hasn’t said a word. And we could’ve used the—the—damn it.”
“Exactly. We said we were fine with him telling us on a need-to-know basis, as long as he didn’t use it as an excuse to stonewall forever. But this should be different. This is different. This is…oh, hi, girls. I see you found the bathroom without too much trouble,” Guinevere said, spotting Mariette and Elaine. She forced herself to look mildly welcoming.
A split second later, Gawain came out with the mousse. His nervousness about letting them see it and subsequent disbelief at all the compliments he received kept everyone distracted so Guinevere could sneak off to the kitchen. She figured she could get some of the dishes soaking while she tried to sort things out in her head.
“I’m sure you had your reasons, Arthur, but the fact is that we are professionals and we do sign a wavier when Interpol issues us our guns. If you don’t want to discuss something, you can say that you don’t want to talk about it,” she muttered, scrubbing at the counter. The flour she’d spilled while thickening up the gravy had mixed with the juices of something to form a gooey, persistent paste that resisted her rag. She scrubbed harder. “You don’t have to lie to us. That—that shows a profound disrespect, because obviously you don’t think we can handle it maturely. And it shows a lack of trust and a hell of a lot of…”
“…stupidity. Exactly.” Guinevere rubbed for another few seconds, then jerked around so hard she nearly fell off her heels. She grabbed for the counter. “Arthur! Christ!”
He was leaning against the frame of the back door, hands in his coat-pockets. He looked as if he’d just spent the night walking through an AIDS hospice in Africa. “Did I miss most of dinner?”
“You—you—” A second later, Guinevere fell back against the counter. She flapped her stinging hand a couple times. “You have one hell of a cheekbone,” she said.
Arthur hadn’t so much as winced, but now he slowly lifted a hand to his cheek and rubbed at it. “I deserved that.”
“You—you—” What, exactly, was it about this man that could reduce Guinevere to stuttering? The day she found out was the day she got rid of it.
Except she didn’t mean that. Guinevere wrapped her arms around herself and leaned against the counter. “Clayton.”
“I’m always going to wonder now whether I could’ve kept Lancelot from being shot if I’d mentioned more beforehand,” Arthur said. He shifted his shoulder, then turned to slide his arm fully out of his coat. He paused, then finished taking off his coat. “Clayton’s from one of the worse episodes in my life. I haven’t seen him in years—I didn’t even bother to keep track of him. I didn’t want to know where he was because it’d only remind me.”
“I hope you don’t think this excuses what you did, and I don’t only mean the lying. The running off—Arthur, what the hell were you doing? You think it’ll make us any happier if you get hurt or killed while on some idiotic quest to—to avenge us? Lancelot’s not even in a sling! He’s not getting any sick days for this!” Guinevere snapped, stalking forward. She grabbed his shirt and did her best to shake him, though his height and weight worked hard against her. “You could have called!”
Then she kissed him. Hard. When they came up for air, she could feel the imprint of his teeth in her lips. She’d meant to yell at him some more, but the words wouldn’t come and her hands were yanking him back anyway. Her hand slid into his hair and squeezed, rubbing the coarse hairs between her fingers. His hands curved to her waist and pulled upward, then pressed over her back as if they were saying goodbye forever.
They damned well weren’t. She dug in her nails till he walked her backwards and the counter bumped her spine. She groaned and slung her arm over his neck, wiggling because there wasn’t enough room to hop up on the counter.
Someone knocked. “You’re missing dessert,” Tristan said.
“Oh.” Arthur twisted around to nod at Tristan, then pressed his face into the curve of Guinevere’s neck. “I didn’t miss everything.”
“No. You are not off the hook. In fact—come on. You’re suffering a little of my cousin, damn it. God, I was worried.” Guinevere slowed in her dragging of them towards the door. “I was worried,” she repeated.
“I’m sorry,” Arthur said. After a moment, he leaned in and this time, she turned away. He sucked in his breath and kissed her on the temple instead.
Goddamn it. God—Guinevere loosened her grip on his wrist so she could twine together their hands. “I’m still incredibly furious at you. It’s so damned hard to love you sometimes.”
“I know—” Arthur stopped and looked sharply at her.
She yanked hard on his arm before he could comment. God, she hoped her eyeshadow was holding up; not much else was. “Guess who showed up, everyone?”