Author: Guede Mazaka
Mariette stared. Lancelot and Guinevere stared back. Well, more like Guinevere stared and Lancelot lounged, yawned, and couldn’t stop moving about the sofa till Guinevere was tempted to take a throw pillow and smother him.
“Arthur’s being a while with that coffee, isn’t he?” Lancelot muttered. He rolled over for the umpteenth time so his cheek was resting against the sofa arm, which made his robe billow up…and flop over nearly all of Guinevere’s lap.
She repressed a sigh and gingerly picked it off of her knees. Even his clothes refused to respect other people’s privacy spheres. “You could simply go back to bed. You’re irrelevant to the situation, anyway.”
“Hmm, sorry? Didn’t hear you there, on account of me being so tired and then being woken up only two hours into a nice sleep. I have to admit, that’s the sort of thing that makes me deadly curious.” He shot a pointed look at Mariette.
Normally Guinevere didn’t feel the slightest inclination towards mothering, but right now she thought Lancelot was being a bit of an ass towards Mariette. It wasn’t as if the girl made a habit of showing up on his doorstep at ungodly hours, and she was obviously under a good deal of stress: her hair was down in a rumple around her shoulders, one of her eyes was still a little red from recent crying, and she hadn’t yet said anything to them. Perhaps Mariette could be on the stiff side, but she’d never been terribly shy about speaking up before.
All right, and maybe Guinevere favorably remembered how Mariette had rolled right over Elaine at Thanksgiving. At any rate, she wasn’t in the mood to watch Lancelot tease the other woman. “After the manner of the cat, I suppose. Why don’t you go to sleep and find out in the morning? It’ll risk your neck much less.”
“Why, Guin, I didn’t know—” Lancelot yawned “—you cared so. And here I thought—”
“Sorry I was so long. We’re out of coffee filters so I’ve just tea.” With his usual impeccable timing, Arthur interrupted by setting down a tea-tray complete with tea-cookies. He passed steaming cups around, starting with Mariette. Then he sat down between Guinevere and Lancelot.
Mariette croaked out a thank-you in a voice like a dying accordion, but she also took a sizable helping of cookies, so Guinevere assumed it wasn’t anything that required Arthur to seriously assert loco parentis status. If the girl could still snack, she’d be fine in a few days.
Guinevere absently nibbled on the edge of her cookie while Arthur quietly asked if Mariette wanted to talk about it, then took it away from her mouth. She was impressed: he’d not done the half-hearted thing, but instead had gone straight for the triple-chocolate with fudge icing. And she was slightly annoyed, as she’d been saving those for consoling herself on pulling the Valentine’s Day shift again.
“It—it—well.” Mariette crunched off a big piece of cookie and chewed with little sniffly noises mixing into her munching. She tried to sip her tea, but her coordination had slipped a bit so she ended up knocking a chunk of cookie into her cup. “Oh! Oh, damn it. Damn it, damn it, damn it…”
Lancelot drew up his hand to cover the lower half of his face with elaborate casualness. Thankfully, Arthur chose that moment to lean forward, give Mariette a somewhat awkward pat on the head and murmur something nice in French. This allowed Guinevere to reach behind him and give the prick on the other end of the sofa a good smack to the head. A yelp almost made it out of Lancelot’s mouth, but at the last moment he traded it for a kicked-puppy look. Which everyone ignored.
“It—I had Galahad over for dinner, and he—we—” Mariette started again.
Arthur drew back, face clouding over with conflicted apprehension. But before he could say anything, Mariette caught him at it and wildly shook her head.
“No, no! You should not be mad at him. It was not—”
Looking very relieved, Arthur relaxed. Then he pulled himself up again, probably thinking that that wasn’t an appropriate expression, and handed Mariette another cookie. He took her cup from her and used a teaspoon to fish out the cookie-bit before refilling it. “Start at the beginning.”
She obligingly opened her mouth, then closed it and looked utterly lost.
Lancelot stopped glaring at Guinevere long enough to be useful for the one time he apparently was allotted per day. “What were you cooking?”
It was an objective yet relevant question that would let Mariette approach the situation from a tangent. It was nice to see the bastard had retained something from his interrogation/interview training.
Mariette took a deep breath while staring into her new cup of tea. “I…well, Gawain told me Galahad likes Spanish food, but I didn’t know what so I decided to make tapas. I was cooking the sausage…”
* * *
When the door buzzer went off, Mariette jumped so high that she dropped the spatula and almost got hot grease on her foot. She danced back, then cursed floridly the way her Marseilles girlfriend had taught her and grabbed the spatula back up. The sausages were only half-done, but she didn’t trust her stove to not make a disaster while she ran to the door.
Plus she had a dirty floor and her one spatula was also dirty. She hurriedly glanced around, trying to remember what her mother did when her dinner cooking was interrupted. She didn’t want the chorizo to burn, especially since it was genuine imported and had been about the most expensive item she’d bought on this grocery trip.
The buzzer went off again. Mariette spun around. In the middle of all the blurring, a dull silver streak stuck out: her wok lid. She snatched it up, tossed it over the saucepan and put the spatula in the sink for scrubbing later. Then she took a step towards the door, only to turn back because she needed to turn down the burner heat. Her phone went off.
She started to make a lunge for it, but in the middle of doing so, realized that it had to be Galahad calling her and instead went for the door. While she pressed the button to unlock the front door, she hastily checked herself in a nearby mirror. Despite all the gel she’d used, some strands had worked loose from her bun and due to the kitchen heat and her sweat, they’d started to curl up. She sighed and tried to tuck them back in, but had to leave them be when she remembered she hadn’t wiped up the spot on the kitchen floor.
Mariette had just flung the dishrag onto the counter and had been about to wash off the spatula when there came a knocking on the door. She dropped the spatula again—in the sink this time, thank God—and ran back to the front.
She pulled on the knob a little too quickly and had to grab on the door for support. Her breathing sounded harsh and loud, and she tried to will it into calming down. “I was cooking. That was why I couldn’t come faster. You didn’t have to call me.”
“Yeah, well, the guy smoking in the doorway was giving me a weird look. I was just checking—don’t get all worked up,” Galahad said, casually walking in. He’d never actually been to Mariette’s apartment, but that was not at all obvious from how he strolled around. He held up a brown sack. “So…I didn’t know what you were cooking, but Gawain said I should bring this and I figured he’d probably gotten his information from Tristan…”
“You brought wine?” Oh. Oh, and Mariette had forgotten…she generally didn’t keep wine around unless she was expecting company, since all the brands she liked were too expensive here.
Galahad blinked, then pulled out the bottle. “Yep. Red. So where’s your kit—”
“I’m not done yet. Give it to me and I’ll take care of it,” Mariette said. She also reached out for the bottle, but a little too fast so Galahad jerked away in surprise. She was acting nervous.
She was nervous. Her stomach was queasy and she wasn’t sure how she was going to finish cooking, and now she wondered why on earth she was an economics major. If she’d been a psychology major, then maybe she would have understood what was going on and how to deal with it.
“I don’t want you to see dinner yet,” she tried saying in a softer, slower tone. She sounded strained.
After a moment, Galahad surrendered the bottle of wine. He looked around the apartment again. “Uh. Okay. So what am I supposed to—”
Mariette made her escape back to the kitchen and lifted the lid to see that her chorizo were still fine. She breathed a sigh of relief and turned to rinse off the spatula, only to step in the damp spot the rag had left. She didn’t fall, but her hip smacked into the counter rather hard. Biting back a cry of pain, Mariette got the sausages taken care of and started on chopping onions. At least she was already tearing up, she grimly thought.
* * *
“…really nice. Not like, millionaire, you know, but her parents definitely are shelling out when it comes to her apartment. I was trying not to stare, but I was thinking sort of that when she was over at our place, she must have been…goddamn it, why am I talking to you again?” Galahad threw up his hands and let his arms fall over the back of the couch. He stared up at the ceiling, wondered why little bones were hanging from the vent, and hastily looked back down.
Tristan hadn’t reacted, as usual. He just sipped his beer. “Because Gawain is coming down with a cold, so he came over to my place to rest up and the medicine he took put him out while I was heating up soup for our dinner. You can’t talk to him.”
“Idiot. Him and cold medicine…he’s always been like that, you know. Just a little and he’s out like a light,” Galahad muttered. Fuck. It would figure that when Galahad really, actually did need to ask Gawain for advice, Gawain would be out cold. “How long before he’s up, do you think?”
And it figured that the last person Galahad wanted to discuss this with would be the only available ear around. Well, okay, Tristan wasn’t the absolute last person, but he was pretty damn near the end. Thing was, Galahad really needed to talk to someone. It was like an itch between his shoulderblades, and if he didn’t get it taken care of, he was going to end up crashing a store-window again.
…that metaphor had pretty damn well derailed itself. Galahad sighed and looked up as Tristan, who’d briefly ducked into the bedroom, came back. Tristan shook his head. “No, he’s gone for the rest of the night. If he’d taken one more teaspoon, I’d be detoxing him in the bathroom.”
“So I’m left with you.” Great. About the only thing currently going Galahad’s way was the fact that Tristan, however the hell he managed it, stocked amazing beer. But even that wasn’t doing much to cheer up Galahad right now.
The couch creaked as Tristan began to sit back down. Then he stopped, reached beneath himself, and rooted out a very relieved-looking squirrel from the cushions. He scooted it off towards the bedroom before he got back on the couch. “Gawain said you were over at Mariette’s.”
“That thing isn’t going to mistake Gawain’s hair for a nesting spot, is it?” Galahad said, staring at the squirrel. It was abnormally small, but it made up for that in temper: it stopped in the middle of the hallway and chittered at him before vanishing into the shadows. Little bastard.
“Did she burn dinner?” Tristan asked.
Galahad paused, then put his beer on a sidetable. “Are you trying to get me to talk about this?”
Tristan resumed sipping his beer and casually watching Galahad, as if he had already read the whole story from the way Galahad’s shirt was wrinkled. He probably could, damn it, and Galahad had forgotten to check over his clothes before he’d pulled them back on. Shit.
Well, then Galahad really had nothing to lose, didn’t he. “No. Mariette’s a good cook, actually. Kinda light on the hot pepper, but not bad otherwise.”
* * *
The apartment clearly hadn’t been decorated by Mariette, Galahad decided. She could be snotty, but she didn’t have the self-confidence that would let her peer down her nose like things in the mud weren’t even worth stepping on. And that was exactly what the apartment said to Galahad. He was a little glad she’d run back to the kitchen, since that meant she didn’t see how fidgety he was getting.
Of course, he was also a little miffed that she’d just leave him standing there. What was he supposed to do now? Stare at the Cubist prints? Make small talk with the brushed-steel furniture?
He carefully ignored the hallway that had to lead to the bedroom. Everything that went along with that hung heavy in the air, but for once, he wasn’t interested in pulling at it. To be honest, contemplating that stuff still made his stomach a bit queasy even though it was a week later.
“All right, you can come in now.” Mariette sort of edged her hair around the corner. Her hair, because the rest of the head didn’t appear. “I mean, dinner is ready. I—”
“Great! I’m starving!” Yeah, great. She sounded like a dropped teaspoon would set her off, and to compensate, some part of Galahad’s mind thought it’d be good for him to sound asininely cheerful. He was doing a great impression of a caffeine-high Gawain.
Dinner was ready, and talking about how good it was got them through about ten minutes. Galahad honestly didn’t care how the fuck Mariette got her chorizos to be nice and crispy on the outside—well, he did, in that he really liked it, but he didn’t in that he didn’t need a cooking lesson. On the other hand, she managed to fill up a lot of awkward pauses that way.
“It tastes like one of my favorite places back in L. A.,” Galahad said when the next pause stumbled between them. He figured she’d gotten the last three, so he’d better get one or else she might stop being nervous and start being lecturing again.
“Really?” Mariette blushed. Thankfully, she hadn’t lit any candles or anything stupid like that so she just looked cute instead of…yeah. She poked at her rice. “Gawain, ah, said you ate a lot of Spanish and Mexican food there.”
They had, and as Galahad forked up another helping, he was suddenly hit by homesickness. It wasn’t a wave so much as a…pointed tap on the head, but it was there. He put down his fork and just stared at the tortillas for a moment. He hadn’t really thought about L. A. since they’d gotten to New York, and he’d been glad of that: the West Coast had been more bad than good to them. But the food had been damned good, for one.
“Did you…live around a lot of them?” Mariette asked. She winced and started to clarify who she meant.
“Oh, yeah. Yeah, we were kind of on the border between the black and Latino ghettos.” The other stuff, however, Galahad wasn’t sure he really wanted to discuss with Mariette. For all her liberal proclamations, she was very conservative when it came to following the law, and Galahad had broken way more than one of those. “This is good. You usually do this kind of stuff for dinner?”
Oh, smart. Galahad was tired of talking about cooking, so he was going to ask a cooking-related question. He really should’ve talked Mariette into trying an arcade, or something like that instead where alternative topics would have been obvious.
“No, not really. I cook Lorraine food, since my mother was from there. And sometimes U. S. Southern. My father taught two years at a university in Georgia and he is very fond of their style.” Mariette tipped her head and shrugged. A little piece of her hair flopped out of her bun and curled up among the other strayed locks at the back of her neck. “It is bad for the heart, but I have to admit I like deep-fried chicken. But cooking it is so—I always think I’ll set the kitchen on fire.”
“You should get a deep fryer. Bed’s got this amazing one he built out of leftover car parts—” Galahad saw her disbelief and faint disgust coming, and waved it off with his hand “—no, no, we cleaned them all first. Christ, even we know gasoline makes lousy cooking oil.”
A little giggle escaped from Mariette, though she was trying to look disapproving. She absently topped off Galahad’s glass, which reminded him…but hers was still mostly full. Good, since he really didn’t feel like dealing with her drunk again. “Are you sure it won’t blow up on you?”
“Of course!” Galahad ate some food, thought about it, and sat back. “Well, okay, not with most things. The time with the deep-fried turkey was a little touch-and-go…”
* * *
“It sounds like it was a good dinner,” Arthur said. He topped off Mariette’s cup and then offered the pot to Guinevere, who turned it down, and Lancelot, who took the pot from him and took care of himself.
Arthur eyed Lancelot’s fluttering lashes and wondered if he could possibly put the conversation on hold long enough to shoo the other man back to the bedroom. As flattering as Lancelot’s insistence on staying with Arthur was, his constant yawning and nuzzling up to Arthur’s shoulder was not precisely conducive to calming Mariette down. It also was rather distracting.
“It was. Dinner was fine. He was…nice.” Mariette gave her cup a wondering look. Then her brows drew together and she laughed a little, muttering in French to the effect that he must have been more nervous than her. “Then we washed the dishes.”
“Mariette, if this is intrusive, I apologize, but were you going into this dinner with any kind of…expectations?” Guinevere asked.
Lancelot perked up, which severely tempted Arthur to put his throw pillows to unorthodox use. Instead he moved so his shoulder should have been blocking most of the other man from Mariette’s view.
Guinevere seemed to know exactly what Lancelot was up to even though she was looking straight at Mariette. Her arm grazed over Arthur’s back and a second later, Lancelot jerked forward with a muffled yelp. She ignored that and smiled nicely at Mariette. “It’s all right. We’re asking in hopes of being able to understand the situation better so we can help. We’re not gossips only interested in salacious nonsense.”
Lancelot did an awful job of hiding an offended expression in his tea-cup. He tugged at his robe, then dropped his hand to cradle his cup between his knees. “Of course not. Arthur’s concern is our concern.”
“Don’t let’s make it sound like a mafia operation,” Guinevere hissed out of the side of her mouth.
Arthur had been reaching for a cookie right about then, so he took advantage of the coincidence and rattled the plate. “Sorry. Have another?” he said to Mariette.
“No, thank you.” She settled back in the chair and stared off into space, chewing on her lip. Her hand tightened so much around her cup and saucer that Arthur just about resigned himself to having an odd-numbered set, but then she gave a firm nod to herself and put down the cup. “I did. I wanted things to go…to go right.”
* * *
Things were going much better now, Mariette decided. Men and cars were weird and she still didn’t understand the fascination, but she was grateful to it for saving the night from stumbling so hard it broke its neck. After that, the conversation had gone like it usually did around Galahad: on the provoking side, sometimes funny, and with that odd undertone, like warm water running through her fingers.
“No, the other towel. So Tristan really jumped out the window? Wasn’t Arthur worried?” She rinsed off the bowl, then started to put it on the rack. As she did, she caught sight of a couple suds she’d missed and ran the dish under the water again.
Standing beside her, Galahad wrinkled up his nose and thwapped the wet towel against the counter so little droplets pattered over their faces. He recoiled a little with narrowed eyes. “What is it with girls and towels? Jesus. You know how many kinds Gawain and I have? Two—the big ones and the small ones.”
“Unsanitary.” Mariette wrinkled her own nose, though she kept her eyes on the sink since now she was doing the wineglasses. She’d already broken one and chipped another, and she didn’t want to lose any more; they’d been a gift from her mother.
But she wasn’t going to think about her parents right now. She’d sworn to herself she wouldn’t—her parents were in France, and even if they were still paying the bills, they were most certainly not running every detail of her life. They didn’t own her thoughts.
“Well, you wash all of them, don’t you? So where’s the germs then?” Galahad picked up the other towel, whooshed it over the bowl in his other hand and was onto the first wineglass. He stopped when Mariette disbelievingly poked at the bone-dry bowl, then grinned. “Some working-class tricks come in handy. We worked in a lot of restaurants, places like that.”
“Were you fired often?” Mariette dryly said. At least, she’d meant it dryly, but for some reason, her jokes always came out too aggressive-sounding in English. She braced herself.
It looked as if Galahad was going to take offense, but then he shook his head and just picked up the next glass. “Okay, yeah, but Gawain had his share, too. He punched out the manager once for shorting our pay—knocked him clear over the bar so we were afraid he’d end up in a coma. Moron. That’s as bad as Tristan jumping out the fucking window just because he found out Gawain wasn’t mad at him anymore. Real great apology he’d make, if we’d had to ship him to a doctor for a broken leg.”
“Arthur could have taken care of that. I broke my thumb once and he took care of it. It impressed my mother a lot.” And not much did, Mariette thought to herself. When her mother did talk about men, it usually was to compare them unfavorably to her husband. They more or less worshipped each other, only that was not quite the right word for it. Flattered, perhaps.
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess.” Galahad racked the last glass and flicked the towel at the counter again. He cocked his head, eying the splatters, and then bent his wrist so he could make more at a perpendicular angle to the first. “He looked kind of freaked-out, but only for a second. I guess Tristan must do that…well, not a lot, because he doesn’t get upset often, but it must be a common reaction for him for that situation. I really don’t understand why Gawain likes him so much some—hey!”
“Stop getting my counter wet!” Mariette scolded, grabbing for the towel. She caught the edge, but hadn’t gotten hold of enough of it to pull it free before Galahad had yanked it back. She hung on and was pulled forward so they fell against each other.
There was an awkward, unsure moment. There always was; they weren’t like the couples in the movies who always knew where the hands went and when to duck down. They usually were upset at each other, though more often that was closer to annoyed than truly mad.
But there was heat, too—at least on her side. That part, the movies were right about. It flared out from Mariette’s belly, flushed her cheeks and turned the place between her legs tense with swelling warmth. She always felt as if she should cross her legs, squeeze it out of her, and before, that had been what she’d done. But she did want this, and this was healthy and natural, and she wanted this with him no matter what her not-here parents would have said.
Their hands were twisted up in the towel, her fingers fleshed out from bony and his softened by the wet nubbly fabric. She wrapped her hand around it more till she felt the back of his hand and tugged; Galahad tugged back so she was thrown slightly off-balance. He was mumbling, too, and it almost sounded like he was comforting himself.
His mouth hit too far up, and hers too far left, so they had to clumsily work themselves around to make it fit. Somewhere along the line, he put his arm around her shoulders so her bun, already in danger, finally lost hold. The weight of her tumbling hair pulled back her head so her mouth opened, and he took that as a sign to slide in his tongue. It tickled, and she giggled and she didn’t know exactly how he took that but she had to grab his shoulder to keep him from pulling back. His arm moved and caught some of the half-loose pins so her hair snarled, pulled in quick bursts of pinprick pain against her scalp.
She moved forward to get away from that and ended up pressing against him, which she’d done before but somehow she was more aware of it now. She was thinking about it, thinking that his stomach was very flat—flatter and firmer than hers, which pricked at her pride so she kissed him hard—and his hipbones were very sharp. Her hand slid down his back and across it as he swayed, stumbled back against the counter, and she felt a jagged ridge that she curiously traced.
He flinched at first, then twisted so the scar pressed into her hand. Mariette peeled up his shirt and splayed her fingers over it, found that that way the tip of her little finger touched another scar that was very round and much smaller. Gun, she was thinking, but he pulled off her mouth and took a shallow deep breath whose exhale was very hot on her chin, and the middle of her thought dragged out till his mouth caught it moving sluggishly along her throat and swallowed it.
She made a sound then, some sound she didn’t really hear, and slid against him so some oddity in the smooth line of his front snagged between her thigh and her stomach. Then it gave, changed a little, and that was odd so she moved back down it. And it rose a little more, and suddenly she understood and her knees were wobbly while her head filled with a loud, nervous buzzing. Her fingers dug into Galahad’s waist and he muffled a noise against her shoulder, his fingers slipping beneath and over, beneath and over the hem of her blouse. He was still standing up.
Mariette forced herself to remember how much wine she’d drank. One cup, over how many hours…not that much, because she remembered earlier that she’d been thinking it was a good wine and she was going to have so much left over for later, that she’d have to thank Gawain. And for the dish-washing, because she had a feeling Galahad had remembered to volunteer just because Gawain had told him to.
Galahad’s hand slid all the way beneath her blouse, then stared to move up. He always…Mariette grabbed his wrist and pushed it down; he resisted at first, but then went with her. When his hand got to her waist, he tried to stop again and she kept pushing. He stopped kissing her neck and drew back so she could blurrily see the side of his eye.
She kissed him again, and he went with her hand down her hip and then up beneath her skirt. The tense feeling, as if all the muscles angling down to the clit were drawn up tight against the bone, increased, but at the same time it felt as if she was softening in the heat, growing loose and trembling. She wanted more of that. She did.
* * *
Most people thought Tristan was unfazed by anything, and he generally was. But in all honesty, he was not comfortable with the turn this discussion with Galahad had taken.
Actually, it wasn’t a discussion. Galahad had been talking about doing the dishes and then he’d trailed off after saying that Mariette had started things. He’d never clarified what “things” was supposed to mean. He’d simply stared straight ahead of himself, eyes going in and out of focus. Occasionally he had taken a sip from his beer, which was still only the first one Tristan had handed him. It was entirely possible that Tristan could drop the expressionless look and go with a face that matched his inner feelings better, and Galahad would never have any idea as to the difference.
Tristan could fill in the blanks, if he wanted to. His mind did that with enough of them to bring out the shape of the general idea, then left the rest alone. It actually wanted to think about his mother—not the quietly lethal, carefully-spoken woman Tristan remembered, but the half-fanciful one from Arthur’s rare tidbits of them as young men and women in a dangerous profession. Arthur must have seen what his mother had been like when in love, Tristan sometimes thought, though he’d never asked. The reluctant clues Arthur had dropped about that pointed towards an impulsive, fiercely affectionate personality that would have been almost alien to Tristan, had he met his mother then.
“It was good,” Galahad finally said. He tipped back his head to stare at the ceiling, then pulled himself up and forward so he could hunch over his knees. He let the half-full bottle dangle between them. “It was…fuck, well, you wouldn’t know really, would you? You’re always so sure about everything. I wasn’t sure about anything. Fuck. I wish Gawain was up.”
So did Tristan. And he didn’t, and he did again. Gawain would understand perfectly, since that was an accepted part of his life. It was stability he didn’t always know, and oddly enough, it was that that Tristan knew best—he was flexible, but he was flexible in that he always could create a space that he could understand and act in, no matter how chaotic the surroundings. He wasn’t so certain when it came to not having that space and simply acting according to the flow of everything else.
“You know, it was so planned out.” Galahad covered half his face with his hand, then laughed quietly. He shook his head and took a big swallow of beer. “It was so planned out. She knew what was coming, and I did, and somehow we both forgot what we were supposed to do. It just sort of…yeah.”
Something else Tristan had never asked about had been what of his mother was in him. If any of that old spontaneity had outlasted the fear of having no arrangements for worst-case scenarios, of being left in the dark and cold without knowing that someone was coming back for them. He’d never wondered about it much either, till recently. “It’s rarely the feeling that bothers people,” he said slowly. “It’s everything else that comes with it.”
Galahad gave him a sharp look, but after a breathless moment, Tristan understood that the other man was just surprised at how well Tristan had apparently summed up the situation. “Yeah. Yeah, pretty much.” Shrug. “But fuck, at least I stayed around. Mariette? Fuck.”
* * *
“Bedroom, bedroom, we’ve got to—” Galahad was gasping even though they were through the door and he could see the bed.
Mariette clawed up him, elbows and knees bumping as hard as her body moved sweetly, and covered his mouth with her own. She backed up into the mattress, then knocked them over. And then it was a mess of clothing.
That, Galahad was decently good at. He could strip off skirts without ripping them and handle bra-hooks without looking, though this time it was harder to do it. He nearly tore Mariette’s blouse because he was so deeply involved in running his mouth over her breasts, in licking around her nipple. It was browner than he’d figured, but the moment he saw it, he liked it. Liked it a lot, and apparently she appreciated that so he stayed with it. His hands were working down between her legs, because girls never got much of that and they always—
--she arched so he saw the long curve of her throat and he was fascinated by it, swept his thumb over her clit again, but this time she bent the other way, curved over him so her breasts hung heavy before his face. She was pulling hard at his pants and he lifted his hips, then remembered about his belt. Cursing, he reached down and undid it, and suddenly her hand was there and fuck, it was almost, almost like he was a fucking teenage virgin again. He shouldn’t be like that. He’d…something. Some drops of sweat hanging from the underside of her chin, and he stretched up to lick at them and over they went.
Mariette exhaled sharply, said something in French-English mix that Galahad thought was about not getting enough of a look, except he’d made sure she wasn’t tipsy. He really needed to pick up some more French.
He kissed her hard, then reached for the drawer of the bedside table before he completely forgot. He was still running on old habits here, but they suddenly felt all new and nervous, unformed. Frankly, he was fucking glad that she was predictable here because if he’d had to look for a condom, he might’ve just ended up running out of the room. He got the damned thing on him and crawled back up; she’d come over so Galahad did that by nuzzling his way along her. “Okay, that’s done. We’d definitely have to talk to your parents if—”
“What?” she said, palm flat against his belly. It was warm, and lightly pressing, and he liked its presence there, keeping the connection even if the other stuff had briefly paused.
He realized she wasn’t the only one dropping into the wrong language, realized also that explaining now that his first girl had been Latino so that was why he’d been muttering in Spanish would be bad, and shrugged. “Sorry.”
Mariette sighed and pulled him down, and then they were wrapped up in each other again. She was all over the place, testing and searching and poking as if they hadn’t been making out like crazy with plenty of groping for the past few months. Galahad tried to grab at her a few times, thinking that he’d been a little worried about her…not being ready, or something?...and that he wanted to do…to…he wanted to suck on her skin till it stopped being sweet. Except that didn’t really seem to happen.
He pushed himself up to drag his head between her breasts and her knee prodded him in the side. He moved away from it and suddenly he was between her sprawled legs, and her hands were over his hands were over her hips, and she was tossing her beautiful hair against the mattress.
It was just so easy to slide up and inside, and he did even though he was thinking for some reason that he needed to do more first even though he couldn’t think of what more was supposed to include. It was smooth and good and then it was stuck, or—Mariette suddenly went rigid, her nails gouging into his shoulders, and all Galahad’s stomach-twisting came back. “What?”
“Quoi? Tu dis—je ne compre—” Her face had been screwed up in…pain?...but now it cleared, then screwed up in confusion.
Then she abruptly tossed her head and her nails dug in harder, but they were pulling at Galahad and his stomach sickness hadn’t yet reached his brain so he went with her. He forced up, and he was aware of a new weird feeling during that, a sudden give, but Mariette cried out and he was carried along with it.
It seemed like the cry never ended, or maybe it did but the next ones came so closely on its heels that it made no difference. He pressed his face into her sweaty throat, smelled her, felt her, and her hands scraped over his back, as if she couldn’t get a hold. She still tried, though, and sometime during it her legs wrapped around him and then they were rocking together, finally matched up, and Galahad just thought that it was perfect.
* * *
“It was…” Mariette’s brows drew together as she searched for the word “…was marvelous. It hurt a lot afterward, but it was so…right then.”
Good for her, Lancelot sleepily thought. Sometimes people were so turned off by their first time that they never really got over it, and that tended to ruin them as for any kind of company. They saw everything in terms of that one moment where expectations had completely failed them, and always expected that afterward.
Arthur hesitantly apologized to Mariette in French about not asking earlier, and did she need any aspirin. A tiny snort came from Guinevere’s side; for once she was exasperated at Arthur instead of Lancelot. Frankly, Lancelot would have done the same if he wasn’t so damned sleepy. God, but Mariette really had picked her time for confessing about her deflowering.
Mariette smiled. It was a smile that had the kind of indulgent humor virgins never could come up with, since they’d not yet indulged in the first place. “No, I am fine. Though…I hope Galahad was all right. He was startled at the blood.”
That was interesting, given what Lancelot had managed to piece together of Galahad and Gawain’s background. For all that Arthur wanted to be normal and relatively unremarkable, he seemed to insist on surrounding himself with…unusual people. He’d had that habit in the past, and he’d never really lost it. He probably still hadn’t realized he had it.
“Did he make any kind of comment? Is that why you’re upset?” Arthur delicately queried.
“Oh, no. No, he…that was not it.” A long pause ensued, long enough to make Lancelot look over at Mariette. She was staring at her cup, but she slowly put that on the table and then wrapped her arms around herself. Her head gradually tipped forward, as if she was going to cry. “That was…not…it was me, not him.”
Guinevere cleared her throat; she must have been in the middle of a cookie. “What, did he say you weren’t very good, or some idiocy like that?”
“And thank you, Guin, for putting your faith in man’s better nature,” Lancelot muttered. He felt Arthur’s shoulder shift beneath his head, and a second later, Arthur’s arm had curved around him to lay a hand on his waist. It was part-gesture of affection, part-warning. “She said it wasn’t something he said. So what was it?”
“Lancelot. Be civil or go upstairs,” Arthur snapped beneath his breath. He glanced at Lancelot with surprising heat, and not of the anticipating kind.
Lancelot was a little taken aback, but on further reflection, unrepentant. After Arthur’s little confession in the elevator, Lancelot had resolved to be more attentive to what was going on with the other man. It wasn’t as he’d thought—past and present weren’t separable when it came to Arthur, and if he wanted to ever understand the other man, he’d have to learn about both at once.
And yes, it was because he was just that much more worried that some midnight visitor was going to send Arthur off on another idiotic self-imposed mission, and he’d sleep through it.
“No, it’s fine. I should get to the point,” Mariette said. “I…I had to leave. I…I am embarrassed…no, I’m ashamed now, but I was afraid. I still am afraid.”
* * *
After Galahad had calmed down, and they’d changed the bedsheets—it hadn’t stained through to the mattress, she was relieved to see—Galahad flopped down and was almost instantly asleep. Mariette stayed awake longer, and not only because despite aspirin, the ache in her was still sharp whenever she moved her legs too fast.
It’d been so much better than she’d thought it would be, even with all the little imperfections. She couldn’t help smiling a little as she played with his hair. Dandelions…such a funny name for a flower.
It was so funny that it would be him, because he was everything she’d been brought up to avoid. But her parents were like that: contradictory. They were liberal in their politics and conservative in their morals. They were incredibly generous from a distance, but up close they were snobs. Sometimes she had thought about enrolling in one of her parents’ classes to see if she’d get the nicer treatment they gave their students.
They loved her, of course, but they had made things so difficult. They would make things so difficult, if they knew. But they didn’t have to know. This was America, and this was different. This was her life.
But they were going to visit eventually, and then Mariette would have to hide this even though she thought it was stupid. They’d call it foolish rebellion, point out all the ways Galahad was just a symbol for everything that she disagreed with when it came to their beliefs, and—and—and—
She rolled over and stared at the ceiling, despair rapidly crushing out the leftover glow. She still wasn’t free of them, no matter what she wanted to think. What about that stupid conversation in the theater, when she’d told Galahad why she didn’t want to say they were dating? Because it made it easier to lie to her parents? A lot of people would have stormed out on her. He didn’t like it, that was plain, and he wouldn’t like the idea that he’d have to be hidden, or that he was just a symbol, which he wasn’t, but still…
She wanted to call him her boyfriend. She wanted—
It sounded much easier in the books, she thought. Sexual freedom, not putting requirements on a relationship, not demanding anything in trade for sex. Just walking away if it ever became too horrible. The problem was, it was not horrible—it was wonderful. Which was horrible. Her thoughts were going in circles, and the more they did, the faster they whirled till she could hardly keep track of them, know which way was up and down and where she should go.
Mariette was up and off the bed before she knew it, and she didn’t even stop to look at him till she had on a loose pair of trousers. Then she did, and her heart thumped up so hard against her chest that she knew it was going to be impossible. Staying here was impossible. She didn’t know what to do. She was just stumbling, stumbling, stumbling.
* * *
“I wake up and she’s not there. For ten minutes I’m freaking out, thinking maybe I—I don’t know, damaged her and she’s at the hospital. Then I’m trying to think logically and I’m checking the whole place, checking the front, checking the cornerstores because maybe she had the munchies even though she’s got a full fridge—” Galahad threw up his arms, then slumped back against the couch. All that remembered panic welled up as bitter resentment.
And yeah, a little black irony, because his little Gawain-voice had to say well, considering all the other girls, it was about time that happened to you. Thing was, Galahad was feeling so crappy that he was almost ready to believe that.
“You’ve never been with a virgin before.” Tristan was doing the eyebrow-arching thing again.
Rolling his eyes, Galahad struggled to hold onto his temper. “No, I haven’t. Look, it wasn’t really a common thing in my old neighborhood, okay? Because well, most of the guys back there thought a virgin would be crap at sex, so they wanted somebody experienced. Which meant the girls were going to lie about it, or get fucked early, or whatever.”
“Maybe she had an emergency phone call,” Tristan said.
“No, then she would’ve left a note. She’s really—particular about that. This just looks like she ran out of there, and you know, I don’t want to think about what that means but I am anyway, and they’re all bad scenarios.” Galahad had a headache. And he was tired, and this so wasn’t how he’d thought the night would go. He wanted to go to bed and wake up in a world where this had never happened. The only good thing about this was that he could stick it in Gawain’s face and say he had been dead fucking wrong, except that wasn’t really a good thing. That was just bitter.
Long stretch of silence. Just when Galahad was almost ready to declare Tristan dead, the other man broke it. “Galahad. No matter what the reason for her leaving, she’ll have to go back sooner or later. She lives there. And if you aren’t there, it—”
“—won’t look good? No shit. But maybe I don’t want it to look good now, considering.”
“—it won’t give her any good reason to explain things to you. If she’s afraid, it won’t make her less so,” Tristan calmly finished. Too calmly.
He was a deadpan guy, and he wasn’t Galahad’s boyfriend or pseudo-son, but nevertheless Galahad was learning a couple tricks when it came to reading him. He gave Tristan a good, long stare. “You speaking from experience? You know, Gawain has been freaking out way too much lately, and usually it’s over you.”
Tristan didn’t twitch. It was more like a flicker. “He has a lot to consider right now about his future, I think.”
“Oh, whatever. He always does—that’s him. He’s bad about that, you know. Not everything can be planned for, and sometimes it’s better without one. Sometimes you just take what’s coming, with what you’ve got.” Galahad paused, then had to laugh. “Fuck. Listen to me. With tonight…but it’s still true. Have you ever thought that maybe thinking all the time about the really bad things that could happen is a great way to make them happen?”
For a while, Tristan just looked at Galahad. Then he got up and picked Galahad’s bottle off the table, then walked towards the kitchen. “You can be remarkably smart for someone that never uses it. Go back there. If her fridge is so full, you should be able to handle breakfast without much of a problem.”
“Steal her food?” Galahad said. His incredulousness was more because Tristan was being so…helpful, in a way, than because of the idea of it.
“Whatever,” Tristan deadpanned. If Gawain hadn’t been so in love with the jackass, Galahad would’ve punched him right there.
And okay, if Galahad also wasn’t in the process of taking his advice.
* * *
“I don’t know how it will work. I don’t know if…if I can explain…I can’t explain.” The last few words nearly burst from Mariette’s mouth. “You don’t know a word I am saying, do you?”
“I think I understand rather more than you think,” Arthur said. His tone perked up Guinevere’s fading attention: it was decisive, not hesitant at all, and even faintly commanding. It definitely wasn’t something to which Mariette was accustomed, judging by her startled expression. “Mariette, if it’s your parents’ financial support you’re concerned about, I doubt they’d go to such extremes. They may seem…stern, but they do love you and at the end of the day, they want you to be happy.”
The girl stammered a bit, then opened her mouth.
“And if that does happen, arrangements can be made. I give you my promise on that. Now, about the rest…please don’t be afraid of the good things in life simply because they may turn sour later. ‘May’ is always an uncertainty and shouldn’t be relied upon.” Arthur poured himself a cup of tea while holding Mariette’s gaze. Mesmerized, she didn’t notice at all how he handled everything with an eerily silent grace. His old self was coming out a bit.
Finally she nodded, and dropped her head. Then her shoulders hunched up. “It could turn out like my parents,” she said, so softly that Guinevere almost didn’t hear her. “It’s—it’s silly. I feel old, too old to be learning how to do this. I left it too long, peut-être. I don’t know what to do.”
“I honestly doubt that anyone ever really does, no matter what their age.” The little smile that crinkled at the corners of Arthur’s mouth meant a good deal more to Guinevere and Lancelot than it did to the clueless girl on the opposite seat.
“But the way I left—”
“Is always going to be ‘you left’ and nothing more unless you go back and see. Here, your cup’s empty.” After filling it, Arthur passed it to Mariette. He gave her hands a squeeze before he let them go. “Drink it up, and while you’re doing that, think very carefully about this question: do you regret what you did? Ignore the fear and concentrate on that. Then you’ll at least know what to do next.”
Guinevere had a bet on half the cup. Mariette drank about a third before she got up and made an abrupt good-bye.
“I figured on three-quarters of the cup. Quick girl,” Lancelot said after they’d seen her to the door.
Arthur sighed as he threw the locks again. “Do you ever stop?”
“I’ll do that when I’m made to. At least then I won’t ever regret not being the one to make the last try,” Lancelot snapped. He hesitated, then ducked away and headed up the stairs at a fair clip considering his lethargy earlier.
For a long moment, Arthur stared after him. Then he glanced at Guinevere, who’d come up beside him. “He’s gotten more…”
“He’s worried. We’re getting closer to putting Clayton and the smuggling ring he’s part of away for good, only it’s looking explosive. I’m worried.” Guinevere reached out so their hands grazed, then slowly wrapped her fingers around Arthur’s. “We might have to…”
“I’ve always known that.” Said in a quiet tone that told her nothing about Arthur’s actual feelings on the subject. He bent his head and drew up her hand to his mouth, then pulled her towards the stairs. “I think this once, the dishes can wait till tomorrow. To bed?”
She debated whether to force the subject now, but refrained once she’d gotten a good look at his face. His eyes were tired, and they were begging her. She reluctantly acquiesced.
* * *
Galahad jumped when the door opened, but the bacon fat was really popping now, and he needed to finish getting the strips onto a plate. Once he’d done that, he looked up.
“Hi,” Mariette hesitantly said. She looked like she’d run at the slightest movement.
“Hey.” He took the skillet off the stove and started to take it to the sink. “I was just making myself breakfast.”
One corner of her mouth twitched. “With my food?”
Well, you were gone, and I thought I deserved something, Galahad almost said. Instead he put the skillet in the sink and got another one onto the stove for the pancakes. “Yeah.”
“Oh.” She came a little closer. “I…can I have some?”
“It’s your food,” Galahad said. He picked up a ladleful of batter, then put it down. Turned around. “Jesus Christ, you—”
She kissed him, and it didn’t solve a damn thing, but it was pretty damn good. He kissed her back, and when they parted to catch up on breathing, he felt a little better. “You know, I fight better on a full stomach.”
“You would.” Mariette’s reply was almost playful. Her voice still was shaky, but the old her was starting to show through. “I want to eat first, too.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Galahad said, snorting. He turned back to the stove, and she opened the fridge.