|Library Respect I: The Lost Book
Author: Guede Mazaka
The couch exploded, spewing up papers, books, socks—Gawain hastily took several steps back—and one fuzzy-haired man. “It wasn’t me!”
“I know it wasn’t you.” Gawain leaned against the kitchenette counter and waited for Galahad to roll onto his feet before going on. He grinned at the other man’s scowl, then stooped to pick up the bookbag that he’d thrown at Galahad and that Galahad had knocked off the couch. “It’s both of us. Come on. Today we’re scheduled to get into the manuscript vault, so get a move on. You know how Dagonet is about that room.”
“Yeah, it’s harder to get him to give up the key than it is to get into a nun’s—ow!” Galahad was knocked off of his feet. He sat down hard and glowered up at Gawain through a fringe of frizzy curls, a puppy baring milk teeth.
Then he slung a book at Gawain a hell of a lot harder than Gawain had thrown Galahad’s bookbag. The little bastard was lucky that Gawain caught it before it hit the sink, which was filled with dishes soaking in soapy water. “Fuck, watch it. The last time I returned a book, Dagonet found a new dent in the cover and I thought he was going to ki—oh, good, this one’s almost due anyway.”
“Maybe I’m still using it,” Galahad muttered. He awkwardly got onto his feet and flapped at himself, gradually getting his clothes and hair into shape. There was a pencil stuck through the hair at the back of his head, and paper wads falling out of his rolled-up sweatpants, so Gawain guessed he’d actually been doing work. For once.
Well, maybe that wasn’t fair. It looked like Galahad’s last blow-up with Avalon’s female population had taught him a lesson that stuck, or maybe he was finally getting past that part of growing up. But at any rate, he’d been dating a little less and paying more attention to his studies.
Galahad looked at Gawain, then sighed. “Okay, I’m not. I’ve got most of that damned thing memorized, so if Mariette goes off on a snobby scolding, I can get her on the footnotes.”
“The footnotes,” Gawain repeated. God, they were such children. Even Tristan was starting to roll his eyes at it, and it took a lot to make him bored instead of amused.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t believe how much it gets on her nerves. It’s great.” A yawn overtook the last of Galahad’s words as he stumbled towards the door.
With a sigh, Gawain yanked Galahad back and pulled his hair into shape. While Galahad was busy cursing him for that, he whipped off Galahad’s shirt, which smelled faintly of potato chips, and whipped onto the man the cleanest one he could find in the room. It’d be pointless to look in Galahad’s drawers since he kept anything in there but clothing.
“We need to do the laundry. Like, today.” Gawain cleverly fended off Galahad’s punch by slamming Galahad’s bookbag at the man.
Grumbling, Galahad shouldered his bag and stomped off after Gawain. “Neatnik.”
“I’m not neat. I’m sanitary, for fuck’s sake. We let it go any longer and we’ll be declared a hazmat zone.”
“Don’t you get state money if that happens?”
Ow. It was way, way too early in the day for Gawain to already be getting a headache. Plus they were out of aspirin, thanks to Galahad’s hangover last weekend. “Don’t even think about it. Anyway, it’d have to go to getting Mariette’s car fixed. When the hell are you and Bed going to finish with that? It’s getting so bad that I’m hiding from her, and she likes me.”
“God knows why, considering the company you keep,” Galahad muttered. He shot Gawain a comically meaningful look that only added to the hilarity.
Ah, railings were the saving grace of drunkards and men stuck with idiotic roommates. Though this one was splintery and banged-up like the rest of their shit-fucked building, Gawain was grateful to have something to hang onto while he laughed himself sick.
Galahad got it after a moment. His face went red like he’d gotten sunburned on the water and he pissily stamped down the stairs. “I meant Tristan. There’s nothing wrong with me.”
It really was too obvious for Gawain to say anything. So he just let Galahad speak for himself. Man had a rare talent for it, after all.
* * *
Usually Dagonet dressed in the kind of nondescript clothes that an office drone on Casual Day might wear, but today must have been special. One, he was wearing a shirt that wasn’t a shade of brown. Two, his tie was off, his shirt-collar unbuttoned and his sleeves were rolled up so everyone and anyone could see he had a neck and shoulders like an ox. Galahad normally didn’t feel a shortfall in his testosterone levels, but looking at Dagonet was…was something beyond intimidating. It was like being a raptor from Jurassic Park and kicking ass all day, and then suddenly meeting up with T-rex and finding out that there were levels of ass-kicking, and furthermore, that some of them just weren’t reachable by everybody.
It didn’t really help that Dagonet looked like he was just waiting for Merlin to send a message allowing librarians to pit-roast misbehaving library patrons. The way he was staring down his nose at Galahad and Gawain would’ve looked snobbish on anybody else, but on him it just said, ‘Carnivorous and bigger than you.’ “I need your IDs and your permission slip.”
“Right here,” Gawain cheerfully said. He pushed his ID and their slips across the counter, then looked at Galahad.
What—oh, right. Galahad fumbled in his bag, had a brief moment of panic and then found his wallet. He dug out his ID and passed it over picture-down.
Dagonet impassively took them and scooted over to his computer, where he began entering the evidence trail that’d let him crash into their apartment late at night and murder them without risking punishment. Gawain rolled his eyes. “That was not your worst picture. Your worst one was your passport.”
“Which you haven’t seen in two years on purpose.” As soon as he was given his ID back, Galahad got himself away from the counter. He let Gawain get the keys to the vault and the little booklet of Do Not Or We’ll Bookpaste And Stamp You To Death rules.
“Something wrong, Galahad? You seem…I don’t know, amazingly and obviously paranoid?” In true innocent fool manner, Gawain sauntered towards the back of the g-brary where the door to the manuscript vault was. He swung the keys from his fingers like they were just going on any other research jaunt.
Galahad resisted the urge to hit him. If Dagonet came after them, he’d be needed back-up. “I might have returned a book late the other day. With a coffee ring on the cover. But it came right off! I just wiped it a little with a tissue and some water from the water fountain, and it looked fine!”
“And you’re still alive? Wow,” Gawain grinned. He held open the door for a fuming Galahad.
The manuscript vault wasn’t actually a real vault—more like a very specialized reading room. It was always slightly chilly and the lights were a strange pale yellow that made everything look twice as dull as it really was. There were two large tables in the middle of the room, and three of the walls were lined with smaller alcoves containing one desk and one chair, and which could be shut if absolute silence was needed. On the tables were boxes of files, which had to be requested ahead of time, a supply of disposable handling gloves for the really delicate papers, and more little pamphlets of the vault’s rules of usage.
For some reason, Gawain liked the place. Personally, Galahad couldn’t wait for the university to computerize its library holdings. He always felt like he was walking into a funeral home.
Well, since he’d been dragged in here, he’d better get started. Sooner he got done, sooner he could go outside where it looked normal and not like the set for a horror movie.
He sat down with his box and his pair of gloves and started to plow through it. Mostly he was looking up personal letters—damn, they had a lot of spare time in the old days—in hopes that what he thought some dead economic philosophers had meant was really what they’d meant, and not the wishy-washy shit that they’d actually published. His project’s ultimate focus was more on current economic philosophy, but he had to get the obligatory history out of the way in order to satisfy the conservative hardasses in the faculty.
The letters were yellowed and fragile, and the ink was faded so Galahad had to hold it up to the light. But whenever he did that, the words written on the back showed through and so it was damn near impossible to read. It didn’t help that everybody seemed to write with the idea that generations later, some grad student would be cursing their stupid fancy curlicues.
In spite of all that, Galahad got a good page and a half of notes down in the first half-hour. That was about as long as he could go without a break, unless he wanted to fall asleep. Which was a stupid thing to do when in Dagonet’s bad graces and in his territory.
Galahad scooted back and got up. He went over to Gawain, who was mumbling under his breath as he puzzled out the words on the essay he was reading. “Hey, I’m going to piss.”
“Yeah, you do that—oh, wait. I just remembered I need this one book. Here, the number’s written down for you.” Gawain thrust out a scrap of paper without even looking at Galahad.
For a second, Galahad stared at it. Then he heaved a breath and took it. God, Gawain was such a dedicated tight-ass sometimes. Pretty fucking obvious who was under who in that deal. Though given how much time Gawain spent getting rats for Tristan’s hawk, Tristan was pretty good at the topping-from-bottom deal, and fuck. Galahad had been spending too much time listening to pervy women. To hell with figuring out their secret kinks and pretending to be the sensitive guy. He didn’t need out of the doghouse that badly anymore.
He was almost back to the vault when he remembered about Gawain’s book and had to do an about-face. Whereupon he almost ran into Fulcinia. “Whoops! Sorry.”
She blinked like a doe from beneath her wispy bangs. For a librarian and a married woman, she actually still had her share of looks.
“What happened?” Dagonet said, materializing out of nowhere.
Galahad barely avoided plastering himself to the bookshelves. As it was, he swallowed hard and pulled out his please-give-me-bus-money cute face. “Oh, nothing. I was…uh…Gawain wanted this book.”
He waved the scrap as a shield. Somehow Dagonet divined the code number written on it; he nodded towards another row of shelves. “Over there, third shelf, around the middle.”
“Uh. Thanks.” Never, ever show the back to a potential danger was a lesson L. A.’s streets had taught Galahad well, so he shuffled backwards till he was out of lunging range. Then he walked as quickly as he could without sacrificing his dignity.
Thankfully, the section of books was one that Dagonet and Fulcinia had gotten reorganized so Galahad didn’t have to go crazy trying to figure out the old librarian’s secret organizational system. He ran his fingers along the spine labels. “Fifty-three bee cee…fifty-three eff gee…fifty-three jay kay twenty-one…no. No fifty-three jay kay twenty-one. Huh. Must be checked out.”
“No, it’s not.”
Mariette looked surprised to see Galahad jump a fucking mile. Airheaded bitch. “What do you mean, no? It’s not here on the shelf.”
“I looked it up on the catalog before I came for it, and I checked with Dagonet. It hasn’t been checked out in eight years,” she said. As usual, she had a shield of textbooks clutched against her front. “I put a hold on it. So when it does show up, I have it first.” Nasty smile. “You can have it when I get my car back.”
Galahad made a face at her. “For fuck’s sake, I told you it was a piece of crap. You’ll get it this weekend, all right?”
She made a face right back at him. “I want that in writing. You told me so twice already.”
“Galahad…Galahad? Oh, there you are. How long does it take to get a fucking—oh, hi, Mariette. How’s it going?” Gawain smiled at her, then rounded on Galahad. “You’re wasting our goddamn time.”
“Well, the book’s not here! Nothing I can do about that. See?” A wave of the hand, and Gawain’s attention was successfully redirected to the jump in the labels. He seriously needed to relax; he was always down on Galahad before he even had all the information.
Surprisingly enough, Mariette came to Galahad’s support. Then again, maybe not—she was such an uptight cunt about factuality. “It should be there. I checked the catalog and with Fulcinia.”
“Maybe it got misplaced.” Gawain began scanning the shelves. After a couple seconds, he glanced over his shoulder. “Uh…I could use some help.”
Mariette looked sideways at Galahad. “You work on his other side.”
“Christ. Why don’t we give each other cootie-shots while we’re at it, huh?” Galahad grumbled as he bent down. It was one of the smaller shelves, so with three it wouldn’t take long. Only reason he was putting up with her.
* * *
Forty-five minutes later, the trio had turned into a quintet as Dagonet and Fulcinia had gotten drawn into the discussion. Search though they might, no one could find the missing book. Fulcinia had even made a quick call to the u-brary circulation desk and to the stacks where the returned books were kept prior to reshelving, but she’d found no sign of it.
Dagonet had his arms folded over his chest and was staring fixedly at the spot where the book should be. He was…okay, Gawain could sort of understand why Galahad was so antsy around the man. He was definitely intimidating.
“It’s very odd,” Fulcinia said in her whispery, timid voice. “It’s not about anything that might give it a reason for disappearing…”
Galahad coughed theatrically to cover up his snark. Badly. “Ninja philosophy students.”
“Knock that off,” Gawain muttered. He looked at the spot, then on a whim he pulled out the books that were there and poked about the bare shelf. Maybe he’d been hoping that it had just gotten shoved behind, or something.
There hadn’t been a clear idea in his head when he’d done it, and there wasn’t really a clear idea when he saw the sticky spot on the wood. But hell, they might as well try anything. “Hey, Galahad. Gimme a paperclip.”
“What are you doing?” Mariette asked, pushing closer.
“I’m just…it’s a really stupid idea, but…”
…but twenty minutes later, he and Galahad and Mariette were walking into the forensic science labs, having promised a menacing Dagonet and a quietly distraught Fulcinia that they’d be kept up-to-date on any discoveries. Galahad came because he was doing anything to avoid doing his studies, and because beneath his defensive attitude, he was still pretty much a curious little kid. Mariette came because she wanted to complain about her car—at least, that was what Gawain theorized after listening to her for a couple minutes. Normally he liked her, but fuck, she really could get on people’s nerves when she got started.
“Let’s see. I think he usually works in this one…” Gawain knocked on the door, then pushed it in, He eased his head around the door, since the last time he’d just walked in, some students had been playing football with a hunk of liver and it’d nearly hit him in the face.
No, no one in the lab. Tristan was definitely doing research today, so if he wasn’t here, then he was probably in the gross anatomy room, which was shared with the pre-meds. Well…he might have sneaked over to the other set of labs, which technically was reserved for the professional—i. e. the non-teaching stuff—work. Only professors and labbies from the various law enforcement agencies were supposed to be allowed in there, but it was Tristan. Sometimes Gawain wondered if his boyfriend remembered how to unlock a door with a key.
“Wait. Are we going to the morgue?” Galahad started to slow down. He sped up again when Mariette gave him a scornful look. “I’m just asking, you know. Want to be prepared for any weirdness.”
“Just don’t embarrass me, okay?” Honestly, it wasn’t like Galahad hadn’t seen dead people before. And, Gawain thought in a fit of grimness, once they got to the dissection room, the corpses were a hell of a lot neater.
He paused with his hand on the door and shoved those memories back down. His shoulders seized up a bit, causing Galahad to shoot a questioning glance at him, but Gawain flapped him off. Galahad got it.
Mariette didn’t, and looked like she wanted to pester them with questions, but she was smart enough to hold her tongue even if she didn’t hide that very well. Gawain gave himself another shake and walked inside.
It was chilly and it smelled…stale, but stale in a way that assaulted the nose. Chemicals and faint rot and cold, which did have a smell to anyone who’d been poor enough.
There were a couple long lumps covered in tarps, plus one half-dissected corpse lying on a glossy metal table. Its face and hands were still wrapped up in cotton, but its abdomen had been sliced all the way open, and so had the part of the thigh that was facing them. And the figure bent over it was currently probing at the…
…Galahad winced. “Jesus, remind me never to donate my body to science. His balls, for God’s sake.”
“They’re oversized, so if he were in a position to care, he’d have nothing to be ashamed of,” Tristan dryly replied, straightening up. His hair had been pulled back and clipped out of the way, which was why Gawain hadn’t immediately recognized him.
He looked different with his bangs out of the way. Younger. More awkward, somehow—his face was put together in a way that Gawain liked a hell of a lot, but even Gawain couldn’t deny that it was unusually angular. It probably would’ve looked normal in the middle of a pack of Vikings, but paired with the bright green gloves and the rubber apron, it just looked…okay, this was so not the place. But he was cute. And there were dead bodies in the room, and Gawain had not just thought about shoving Tristan against a gurney and biting at those cheekbones. “Hey. Sorry to bug you—we can come back if—”
Tristan was already tidying up the body, stitching off something and then squirting preservative over the cavity. “No, now is fine. I was about to get lunch anyway.”
“You can eat?” Mariette croaked. When Gawain looked at her, she had turned kind of green. Though she was doing a pretty good job of not getting sick before Galahad, who was looking a bit wobbly himself, did.
The slightest bit of mischief slipped through Tristan’s eyes as he made his way over. He stripped off and tossed his gloves on the way, and by the time he’d gotten to Gawain, he’d also hung up the apron. So when he leaned over and pecked Gawain casually on the mouth, he technically wasn’t wearing anything that could’ve gotten corpse-juice on it.
“Ewww,” Mariette and Galahad chorused.
“Christ, wash up first,” Galahad added. Then he hastily backed off. “Not that I’m saying now I wanna see that shit whatever you do.”
Gawain smacked him on the head and shoved him towards the door. It helped cover up that Gawain himself was a little bit thrown; either Mariette had made the transition from being colleague and occasional pest to being some kind of friend, or Tristan was suddenly feeling like making more public gestures. Usually he was very hands-off unless it was Galahad, Arthur or Arthur’s…whatever the hell Lancelot and Guinevere were. Gawain wasn’t sure he knew a reasonably polite name for them.
Well, it’d get sorted out later, whenever Tristan felt like talking about it. “So, we’ve got this missing book and this old stain where it was supposed to be,” Gawain said, falling in behind Tristan.
* * *
“So you promise I’ll have it back,” Mariette was whining.
Christ. From the fire to the frying pan—or as Grandma Yvie would’ve put it, from the crack-line to the jail-line. All Galahad had wanted to do was to get out of waiting around in the lab while Gawain and Tristan had eye-sex, and now he had a goddamn tag-along. “Yeah. Yeah, you will, okay? Now will you shut the fuck up?”
Blessed silence while they walked towards Arthur’s house, but only for a couple yards while Mariette got over her shock. She lifted up her chin and did her best impression of disapproving nun. “I cannot believe you just said that to me.”
“Well, you’re a bitch.” Galahad damn well jumped the front steps to get away from her. He almost lost his balance, but luckily he managed to grab the door-knocker and righted himself. Then he gave the door a couple of sharp raps.
Mariette hurried after him, but she was hampered by her heels so she’d only just made it to behind his shoulder when the door swung in. Then it stopped, as if someone had caught it with their foot.
Galahad and Mariette stared at it.
After a moment, the door closed. Then it re-opened to show…Guinevere. She was breathing pretty hard and her hair was down in a tangled mess, which Galahad had never seen before. Admittedly, this was the first time in a while that he’d really gotten a good look at her, and the first time at all that he’d gotten one while he hadn’t had to worry about something like weird paramilitary guys running around trying to kill his advisor. Her blouse was half-yanked from her shirt and buttoned unevenly so he could see a flash of peach bra. She was one damn fine piece of work.
He came back to himself and hastily plastered on his polite face. “Hi. I, uh, called Arthur and he…?”
“Oh. Right. He mentioned…” Guinevere recollected herself and started gathering her hair into a tail behind her head; her blouse stretched and gaped between the buttons so Galahad suddenly had to find something interesting about his shoes. She glanced over her shoulder while rolling it tight, then stepped back to let the door open wider so they could come inside. “He’s…he’s just about done with lunch.”
“Right. It’s just a quick question—I guess we’ll wait here for him, if you don’t mind…” Galahad eased over to the side and gestured for Mariette to come over as well.
“I’ll let him know,” Guinevere airily said. She pivoted in a way that probably was meant to make men break their necks staring at her ass and walked off, bundling up her hair into a bun that she skewered with chopsticky-things.
Mariette let out a funny little cough. “You did not just give Arthur’s girlfriend a…a look-over.”
“What the hell are you talking—” One look at the smirk on Mariette’s face told Galahad that lying wasn’t going to work. Onwards to plan B: brazening it out. “Oh, for fuck’s sake. Of course I did. She’s sexy, I’m a guy, and if I hadn’t at least given her a little bit of a look, she would’ve gotten pissed off. Or she’d think I’m gay.”
“She would not—not to either of those. Women aren’t like that.” When Mariette wanted to look condemning, she did a hilarious wrinkle with her nose that just made Galahad want to flip the tip.
Muffled speech came from the kitchen, then stopped abruptly so Galahad glanced around the corner. Arthur didn’t come, so he bothered answering Mariette. “Bullshit. They are, too. I mean, look at you. You’ve got lipstick on, your—your shoes match your nail polish, you’re not dressed in a sack. Don’t tell me you did all that just because you wanted to.”
“Maybe I did,” she shot back. “Maybe looking good on the outside translates to looking good on the inside, too. It’s a self-esteem booster.”
“What book did you get that from? Come on, I’ve seen what girls do to themselves in the morning. It’s worse than the fucking Spanish Inquisition, and they do it of their own free will. That’s not self-help. That’s fucking masochism.” Galahad made illustrative motions with his hands, just in case his slang was getting too thick for her prissy head or anything. God knew he didn’t want to have to repeat this talk like he had to every other conversation he had with her. “The…the waxing. Jesus Christ. And then all those hair-irons in weird shapes so you can get any kind of scalp burn-scar you want, and the sleeping in hair-rollers…hey. Hey, are you choking?”
Well, no. Probably not. As Galahad had gone on, Mariette’s face had done the weirdest contortions until she’d finally covered her face in her hands and doubled over. And now she was sort of backed into the corner, supporting herself by leaning her hip against the wall while her shoulders shook like Jell-O.
“Galahad. Sorry to keep you waiting—and Mariette,” Arthur said, surprised. He slowed his approach.
He looked…a little too neat. He was an order-and-precision kind of guy anyway, but this just screamed overkill. And the missing shirt-button was kind of a clue.
“Oh, Arthur. Je suis déso—ce n’est pas toi—” Mariette stammered, whipping herself straight so fast her hair almost lashed a painting off the wall.
“She’s looking for the book too,” Galahad interrupted. He dug out the scrap of paper Gawain had given him and passed it over. “This one. Dagonet’s got no clue, but Tristan thought maybe you might have an idea since you knew the old librarian better.”
The other man read the paper at a glance, then stood thinking. “Well, I wouldn’t say that I really knew Mr. Fisher. More like I managed to have longer conversations with him than anyone else…if Dagonet can’t find the book, then it’s probably not in the library. He’s figured out more of Fisher’s old cataloging system than anyone else.”
“Well, where else would it be? I need this book for the paper I’m trying to write, and I can’t find a copy anywhere else. I checked all the online shared catalogs.” Mariette did something with her eyes that made them five times bigger and winsomely pathetic.
Arthur looked up at her, was briefly startled at her face, and then resumed thinking without any appreciable change. Galahad’s respect for him promptly shot up.
“Actually…” Arthur took a second look at the paper “…it’s interesting that it’s this book. Vivienne Argante was the Monmouth Professor before me; she’s retired now and living somewhere in Newark, I believe. You’d have a time finding this book anywhere else; it was being published by the department, only she stopped them after only a handful of copies had been printed.”
“Why?” For some reason, Mariette glared at Galahad. He ignored her—it was the obvious question, and anyway, it wasn’t like Arthur seemed annoyed about it.
On the contrary, Arthur was happily digging deeper and deeper into his memory from the looks of things. “I don’t know. She left…very soon after, under unusual circumstances. I was curious and did a little querying myself on the subject, but I’m convinced that no one really has an idea why.”
Then he hesitated in the same way that he did while wavering over how to mark a grade.
“Merlin most likely has the best notion as to why, since all departing faculty are required to have an interview with him,” Arthur finally added, tone guarded. He gazed at Galahad and Mariette in a way that warned Galahad off more effectively than a pack of policemen with riot-clubs. It was just something he did with his eyes. “Not that I’d suggest bringing up the topic with the dean. I might know a professor at UCLA who’s got a copy. I’ll give him a call and let you know.”
“Thank you very much,” Mariette said. She went on to elaborate on her thanks so effusively that Galahad’s ‘thanks’ was almost drowned out.
Faint headache lines appeared between Arthur’s eyebrows and around his mouth, but he was the epitome of diplomacy as he somehow scooted them out the door and onto the steps. Not that Galahad could blame him.
“Damn.” Mariette gave the door an irritated look. “I was hoping I could get him to say more.”
“By annoying him? I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you can’t annoy Arthur. Either he’s Mr. Gentleman or he’s about to kill you. Not really a middle ground.” Oh, shit. Galahad didn’t know if Mariette knew about Arthur’s little…background-check issues. He hastily got an excuse dressed up in case she asked.
She didn’t. Instead, she just sniffed like he was a stupid piece of shit far, far beneath the notice of her pretty little feet and stalked off. “Shows how well you know him. Tristan used to…to…I don’t know what he did, but he could--stare Arthur into doing things. I think that might be the best way to describe it.”
“Yeah, well, Tristan’s a mutant,” Galahad muttered. And now they were going to have to go back to the goddamn lab, and probably walk in on those two. Galahad’s escape idea had turned out to be a dead-end, so—
--on the other hand, maybe not. He grabbed Mariette’s elbow, ducked when she nervously swung her purse at his head, and glowered at her. “Okay, I don’t like you, remember? And anyway, I was thinking we might be able to get your car today if you don’t mind helping me drag Bed out of…um. Well, out of bed.”
“Why?” she suspiciously asked.
“Because I don’t have a car and if we take yours, we could go to Newark. Kitty’s up in Canada again, isn’t she?” Galahad oozed charm till it started to hurt. After all the time he’d put into screwing up and then bugging Gawain for help with Mariette’s car, he thought he deserved to drive it for a bit. Plus he wouldn’t mind a vacation, even if it had to be to fucking New Jersey. NYC was too damned crowded for a good, long, mind-clearing cruise down the road.
Mariette eyed him, probably wondering what the catch was. But her need to be a good little scholar won out and she reluctantly nodded. “All right. But—”
“Great. Let’s go. We can get him before he goes girl-fishing if we go now,” Galahad said, bundling her down the sidewalk.
* * *
The lights on the panel flickered. Gawain shot straight in his seat. “Is it done?”
“No.” Tristan got some papers off the counter and rolled them up, then whacked the instrument box. The lights steadied. After five seconds, they were still steady, so Tristan signaled all was well with a slight nod of the head and leaned back in his seat. “That just means our department is cheap.”
“Everybody says that,” Gawain muttered, disappointed. He thought of himself as a pretty patient guy, but God, this was more of a drag than pulling old academic journals. It’d been exciting for all of ten minutes at the beginning while Tristan had taken Gawain’s sample and done chemical-stuff to it, but after it’d gone in the thingy that would tell them what it was, everything had gone downhill.
Even though he’d turned around, Tristan seemed to know what Gawain was thinking. He shrugged as he scribbled in a ragged, stained lab notebook. “There’s an old saying soldiers use as a job description—hurry up and wait.”
“And you’re the soldiers of progress, so the carry-over makes sense.” Wondering how scorch marks had gotten on the ceiling kept Gawain preoccupied for another minute, but soon he couldn’t help himself. He took his feet off the desk and began to slowly spin himself in his chair.
It was something Galahad would do and so Gawain was heartily embarrassed of himself, but at the same time he just couldn’t stop. The spinning was addictive.
Something stopped him: Tristan’s foot on the edge of his chair seat. “What are you doing?”
“Having a neurotic fit? Maybe my advisor’s rubbing off on me.” And Tristan’s hair was still tied back, and Gawain was really having a hard time not doing anything about it. Especially when Tristan leaned forward like that so his nose and cheekbones and cheek-tats were right there.
God, Gawain was pathetic.
He had a feeling Tristan thought he was going crazy. Maybe it was the worry in Tristan’s eyes. “Did Galahad do anything?”
“No.” The weird way Gawain said that wasn’t because he was lying, because he wasn’t. He was just…staring at Tristan’s stubble. It was sexy. And he was deranged, because he was not getting hard when there was a goddamned bucket labeled ‘Maggot samples’ sitting on the counter in front of him.
It was empty, thank God. Gawain thought Iseult was beautiful and didn’t mind feeding the other hawks and falcons dead rats, but insects brought up too many shitty childhood memories. And they were just gross.
“Are you sure?” Tristan tipped his chair from four legs to two, expression deadly serious. A strand of his hair worked loose and drifted over his face.
Okay, pouncing hurtowfuck, and note to Gawain the next time he decided to jump his boyfriend in a room with a linoleum floor. But he had his tongue in Tristan’s surprised mouth and it was hot and messy and good, and his hands were either in Tristan’s hair yanking it loose or petting the tats, and that was good, too. He briefly got up to toss aside…hairpins. Couldn’t help snickering before he dove back at Tristan’s mouth.
Tristan banged his knees against Gawain and pushed like he wanted out from under, but then Gawain stroked his tongue over the roof of Tristan’s mouth and Tristan moaned. His hands went from shoving at Gawain’s shoulders to bunching up Gawain’s shirt.
Then Tristan stiffened, got his head away from Gawain who didn’t mind because neck, and with a faint tanline around it that was begging to be licked. “Wait—lab—sterile environment—”
“That it? Thought you were gonna ask me to stop,” Gawain mumbled around Tristan’s collarbone. He pressed the flat of his tongue against the hollow at the base of Tristan’s neck and felt the other man arch lewdly against him.
“I wanted you to land towards the office. No, left. Left.” Which Tristan pointed out by sticking his hand down Gawain’s jeans and tugging Gawain’s cock the right way. That kind of treatment, Gawain’s prick really, really fucking appreciated.
They sort of squirmed. It was maybe five feet and technically they could’ve just jumped up, run in and kicked the door shut, but Gawain was busy. With Tristan’s nipples, and the sensitive ticklish strip beneath Tristan’s ribs, and with the dark patch of hair that fuzzed out of the crotch of Tristan’s jeans once Gawain had gotten them unzipped. And yeah, with the hair that once loose, seemed always to be in Tristan’s face. Gawain accidentally chewed a lot of it as he did his best to treat all of Tristan’s face to his mouth. “Gotta update your profile in my head. Cocktease.”
“No, just patient. I was beginning to think I’d have to first…” Tristan trailed off into a moan as they finally humped their way across the threshold. He splayed his legs and writhed against Gawain, his thigh rubbing frantically across Gawain’s cock. “They only mop those floors once a month.”
“Fuck, don’t tell me that.” Fortunately for Tristan, Gawain’s body never heard and so the movement of Gawain’s hand on Tristan’s cock didn’t slow. He flipped his ponytail out of the way so Tristan could explore further with—Christ, it felt like Tristan was tongue-fucking his ear.
Breathless laugh. And then Tristan was just this liquid wildness beneath Gawain, sliding around till Gawain had his head between Tristan’s knees and was sucking the sweat off of Tristan’s cock. He worked Tristan’s ball-sac in time with his swallowing and wormed his other hand—well, just the finger, really—back beneath the denim till he could rub his knuckle against the puckered skin, feel it almost slip inside before Tristan was bucking and going nuts.
Gawain grinned as he wiped his mouth, then crawled up the other man to gently bite at Tristan’s lower lip. “You know, sometimes I get why Galahad gets this incredibly disgusted look around you. Funny thing, though. I kind of don’t care.”
“Sometimes I get why he thinks you could do better.” There was a flash of soberness beneath Tristan’s light teasing tone. But then he lifted his legs and twisted them over, and he was nuzzling down Gawain’s front before Gawain could really worry. “Good thing I don’t usually find him worth listening to.”
And then his mouth. His mouth was a furnace. His mouth was a vortex of perfect pressure and wetness and heat. Fuck it, his mouth was God. Yeah. God. God.
A little while later, Gawain roused himself from a sticky, boneless happiness that was just impossibly deep and good and brilliant. “Tristan?”
“So what does the beeping mean?”
Tristan made an annoyed growl and slowly peeled himself off of Gawain’s legs. “It means we’ve got results.”
He hitched up his jeans and did up his fly, but left his shirt alone, then walked out. Gawain took a little longer since he felt a need to make sure there weren’t any really obvious signs—and in a forensic teaching lab of all places, his guilt-voice wailed—before he found out what was going on with that book.
“I’ll go over the room later,” Tristan told him. The other man was frowning at a computer that was hooked up to the instrument. “Don’t worry about it.”
“I’m going to anyway, but I’ll try not to obsess over it. So what do we have?” Peeking over Tristan’s shoulder meant Gawain got to smell sex in Tristan’s hair. Which he liked to do, even if it was silly.
Tristan actually paused. “Melted butterscotch candy.”
It was Gawain’s turn to pause. “Butterscotch?”
“Old.” Shrug. “I’d have to run a longer test to figure out how old. If it’s not random, then it might be a useful clue—Mr. Fisher loved butterscotch buttons. He was always snacking on a bag of them. It annoyed everyone because he wouldn’t even let you bring water into the libraries, but he’d eat them right in front of you.”
“So…he pulled the book himself, and didn’t log the change anywhere? Weird.” Gawain leaned back and tapped his fingers on the counter, trying to remember everything about earlier. “The stain did look pretty old. It—it had to have been there before Dagonet rearranged the section, because none of the books there had butterscotch on their bottoms. So it’d already dried up.”
Tristan’s hands flew over the keyboard, apparently shutting down the program. It was getting near dinnertime…and Galahad and Mariette should have been back way, way before now. Though there had been a stretch where Gawain wouldn’t have noticed an atomic bomb going off, so maybe they had come back and had left again.
“Do we have to track down Galahad?” Tristan asked.
Gawain needed a second to be in awe of Tristan’s mind-reading powers. Then he shrugged and glared at Galahad, wherever the hell the fluffy-headed bastard had gotten off to. “I can call Bed, see if maybe Mariette bugged him into going to finish up her car. There was only a little bit left, and I don’t think even Galahad could fuck it up.”
“If not, we can check with Arthur to see what he told them.” A lock of hair fluttered over Tristan’s nose as he spoke.
Okay, once in the lab was…fine. Twice was no good. And frankly, Gawain was beginning to think they needed to get out of the building before he really did end up jumping Tristan somewhere truly scarring.
“Not in the morgue,” Tristan said, bending over the computer again. “One of my classmates caught Galahad necking with a girl in there. So we’re not.”
“He what? Oh, that little—God, I’m going to…to…” Forcibly tie Tristan’s hair back, was the thought that sprang out first. Only that would probably end in sex.
A tiny sliver of a grin stole across Tristan’s face. “Give me another moment.”
“I’ll…just get our bookbags,” Gawain said. Yeah, that was safe. It’d keep his hands full of non-Tristan things. It’d…he jammed his hands in his pockets and walked off, cursing himself.