|Library Respect II: Overdue Fine
Author: Guede Mazaka
When they reached Arthur’s house, Tristan led Gawain around the back and began to pick at the ivy on the side of the house. It took a second for Gawain to realize the other man was testing its strength.
“Um. It’s kind of late. Wouldn’t we freak him out coming in like that?” he asked, hastily gobbling the last of his sandwich. They’d just breezed through a shop on the way over for dinner, figuring they could fill up more after they’d figured out where the hell Galahad had gone.
Tristan jumped, which was supposed to be a once-a-year type of event. Then he ducked his head and casually walked around to the back-door. “Probably. It’s…old reflex.” When he saw that Gawain still didn’t understand, he twitched his fingers in a way that said to check out the house more carefully. “The lights aren’t on.”
“Oh.” Okay. Gawain could understand that a little; back in his old neighborhood, there’d been paranoid old dealers that nobody came at straight on because they’d more likely than not get shot out of hand. Best bet was to sidle in sideways and wave and smile a lot. “Well, doorbell…”
He was just about to ring when the lights came on, and it wasn’t just Tristan who instinctively flattened down. Luckily, Gawain’s hands came down on the grass instead of the gravel walk, which would’ve hurt like a bitch.
Crouched down next to him, Tristan paused and cocked his head. Then he nodded and stood up, getting out a ring of keys. “It’s Arthur and Lancelot.”
“And…I think one of them’s drunk,” Gawain muttered, listening himself. He wasn’t sure they should interrupt the slurred singing going on inside, but Tristan was opening the door before Gawain could say so. Standing out on the back porch might save some dignity one way, but it looked really stupid the other way.
In the end, Gawain hesitantly followed Tristan into the house. They were in the dining room that flowed off the kitchen, and at the other end of the room Arthur was awkwardly drag-heaving another body. He’d already seen them and stopped by the wall so he could prop Lancelot against it, but apparently Lancelot wasn’t having that. “Office party,” Arthur explained. He looked like he wanted to apologize for every crime against humanity committed in the last decade. “Successful case closure. Guinevere’s—”
“—on a different one, and having hell with the alibis. She’s uptown poking at ‘em.” Lancelot slouched from the wall into one of the high bar-style chairs at the island in the kitchen. He slumped into it, then spun it around so he could lean his head on the back of Arthur’s shoulder. His tie was gone and his shirt flapped open at the collar and sleeves, which made it very obvious where he was trying to grope Arthur. “Evenin’, Tristan. Tell me Arthur doesn’t have to go out. Because I really, really want to—”
Get Arthur’s hand over his mouth. Arthur nudged Lancelot further behind him so only the mussed top of Lancelot’s hair was showing, then turned to Tristan and Gawain. The desperate glint in his eyes had almost worn through his pathological politeness. “Are you here for the same reason Galahad and Mariette stopped by?”
“I think so. They went off without leaving us any message, so we wondered if you’d told them to go anywhere.” Tristan carefully avoided establishing line-of-sight with Lancelot as he leaned against the table. From the way the corners of his mouth were quirking, he probably did that so he wouldn’t break down into helpless laughter.
He was lucky that that was all he had to do. Lancelot clearly hadn’t given up, and was now making ridiculous little purring noises and…and rubbing his face along Arthur’s back, Gawain guessed. How Arthur was managing to ignore it with no more than the occasional uneasy shift of weight was beyond Gawain’s comprehension.
Arthur hunched his shoulders, apparently in an attempt to get Lancelot off of him, and shook his head. “I didn’t tell, or know, any more than you do about Vivienne Argante.”
Tristan’s fingers flattened on the table and his brows drew together, which was his more usual way of signaling surprise. Then he looked inquiringly over at Gawain, who was in the middle of kicking himself for being an idiot.
“Right. Sorry, the book was one of Argante’s. I meant to mention it to you, but Galahad was being an ass and…” Yeah, it was amazing, but somehow Gawain had not told Tristan exactly what they were looking for. It made Gawain pause when he realized how little Tristan had had to go on, and how he still hadn’t hesitated about running Gawain’s sample.
There wasn’t any kind of recrimination in Tristan’s expression. Instead, he seemed to be thinking hard, as if trying to drag up a memory.
“I did mention she now lives in Newark…” Arthur slowly said. He had the same air of intense thoughtfulness as Tristan, and for a moment the air tingled weirdly, feeling like the Twilight Zone theme sounded.
Then Gawain’s sense of impending doom took over. “Oh, God, no. That idiot.”
“Newark? You think he’d go?” Tristan asked.
“It’d explain why Bed said that Mariette had picked up her car. God, that…” Gawain turned around and stalked towards the door, wishing that Grandma Yvie had given Galahad a couple more whacks on the ass. The jackass could’ve used some more built-in reality checks. “Crap. We should call her up and warn her.”
Arthur shook his head. Considering he knew Galahad, he seemed pretty calm about the whole thing. Then again, Mariette had to be going with Galahad if they were taking her car, so Arthur might have been counting on her to straighten things out.
Come to think of it, it was weird that she’d even agreed. She was outspoken, no doubt about that, but when it came down to it, she tended to be shy about actually doing things.
“I don’t think Vivienne has a phone line. You can find her address online, but I haven’t been able to find a number for her.” The way Arthur added inflections to his words told Gawain to take them seriously, because obviously Arthur knew what he was doing when it came to digging up information. And given the kind of resources beyond the norm that he could get into, he had credibility. “By all accounts, she was a force to be reckoned with in her day and she didn’t slow down much. I wouldn’t worry. But Gawain? When Galahad and Mariette do return, please tell them that I’d like to talk with both of them about their…impetuosity.”
“Will do.” And damned if Gawain was going to help Galahad out of this time. If the idiot was going to run off to New Jersey to bother some poor old woman, he deserved whatever he got.
The floor creaked suddenly as Tristan moved. “Was this the book that she resigned over?”
Before he answered, Arthur took his time studying Tristan’s blank expression. He took a deep breath and crossed his arms over his chest, wariness faintly touching his face. “Tristan, please don’t break into Merlin’s office.”
“I wasn’t planning to.” It looked and sounded like Tristan was telling the truth, so he probably was. Funnily enough, that didn’t seem to reassure Gawain or Arthur. “Thanks, Arthur. I…think we’ll go now.”
His eyes flicked to Arthur’s neck, where something pink had just flickered. After staring at the other man for a second, Gawain spotted it again: Lancelot’s tongue. Lancelot’s fingers were creeping around the sides of Arthur’s arms.
“Lancelot,” Arthur hissed, turning around. Bad move, since he promptly got himself sloppily pounced.
It was a good time to leave. Gawain got Tristan by the elbow and pulled him towards the door, while behind them Arthur struggled with an enthusiastically tipsy Lancelot. Good luck to him, Gawain thought.
“I think—” Tristan started to murmur.
“Do you always molest your boyfriends in front of other people?” Arthur snapped, and so loudly so that Gawain jerked to a stop.
But when he looked back, neither of the two men was paying any attention to him or Tristan. Arthur had Lancelot under the arms, sort of how somebody would hold up a baby, and was glowering at Lancelot with a mixture of irritation and affection that was a lot rawer and…genuine than he ever showed at work. He was always sincere about everything, but right now he looked like Lancelot meant enough for him to…well, he had forgotten about the rest of the world.
For his part, Lancelot seemed to be trying to put his weight on his own feet, but it wasn’t working out well and he kept falling back against Arthur. “You’re not my bloody boyfriend,” he retorted with commendable diction. “You’re the bloody arse I fell in love with.”
A little sound was strangled and killed in Tristan’s throat. He quietly and quickly opened the door. Good idea; this was interesting, but somehow not something that should get shared around in public.
Not that Gawain—trained by Grandma Yvie’s soaps—could look away yet. He watched as Lancelot blinked, collapsed a little further and plaintively stared up at Arthur. “I’m completely smashed, aren’t I?”
“You’ve been worse,” Arthur said, voice so low and gentle that Gawain could barely make out the words. He wormed out an arm so he could cup Lancelot’s face; oddly enough, Lancelot seemed embarrassed and kept trying to duck his head away. But Arthur wasn’t having any of that, and…and he had good reflexes. He deflected Lancelot’s face up towards his mouth, and after a moment, Lancelot got his arm up around Arthur’s neck, and…
…Tristan and Gawain were on the steps, and Tristan was looking at Gawain with an amused expression as he silently locked the door. “When you’re done watching them make out, I’ve got an idea about looking up why Argante quit over that book.”
“Not breaking into Merlin’s office,” Gawain quickly said.
“No, not that. Breaking into the Attic,” Tristan calmly replied, as if that was much better.
* * *
The map made this nice tent that kept Galahad from having to look at Mariette while she gasped and muttered and generally was the most annoying passenger-seat driver he’d ever had to suffer. But as long as she was trying to trace roads, he couldn’t really hear her over the rustling of the paper and all was good.
Newark. Not really. More like, Newark-as-the-closest-landmark. They’d left any traces of the city behind nearly fifteen minutes ago and were now putting around the New Jersey backwoods, searching for the address that Galahad had found on the ‘Net. “There’s a road coming up.”
“What’s its name?” A couple tendrils of brown hair briefly flopped over the edge of the map.
“There’s…no road sign. Fuck this for a stroll in the park.” Galahad’s first reaction was to turn down it anyway and just drive fast till he hit a clue, but something stopped him. God knew what—it wasn’t his pride, because that was saying show no weakness in front of the annoying French girl with the long memory.
Maybe it was that commonsense-thing that Gawain was always going on about. At any rate, it was pointing out to Galahad that if he was currently bitching about being lost in fucking New Jersey, then maybe he should try to keep from getting more lost. Because obviously the more lost one was in a place like New Jersey, then…okay, he’d lost his grip on deductive reasoning. Time to pull over onto the shoulder.
“What—what are you doing? Where are we?” Mariette jerked down the map and stared with wide, slightly panicky eyes at the dark landscape around them. Granted, they were walking right into an urban-legend set-up, but…
…well, urban legend. Was or wasn’t she a philosophy major? “I’m trying to find out where we are. Give me that.”
Instead of being sensible and doing so, she got the map folded and put away in five seconds flat. “No.”
Galahad just stared at her. Then he took a deep breath and held out his hand. “Mariette, let me see the map.”
“Why? Drive.” She actually waved her hand at him, like he was some retriever puppy, or something brainless like that. “Drive!”
“I’m not driving till I know where the hell we are, where the hell we’re going, and how the hell we’re getting back!” Galahad exploded. He threw up his hands and promptly smacked them on the walls, which scraped one knuckle. Swearing, he slumped back in his seat to take a look at it.
There was a little bit of blood, but it looked shallow enough to scab over quickly so he just licked it. Then he looked up to catch the weirdest look on Mariette’s face. “What?”
“Ew.” She shook herself back to her usual mulishness and hugged the map more tightly. Her eyes were constantly darting about, and every time a tree branch rattled or some crazy bird flew by, she jumped in her seat. A couple of times and she’d more or less knocked her bun loose.
Hair down looked better on her. It added shadows and softer curves to the lines of her face, which taken by themselves were pretty severe. Actually, when her hair had been up, her face had looked distinctly skull-like in the dim light.
“Oh, get over yourself. Now look, we’ve got a half-tank of gas. Either we find this woman’s house in the next five miles or we have to turn around. It’s nearly midnight and I don’t want to spend all night in New Jersey, so what’s it going to be?” He didn’t mention that if she didn’t give him an answer in a minute, he was going to turn off the engine to save on the battery; he and Bed and Gawain hadn’t quite managed to fix that part of the car. It ran okay as long as it didn’t get stressed too badly, and he didn’t want to take chances out here. Creepier than Kansas.
Mariette looked at him, looked at the map, looked outside and shivered. Then she reluctantly passed over the map. Though she still didn’t leave him alone as he unfolded it, but instead scooted till their hips were almost touching. She must really have a phobia of the dark for that.
“I think…we are here. This one—” her nail sliced down a short hair of a road marked on the map “—is the last road sign we passed, three roads back if you count from the right and four if you count from the left.”
“Okay, see? This is cooperation.” If they were where she said they were, then they actually were almost there. The problem was just figuring out where the hell the last road was, and the kicker was that Galahad was beginning to think it wasn’t on the map. He kind of regretted not getting directions online, but they’d been using the u-brary’s computers and those damn things were slower than an old lady with a walker crossing a freeway.
It slowly penetrated Galahad’s consciousness that Mariette was annoyed at him. She did it all the time so she had to get more annoyed in order for him to bother noticing.
Her nose was wrinkled again—stupid habit. Somebody had probably told her it was cute back when she was knee-high and she’d never realized it looked idiotic on an adult. “Why do you think I’m a bitch?”
“What? Aren’t you trying to act like one to me?” Galahad lowered the map and shoved his face into her space. Maybe if he made her uncomfortable enough, she’d go back to sulking in the corner.
Unfortunately, it looked like she was in a mood to fight. She shoved her face forwards to meet him and they actually bumped noses, which wasn’t exactly pleasant for either of them, but the first one to back down would’ve…well, lost. So they sort of sat there, glaring at each other.
“Don’t you deserve it?” she said.
“Aren’t you supposed to be better than my level?” he retorted.
The air sang. The temperature rose and the world shrank till Galahad could hear the sweat-drops popping out of his skin and slicking down the side of his face. He suddenly had the feeling that he was going to do something really, really stupid.
Fuck knew what happened, but suddenly Mariette was all over him and crawling to get even more on him. She got her hand stuck in his hair and bashed her knee against the stick-shrift. When she cursed, she did it in French and she ended up biting the hell out of his lip because she wouldn’t stop kissing him at the same time. For some reason, he was kissing her back.
Okay, well, for the reasons of her breasts being damn nice and her waist feeling damn good in his hands. Actually, to hell with reason. That was the point of doing something like this.
“Putain…non—no, this—” Mariette went at his throat with a vengeance as she grabbed his hand, which he thought she’d wanted on her breast. Uh, no. Lower—whoa.
The little Gawain-voice in Galahad’s head finally screamed for his attention. It didn’t get it, but it did startle him enough to look up and casually look out through the window.
* * *
“You remember that the last time we did this, Dagonet caught us. Right? And this time, we don’t really have Arthur to fall back on…” Gawain tiptoed after Tristan, who was leading them through the top floor of the Attic. Up here they mostly kept administrative archives for Avalon, so the surroundings were huge filing cabinets instead of shelves or storage lockers. Personally, Gawain found that creepier. “And he’s all worked up about the book, too.”
“Arthur?” Tristan finally stopped them before a particularly large cabinet. It was made of heavy wood with glass panes so when Gawain shone the flashlight at it, they could see the labels of the files inside. Unlike the other cabinets, this one was relatively free of dust and seemed to be used pretty often, judging by how the brass had tarnished in the shape of fingers on the handle.
Gawain made a face at Tristan. “Don’t be flippant. You know what I mean.”
“If someone wasn’t flippant, then this would be hilariously serious work for finding out about one book.” As always, it was impossible to tell what, exactly, that Tristan was mocking. But Gawain puzzled anyway, and while he was doing that, Tristan was efficiently picking the lock. “Merlin keeps duplicate files on all the faculty members in this cabinet. Argante’s should be here somewhere, and in there should be why she left.”
Which explained why Tristan looked like he spent a lot of time in this area. Somewhere around here must be files on Arthur, and Tristan did spend a good deal of his time altering any paper records of his and Arthur’s presence.
Gawain wondered if Merlin had ever noticed his reports were being altered. Or…no, Tristan was more careful than that. He probably wasn’t going to make any changes till whenever he and Arthur moved on. “Hey…what are you doing after you finish your masters?”
“What?” Tristan glanced up from the files directly into the flashlight. He flinched away, then hunched over and rubbed at his eyes.
“Shit! Crap, I’m so sorry about that. I didn’t mean to—shit. Are you okay?” The first reaction Gawain had to was to turn off the flashlight, but that just plunged them into complete darkness. He immediately turned it back on. “Sorry…God, I have no idea what I’m doing.”
A smile flickered over Tristan’s face as he turned back to the file. “I’m fine. Are you still thrown by Lancelot and Arthur?”
It was a life-saver and Gawain gratefully took it, since by now he’d had the time to realize what he had asked and he wasn’t really sure if he wanted to have that talk yet. After all, he was still just gearing up for research in order to write his thesis, and after all the trouble he’d had getting to Avalon in the first place, he didn’t want to think beyond it. He would have to, eventually, but right now that felt like leaving just when he’d finally gotten settled in.
He tilted the flashlight so both Tristan and he could read, though he was more grinning at Tristan than reading. “Yeah, well, I’ve never seen Lancelot like that. I mean, I…think I interrupted the first time he was trying to get Arthur in bed, but usually if I see him he’s dressed sharper than a razor and arguing with somebody.”
Tristan snorted and kept running his fingers down the files. He paused at one, but it was a false alarm. “That was him being a well-behaved drunk. Usually he’s worse.”
“Well, you’re pretty funny when you’re drunk,” Gawain’s mouth said. Gawain’s brain froze dead in its tracks from sheer horror. Then it leaped into action. “I mean, you’re pretty fun. No, I meant…oh, fuck.”
The muscle in Tristan’s cheek twitched, and his eyes had stopped moving so he wasn’t paying attention to the files.
“Shit. There’s no good way to back out of this, is there? I’m just…God, why do you put up with me?” And Gawain proved his point by absently lifting his hands to tug at his ponytail and accidentally blinding Tristan again. “Shit! Sorry! Sorry! Sor—”
Tristan held him in place for a good minute before easing away for breath. His hands stayed on Gawain’s face. “Did you want to see me drunk more often?”
He sounded…playful. A great wave of relief crashed into Gawain’s knees and sent him reeling against the cabinet. “Oh…well, actually no,” he said in a faint voice. “It was fun, but it was also…you’re a little scary when you’re sloshed. So nah, that’s okay.”
“If you’re sure.” Still amused as hell, Tristan went back to the files. His finger stopped on one, which he took out and opened.
Clipped to the top were a couple photos, one a very old black-and-white one of a very beautiful young woman. The photo that looked the most recent was recognizably of the same woman, though she hadn’t really aged well. Her eyes, however, hadn’t seemed to change at all and stared boldly out of all the photos.
“Vivienne Argante…” Tristan flipped quite a few papers over “…here. The transcript for the dismissal interview.”
They read it in silence, Gawain resting his chin on Tristan’s shoulder. Occasionally Tristan would reach up to adjust the angle of the flashlight, but otherwise neither of them moved. They forgot about that; the interview was too engrossing. Several times Gawain caught himself on the verge of exclaiming in disbelief, and even Tristan rolled his shoulder a few times, signaling his incredulity.
When they finally finished, Gawain drew a long breath. “Damn. Talk about dirt in the ivory tower.”
“She was bitter,” Tristan agreed. He started to say something else, but paused as a thought occurred to him. When he finally finished speaking, he did so slowly and carefully. “Arthur must have suspected. But Merlin was involved, so he wouldn’t have pushed.”
“He respects the Dean that much?”
Tristan shook his head. He closed the file and delicately slid it back into its place. “No, he respects his old advisor.” Quick glance at Gawain, who was in mild shock. “You didn’t know?”
“I do now. Man, they aren’t kidding when they say that academia’s inbred…so that explains why the book would be pulled from the shelves. Though it wasn’t really that necessary if nobody leaked the key to its encoded message, and it doesn’t seem like anybody did.” Gawain stepped backwards to give Tristan room to shut up the cabinet. Then he waited while Tristan did various inexplicable things that made it look like no one had touched the cabinet since…whoever’d done that before them.
“Back then more than one person probably had an idea about what Argante was about to do. I think Mr. Fisher must have pulled the books meaning to put them back after people had forgotten about her leaving, but he died before he could. That’s why they weren’t wiped from the catalog.” When he’d finished, Tristan gestured for Gawain to turn off the light. He started to walk out of the aisle, then stopped to cock his head. After a moment, he backpedaled and hastily drew Gawain into a parallel aisle.
“Is anyone in here? Tally?” called Fulcinia. She sounded like she was by the stairway.
Tristan stopped again, then turned them around and silently but quickly made for the windows. Gawain did his best to emulate the other man, particularly concentrating on making his breathing as shallow as possible because it sounded so loud to him. He kept an ear out for Fulcinia, who seemed to be walking away from them, thank God, and for whoever else that was apparently working in the Attic this late.
Once they were safely out the window and had gotten onto the ground via a strong ivy-trellis, Tristan explained. “Merlin’s assistant for the summer. He’s in a rush to wrap up things before he leaves for a year in Korea and sometimes he pulls files late at night.”
“Oh. And Fulcinia?” Because Jesus, she might look as fragile as a china doll, but her ability to sense people in the library gave her an intimidating aura.
Tristan shrugged. He started off across the grass, tucking his hands into his pockets. His eyes wandered over the sky, drifted to the shadowy sculptures looming from beside one building, and finally landed on Gawain. For some reason, he looked a little regretful. It might have been the dark messing with Gawain’s eyes. “But that didn’t get you your book.”
“No. I have no idea what we’ll say to Dagonet tomorrow, either. Maybe just that we had no luck and it’s lost for good? He’s not going to like that.” Oddly enough, Gawain felt pretty okay about it all. Earlier he had been a little freaked out—fine, maybe he’d overreacted—over hitting the first real snag in his research, but now he was…okay. He was just sorry he’d gotten everyone so excited over what was, in retrospect, a really little thing. There were other books he could use. “Hey. Thanks for helping out, even though it ended up being pointless.”
“You’re welcome,” Tristan replied.
He didn’t seem to have a plan on where he was going, and Gawain was just wandering, so they ended up moving in a loose semi-circle. When they had stopped, they found themselves before one of the school fountains. It was an old one, and earlier in the summer it had broken down and had had to be turned off, so its basin was dry.
Gawain put up his knee on the rim and stared at a long crack that ran along part of the wall. “No wonder Arthur’s so polite. Professors really are brutal to each other.”
“Not all of them, but enough are to worry about.” Tristan sat down on the fountain edge and stretched out his legs, then folded them neatly beneath himself. “So what are you going to do? That kind of knowledge could still do a lot of damage.”
“Well, are you going to tell anyone? Besides Arthur, I’m assuming.” After Tristan nodded, Gawain took down his leg and sat next to the other man. He pulled his knee up to his chest. “I don’t see what the point of talking about it would be. Fisher’s dead, but Argante and Merlin are still alive, and if they aren’t doing anything about it, then I don’t see why we should.”
A dark shadow floated over their heads—an owl. Something warm and soft touched Gawain’s shoulder, and then Tristan fully leaned his head against Gawain. “I was thinking about getting a job as a forensic investigator,” he said, so quietly that the words almost vanished into the night. “I have no idea where. Did you want to go anywhere?”
“I…” Gawain stopped and looked down at his hands. The whole crux of the affair that’d led to Argante’s resignation and Fisher’s embitterment—which he’d taken out on two generations of students with his esoteric cataloging system—had been a decision made too quickly. At least, that was how Gawain had read it.
In the end, he just put his arm around Tristan’s shoulders. “Ask me in another year.”
“All right.” Tristan didn’t seem disappointed—at least if he was, he wasn’t showing it by any signs of which Gawain knew. “Want to go back to my apartment, or yours?”
“Probably mine,” Gawain sighed. “I still need to scare the shit out of Galahad.”
* * *
Five years had just been scared off of Galahad’s life, and to no goddamn purpose as far as he could see.
Actually, all he could see was frame after frame of black-and-white photographs. They were pretty enough, but they cluttered every available surface and crowded the walls so he felt a little claustrophobic. The theme seemed to be water—oceans, coastlines, lakes, scummy ponds.
Mariette lowered her tea-cup to point at one. “I’ve been there. My parents used to take me there on vacation when I was little.”
“That one’s Los Angeles,” Galahad said, not to be out-done. He had a second to enjoy that, and then they both remembered what they’d been doing. She flushed and jerked away, and he didn’t complain because that meant he could stare into his tea and wonder what the hell he’d been thinking.
Footsteps interrupted his thoughts; the door to the kitchen swung open and in walked the face that had gotten Galahad to scream like a virgin in front of Mariette. For an old lady, Vivienne Argante could still make a hell of an impression.
“I thought I had a few spare copies, but I can only find the one right now,” she was saying. She held out a small, thick book with a plain, worn covering that had been stenciled with the title and a drawing of a goblet.
“Thank you all the same.” Mariette nervously smiled and reached for the book.
Ms. Argante almost let her have it, but at the last moment she pulled away to flip it open to the back. There she tapped the page so both Mariette and Galahad could see. “The secret’s here, you understand. If you were being thorough and reading all the footnotes, you’d soon find out that I was revealing sordid secrets about the fine and upstanding Avalon College.”
Not that surprising to Galahad, who was used to finding tarnish beneath the new paint, but Mariette seemed to take it rough for a moment. Then she leaned forward, transparently intrigued.
“Of course it’s not much compared to today’s scandals, but it might still make a fuss.” Like old ladies everywhere, once Ms. Argante was determined to tell a story, it was clear she was going to tell it.
It was a little annoying, but Galahad figured he might as well let her. They’d driven all the way out here and then they’d gotten scared like little babies when she’d pressed her face up against the glass, her white hair glowing in the moonlight—and he completely didn’t buy her excuse that she was out walking her dog; she’d obviously had practice freaking out poor lost drivers—so they deserved a little bit of explanation.
He leaned against the wall while Ms. Argante and Mariette both took a seat, the old woman on the sofa across the way and Mariette on the chair nearest to Galahad. Which he was ignoring, incidentally.
“Bran Fisher was a brilliant man in his own way, and I think I loved him a little, but he could hold a grudge like nobody’s business. Then again, so could I.” When Ms. Argante laughed, her hands shook so her tea splashed over her cup-rim and onto her saucer. “You have to understand that back when I started, a woman in the academic world was worse off than a worm on a hook. Either you let yourself be eaten or you ate first…or at least, that seemed to be the only two choices available to me. I took every possible advantage I was offered.”
“It became a habit after a while—I mean by that plagiarizing, stealing ideas from my graduate students. Eventually I basically forgot why it was wrong to do so. Then I started seeing Bran Fisher. He used to say he could have been a professor emeritus if he’d wanted to, but that he hated the internal politics necessary. So he became a librarian instead. But he still kept up his research, and one day he came to me and told me I’d made a mistake in my last paper—I hadn’t properly credited an obscure source. Of course it had been deliberate on my part. It had been so long since I’d thought about the morality of the issue that I panicked and tried to talk him into not telling anyone.”
“He just stared at me, and I could see the revulsion taking over him. He went to Merlin, who’d just become the Dean at Avalon. Merlin called me in and gave me till the end of the term to set my affairs in order.”
“At the time I was just finishing this book. It was supposed to be the culmination of all my years of study, but…I was angry, and I went straight from Merlin’s office to my computer to alter the manuscript.”
“Being a librarian’s something like being a spymaster—eventually you get to learn about all the skeletons in people’s closets. Bran had told me a little bit of something filthy about every faculty member at Avalon, save for…I think Kitty Cobham, Merlin, and some of the hard scientists. Taken together and hidden in the footnotes of my book, it would have been enough to send Avalon into a permanent decline. Once it’d been printed, I planned to have an anonymous letter published that would explain how to read the footnotes.”
“What changed your mind?” Galahad didn’t know why they were both staring at him. He was just as surprised as they were to find himself asking the question.
Ms. Argante recovered first, sipping at her tea before she answered. “Bran. He…showed up on my doorstep in the middle of the night, and handed me a small box, telling me it was what he’d lost. When I opened it, I found a beautiful engagement ring.” She smiled very slightly at the floor. “I suddenly lost my appetite for revenge. I took up a position teaching writing at a small community college near here—the pay’s so low it’s essentially charity work, but it keeps me well enough.”
Mariette set aside her tea-cup and reached for the book. This time, Ms. Argante let her have it. “Is this also…” Mariette hesitantly asked.
“Oh. Oh, no, that is all original work. I…on some level I always knew it was wrong. I told myself it was a challenge to see if I could do it the straight way, but…” The other woman sipped her tea again. Suddenly the spark in her face seemed to dim. “I waited far, far too long to change.”
It was awkward after that. Galahad muttered something like a thanks and a farewell, but Ms. Argante seemed to be lost in thought. She sat with her head bent over her tea, nodding to herself. The last he saw of her as he walked out of the house was the white top of her hair, faded and coarse.
“Well,” Galahad said. He slid into the car, waited for Mariette to get in and then started the engine.
She looked at him, but too quickly for him to read his expression.
He pulled out onto the road, and once they’d rediscovered the highway, he tried again. “Can I see that for a moment?”
Mariette wordlessly handed it to him. The cover was soft with age beneath his fingertips, but when he sniffed at it, he could smell a faint hint of ink, as if it’d just come off the presses. “You know…I could take this for Gawain. But here, you can have it back.”
Damned woman wouldn’t take it, but instead stared at him like he’d just grown another head. “Why?”
“Because you came along with me.” If she had any sense, she’d take it before Galahad came to his senses. “You’ve got balls.”
“I’m not sleeping with you.” She blurted the words like she was throwing up a shield.
Galahad rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
It was a quiet drive for the rest of the way. But she took the damned book.
* * *
Tristan probably had been pulling all-nighters in the lab again, judging by how fast he fell asleep on Gawain. They were bundled together on the couch, and had been planning to watch some weird French flick about werewolves in the 1700s, but after Tristan had dozed off, Gawain ended up just flipping channels. He’d landed on an Iron Chef episode when Galahad finally staggered in. “Where the hell have you been?”
“Wha?” The eyes Galahad turned on Gawain were more bleary than L. A. smog.
“Never mind,” Gawain sighed. When Galahad was in that condition, there wasn’t a point in yelling at him. It’d have to wait till morning—well, till Galahad got enough sleep to be capable of walking in a straight line would be more accurate.
Galahad shrugged and stumbled for the sink, but before he’d gotten halfway there, somebody knocked. He staggered back and opened the door to reveal…Mariette. Mariette with big eyes and a book that she almost flung at Galahad. “I’m not sleeping with you!”
“Uh…no, you’re not. We’ve gone over this,” Galahad said, clearly puzzled. He squinted at the book, then jerked to attention. However, Mariette had already clattered down the stairs, and so Galahad could only stare into the hall. After a moment, he shook himself and started to close the door. “Jesus Chr—”
Somebody—Mariette stopped him and stuck her head past the door. Even in the dark, her blush was visible. “Do you want coffee?”
“Um.” Galahad was completely floored. “Uh. Now? Can I sleep first?”
“Come by at noon, and you can get lunch, too,” Gawain called.
She didn’t take her huge, huge eyes off of Galahad, who eventually nodded. He might have been doing that just because he was so tired, but Mariette didn’t seem to notice, or care. She eeped and skittered off again.
When it was clear she was gone for good, Galahad shut the door. Then he turned around, paused, and then leaned against the door. “What the fuck did you say that for?”
“What’s the book?” Gawain countered.
“Oh. The Grail, Vivienne Argante.” Galahad woke up enough to smirk a little. “You fucking owe me…oh, man. Laundry. Can I borrow a shirt from you…I don’t know if I’ve got a…a…”
Yawning, he stumbled towards the bedroom. Tomorrow morning was going to be funny as hell, but for the moment, Gawain felt like being nice. He slid out from under Tristan and followed to get Galahad tucked into bed.
“Thanks, mom,” Galahad sarcastically, tiredly muttered.
“You’re welcome, idiot.” Gawain smoothed the cover over him, then wandered back out to Tristan.
* * *
Nobody ever explained to Dagonet and Fulcinia how The Grail reappeared on the shelves. It is widely believed, however, that they somehow found out anyway. Gawain, Galahad, Tristan and Mariette weren’t charged overdue fines for the entire year.