|The Long Road to Reconciliation II: Release
Author: Guede Mazaka
The moment she was able to, Guinevere shot out of work and down to her car. She tried calling Tristan as she was pulling into the road, but only got to him on the third try. The first two times, she hit a busy signal. “Were you calling Arthur?”
Tristan drew in a breath. *Once. His phone’s off. I didn’t have Lancelot’s number, so I called around, but I ended up with three different ones and none of them work.*
“That’d be because he’s hopeless at hanging onto a cell-phone, changes providers even quicker, and till they changed the bloody FCC regulations, he didn’t want to pay the number-retention fee. By the way, I do appreciate the trust you have in my and Arthur’s relationship,” Guinevere irritably replied. When she pulled up to the next light, she fumbled around in her purse for her earpiece and with some dexterous manipulation, got it in without knocking her bun askew or plowing into the hip-hop Caddy shaking next to her. “Wait. Arthur’s phone is off? Doesn’t he only do that if—”
*I just started on trying to find him. Called Vanora—she was trying to call you, but she said your phone was busy. She says Arthur blew out of his office fifteen minutes early and she couldn’t give him your message,* Tristan replied. He didn’t sound worried yet, but he definitely sounded like he was sitting up and paying attention instead of just being vaguely amused.
Guinevere silently cursed. Then she vocally cursed as horns blared behind her; she glanced up to see the light a brilliant green that reminded her of the eyes of one of the male idiots in her life, then floored the accelerator.
Of course, she had to switch her foot to the brake a few seconds later—this was rush-hour in New York, after all—but the brief burst of speed made her feel a little better. Occasionally she could understand why Lancelot was so laissez-faire when it came to speed limits. “Well, I’m stopping home on the off-chance that Arthur went there. He might have left a note.”
*He might have.* The tone of Tristan’s voice said he wasn’t sure how probable that was. On the one hand, Arthur was scrupulous to the point of insanity when it came to little matters of etiquette and consideration like that. On the other, when he turned unpredictable, he was damned unpredictable. Which included his timing. *I’ll call you back if I get anything.*
“Wait! What about—goddamn it!” She nearly missed the turn and had to slew her car about so hard that she smelled burning rubber. The car tilted, then banged back onto all four wheels, which left Guinevere gritting her teeth.
Tristan had hung up on her. Her sense of order was inanely demanding that she schedule an immediate tire rotation. She had no idea where Arthur was or what he was doing, and she had an all-too-good of an idea as to what Lancelot was doing.
Whenever she finally caught up to that flash bastard, Lancelot had better be bawling his eyes out, Guinevere decided. Otherwise she couldn’t be held responsible for any missing body parts of his afterward, dead father or no dead father.
* * *
Arthur drove them to Central Park. They were less than an hour from the time when vehicular traffic was banned in the park, so he ended up leaving the car about a block away and dragging a sullen, silent Lancelot into it. Given what Arthur did know, he thought it was best to head off the commonly-frequented paths.
“See you’re being careful as always,” Lancelot drawled. His walking was a little less cock-eyed and if someone wasn’t looking closely, he might merely appear to have an extravagant manner of strolling, but a glance into his eyes would swiftly correct that misapprehension. From time to time, he’d duck his head away from Arthur, who would pretend he didn’t see Lancelot wiping savagely at his cheeks. “Setting’s good whether you’re going to have me up against a tree or kill me.”
The sunset sky was beautiful today, all tones of clear purples and pinks and yellows. “Why were you calling me?” Arthur asked.
They stopped between a pair of trees and some bushes, which though leafless effectively screened them from the rest of the world. Lancelot shoved his hands into his pockets and tipped his head back, but he obviously didn’t mean to enjoy the pretty dusk. “What, can’t I call you?”
“You usually leave a message. And answer when I pick up.” Arthur slipped his hand into his own trouser-pocket and contemplated trying to sneak a call to Guinevere or Tristan. Now that he was thinking a bit more broadly, he realized that was what he should have done first. He’d promised himself, and those he loved, that he’d try to break his habit of going off without…never mind. This wasn’t the time. “Has something happened?”
“We’re in New York, Arthur. Everything’s happening,” Lancelot dryly replied. He continued staring at the sky.
After some thought, Arthur let the other man be and stood where he was. He drifted from the situation enough so that he could occupy his mind and nervous energy with thinking about his lesson plans for next week, but not so much that he didn’t notice when Lancelot slightly dropped a shoulder.
Then the other man irritably took his hands out of his pockets and raked them through his hair. He stopped with his arms still over his head to glare at Arthur. “Would you stop staring at me like that? You’re just wasting your time.”
“I don’t think I am,” Arthur mildly remarked. But he half-turned anyway and looked at the trees beside them, in order to ease Lancelot’s state of mind. A few birds were hopping about the bare branches, occasionally stopping to peck at the bark.
After another two minutes, Lancelot sighed. When Arthur looked over, the other man was rubbing the sides of his face as if trying to wake himself up, but Lancelot quickly dropped his hands. He blinked tiredly at Arthur, shoulders slumping just enough to signal his defeat. “You could’ve at least picked a spot with a bench, damn you. I’m not getting grass stains on this suit.”
A slight tang of sourness filled Arthur’s mouth, but he reminded himself that the trade-off would be worth it, if he could find out what was the matter. Besides, no matter how crushed Lancelot looked right now, he could recover from it. Arthur didn’t think so highly of himself as to believe that he could permanently damage Lancelot’s self-confidence. In fact, he doubted there was anything in the world that could. “I can see a bench from here.”
Lancelot grimaced a smile and nodded. He slowly spun on his heel and walked towards said bench. “You always have the answers, don’t you?”
“Hardly.” As Arthur walked alongside Lancelot, he shot the other man a pointed look. At first he was afraid he’d overplayed it, but Lancelot merely shrugged it off. Still, Arthur made sure to keep about a yard in between them so as not to create a sense of crowding. “If it…is any help, I’m not asking you to tell me everything. I’d just like to know enough so that I know you’ll be all right later. You extended this courtesy to me, so I’d be a—”
“My father’s dead,” Lancelot abruptly said. He flicked a challenging glance over his shoulder before flopping onto the park bench. A nearby flock of pigeons spouted a few nervous jumpers, then settled down. They edged a little towards Lancelot, cooing demandingly, but detoured after he kicked a rock at them. “About two days ago. Heart failure brought on by longstanding liver problems.”
Then he grabbed the top of the bench and swung himself around as if making room for Arthur. But Lancelot swung too far, and had to yank himself back to keep from falling off. He kept his face angled slightly downwards so the profile of his clenched jaw was clearly displayed.
He’d told Arthur previously that his father was no longer in his life, which had implied death but hadn’t necessarily meant that. Lancelot had claimed far narrower margins as edging him from lie to truth, so that couldn’t have been what was keeping him from talking to Arthur.
Since he also gave the strong impression that he would bite off Arthur’s head if sympathies were offered, Arthur cast around for a neutral reply. “He was in the city?”
“Yes. Yes, he was, and may he rot in hell for it, that fucking—” Lancelot jerked his fist to his mouth and coughed sharply into it. Then he snorted and threw himself roughly back against the bench so he could stretch out his legs. “He’s not named Benjamin DuLac, by the way. I changed my name back to the old version—my father liked the Anglicized version.”
“Ben Lake.” Arthur rounded the bench and sat down. He felt his coat take on strain and stopped to pull it out from under him, then turned about to face Lancelot.
The other man hadn’t moved and wasn’t moving, except for the slow spread of confusion and suspicion over his face. He pursed his lips, started to speak, and changed his mind about his phrasing. Then he started again. “You don’t look surprised.”
“It can be a small world sometimes…he was involved in a collaboration about fifteen years ago. That was too early for me, but not for some of the people I worked with later. They wanted to bring him in on something else, but…” Arthur trailed off. His hands were hurting and he suddenly realized he’d been squeezing his knuckles together till he could feel the cartilage shifting beneath his skin.
Lancelot didn’t have much expression in his face at first, but as he absorbed the information, his look grew harder. He straightened up, leaned back; his feet scuffed idly at the ground while his fingers tapped more and more rapidly on the planks. “Arthur. Tell me you’re saying that you’ve seen him and you—somehow—saw the resemblance.”
Well, this certainly was a plum time for the truth to out, Arthur bitterly thought. He was handling this situation so damned badly he was surprised they’d only had the one outburst of physicality. “I’ve only seen photos,” he had to admit. “But you don’t look the least bit like him. I didn’t put it together till last year after we met. I…did a check on you.”
For a long moment, Lancelot simply stared. When he finally moved, it was to slouch down till he was staring straight up at the sky. He opened and closed his mouth a few times while shaking his head in incredulity. “My God, Arthur. So should Guin even bother filling you in on her family difficulties, or have you already looked that up, too? Do you do background checks on all your prospective lovers—oh, I’m sorry. That question’s not come up in a long time. I forgot.”
Arthur held his breath till he thought he could exhale without also releasing a torrent of angry words. No matter how down Lancelot was, he never managed to lose his knack for setting off the temper of anyone near him. “I believe you and Guinevere both walked into our first meeting with a full file on me.”
“Full?” Lancelot snorted. He shoved himself up so abruptly that Arthur thought Lancelot was going to lunge at him, but instead Lancelot swayed in place, eyes blazing. “We had your goddamned school records, your employment records since your stint at the Sorbonne, and that’s it! You had to tell us—”
In spite of himself, Arthur tensed. And somehow Lancelot noticed, though he was in full roar. He promptly stopped himself, then blackly laughed it off.
“You had to tell us the rest,” he finished more quietly.
“I didn’t—Lancelot. Yes, I told you. And you told me who you were, and what you were doing, but I had to know for sure. I had to know if you had connections—it’s not that I didn’t trust you, all right? I believed you when you said Interpol was going to keep me out of the Red Hound case. But people let things slip to family and friends, and back then I didn’t know you were going to move in with me!” Arthur had tried to keep his voice steady and low. He truly had, but it grew ragged and louder, and by the time he got to the end of what he had to say, he’d completely lost control of his tongue. “I didn’t—you two just showed up at my backdoor a week later. It was surprising. I hadn’t expected that.”
Lancelot looked as if he were going to come out with a matching tirade, but at the last moment he aborted it. Instead he put his arm up on the bench-top and rested his face in his hand. The anger drained out of his face and left behind a weary, ironic understanding. “I think I can see what you mean. People get comfortable around those they trust, and they let slip little hints that wouldn’t mean anything to everyday nine-to-five folk. Of course, that’s everyone else in the world.”
The first impulse Arthur had was to reach over and hit Lancelot, very sharply and very hard in the head. The second impulse he had was to get up, walk away and keep walking till he wasn’t near enough to be a disruption in the other man’s life.
Someone laughed, low and darkly. It turned out to be Lancelot, though the sound of it perfectly suited Arthur’s own mood. “Ah, God. It’s a vicious cycle, isn’t it? You want to keep up your good impression and so you don’t talk, but then it comes out and supposedly it’s all fine, it’s better to have it out. Except not really, and next time you end up hiding again.”
“Actually, I thought I warned you off me,” Arthur muttered. He laced his fingers together and pressed them against his mouth, then dropped them and put his hands on his knees in preparation for getting up. “I do that sort of thing, Lancelot. I’ll do it in the future, because due to my past I have to know what or who might be coming after me. I can’t protect Tristan and you and Guinevere, and I can’t stay alive, without doing that.”
“Wait—where are you—Arthur!” Lancelot lunged over the bench and grabbed Arthur’s arm with both hands, dragging Arthur back by sheer weight. He looked terrified.
Arthur promptly sat back down, blinking at the other man.
“I…” Lancelot ducked his head and laughed again. He cut this one short and awkwardly pulled himself over so he was leaning against Arthur’s side instead of stretched over the bench. “Idiot. I wasn’t talking about you with that last bit. I’m sorry, I know you do what you have to and I knew that before…it’s just this mess. Please don’t go. Really, I can pull myself together. Just give me a moment.”
Which Arthur thankfully did.
* * *
“Guinevere again.” After flipping the cell shut, Tristan swung his bag off the low concrete ledge on which he’d temporarily lain it and onto his shoulder. He waited for Gawain to stuff the papers he’d been grading back into his bookbag. “Arthur’s not home. He probably went after Lancelot.”
Gawain shouldered his bag, grimacing at the sudden jerk of its weight. “I thought Arthur didn’t know what was going on?”
“Lancelot probably did something. He might try to go off and be alone, but he tends to keep lashing out at people to get them to come after him.” It wasn’t the best way to get company, but at least it made it easier for Tristan to track down the man. If the situation had been reversed, then Tristan wouldn’t have been nearly so calm: when Arthur wanted isolation, he could disappear so efficiently that not even Tristan’s mother had been able to track him down.
Tristan and Gawain walked along for a little bit in silence. They passed a few students and some lingering professors, but mostly the campus was empty at this hour. After classes were over, the campus didn’t offer much competition to the attractions of the surrounding city and so most people immediately left.
“So what are you going to do?” Gawain finally asked.
He startled Tristan, who’d been busy thinking on who he could possibly call next. “Find them, make sure Arthur doesn’t need help, and then let them be. They’re not in Brooklyn, Queens or around here. I’ll try Manhattan next.”
“So tonight is off? It’s okay if it is. Really, dinner’s not a big deal, and I can catch up with you later.” Gawain adjusted the strap on his shoulder. He looked over at Tristan and his face immediately rearranged into apologetic for some reason. “You probably need to—”
“No, I wasn’t planning to go out and chase them. I should be done—”
“—because really, whatever works best for—”
“I don’t want to call off tonight. I wanted to talk you to about something.”
That came out too curt. Tristan shut his mouth and stared at Gawain, who flushed and looked away. With a half-shrug, Gawain began to repeat something deprecating it being okay if they rescheduled, but he soon stopped himself. He went another few steps before he cleared his throat and tried again, but his second explanation went as badly as the first.
“I just—you know, don’t want to inconvenience you,” Gawain finally said. He immediately moved his gaze from Tristan to the sidewalk ahead of them, but not so quickly that Tristan didn’t notice the flash of insecurity. “Wow, the trees are starting to bud already. I can’t believe that in a couple weeks, Galahad and I’ll have been here for a year.”
Galahad, Tristan reluctantly acknowledged, could on occasion come up with some good insights. “You know that job in the city forensics lab? I think I’m going to take it. As a starter.”
That brought Gawain’s head around fast, but he kept his face carefully smoothed of emotion. After a few moments, he managed to pull it into happy, which wasn’t entirely forced. “Hey, that’s great. They were the ones offering the best benefits package, weren’t they?”
“Yes.” Tristan looked at his phone again. He needed to call and see where Arthur was, if only to get that worry out of his head. With everything shifting as it was, he wanted to know that the other man, who’d been the one point of stability in his life for the last few years, was still all right. And he needed to do something about the slight tightness in Gawain’s voice, because Gawain had come to be the one point he most wanted to stay in his life.
He abruptly jerked his arm down to his side and pressed the cell into his hip; Arthur could handle himself, Tristan decided.
The sharp movement caught Gawain’s eye, and he was opening his mouth to speak when Tristan finally got out the words. “My lease is up in May. I’m not planning to renew it.”
“You’re going to move somewhere closer to downtown?” Gawain asked. He really was trying hard, and it hurt to watch it.
“It’s a long commute from here. But I can drive. I—does Galahad still need help splitting the apartment bill?” Tristan said. While he was saying it, he could hear how vague and awkward he sounded. He winced and wished he could reword what he’d said, but it was already out there.
For a moment, Gawain just blinked. Then he came to a stop so suddenly that Tristan had gone on a yard before he managed to circle back to Gawain, who now was staring at Tristan with the kind of fixation that crows trying to puzzle out a cage lock displayed. Tristan waited. He caught himself shifting uncomfortably from his left foot to his right and made himself stay on his right foot.
“Uh. This is…you know, I’m not meaning to criticize, but I kind of thought we had this discussion before. Only I was suggesting it, and you turned it down—not that that totally wasn’t your right, but…yeah.” Gawain lifted and dropped his shoulder.
“I know, but that was—not now. I…never go more than one year in the same apartment. Usually my landlords think that’s wonderful, but I don’t do it because of them.” This explanation was going to be roundabout and fragmented so Tristan desperately hoped that Gawain would be patient enough to listen and put it together. He hated to put the burden on the other man like this, but the straightforward answer simply refused to come out of his throat. “That’s what I’m used to. When I was living in the house with Arthur, I never was all that comfortable. He owns it, and that’s…traceable. And other people knew where it was, and came to visit him there. He understood, and he left me alone a lot.”
A deep furrow appeared between Gawain’s brows as he pondered over what Tristan was saying. “That’s why he’s so used to you coming in through everything but the front door, huh.”
“That’s from that, yeah,” Tristan acknowledged. His hand was rubbing his cell against his leg. It went up over his pocket and when it came down, he directed it into the pocket where it’d hopefully stay still.
“So I can get that. I know guys like that—years after some gang war and they’re still afraid of what’s coming to them, always moving around. I mean. Not that you’re afraid, but it’s sort of the same. Fuck. I’m messing this up.” Shoulders hunched, Gawain jammed his hands in his jeans and stared at the ground between his feet. He glanced once at Tristan, but otherwise seemed fascinated by the concrete. “Look, I really am happy for you. And you should do whatever you want, and not worry about what I think anyway. I’ve still got a year—actually, at least two because I’ve got to get my teaching certificate—and you’ve got a profession to conquer. I’m just…oh, I’m just being stupid. I’m going to miss being able to walk over in two minutes, but hell, I can get a rid—”
Tristan listened to Gawain’s words with a growing sense of alarm, and finally he lifted his hand and cut it sharply through the air, trying to stop it. He pressed his fingers against his temple, then dropped them. “No, what I’m saying is that I used to be nervous about getting pinned down. But that doesn’t matter now—I’d like to find a place that’s halfway for both of us. I—can you move in with me?”
Gawain’s head came up so fast that Tristan was amazed the other man didn’t break vertebrae when he jerked to a stop. He stared at Tristan with eyes wide as eggs.
“Or can Galahad not afford a place on his own?” Tristan added. Monotone and defensive was how it sounded to his ear.
After opening and closing his mouth a couple times, Gawain gave himself a rough shake and looked off to the side. He grinned uncertainly and laughed in disbelief, then turned back. “I have to check with him. But you know, just hearing you offer--”
Gawain reached out, cupped Tristan’s face, and dragged them together in a heated kiss. His fingers slid into Tristan’s hair, twisting the strands around; his nails caught a few and yanked painfully at them, but Tristan noticed mostly as an afterthought because he was sliding his hands up Gawain’s wrist.
“Christ! Go home already, you two!”
They hastily jerked apart, though when Tristan saw that the speaker was just some random, amused passerby, he stopped backing away. But Gawain was so red with embarrassment that Tristan regretfully turned down the idea of continuing.
“I need about ten more minutes to make calls,” he said.
Gawain laughed again, his fingers trailing along Tristan’s jaw as he pulled them out of Tristan’s hair. “I can wait. Hell, can I wait.” Then he sobered a little. “I hope you don’t mind doing the same for me.”
“You don’t need to hope,” Tristan muttered, pulling out his phone. He glanced up at Gawain, but the other man finally seemed to understand all of it. Much less stressed, Tristan flipped open his cell and started dialing again.
* * *
After a while, Lancelot moved to lay his head on Arthur’s shoulder. He’d let go of Arthur’s arm, but the weight of him against Arthur worked just as well as a hard grip.
“He was just a right bastard. Utterly. Did everything you’d expect—cheated his friends, fucked their wives, came home sloshed to hell so he could toss my mother’s dinner on the floor…I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hate him,” he muttered to Arthur’s lapel. When he took a breath, his head slid slowly up and down Arthur’s shoulder. “I know a lot of people with that kind of father grow up to be like them anyway, but I didn’t. Never could see the fairness in how he made his living.”
“Is that why you ended up in Interpol?” It was something Arthur often had wondered about, since Lancelot had the intelligence and drive to succeed in a half-dozen or more other fields that would’ve paid him far better.
Lancelot’s eye rolled up to look sardonically at Arthur. Then he tucked in his chin so his head just teetered on the point of Arthur’s shoulder. “Figures. That was Guin’s first question when she found out. I suppose it was part of it. Think I’m nothing but a lout and a waste of air and food, but I’ll say this—when it came down to the wire, I still had a sense of morality. Though God knew where it came from…probably the same place as yours, freak of nature that you are.”
Arthur opened his mouth.
“You are a moral man, damn it. Don’t argue and bring up what you did before. I sleep with you—I know exactly how many times a night you have nightmares,” Lancelot snapped. Even drunk and emotionally devastated, his timing was impeccable.
His hand had been resting against Arthur’s thigh, knuckles turned outward to graze the trouser-cloth. They began to slide in small circles, but absentmindedly, without any of the sly meaning with which Lancelot usually imbued such gestures.
“Bloody disgusted dear old Dad—he couldn’t stand having his son looking down on him. He went on and on about how much I owed him, how no matter how far I got away from him I’d always have to remember that it was his mucking about with the gangs that brought me up with a roof over my head.” The outline of Lancelot’s sneer could be clearly felt through the fabric of Arthur’s coat and the shirt beneath it. “He never took that back. I went around—I don’t know exactly what he was doing here, but it wasn’t to make nice with me. He’d been talking to a few local streetcorner hoods…probably planning to try and drag me through his damn mud, if he meant to see me at all.”
“He…he’s been listed as dead for ten years,” Arthur hesitantly said.
Lancelot abruptly pushed himself off. He dropped his hands to hold onto the edge of the bench and rocked forward, head bowed so his expression was hidden. “He should’ve been. That car bomb damn near took out the whole city block. But he lucked out—was grabbing a pack of fags or something, and he—you know, he visited me before he skipped town and there were so many damned warrants out for him but I let him go. The bastard didn’t even say thanks.”
He laughed. It was thick and ragged, catching in his throat. He lifted his hand to rub at his eye, then angrily jerked it away.
“I don’t even know why I thought he would. He never had before. And—and ten years later, some idiotic part of me still thought one day, he’d ring me up or something and say it,” Lancelot muttered. His voice cracked a few times.
Then he fell silent. After a moment, he lifted his arms and rested his elbows on his knees. He dropped his head into his hands. Suddenly he kicked out savagely, but was hunched over again before Arthur could even sit up straight.
“Of course, that’s no longer a possibility, so perhaps I’ll finally give up on that.” The savagery of the twist Lancelot put on his last few words made Arthur look sharply at him. His shoulders hitched up, then down, while his breath rapidly grew ragged and then seemingly disappeared.
When Arthur couldn’t hear Lancelot breathing after a minute had passed, he put his hand on the other man’s shoulder and lightly shook him. Lancelot didn’t respond to that, but he struck out hard the second time Arthur shook him. He also partially turned so Arthur got a glimpse of his eyes.
Arthur dropped his hand from Lancelot’s shoulder, shook his sleeve so his coat wouldn’t get caught up around his elbow, and wrapped his arm around Lancelot. He used his free hand to intercept Lancelot’s next blow, which was the last. After that, Lancelot simply turned into Arthur’s chest and collapsed. His sobbing still couldn’t be heard, but Arthur clearly felt it. He wanted to say many, many things, but in the end, his instincts counseled silence. So he slid his arm down to Lancelot’s waist and simply supported him till he was done.
* * *
Even though Arthur wasn’t home, Guinevere didn’t go charging out again as she’d planned. She started to, but in the time it took for her to walk back to the front door, she remembered that she needed to call Vanora before the other woman called her and pestered her for updates on the situation. Then she needed to toss her briefcase in her desk drawer, because she wasn’t about to take confidential information with her all over the city, and then she had to run back because while she’d checked the kitchen answering machine, Arthur also had one in his office for school-related calls and she’d forgotten to check that one.
And then Tristan called: Lancelot’s car had been spotted near Central Park, and a man fitting Arthur’s description had been seen driving it. Which settled the question of where both men were, though it didn’t in the least put Guinevere’s curiosity to rest. She had her hand on the knob of the front door almost before she’d ended the call.
There she stopped. She thought a bit, tightened her grip on the knob, and then thought some more before finally letting go of it. She desperately wanted to go out and smack Lancelot for marginalizing her so much that she didn’t get an explanation when Pellew had. And she wanted to smack Arthur for acting as if…as if…
It wasn’t really that, Guinevere knew. It probably was Arthur’s habit of working on his own when put under pressure, and it just happened that the problem this time was Lancelot. But it still did feel as if they were pretending it was only a two-person relationship, and Guinevere did have the fear that if she did go out and find them, she’d also find confirmation of that.
She went into the kitchen and she made something that required a lot of mashing garlic with knives. Guinevere wasn’t terribly aware of what she was making, but she knew it let her fall into its soothing rhythm of banging things together.
She missed the phone’s first ring, and the second one barely penetrated her consciousness, like the background whine of a fly. Mostly she thought it was annoying and why was it happening, and then the rest of her brain kicked in. Bits of garlic flew all over as she whipped around and snatched it up; more garlic squished beneath her fingers as she belatedly remembered that she really should’ve wiped off her hand first. “Hello?”
Guinevere sagged against the counter. She almost pushed at her hair before a little voice in her head screamed ‘garlic!’; anyway, no one was around so she had no reason for that nervous habit to be cropping up. “Arthur.”
*I—I supposed you’ve noticed I’m not home yet. I just wanted to call and let you know that I’m sorry, and I would have called to tell you, but I was worried about Lancelot. He was phoning and not leaving messages, so I went to look for him and…it took longer than I thought. But I didn’t want you to think we’d skipped out on you or anything like that.*
Had she been complaining? Suddenly Guinevere felt very silly, and then very annoyed at herself for that. She didn’t know how Arthur always managed to do that to her. “His father’s dead. He walked out of work and I was actually trying to find him and you so I could explain things first—he doesn’t like discussing him.”
*I noticed.* Arthur was whispering, but nevertheless managed to convey a trace of dry humor. *I suppose that was the message Vanora was trying to pass on to me, now that I’m thinking about it. Sorry about that.*
“Well, I forgot how single-minded you can get. Next time I’ll send over a rookie to stand there and hold up a sign. You always pay attention to international agents, after all,” Guinevere said, managing a small chuckle. “Do you have that bloody nuisance with you, or do I have to call in favors with the local precincts?”
A considerable pause intervened before Arthur spoke again, and when he did, his voice was oddly tight. *He’s fallen asleep on me. I thought I’d give him a few minutes before I got us out of here—we’re in Central Park, by the way.*
“I know. I mean, I…” Guinevere cursed herself for speaking too soon; Arthur would hear a lie and so now she had to say the whole truth “…asked Tristan for help.”
*I see.* It sounded like Arthur was about to add something else, but he changed his mind. *We’ll see you in about a half-hour, all right?*
Guinevere hung up with the feeling that near the end, the conversation had gone dreadfully askew. The problem was, she had no idea what that might have been no matter how much she reviewed her words. They all seemed fine to her, with the only sore spot being that Arthur might not appreciate her involving Tristan, but if that had been the case, Arthur would have said so. He was never reticent when it came to expressing his opinion on how others should be protected or kept from involvement.
So it was something about him, but Guinevere regretfully concluded that she’d have no idea till he and Lancelot came home.
She went back to whacking vegetables.
* * *
Arthur heard Guinevere working in the kitchen, but chose to haul a barely-awake Lancelot up to the bedroom before he saw her. He tipped Lancelot into the bed, and was turning to go when something caught his wrist. It comforted him somewhat to be still able to lean over, aim to hit Lancelot’s cheek and get trapped in his mouth instead when he turned his head.
His arm went over Arthur’s neck in an attempt to pull Arthur down, but he was so exhausted that it took no effort at all to duck out from under it. But it looked like Lancelot still had something to say, so Arthur didn’t go quite yet.
“You know I’m a loudmouthed bastard, right? That did get passed along.” Lancelot slid his hand to cup Arthur’s cheek. “I was angry at my shiftless fuck of a dad, not at you for anything.”
“Are you apologizing?” Arthur asked. He ruffled Lancelot’s hair.
The other man made a face and pushed Arthur off. “Well, I wasn’t back then. I’m sobering up, you know.”
“I’d noticed. I’m going down to get dinner—did you want anything? No? All right, then go to sleep. I’ll be up later.” Arthur nuzzled Lancelot one last time before he headed downstairs.
He walked into the kitchen to find a veritable feast lying on various platters that covered the island and the wall counters. In the middle of it, Guinevere appeared to be starting on some kind of dessert batter. She looked up at his entrance and started to raise her hands, but the sticky dough clinging to them made her stop. A piece of her hair fell into her face and refused to go away no matter how much she tossed her head. “Goddamn it,” she muttered.
“I should have called earlier.” Arthur rounded the island and tucked the strands back behind her ear for her. He glanced at the phone. Then he gingerly picked it up by its antenna, frowning.
Guinevere blushed. “That’s garlic. I was going to clean that up.” She shook her head, though it was impossible to tell whether that was at Arthur or at herself, and thwacked her fist into the batter. “You should have called earlier. And I probably should have told you earlier, or at least poked Lancelot into talking. It’s not really fair, how we always want to know and never tell ourselves.”
“Of course you don’t mind and you understand perfectly, but that still doesn’t make it right, Arthur. Where on earth has your keen moral sense gone?” She scooped up the whole mound of dough and dropped it back into the bowl, then went at it with both hands. “I told you Elaine was coming for Thanksgiving barely a week beforehand and you didn’t say a word. You didn’t ask me how many cousins I had, or what she was like—”
Guilt twisted in Arthur’s gut like a corkscrew. He turned around and went looking for a rag, and all the while he castigated himself for not being able to look at her. “I know how many cousins you have, Guinevere. It was a week before you and Lancelot moved in with me…I did some research. I needed to know who you two really were and if you or anyone you knew was going to pose a danger to me and Tristan…but that’s only an excuse for back then.”
Her back was to him and her head was bent so he could see the elegant curve of her neck. Her arms had stopped moving. After a moment of silence, she looked over her shoulder at him. “Are you still doing that?”
“No. But still, I’m sorry. I know that isn’t the sort of thing you trust to serve as a foundation to a relationship,” Arthur said. He dusted the phone twice with a damp paper towel before he realized he was flicking the garlic bits onto the floor. Biting back a curse, he stooped to wipe them up.
“Not a normal one, no. But I could have had my fill of normal relationships and then some. If I’m here, then obviously I don’t want one.” Guinevere kneaded the dough some more before picking it out of the bowl and dropping it onto some floured, waxed paper she had next to her. She began to press it into a flat sheet with her hands. “I’d slap that into your head, but my hands are messy. God, even when he’s grieving and drunk—he was, wasn’t he?—and wandering around the city, Lancelot’s still a lucky wanker. I can’t hit him right now either.”
Arthur tossed the paper towel in the trash and returned the phone to its cradle. He stared at it a moment before he smiled and shook his head. He didn’t believe it, and he didn’t think he’d ever quite believe it, but he certainly was happy about it. Amazingly happy.
“Anyway, I’m a bit relieved, to be honest. Now I don’t have to explain about why I don’t talk to my parents much,” Guinevere muttered. She tilted her head to let Arthur nuzzle down her cheek and lifted her elbows a little so he could put his hands on her waist.
He kissed the line of her jaw and grazed a trace of sugar with his tongue, which he followed beneath her chin. “I didn’t check into it that thoroughly. I know they’re separated and stopped paying for your tuition halfway through your second year at university, but not why.”
She stiffened a little and hit the dough so hard with the heel of her hand that she made a hole through to the waxed paper. Guinevere started to fill it back in, then stopped and laughed to herself. “Damn it. So we’ll have to talk about it eventually.”
“I’d hope we could,” Arthur said, drawing back.
She glanced at him, then returned to…so she was making cut-out cookies. “Must we do it now? I’ve already had my fill of personal crises for the day and frankly, having sex and cookie dough sounds wonderful to me.”
He pressed his smile into her shoulder and moved his right hand over her belly, feeling it tense, and down the middle of her skirt. “I’m rather tired myself, I have to admit.”
“Not that tired,” Guinevere snorted. She pushed one foot back, then arched so her thigh rubbed up against Arthur’s prick. “Good. Making curly hair out of licorice for my gingerbread men is fun, but it wasn’t going to cheer me up that much.”
Arthur thought on that, then looked at her.
“It’s really remarkable how much it makes them look like him.” She rolled her eyes upwards towards their bedroom. Then she made a face. “Oh, don’t look like that. Nothing gets Lancelot out of a depression faster than getting him worked up, and he does that beautifully when you munch on one of these cookies.”
Well, he’d known what he’d been getting into when he opened the door to them. And in his case, that really had been true; in their cases, no matter how much they said otherwise, Arthur knew they hadn’t had all the information at hand at the time. That was why he always was surprised when they turned to him so readily, like now when Guinevere twisted to kiss him, and why he always cherished it so much.
She smeared cookie dough over his neck and shirt when she pulled him closer, and she started to apologize for it but he stopped her mouth. It wasn’t necessary and anyway, he didn’t want to hear it now. He wanted to slip his hands behind her and cup her buttocks so their bodies ground together, he wanted to kiss her so hard her hair would be knocked out of its loose bun by their ferocity, he wanted to slide his fingers along her flesh and feel the coarse hair turn slick and sticky in anticipation. He wanted to know he had this, somehow, even though no one in their right mind would’ve made that kind of leap of faith. He wanted to be there to catch the two that had.
Cookie dough showed up in the oddest places, squeezing between his hand and her thigh, sneaking in between their mouths, but it made him laugh instead of bringing up any thoughts of the mess they were making. And Guinevere must have been taken by the same mood, since she ripped her skirt while getting it down but didn’t even stop to curse. She just shoved at the cloth with one hand while she guided Arthur’s prick with the other. And then she was writhing and gasping and beautiful between him and the counter, and he didn’t think of much at all except how glorious it was.
“Goddamn it, I missed something good,” Lancelot sleepily muttered later, sniffing at Arthur’s hair. He still turned to fold himself around Arthur before Arthur was even all the way on the mattress.
“No, you haven’t,” Arthur said. He kissed Lancelot on the temple, then settled beneath the blankets. A good deal could be said about Lancelot, but not that. “You definitely did not.”
“Mmm.” Lancelot went back to sleep, clearly not understanding. It was fine. Arthur would be happy to explain, with demonstration, in the morning.