|Magna Cum Laude and Squirrels
Author: Guede Mazaka
Mariette walked into the room and promptly hit the Wall, which had gotten shoved out of its usual central position in favor of more space. She caught the top of the couch, righted herself, and looked up with a sour expression on her face. It only took a second for that to dissolve in helpless hilarity. “Mon Dieu…” she started and then trailed off, giggling.
Tristan continued to stare at the ceiling. He had his arms out, but the only way Galahad knew that was because he’d flopped over the extra sleeve fabric to let his hands poke into the air. Otherwise he just looked like a big, poufy green…pouf.
Okay, Galahad’s descriptive skills were failing him. He didn’t think that was his fault, given the provocation at hand. “Like I said on the phone, they screwed up his robe and it’s…obviously…too…big…”
“Stop. Laughing,” Gawain hissed. He elbowed Galahad in the side, then dodged Galahad’s kick without ever slowing in his frantic pinning. By now he’d gotten half of the bottom hem handled and was working his way around to Tristan’s other side.
Galahad coughed a couple times and had to bite his lip, but he managed not to snicker. Anyway, Mariette was doing plenty of that for him. “Man, we should just whack off the extra six inches, then pin. Or else he’s gonna have rings of stitching at knee-level and this shit already looks cheap enough.”
Gawain started to object, but stopped and stared at the half-pinned robe. First his expression was dumbstruck, then self-criticizing and finally just pissed off. “Where are the scissors?”
“I’ll get them. You can keep pinning, but just use them to mark out where we want to cut—”
“I know. I’m the one that always did the sewing, you know,” Gawain snapped.
Whoa, was he in a bad mood, and he wasn’t even the one who was on the verge of becoming the traditional commencement ceremony joke.
As he got up, Galahad let out a low whistle. He had to scramble out of the way to avoid Gawain’s swipe at him, but after he’d gotten two feet away, he was home free. Gawain went back to his mad pinning while Galahad hopped over the Wall to land in front of Mariette. “Hey. So—”
She held up the kind of sewing kit he’d thought had gone extinct with the fifties. When she leaned over to peck him on the side of the mouth, she nearly banged his ear with the kit. “I didn’t know you knew anything about fixing clothes.”
“Well, I try to know as little as possible and find someone else that knows better.” Galahad grinned at her indignation and bent around to reach the set of drawers behind her. He rummaged around till he came up with the scissors. And since she smelled nice and she happened to be wearing a sleeveless blouse, nuzzled the side of her arm.
Mariette squealed and yanked at his hair, then made her getaway to the side. “Pervert. Gawain, where would you like me to start?”
“Oh, um…here. Then I can start on the sleeves—Galahad?”
“Scissors,” Galahad replied, handing those over. Pervert, his ass. She’d been there too when they’d been making out on the floor, and on the Wall’s saggy cushions, and against the wall…“Oh, hey, Arthur.”
“Morning, Galahad. I just came by to see if everything was…all right.” From where he was standing in the doorway, Arthur couldn’t see much of what was going on. What he could see had him trying not to raise his eyebrows and pursing his lips in an obvious effort to keep a straight face. “Tristan?”
Galahad glanced over his shoulder just in time to see Tristan make some gesture with his arm. “It starts at eleven. I’ll be on the left side. Don’t sit by the east door,” Tristan called back. “Make sure you’re not carrying any food. The lunch reception’s in the courtyard behind the labs.”
This time, Arthur couldn’t keep himself from making the wary-amused parental face. “Should I be prepared to apologize to Merlin later?”
“Why? Did you do anything to him?” Tristan tipped his head down long enough to shoot Arthur a bland look.
“The reception’s where?” Gawain scooted back and put his arms behind himself to prop himself up. He stared quizzically up at Tristan. “Isn’t that where you guys do your outdoor studies on decomposition of buried organic matter?”
Okay, avoid tree, don’t carry food, don’t eat lunch—actually, if Galahad got a moment off to make the call, he could probably have a pizza waiting for them outside of the labs. Or maybe he and Mariette would just skip the luncheon and hit the new Italian sandwich place. Receptions were boring anyway, and he wasn’t about to suffer through one that didn’t mention him anywhere.
“We dug all those up and cleaned up the courtyard,” Tristan said.
That was enough for Gawain, but Mariette was looking a bit ill. She glanced over and Galahad caught her eye, then mouthed ‘skip it?’ At first her face scrunched up and she looked like she was going to rip into him again, but then she looked at Tristan again. Her face cleared up and she vigorously nodded to Galahad.
“Well, I suppose I’ll trust in your sense of sanitation,” Arthur dryly commented. He stepped back out of the door and caught sight of someone he knew, waving for them to stop. Then he poked his head back in. “I’ll see you at the ceremony.”
His voice had a funny catch in it that they all pretended to ignore, though Tristan tipped his head down again to stare at Arthur. After a short, oddly brusque nod, Arthur walked off, calling to Dieckmann; Tristan went back to watching the ceiling age. He probably was taking detailed mental notes in case he ever had a murder case in a GSI study room.
A thought occurred to Galahad. “Hey, did you check the hat?”
“Mortarboard,” Mariette absently corrected. She tossed the strip of cloth she’d just cut off onto the sofa and started folding up the new hem.
“Whatever. Is it okay, or did they send over some pointy thing?” Galahad said.
Tristan quietly snorted to himself. “It’s fine. Try it on if you like. Might help you keep some IQ points from getting bleached out of your head.”
“Hey—I’m not the only one that gets sun-bleached in the summer! Hell, Gawain’s blonder than I am, so why doesn’t he ever get this shit?” Sheesh. Any more of that and Galahad was going to stitch up a slit in the back so Tristan would end up mooning the whole assembly.
On second thought, that was no good. He wasn’t sure if Gawain would drool himself into dehydration or implode from sympathetic embarrassment. Of course, the second one wasn’t really necessary since even that probably wouldn’t embarrass Tristan, but just try telling Gawain that.
“Because he looks smart,” Mariette said.
Galahad made a face at her. “And I don’t?”
The room was eerily quiet. After a moment, Galahad snarled at them all and irritably plopped back on the floor to help her out with the hem. “I hate you people.”
“Don’t forget to show up at Tristan’s sometime after you skip out. There’ll be beer,” Gawain muttered. He slid a knowing look at Galahad.
“Now I really hate you.” Galahad cursed as he poked himself with the needle. “It better be decent booze—if you got Miller Light again, I’m drowning you in it.”
* * *
“It’s commencement, not a graduation party! We don’t need to bring a present!” Piles and piles of phone trace logs to go through, plus a full weekend looming, and what did Guinevere do? Come into Lancelot’s office, interrupt his work, and spend a good fifteen minutes listing do’s and don’t for Tristan’s graduation. For Christ’s sake, he could handle a college commencement ceremony—did she think he was brain-dead?
Of course she did. “Where’s your tie?” Guin demanded, poking at the air towards him. It still seemed oddly reluctant to hit him, which was what she probably was willing it to do.
“Hanging on the wall with my coat. I didn’t feel like wrestling with the damn thing today—I’ll put it on before we go, all right? Heaven forbid I show up tie-less to an event where the guests of honor all look like shiny balloons,” Lancelot grumbled. He flipped through another thick packet of logs, squinting till he finally found the crucial entry. Then he went to highlight it, only to find that the bloody pen had gone dry on him.
“Don’t be late. Remember we have to take the traffic into account.” Guin stood there and talked and angled her lovely curving body, completely oblivious to how much of a prat she sounded. They’d been living in New York City for years now.
Lancelot leaned back and capped the highlighter. He looked at it, then looked at Guinevere’s head. She was going on so strong right now that she probably wouldn’t notice if it came straight for her—
“You are not pitching that at me,” she suddenly snapped, startling Lancelot. Throwing her hands up into the air, Guinevere heaved a great sigh and walked out. “Oh, grow up. Tossing pens is so infantile.”
The highlighter made a nice loud ringing sound when it hit the trashcan. It was a perfect shot from twenty feet away and briefly made Lancelot happy, but he soon sank back into his bad mood. Smuggling cases always threw up unexpected complications, but this diamond-smuggling case was taking the cake by far. It should’ve been over back in the winter, but here it still was on his desk, looking to go on for the whole year.
He sighed and pulled open the middle desk drawer to look for another highlighter. Well, normally smugglers were educated by experience and guided by street-level profiteering, but this time, they had a highly-trained former covert ops man working with them. Too bad MI-6 refused to handle the damn problem. Of course, Pellew never would have asked them to, and Lancelot probably would have been damned annoyed at the least to have them cutting his case short, but right now he could see the virtues of assassination.
He wondered if Arthur had anything to do—no, that was a fruitless train of thought. Arthur had made it quite clear that while Clayton had been something of a friend, he wouldn’t get in the way of Interpol’s investigation. Anyway, he had more trust and faith in the judicial system than even Guin or Pellew. It was just a combination of luck and skill on Clayton’s part, and sooner or later Lancelot would get luckier; he already knew he was more skilled.
“Take that, Dad,” Lancelot muttered.
Nearly a month later and that still bothered him. It was bad enough that he’d gone bar-crawling and ended up crying into Arthur’s shoulder on a Central Park bench, but what made it drag on spectacularly was how no one talked about it. Ask him how he was, blah blah blah, but nothing about what he’d done that day. Guinevere hadn’t teased him about it once and Arthur…Arthur tended to forget about taking off the kid gloves when things were normal. Now it was like he was wearing pillows on his hands.
God. One of these days Lancelot was just going to snap and deck the man.
But for now, he was going to try and finish working through some of these logs so he could go to Arthur’s not-really-adopted-son’s graduation and celebratory luncheon. And smile and make chit-chat and keep the beneath-the-table groping to a minimum while mentally calling down all kinds of hell on the man who invented neckties. Christ, he did love the aggravating bastard.
“Lancelot?” Isolde stood in the doorway with another armful of files. She noticed the way he looked at them and hastily shook her head. “No, no, these are mine. But Pellew wanted me to pass on a message: MI-6 appears to have increased activity in the area. Nothing too serious for now, so don’t plan around it, but keep an eye out.”
Well, all right and those goddamned disrespectful sons of bitches…but that didn’t mean anything in particular to Lancelot. Unless he wanted to make one of two nasty jumps to conclusion. “Is he still around?”
“No, he went charging out of here. He did want me to tell Guinevere, too,” Isolde replied.
“Oh, that’s all right. Guin and I are taking a lunch break in another twenty minutes and I’ll tell her then.” Lancelot waved off Isolde’s thanks and attacked the phone logs with new gusto. He was rolling his eyes at himself, but at least he was going to get a hell of a lot of work done. Nothing for that like an impending chance to pry more past history out of Arthur.
* * *
Guinevere turned down a side-street. She didn’t like taking this way because of how it doubled back on itself—redundant—but at this time of day, it’d be far quicker than the straight route. “So are you saying you think it’s for Clayton or for Arthur?”
“Maybe both? I don’t know—I’m sorry, Guin, but I’m not that fluent in deciphering the many nuances of Pellew’s this-is-urgent-but-not-really messages,” Lancelot snarled. Mostly at his tie, which was busily kicking his fingers’ arses again. “What do you think?”
“I think…” Arthur has been working on something. He was up late, and not always doing university work or research, and lately he and she have had some slightly off-kilter conversations about how he was or wasn’t quite managing to let Tristan go that final few inches into adulthood. “I think Tristan got lucky, with all the rain we’ve had lately. He’s going to have a beautiful ceremony.”
Sometimes Lancelot picked up the undertones far faster than Guinevere expected. He glanced over, hands stilled in turns of silk. “When is Arthur officially on sabbatical?”
“Next Monday. Four days from now.”
“How much alcohol is at home? Can we get him drunk enough to make him sleep through whatever timeline he’s got going?” Lancelot asked. He belatedly added a mock-innocent look at the end. “In celebration of Tristan, obviously.”
Guinevere looked at him. He’d finally gotten his tie done, but the ends were flapped all over the place. And his hair was in an awful state.
“Please don’t pull out a gigantic bottle of hair-gel from your purse, Guin. That’d just be entirely too sitcom for you. And rather scarily obsessive-compulsive.” Lancelot sat up just enough to tug at his coat so it sat properly on his shoulders. He brushed down his shirt, preening even though he knew he didn’t have an appreciative audience. “I was joking. Even Arthur’s not going to simply disappear on the first day he doesn’t have to go into his office. He knows we’d find him, kill him, and then revive him just to yell at him.”
True enough, but that didn’t necessarily mean they were worrying over nothing. After taking the next turn, Guinevere pulled up her purse and unzipped it. A second later, she pulled out a little jar, which she handed to a suddenly incredulous Lancelot. “Your hair is frizzing. You might look attractively tousled now, but in about fifteen minutes you’ll look like those clever fuzzy things from Star Trek.”
“What—the Tribbles? And ‘attractively tousled’? A compliment on appearances alone from you never comes without strings,” Lancelot said, looking suspicious. However, that didn’t stop him from promptly pulling down the shade-guard so he could peer at himself in its mirror. He unscrewed the pomade jar after only twenty-five seconds.
“I’d rather find this out for myself, but I’ve got the better contacts with MI-6, so I’ll have to be the one staying late tonight to find out why they’re in town. Anyway, Arthur still seems to be giving you extra slack. So you’re it.” Perhaps Arthur wasn’t going to start right away, but if he was working on something, then he’d be thinking hardest on it today during Tristan’s graduation. It was the most opportune time Guinevere could see for reminding him that he had other obligations now that weren’t going away.
Lancelot stayed silent for several minutes while a series of amusing, incredibly complex expressions worked their way over his face. He didn’t even touch his hair, but instead finally turned to stare hard at Guinevere. “Are you—pimping me out? And trying to use my father’s death as leverage on Arthur’s soft side? Guin, this is exactly what he doesn’t need! This kind of gaming is what he’s ended up coming to expect from the world, even if he can’t help believing that it’ll eventually change for the better. This is what makes him think about going back!”
“Well, I don’t know how else to make him pay attention! At least it’s a language he doesn’t ignore!” Guinevere snapped. Then she cursed and quickly slammed on the brakes, barely avoiding a cruise through a red light. A cacophony of honking and obscene shouts filled the air around the car.
This being New York, that was all reflex. The yells soon died down, giving Lancelot a chance to sourly remark, “More like at least it’s a language that’s easier for you to speak. Sex won’t hold Arthur—you’d remember that if you started thinking. You’ve got to dig deeper than that.”
Guinevere slowly wrapped her fingers around the wheel and twisted them till the leather covering creaked. It wasn’t a very therapeutic way to vent her frustration and worry, despite her best tries at pretending she was wringing Lancelot’s neck. She still had to admit he was right, and even without all the rest of the context, that by itself was galling.
“So what do you suggest?” she finally asked.
“I’m working on it.” Lancelot turned around and moodily stared through the windshield. “It would be easier if sex did the trick.”
In spite of herself, Guinevere snickered a little. “Like with you?”
He shot her an irritated look, then held the pomade jar under his nose, moving it back and forth like a wineglass while he took ostentatious sniffs. “Hmmm…expensive. Did you say you didn’t want this back? Why, thank you, Guin.”
“If you know sex doesn’t work on Arthur, then you should damn well know holding my cosmetics hostage doesn’t work on me,” she snorted. “Just fix your hair. If nothing else, we are not going to be embarrassing.”
“Pride before everything. I—you know, I think I love you for that,” Lancelot replied, grinning. He didn’t look like he was going to explain himself.
And they were almost there, so Guinevere didn’t have time to query him. She sighed and girded herself up for all the ridiculous social niceties they’d have to handle in the next hour or so. Actually, that was an idea. Maybe they could convince Arthur it was impolite to trick them.
Yes, they were stretching things at this point. But neither of them could help it. They loved him too much.
* * *
Arthur turned down between the next pair of bookshelves, then paused. After gathering himself, he calmly walked over, put back his book, and nodded to Clayton. He pretended to be scanning the book spines, working closer till they were standing side-by-side.
They were in the literary writing section, looking at a shelf full of literary criticism on film noir and the pulp fiction overlap with the detective story. Fitting.
“You’re going to make me answer for invading your space like this. You can skip the speech—I’ve got it by heart,” Clayton said, but not snappishly or bitterly. Instead he simply sounded very tired, each word issuing out of him like a weak trail of smoke. He smelled very strongly of cigarettes, and when he put his right hand up on the shelf, his fingertips were a dull, sickly yellow. “I’m not here to call on any nostalgic memories or ask you for anything. I just wanted to mention something—maybe your ward’s already told you, but I understand he’s receiving his degree today and he might have been too preoccupied.”
Ice crept up around Arthur’s heart. He was rather amazed at how steady and regular his breathing remained. “Please don’t talk about Tristan.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it. He’s a good—he’s grown up well. Never oversteps himself so no one pays much attention to him, though they’re aware he’s around. Not because of his parentage, Arthur, so you can stop cringing. He’s made a space for himself all on his own.” Clayton tipped out a very large book and tilted it to look at the cover just as a few students passed by the other end of the stacks. The book briefly masked his face, both from them and from Arthur.
If that…if that was true, then Arthur would have to mention to Tristan to keep an even lower profile. But not today—then again, perhaps it would take care of itself. A large part of it had been due to Arthur’s requests, and those would soon be diminishing in number.
“MI-6 is in town. They finally decided to put me out of my misery, I suppose. Just me—there’ll be plenty of others for Interpol to catch,” Clayton murmured. He glanced at Arthur again. It was a short but level look, expecting little and turning a bit surprised at what it found. But that only lasted a second before his expression turned to wry understanding. “That’s all.”
And he turned and slowly walked away while Arthur remained where he was, staring at books and books of knowledge that were suddenly a little blurry. He blinked once and his vision sharpened, but something had changed. Usually he loved books: loved their heft, their promise of knowledge. Right now they seemed like rows and rows of empty shells.
Arthur followed after counting to fifty, with some random book tucked beneath his arm. He made a brief inquiry at the front desk, but even Dagonet couldn’t remember seeing Clayton come or go.
He walked slowly across campus and was halfway back to his office before he remembered he needed to head the opposite way in order to make it to Tristan’s matriculation ceremony. So Arthur turned around, but then he stopped and just looked out over the lawn. It was a lovely, breezy day with just enough sun to warm the skin, and despite finals, a good many students were out lounging on the grass or playing with Frisbees.
It hadn’t been a request for aid, Arthur decided. Clayton looked too tired, sounded too far gone…he was welcoming the end of it. He’d been welcoming it ever since he’d gotten involved with the smuggling ring, which was too small-scale to really be useful for intelligence purposes and too dirty to really sit well with his conscience. That had been written in his face.
The ivy was in full green again—a bit surprising, since it seemed like only yesterday that the vines were still bare brown nets thrown over the brooding Victorian-style buildings. When the breeze freshened, Arthur could smell flowers, damp earth…a trace of pot, which almost made him smile.
It was an easy solution to the worries that had been troubling Arthur since Clayton’s reappearance. Clayton would finally have his rest. MI-6 wouldn’t bother with rehabilitation and would opt for a straightforward elimination. Lancelot and Guinevere would be angry, as they’d been counting on Clayton as a possible target for an inside informer, but they’d still be able to make their case. And Arthur would no longer be concerned that details of that part of his old life would ever get out into the open.
But this was like—this was watching a suicide in progress, and for no particularly worthy reason that Arthur could see. It was as if Clayton had remembered the old dictates about death before dishonor and laying down one’s life for one’s country, but only the part about death and not the part about rationale or sacrifice. Something should be accomplished in exchange for loss of life, otherwise…it was more like murder.
“Hi, Professor Pendragon!”
Arthur startled up and stared wildly about before he spotted the smiling, waving girls. He took a deep breath and smiled back, absently returning their way. Then he checked his watch. He was going to be late if he didn’t hurry up.
* * *
“Um. Hey.” Gawain waited for Lancelot and Guinevere to turn around before he pointed. “I think we’re all over there. At least, I spotted Arthur’s name on one of the placeholders for that table.”
Lancelot glanced over, then shrugged and started moving towards said table. “Well, if we’re not, I think we’re early enough so that no one’s going to notice a few swapped cards.”
“You’re so…provincial sometimes, I swear,” Guinevere muttered, stalking after him.
Galahad wandered up beside Gawain, still fiddling with the digital camera he’d borrowed. He flicked his eyes towards Guinevere. “Pissed off she didn’t think of it first?”
He’d talked pretty low, but Lancelot still stifled a snicker, while Guinevere’s shoulders got a little stiff. Wincing, Gawain jabbed his elbow hard into Galahad’s ribs, then dragged him along after the other two.
“Ow!” Galahad yelped, and loudly enough for the people gathering in the room to all turn to stare. Including that Dr. Fay that Tristan was so…well, he liked her and thought she was the best professor in the forensics department, but something to do with her amused him a hell of a lot.
Then again, maybe Gawain knew that was. He happened to look towards Guinevere and caught her giving Dr. Fay the kind of narrow-eyed cat-stare that usually led to embarrassing hair-pulling and screeching if enough alcohol was around. Except that was Arthur’s S. O., and she usually seemed more professional than that; she’d quietly phone some assassin instead.
Dr. Fay had already pivoted to smile slowly at Arthur, who’d just walked in. He returned her smile with a nod and kept on walking, completely missing her almost-call to him. She looked a bit annoyed. Guinevere looked smug. Lancelot was going to break something if he kept fake-coughing like that.
“I thought I was going to be late,” Arthur said, staring around. He spoke oddly—he clipped his words, like he was nervous. Okay, it was Tristan’s graduation, but…
Gawain decided he’d better take the camera from Galahad for right now. Judging from the way Lancelot and Guinevere’s faces changed, the last thing they needed was somebody accidentally filming this bit for posterity. Maybe it’d be funny in ten years…or maybe it’d be a hell of a fight-trigger, and Gawain wanted today to be happy, damn it. He didn’t care how clichéd that sounded.
“No, you’re okay. I guess you missed the message—they pushed back the start fifteen minutes because something was up with the audio equipment and they needed to go grab replacements. See, everyone’s coming in now,” Galahad said, jerking his chin towards the doors. He was having one of his rare fits of semi-diplomacy, and thank God for it. “Tristan’s out in the other hall fiddling with the wires if you’re looking for him. Just look for the one guy that doesn’t look like a big green marshmallow.”
“Galahad!” Mariette gasped, outraged. She came up long enough to smack him and hand Arthur her program before she went off for more programs for the rest of them.
Galahad looked equally offended. “What? What? Hey, you were giggling earlier, too—what is the deal, anyway? I always thought gowns were only for undergrads.”
“Now, yes, but Avalon’s a bit old-fashioned in this respect. This is how it was done when the school was founded,” Arthur explained. He was amused, and consequently had relaxed somewhat, but he still seemed off-kilter. He managed to maneuver between Gawain to get the one seat against the wall.
The defensive implications of that weren’t lost on either Lancelot or Guinevere, but just then someone said the ceremony was going to start and they didn’t have time to launch in on Arthur. Instead they just shot a bunch of looks at each other. After the first two, Gawain stopped trying to read them for the sake of his sanity. There were scary libraries full of information in those glances, and when two people knew each other well enough for that kind of thing to work, then it was a really, really good idea to stay out of the way.
The chair of the department gave a short introductory speech, then called out names as the twelve matriculating students came in through a side-door. Tristan was third, and he sent a faint smile towards the table, though he kept his eyes straight ahead. Good idea, because apparently the temporary stage hadn’t been assembled quite right and the second-to-last girl stumbled on the steps, falling hard against the wall. Something let out a metallic clatter and then there was an odd whoosh sound.
Red-faced, the girl shoved off the wall…only to be snatched back? She squealed and scrambled for her robe as it was pulled up to her knees by some unseen force.
“It’s just an A/C vent,” Lancelot said, tone clipped and urgent in the kind of way an ambulance dispatcher might be.
Gawain glanced over just in time to see Arthur sitting back down, his face a study in how to wipe off a betraying expression. Then he looked back at the stage, where several other students were helping the girl get her robe free of the vent trying to suck it in. Tristan stepped around her, glanced down, and then kicked hard. The girl suddenly stumbled back, then righted herself and the procession continued.
It was a lot like every other formal university Gawain had ever attended: speech, bad jokes, speech. But then they were presenting the diplomas and the speaker had just called out Tristan’s name.
“—idiot!” The sharp pain in Gawain’s side turned out to be Galahad’s elbow. Galahad shoved himself closer and made a grab at Gawain’s hands. “Camera! You’re gonna miss the whole thing!”
Oh. Oh, right. Gawain hastily lifted the camera and had it on just as Tristan was shaking hands with the department chair. He focused. He did something to fix the light/dark contrast. He pressed a lot of buttons without really knowing what the hell he was doing, and somehow nothing bad happened. Then Tristan was walking off the stage and Gawain became aware of Galahad muttering about prematurely proud papas and Mariette scolding him.
“I wish his mother was here,” Arthur suddenly said in a quiet voice. He looked on as two more degrees were presented, but Gawain doubted he was really watching. Then he glanced at his hands and smiled. “I suppose I’ll have to be happy enough to fill her place.”
“You’ve been doing that for years. Stop being so damn humble and take credit for once.” The voice was so low Gawain couldn’t tell whether it’d come from Lancelot or Guinevere.
He had a feeling Arthur could, though, but that wasn’t exactly Gawain’s territory so he kept his mind the hell away from any possible speculations on that. He stared at Tristan instead. The last-minute tailoring job had made him look…well, better than the others, but he still resembled a billowing green ruffle and the cap looked like it was eating his head. And despite all of that, he was really, really hot.
Tristan had been calmly scanning the room and his eyes finally ran across Gawain’s. They held Gawain’s gaze for a long moment during which the temperature rapidly climbed, then moved on. Gawain winced and shifted so more of his lap was under the tablecloth.
Galahad took a break from his bickering with Mariette to sigh. “Jesus. I’m starting to see the bright side of you moving out.”
“…thank you for coming—” said the speaker up at the podium. A very old man with watery, wandering pale blue eyes; Gawain vaguely remembered Tristan mentioning that he was the oldest faculty member in the forensics department, but otherwise didn’t have much else going for him. Everyone started to get up, but the man kept talking. And talking. And it wasn’t going to end any time soon.
“I’m also glad that Tristan’s kind of psycho when it comes to squirrels. God, I want to get out of here,” Galahad muttered.
Arthur stiffened, then turned around. “Galahad—”
Someone screamed: Dr. Fay. She’d leaped up on her chair and, still yelling her head off, pointed at the floor. Everyone was turning and staring, but—
“There! That fucking little furball ripped my hose!” Dr. Fay screeched.
“Oh, shit!” Mark Kernyw, Tristan’s advisor, suddenly jumped out of his seat, nearly tripping himself. He was also staring at the floor. “There’s more than one!”
The squirrel he was looking at stopped and angrily chittered, then took off as someone threw a glassful of water at it. This was not exactly effective, and from there it turned into a total nuthouse.
Somehow Gawain ended up in one of the side corridors, banging at a heating pipe in an effort to get at chitterings that probably weren’t even coming from there.
“It’s not in there—those are just echoes,” someone said, coming up from behind. Tristan. Grinning. He’d lost his mortarboard and his robe had been yanked up and tossed over one arm so people could see he preferred to go with khakis beneath. “They’ve all pretty been dumped outside, and I think Arthur’s prying that one out right now.”
“Where’s your diploma?” Gawain asked, frowning. A fine sheen of sweat covered Tristan’s forehead, but that was normal. The odd, not-quite exhilarated look in Tristan’s eyes definitely wasn’t.
Tristan shrugged, effortlessly graceful but still with that strange edge. “With Arthur. Where’s the camera?”
“With Galahad.” Gawain listened for a second, then decided everyone was too far off to bother worrying about. He walked forward till he and Tristan were about six inches apart. “Hey…”
Fingers rose and lightly skated over the backs of Gawain’s hands. Then Tristan turned and went around Gawain. Then he turned again, fast, while Gawain was still trying to follow so he was between Gawain and the wall. “I just graduated. I’m starting my job in a month. A week after you—I—we move into our apartment. I’ll be…legally employed. I think they call it a ‘stable home situation.’”
He was…babbling, Gawain realized to his shock. Tristan was babbling, and so nervous his eyes were shining with it, and before Gawain knew what he was doing, he had Tristan by the arms and was pulling him in, leaning their foreheads together. “Tristan. It’s okay. Whatever you want, it’s okay. Well, except if you suddenly run off to—to Uzbekistan or something, because then I think I should get an explanation, but…I mean, I’ll listen and if it’s a good reason, I’ll…fuck. I love you.”
He yanked Tristan in and then they were clawing at each other like rabid weasels. Their mouths were taking a damn good stab at trying to merge, though a sudden jolt slid them askew. Tristan went with it, working down around Gawain’s beard to mouth softly at Gawain’s neck while his hands ripped at Gawain’s fly. For his part, Gawain fucking hated the robe now. He was pressing so closely to Tristan he could feel everything, but he just kept grabbing and grabbing at the cloth and he never seemed to come to an end.
Now Tristan’s hand was inside Gawain’s jeans and doing wonderful things that made Gawain alternately slump and redouble his efforts to even things up. The thought vaguely passed through his mind that this was a public hallway, so he probably should hide. Somehow this translated into dropping onto his knees. It made Tristan hiss and catch his lip between his teeth, so it couldn’t be that wrong.
The robe, however, was still in the fucking way. And it wouldn’t rip either, which left Gawain growling and pushing till finally, finally he had it up and Tristan’s pants down and a warm, happily twitching cock in his mouth. Tristan stumbled backwards and Gawain followed. A little too closely, because Tristan hit the wall a second later and the impact had Gawain’s lips being scratched by rough, wavy hair. Some of it also tickled his nose and he instinctively snorted; Tristan’s hands shot down to clamp on his shoulder. He blew out through his nose again, more deliberately, and the first trace of saltiness filled the back of his mouth.
Jesus. Gawain’s prick went from interested to monofocused in no time at all. He leaned forward, vaguely remembering something about Tristan and cock in his mouth and—oddly enough, getting his hand down his own jeans did something to his brain to make it shape up. Right. He was in the middle of blowing Tristan’s mind, and Tristan was starting to make those little funny noises, raspy and back-of-the-throat, and those just got under Gawain’s skin like little else did. Warmed him up but made him restless, too. So he got on with things.
A couple minutes later, Tristan got on with it, then went sliding down the wall. Gawain made a messy one-handed not-really-a-catch, since he was pretty near mindless himself. He ground himself up against Tristan’s leg a few times, then barely remembered to pull away to keep Tristan’s pants clean.
“That was the robe,” Tristan muttered, laughter bubbling up in his voice. He let his arm rest limply over Gawain’s shoulder, eyes closing. “I—”
“It’ll be okay. You’ll do great. And man, I hope you do a better job of this than me when I graduate,” Gawain told him, kissing his jaw.
Tristan hesitated, then put up his hands and cradled Gawain’s face and softly kissed him. And kissed him. And—
“I signed up to do the camera work, not guard a fucking hallway. ‘wain, that robe billows a lot, but it doesn’t cover that much.” Galahad’s voice whined around the corner. A second later, his head popped around. He looked faintly green and annoyed and beneath that, relieved. “Come on. Mariette can only distract Arthur for so long, and practically everyone else has already gone to lunch. Man, I’m so not gonna miss accidentally walking in on you two.”
“Damn. Lunch.” Gawain lightly licked at the edge of Tristan’s jaw.
After leaning into it, Tristan reached around behind himself. Sound of a zipper, and then he pulled the robe off and wadded it up. He smiled as Gawain desperately worked at straightening their clothing. “I graduated.”
“Mmm. How many courses are there?”
“We can skip after the entrée,” Tristan murmured.
* * *
Arthur bit down where Lancelot’s neck swept into his shoulder, just above the loosened collar. Then he pulled back enough to watch the skin there slowly flush red. Lancelot’s fingers spasmed, then dug hard into Arthur’s shoulder. The other man came almost soundlessly, only a harsh gasp getting away from him. He collapsed against Arthur instead of against the wall, hanging by his arms so Arthur could feel how drenched with sweat they’d gotten.
Then he pulled back and stared at Arthur like he was thinking of calling for a psychiatric evaluation. “Normally I wouldn’t object to skipping formalities in favor of this—especially since Tristan was out of there as soon as the salad was gone—but that was not about making you feel good. What’s wrong?”
“Why did Guinevere go back to work?” Arthur asked. He slipped his hands out of Lancelot’s trousers and up to curve around Lancelot’s waist, fingering the soft skin.
It was a moment before Lancelot answered. He busied himself with his rumpled suit while he did. “Reports of increased British intelligence presence. Pellew’s concerned it might have something to do with some of our ongoing investigations.”
Pellew had been MI-6, and he’d managed to not only retire from it, but switch to a public agency. He knew what he was doing. He’d managed to get them off his back.
So had Arthur, but what he was about to do would bring the hounds baying at his door again. And yet, he somehow felt lighter once he’d relieved himself of the small scrap of paper with the important address. When Lancelot looked up from taking it, Arthur kissed him. “They’re here for Clayton. If you really want him to survive to testify, you have to go now.”
“Arthur—” Lancelot’s eyes went dark “—but they’ll think it was you that intervened—”
“I know. I’m ready for it,” Arthur lied. He slowly pushed himself away, holding Lancelot’s gaze.
The other man hesitated a moment longer, intensely searching Arthur’s face. It was clearly on the tip of his tongue to tell Arthur to go somewhere public and safe, but in the end, he simply ducked his head. When he raised it again, he was already moving towards the door, shoulders back and jaw set. Going on the hunt. The tone of his voice, however, was completely unprofessional. “Ring us up when you get to—wherever. I swear to God, Arthur, if you drop out of sight, I’ll bloody murder you myself.”
Lancelot slammed the door behind him. The sharp noise echoed a kind of click in Arthur’s head; this hadn’t been the plan, but in a strange moment of clarity, Arthur knew that the old plan hadn’t been much of a plan anyway. It’d been a stopgap, a way to stall matters without having a reason for which to stall, a reason to keep bad things from happening quite yet. Rather stupid of him…he knew perfectly well why he wanted the dark kept at bay.
All right, now Arthur thought he was ready. He spent a few moments making himself presentable, then opened the door and walked through the hallway.
“Arthur! There you are! I’d just turned around to get another glass when you vanished on me!” Mark Kernyw said. His face was flushed, and his girlfriend was noticeably absent. “Now, where were we?”
The two of them weren’t terribly familiar despite Kernyw being advisor to Tristan, but if Arthur had to put up with fulfilling these responsibilities before he could get around to the business of outwitting MI-6 a second time, he’d choose Kernyw over Morgan Fay. He dredged up a polite smile. “Medieval practices of embalming, I think. Of course, they took that seriously since a damaged body wouldn’t be able to rise on the Day of Judgment and be saved.”
“Yes, yes…quite serious…in Germany they often…”
Arthur suppressed a sigh. Another ten minutes, he estimated.