|The Meaning of the Season
Author: Guede Mazaka
*Heathrow is terrible, but it always is. I told my parents to come pick me up a half-hour after my flight actually came in because I wanted some time to prep for it,* Guinevere said. She was nearly shouting over the phone, but was still barely audible due to the roaring background noise.
“Prep?” Arthur threw his scarf around his neck, then pinched his cell between his ear and shoulder while he tied off the ends. He took the phone in his hand again and picked up his briefcase.
Guinevere paused to snap at somebody to keep their whistles to themselves unless they wanted an international warrant slapped on them. *Oh, hair-spray, eye-shadow, blush…the first line of defense for a woman is her make-up, obviously. Anyway, just wanted to call to let you know I’m in all right, and make sure you and Lancelot were going to have some kind of proper dinner.*
“We’re both fairly good cooks,” Arthur dryly reminded her. He shut the door of his office, locked it, and then turned down the hall. The offices were already empty, most of the people having taken off either last night or early this morning for their Thanksgiving celebrations. Technically school had still been in session till about an hour ago, but it was impossible to enforce that rule. “We’ll be fine. I hope you will be as well. I’ll be home all the time, so feel free to call if it gets…ah, unbearable.”
*Even you can’t come up with a tactful way to talk about it,* Guinevere laughed. *Well, we’ll see. At least this time they can’t ask when I’m going to settle down with a man. Oh, d—I can see my mother. I’d better go.*
“Best of luck to you.” Shaking his head and smiling, Arthur thumbed off his cell. He stuck it in his pocket as he pushed through the building’s front doors and went on down the steps.
It’d chilled quite a bit from the morning and the air nipped at his cheeks and the edges of his nostrils, so he tucked his head down and pulled his scarf up a little, trying to trap some of his breath for the warmth against his face. The campus was oddly empty, with only a few stragglers moving between buildings, but even from where he was, Arthur could hear that the traffic was easily twice as bad as usual.
This year he planned on attending others’ Thanksgiving celebrations—Kitty had invited him to join her family for lunch, Vanora to stop in for dinner over the weekend—but he wasn’t hosting one himself. Tristan had mentioned doing something private with Gawain, presumably in response to the shakiness their relationship had developed, and when asked, Gawain had awkwardly implied that Galahad and Mariette would be uncomfortable spending time together in public. He didn’t say they were broken up, but apparently they still hadn’t gotten over the blow Mariette’s parents had dealt.
Arthur pressed his lips together, then shook his head. He had disagreed with Simone and Sylvain’s actions there, but it hadn’t gotten to the point where he would have felt his interference would have been justified. Though he almost wished it had; he saw just enough of Mariette to know she was desperately unhappy, and lately, Galahad had been working much too hard for his own good.
At any rate, that left Arthur and Lancelot alone for the long weekend. Of course, Lancelot had promptly suggested a whole list of activities, but it’d been predictably light on practical matters such as meals and sleep and the flexibility of Arthur’s aging back. But possibly they could get to a few of the ones less likely to end in a public indecency charge—
Faint music played somewhere, and after a moment, Arthur located its origin in his pocket. He sighed and took out his cell-phone; it sounded like Guinevere had gotten to it before she’d left and changed all his ring-tones again, claiming he needed a “touch of pop-culture” once in a while. “Hello?”
*Arthur? This is Edward Pellew. I’m sorry to be calling right now, but I needed to speak to you rather urgently. Can you get to a ground line?*
“Is it Lancelot?” Arthur asked, a coil of cold clamping around his throat. He picked up his pace.
*No, no, don’t worry about that. But I’m afraid I can’t specify more precisely right now,* Pellew said.
That was a relief, but not enough for Arthur to slow down as he thought. He was about halfway between his office and his house, and it’d take fifteen minutes to get to either one. Currently he was on a residential street, and the windows in most of the buildings were lit up, but…he paused, took a deep breath, and then turned up the front steps of a large apartment building. “Give me a few minutes. I’ll call you back.”
He hung up as he walked through the front door. The building had a lobby but no guard, so Arthur proceeded to the elevator, taking it down to the basement. Luckily, the janitor seemed to be elsewhere in the building, so Arthur slipped into the work-room and picked up the phone there.
*That was quick,* Pellew said.
“It’s a ground line, but I picked it at random. Is that secure enough?” Arthur angled himself behind the door so he could deal with the janitor if he had to. He hoped he wouldn’t; he already was hating how he was falling back on old habits, and he didn’t want to ruin some innocent man’s night. “Why are you concerned about that?”
Pellew sighed. *I am sorry about this, but friends in London say that you’re in a delicate situation. But I thought you should know—Benedict Clayton suffered a fatal heart attack two hours ago while in protective custody. Lancelot’s out in the field and he’ll be told as soon as we can contact him, and so will Guinevere.*
“What kind of heart attack? He didn’t have any pre-existing conditions…that I remember.” It’d been several years, and when they’d recently met, it hadn’t been under conditions that would’ve let them catch up on each other. But that would be the optimistic explanation, and right now Arthur wasn’t feeling much of that emotion.
*I…the preliminary coroner’s report will be back in two days. But my gut tells me that it wasn’t natural.* The other man paused, then coughed. *I’d like to talk to you sometime soon. Not as a suspect in his case, but with regards to fall-out from it.*
Arthur briefly closed his eyes. “I may be busy. But thank you for the offer. And thank you for calling.”
The longer he stayed, the more he risked not only being found by someone, but also letting anyone already watching him try to intercept his call. He did hang up, but afterward, he stood by the phone for a few minutes and thought. Then he gave himself a hard shake and warily headed back upstairs.
He’d had plenty of time to think. They’d given him months, and by now he should’ve arrived at a decision.
He had. The problem was just bringing himself to carry it out.
After another useless few minutes loitering on the sidewalk, Arthur turned around and headed home. They’d probably give him a week at least; they wouldn’t be stupid enough to risk dealing with him and Clayton both at the same time. It was too obvious that too many people with too many agendas were watching him.
* * *
Lancelot got the news about Clayton about three minutes after he’d stepped into the house; it’d been that long because he’d dropped his cell down a sewer grating after a last-minute offer to help out a colleague turned into a seven-block foot chase. But even before that, he’d guessed something was up. Arthur had been sitting in the living room with the lights off, and he’d scared the hell out of Lancelot when Lancelot had absently turned them on and looked in on his way to the kitchen.
Of course, the other man hadn’t brought it up. He’d just blinked and looked like Lancelot as if he were a little confused why people didn’t normally sit in the dark by themselves. Then he’d asked what Lancelot wanted for dinner.
“I’m worn out. What’s fastest?” Lancelot’s mouth had replied.
“I think Guinevere left something in Tupperware,” Arthur had said.
Typical. She didn’t think they could fend for themselves, so she’d made them a nice precooked dinner. As if they didn’t live in New York City, the greatest place for take-out food in the world, and never mind that before Arthur had come along, Lancelot had kept up his half of the cooking schedule without much complaint from her. He should’ve rung her up just to tease her about how she defaulted back to the old mother-hen stereotype no matter how modern she thought she was.
Instead they reheated the damned food. Which was good. Arthur even managed to carry on a half-convincing conversation about the difficulties he was having with workplace politics. Lancelot told himself that fighting on an empty stomach was a stupid idea and the British Navy had never done it if it could’ve helped it, so obviously there was something to that.
They were washing the dishes when it finally came out. “Have you heard from Guinevere yet?” Arthur asked.
And Lancelot dropped the glass he was holding. He cursed and swooped down, managing to get his soapy fingers on it, but it slipped out again and knocked against the edge of the counter, then fell to shatter on the floor. “Goddamn it.”
“Wait—don’t move. I’ll get the dustpan and broom.” Arthur was still wearing shoes. He usually ended up prepared for an unexpected situation like that.
Lancelot grimaced, looking at his own bare feet. He checked his hand for any cuts, but he wasn’t injured. “She got to London all right. If I know her, either her parents dragged her off to some late dinner party where she can’t check her phone, or they went home and she went to bed so she wouldn’t have to make small-talk with them. She probably hasn’t heard yet.”
The dustpan and the broom were in the next room, and Arthur went and got them without breaking in stride. Though when he came back, he dropped down to begin sweeping so that his eyes never looked up at Lancelot. “Right. Your boss called me and told me.”
“Oh. I would’ve thought you’d have Tristan monitoring the situation, and heard that way,” Lancelot snapped. He curled in his toes as the hand-broom got near them, and then he thought he might as well curl his fingers as well.
“Did he go into any detail with you? We didn’t have the time to, and anyway, I don’t think he would’ve felt comfortable divulging more information to me.” Arthur was maddeningly calm.
That, Lancelot decided, was a bad sign. A worried or depressed Arthur was considerably easier to predict, given that he could be provoked into making his internal debate external, and furthermore, was an indecisive Arthur. A calm Arthur was one who’d made up his mind and that never was a good thing when he was cutting other people out of the loop.
“I’ll tell you what I know if you tell me we can go into the living room to talk about it and I don’t have to seriously think about locking the windows and doors. To keep you in,” Lancelot finally said.
A little bit of glass suddenly spun out from under the broom’s bristles. Then Arthur knelt up to meet Lancelot’s eyes, and his expression was more stunned than anything else. “Do I really make you this paranoid?”
Lancelot opened his mouth to say obviously, then shut it. He nearly stepped backwards before he remembered about the broken glass all over the floor. “Don’t turn this into a guilt trip, damn it.”
Arthur winced, then resumed cleaning up glass with jerky, quick movements. Several times he had to go over the same spot twice because he’d brushed so hard the bits had jumped right out of the dustpan. “I gave Clayton to Interpol to save his life. Now he’s dead and all I managed to do was basically just delay the inevitable, and I’m sorry if it’s inconvenient for you, but I think regretting that’s only human of me.”
Which wasn’t what Lancelot had been talking about, and frankly, not an angle he would’ve considered on his own. From his point of view, Arthur had done everything possible to help out a man who didn’t even really deserve it. And he started to say so, only he couldn’t help but notice the faint tremble in Arthur’s shoulders.
The shaking rapidly grew in strength, and after a moment, Arthur put down the hand-broom. He immediately picked it up again and finished sweeping, then twisted around to dump the glass in the wastebasket. Then he got up and stalked into the next room.
He’d already put away the broom and pan by the time Lancelot rounded the corner. His hands were coming up to cover his face, but he lowered them when he heard Lancelot come in; his eyes were red and wet.
“Oh, Christ,” Lancelot sighed. He put out his hands and took Arthur’s face between them.
Lancelot didn’t even really have to pull: Arthur fell onto him, a hot dampness wetting through Lancelot’s shirt to his shoulder as Arthur brought his hands around to clutch at his back. The shake was still in his body, and it was to Arthur what loud sobs would’ve been to anyone else. Because Arthur didn’t make a sound, and because he was pressed so closely to Lancelot, Lancelot could feel exactly how much effort that took.
Part of his damned training coming back, Lancelot bitterly thought. Though he tried to stroke Arthur’s shoulders and back as gently as he could, not quite sure what might be too much pressure. “It’s not your fault. If anything, it’s ours. Hell, mine. You made it pretty clear what MI6 would try, and it was our responsibility to keep them from getting to Clayton.”
“I gave him to you. I grounded him,” Arthur whispered. “If I’d let him go free, he—”
“If you’d done that, Guin and I would be back to ground-zero with trying to take out part of the blood diamond trade, and goddamn it, that funds genocidal wars. That’s about more people than your bloody spy-school friends.” Lancelot flattened his hands on Arthur’s back in an attempt to keep from shaking the other man. His lip hurt, and after a moment he realized why and made himself take his teeth out of it. “And besides, if you’d left him alone…don’t lie to yourself, Arthur. I spent hours with the man taking his deposition. He was more of a passive suicide than Anna Karenina.”
For a moment, he thought he’d gone too far. Arthur stiffened, his fingers going rigid so that a hairsbreadth of space opened up them and Lancelot’s back. Then he collapsed back against Lancelot, his breath shivering in half a grim laugh by Lancelot’s ear. It wasn’t as far as relaxing, but it was better than Lancelot had been expecting. “Anna Karenina.”
“One New Year’s, I’d just been dumped and Guin had botched a case, and so we got drunk and rented a lot of bad book-to-movie adaptations. Guin had a thing for Sean Bean back then,” Lancelot muttered, rubbing his flushing cheek against the side of Arthur’s head. “Hated that film. Wanted everyone to just bloody die already, but only Anna ended up getting it.”
“You would.” The hands on Lancelot’s back pressed down hard, almost to the point of pain. They let up after a moment, but only to start moving firmly downwards, their intent so obvious that an eighty-year-old virgin monk could’ve guessed.
After a moment, Lancelot bent backwards so he could look Arthur in the eye. He didn’t quite get there before the other man dove in and caught up his mouth, lips and tongue fervent and desperate and irresistible. Arthur groaned, eased off and then came down again at a different angle, kissing open-mouthed and hard. His skin was feverishly warm, and suddenly his hands were running over Lancelot’s body like he wanted to sink right into it, peel Lancelot apart and then wrap himself inside.
Lancelot wasn’t an idiot, and he hadn’t lost track of the conversation. This wasn’t what they should be doing right now—at least, not if they wanted to come up with a practical response to the whole Clayton mess with which they both could live. But the thing was—and it was as clear as a glass prism to him—Arthur really needed this. And that was it.
He put his arms up around Arthur’s neck and kissed back, at first trying to meet the other man halfway, but Arthur just ran roughshod over his attempts, almost trying to swallow Lancelot’s jaw, and finally Lancelot just opened his mouth and gave the other man something to press against. Arthur’s tongue lashed in and out of it, trailing wet streaks from Lancelot’s lips down his throat, and they should’ve been cold, but instead they were scorching hot. They left his skin feeling blistered.
Arthur suddenly tucked his head down and pressed his face into the crook of Lancelot’s neck. He took a deep, harsh breath, and Lancelot began to ask what was the matter, but then Arthur bit down and a groan came out of Lancelot’s mouth instead. Half his shirt was unbuttoned by the time he finished, and the way Arthur’s hands were ripping at his clothes said the other half wasn’t about to last long.
There just wasn’t any keeping up with Arthur. He had Lancelot stripped and shoved up against the wall while Lancelot was still gasping for air, his hand already working mercilessly between Lancelot’s legs. His head was still down pinched between Lancelot’s head and shoulder, and his breath was shaky and his lips were moving on the skin of Lancelot’s neck, saying something, giving up words that were smothered away before Lancelot could hear them. Their meaning almost seemed to come through, so intense that he could feel them pulsing up along his veins, but they were too blurred. His vision was blurring, the clarity of the world narrowed down to the way the shoulder-seams of Arthur’s shirt were digging across his palms; he could feel the breaks in the double line of stitching, the strands stretching as they soaked up the sweat from his clenched hands.
Arthur fucked him like it would save the world, hard and intense and yet drifting somewhere past Lancelot, focus going into the dark looming up behind them. Lancelot cursed at him, gouging his shoulders till either Arthur could bleed or look at him, and then Arthur came back to him. But not for long, and Lancelot couldn’t keep fighting, not with what Arthur was doing to him.
He held out for as long as he could. And then he went under, screaming into Arthur’s ear the whole way.
* * *
“Did that help any?” The hand in Arthur’s hair slowed, then dipped to slide off the back of his neck. Lancelot gave him a little shake. “Because if you want another round of therapy, I’m going to have to suggest we move upstairs. I don’t think my legs will stand for much more than horizontal right now.”
After a moment, Arthur felt his mouth slowly move into a smile against Lancelot’s shoulder. He lifted his head, then pulled his arms out from between them and put his hands down on the floor for support as he got off his knees.
Though when he finally looked at Lancelot, his smile died. Once he’d gotten out of the way, Lancelot had let his arms drop to lie across his knees; his head was tilted back to rest against the wall and he was staring moodily at Arthur. As if they’d just started having a fight.
“Look, don’t—” Lancelot started, sitting up. He flinched, then put his palms on the floor and carefully shifted his weight off his arse. “Arthur, I was fine with doing that, all right? If you needed to do it—I just can’t exactly enjoy fucking when it’s not about me. I’m selfish like that.”
“You’re not selfish,” Arthur said. He reached out, but at the last minute, changed his mind and stroked the back of his hand down Lancelot’s cheek instead of cupping it.
Lancelot smiled wryly as he turned his head into it. “You should be a lot more than you are. But anyway, do you feel better?”
“I feel like…” Arthur withdrew his hand and thought a moment. Then he got up and offered a hand to Lancelot, who took it and used it to heave himself up instead of waiting for Arthur to pull. He needed a minute to deal with his clothes, so Arthur waited. “Did you want me to start the espresso machine while I was at it, or are you fine?”
“No, I think I’m all right. Though someday we really need to talk about this tea thing of yours. There’s being British and then there’s taking the cover too far,” Lancelot commented. At the last bit, he flicked a look over that was slightly wary.
Instead of responding to it, Arthur went back to the kitchen and put the kettle on the stove. He was measuring out the loose-leaf into the teapot when he heard Lancelot pad in behind him.
“I refuse to get side-tracked by your…damn it, any more and we’ll have to start numbering your guilt-trips for easy reference.” Lancelot paused, then abruptly turned to lean against Arthur’s back, wrapping his arms around to hook in front of Arthur’s stomach. “It’s not just beating yourself up over Clayton that’s on your mind. First the problem with Tristan’s old advisor, and then this. They’re ramping it up.”
“They’re not going to kill me,” Arthur said. He startled a little when the kettle sang out.
He had to reach down and pull Lancelot’s hands apart so he could get to it, but Lancelot gave him a sharp look on the way. And then immediately returned his arms to Arthur’s waist as soon as the hot water had been poured. “Arthur, I work for Interpol. I’m not going to buy that. They’re obviously doing this by degrees, and—”
“And the logical next step is to go after you or Guinevere. If they thought they could tolerate the consequences of killing me, or that the pros would be worth the cons, then they would have done it already. Individuals torture for the sake of torture; government agencies have to justify the expense of an extended mind-game like this to the accountants.” It came out of Arthur in a rush, and after he’d finished, he just stood there in surprise at himself. Then he swore, jerking his hand away from the teapot’s sides as its heat finally registered.
Lancelot had gone stiff and still against him, and when the other man finally moved, it was to tighten his grip on Arthur. “Well, Pellew’s ex-MI6 himself, isn’t he? He’d know what to look for. And you—you’d know right away.”
“I’ve been trying to figure out if that’s enough of a deterrent,” Arthur said after a moment. He checked the time, then poured himself a cup of tea. “That’s the problem with being out of the loop. I don’t know enough about how they’re positioned in the world, about what the internal politics are like…I’m not sure why they’re being so cagey with me.”
“Would they want you back?” Rubbing his face against Arthur’s shoulder, Lancelot stretched his arm around to pull the other cup and saucer Arthur had gotten out towards him. He took the cup off and put it on the counter, then poured himself some tea. “I don’t know how much longer you can play a waiting game. For that matter, I’m not sure how you’re managing to be so patient. If it were me—”
Arthur took a sip, then lowered his cup to stare at the amber liquid inside. A few flecks of black had made it through the spout and slowly swirled about the bottom, though they didn’t remotely give him a clue as to his future. “To be brutally honest, I’m not waiting. I’m procrastinating. I don’t want to give up teaching, I don’t want to resign from Avalon, I don’t—I don’t want to see my work on creating a new discipline within the philosophy department here go to waste. And then I have--damn it, another year and I would’ve had Gawain and Galahad out, I think.”
Lancelot didn’t say anything. After a minute or so, he did move to lean against Arthur’s side, pushing up at Arthur’s arm. He ducked and slotted himself under it, then turned to keep it crooked around himself. His fingers poked at his cup, pushing it around the corner.
“For seven years I didn’t have a life. I went in, carried out a mission, and then picked up and moved to the next one. Now I’ve had the time to build something here, and I just—I don’t want to give it up,” Arthur quietly said. He idly tapped the bottom of his cup against the counter, then picked it up and cradled it in his palm. “A house, a career, dinners with friends and a library arranged the way I want it…they’re all such material things. They shouldn’t matter so much in the end—I shouldn’t care so much, after what I’ve learned—but they do.”
The other man stirred, tilting his head so its weight fell on Arthur’s shoulder. “Arthur, what have you decided to do? It sounds like you’ve made up your mind.”
“I have.” After a long, long time, with much agonizing and debating, and God, he was so very thankful that Lancelot and Guinevere had allowed him the time and space for it. He’d needed all his energy and focus to straighten out his own mind, and he knew that distraction had done more than bothered the other two.
They deserved much better than him, but they’d waited nonetheless. That kind of commitment…it demanded an equal amount of return.
“Well?” Lancelot said after a moment, a touch of impatience filtering into his voice.
It should’ve been amusing to see Lancelot’s core personality reassert itself, no matter the situation. Instead Arthur found the corners of his eyes stinging a little bit. “I can’t stay a civilian, that much is clear. I don’t know what MI6’s motives are, but they obviously aren’t going to let me remain as I am. I can keep them off and can deal with any threat they might make to me or you or Guinevere, but not without sacrificing my life here.”
He expected Lancelot to ask him exactly what he meant by not staying a civilian, but instead the other man stepped away, dropping his arms from Arthur. In a rare moment of perfect etiquette, Lancelot picked up both cup and saucer and pensively, silently drank. He dropped the cup once from his mouth as if about to say something, but then apparently changed his mind.
Arthur finished his own tea and poured himself a second cup. “I don’t blame either of you.”
It was a shot in the dark, but from the way Lancelot’s shoulders sharply hitched, it hit home. He jerked the saucer down, only keeping it from shattering against the counter by sticking his finger out beneath it. “I know you don’t. But it’d be a lot easier to make your decision if you didn’t have to worry about us, wouldn’t it? Tristan’s used to all that, having to cut things out for the sake of—”
“He won’t do that anymore,” Arthur interrupted. He paused to collect his thoughts, surprised at his sudden flash of anger. Though it made a little more sense once he backtacked his train of thought. “I hope—I’m going to try very hard to limit this to me, but if it goes beyond to him, I don’t think he’ll run. This is ground where he’ll stand—his mother was the same way, in the end.”
“I thought he and Gawain were a bit rocky right now.” Lancelot glanced up to make sure his comment was taken as a statement and not an attack.
By this time, the tea had cooled too much and it tasted bitter on Arthur’s tongue. He put his cup down, then picked up the pot and walked it over to the sink to empty it. “It doesn’t matter. Personally, I think Gawain might be it for Tristan, but whatever happens to their relationship, Tristan’s reached the point where his interest isn’t in preserving his principles by any means necessary. He’ll fight for them instead.”
He could watch Lancelot put everything together in his head. “Same for you. Arthur, it doesn’t mean a damn thing if you don’t survive—”
“It doesn’t mean a damn thing if I live and I have to leave either of you.” Arthur briefly clamped his lips together. Then he shook his head, laughing humorlessly. “It wouldn’t really be leaving, anyway—I’m almost thirty-eight and I won’t lie to myself. I wouldn’t be able to stay away. So I can’t run. Staying and meeting MI6 head-on might result in my death, but those are odds I’ll have to take. There’s no one-hundred-percent safe solution here for me.”
Lancelot’s mouth twisted. He stared down into his cup as if he was trying to make it boil with his gaze alone, then delicately put cup and saucer down. He backed up, lifted his arms as if to push off an invisible vertical surface, and then violently spun around to kick the refrigerator. Then he did it again.
The first time Arthur reached for him, he jerked away. Then he turned and seized Arthur’s hand, then Arthur’s elbow and pulled himself into Arthur for a hard embrace. “I’m sorry,” he said, spitting out the words as if he were swearing. He pressed his forehead against Arthur’s shoulder, slowly slumping. “I—listen, we’ll be worth it. I swear to God, we’ll…I’ll make it up to you, at the very least.”
The self-castigation in Lancelot’s voice made Arthur wince. He wrapped his arms around the other man and buried his nose in Lancelot’s curls, taking a deep breath. “You fell in love with me. I’m still trying to make sure you don’t regret it.”
Lancelot made a choked, half-laughing sound and tightened his grip on Arthur. He raised his head after a moment, but only far enough to put his mouth against Arthur’s mouth, and then he was sliding down to his knees. He pushed away Arthur’s hands when Arthur reached for him, and finally Arthur let him do it how he wanted to.
* * *
It took a long time for Lancelot to finally fall asleep, and even then he stayed so tensely pressed against Arthur that Arthur needed a good twenty minutes to ease himself away. He paused at the edge of the bed, looking at the little lines around the other man’s mouth and eyes—Lancelot was much too young to be getting those already—before he soundlessly walked over to the closet to get dressed.
He did take his cell-phone with him. With Guinevere, stress often manifested herself as restless sleep and so he wasn’t expecting her to make it through the whole first night back at her parents without waking up once. And when she did wake up, her first impulse would be to check on work; he just had his fingers crossed that she would call his cell and not the house, which would wake up Lancelot.
His coat-pocket emitted a muffled jingling noise just as he’d crossed into the fringes of Chelsea. He still had a little time to kill, so he stopped in what looked like a quiet doorway and answered it. “Guinevere?”
*Where are you?*
“Walking around Chelsea. Lancelot’s at home, sleeping.” Arthur absently glanced out across the street, checking the windows of the buildings on that side. “I wish I’d had a little while longer. I’ll have to leave the reorganizing of the philosophy department before it’s done, and I’m not sure if any of my colleagues will see the changes all the way through.”
There was a long pause on the other end of the line, long enough for Arthur to picture Guinevere sitting at a desk, her hair falling from where it’d been loosely tucked behind her ear, her hand on the side of her bent head. She’d be able to think objectively and figure out how he’d weighed up his options and their pros and cons, but he could tell from the way she sucked in the occasional breath that she wasn’t completely comfortable with all of it. She wasn’t keeping all of her emotions out of it.
*How long have you had your mind made up?* Guinevere finally asked.
“Since a little after Kernyw handed in his resignation.” The following silence seemed a little confused, so Arthur clarified just in case Guinevere didn’t remember. “Tristan’s advisor, the one outed for improper relations with—”
*His industry-connected girlfriend, right.* Guinevere inhaled deeply, then took so much time to exhale that it began to worry Arthur. *So is the delay strategic, or—*
Arthur looked at his watch, then resumed watching people walk by on the sidewalk. It was a much busier night than he’d been expecting, considering the day. Then again, it was past dinner hour so some people might’ve chosen to recover from their families by going out. And possibly he was absorbing a little bit of Guinevere’s bitterness. “No, I just didn’t want—you know, after I quit, I originally decided to try being an academic next because of the access to research facilities. But…I’ve really come to love it.”
*I’d say that we could help hold them off till you’ve wrapped up your affairs, but that’s not what you would’ve wanted anyway,* Guinevere slowly replied. Her voice was tight and strained. *When?*
“Well, I can’t quite set a timetable—”
*Did you leave this for when I’d be out of the country? You said Lancelot’s asleep—God, I knew I should’ve called home first,” Guinevere suddenly snapped, all the words rushing out. Their intensity whipcracked over the slight static. “I knew--but I thought, if I wanted to contact Arthur the quickest…but is it contacting you, or is it—”
Arthur looked around again, then forced himself to calm down. “Guinevere—”
*I know, I know, you weren’t waiting for Clayton’s death. You aren’t anywhere that ghoulish. But you knew it was leading up to that, and it is useful for pointing to and saying that you can’t—*
“Guinevere, if I were running away, I wouldn’t have told you I was in Chelsea. For that matter, I wouldn’t have left Lancelot asleep. He would have picked up on it and I would’ve had to drug him or something of that sort.” A little bit of black humor was creeping into Arthur’s voice, and when he tried to suppress it, he could feel it start to turn hysterical on him. “Though I’m not sure I could follow through with that now. I’m getting old—I can’t get back the edge I used to have.”
*Well, I don’t think you want it back, do you?* Her voice was still edged with nerves, but it sounded as if she’d relaxed a little. Enough to not be leaping off her seat for another phone and a call to Lancelot or possibly back to the New York branch of Interpol. *Arthur, I…just…all right, I just want to know what you’re doing and when you’ll be home again. My bloody mum’s forcing me to go visit all her tea-time friends tomorrow, so I’d like to know I can at least call you to complain after it’s over.*
After a moment, he did take the risk of smiling at that; she was forcing the humor over the worry in her voice, but she was also telling him…“I’m working on wrapping up my affairs,” he said. He heard his voice catch, but talked through it. “I’m going home straight after, and with any luck, Lancelot will only have gotten to putting on his shoes, and we can have our fight in the foyer. It’s a bit chilly out right now.”
*Sometimes I hate the whole stiff-upper-lip nonsense more than anything else,* Guinevere sighed. She almost said something else, cut herself off, and then took a deep breath. When she spoke again, she sounded terribly young and frightened, all her composure shorn away, and still so very determined. *I just lied back there. I want to know you’re home, I want to know you’re safe from everything, I want to know Lancelot’s doing his octopus impression so at least I’ll be certain you’re not going everywhere. But I—look, Arthur, I trust you.* She laughed a little. *I’m having such a hard time overriding my instincts right now—you’re damn lucky I’m overseas.*
“I know I’m lucky,” Arthur quietly replied.
After another second, Guinevere made an irritated, drawn-out noise. Then her voice suddenly, fiercely sang out down the line. *I love you, you stupid man. I—good night.*
A click and then the dial tone followed. Arthur blinked, a little shell-shocked, and then slowly put his cell phone away. He happened to glance down the street as he did and he spotted Pellew walking towards him.
The other man saw him, but didn’t make any sign of recognition. Pellew turned into a coffeeshop; Arthur casually followed after retucking his coat around himself.
* * *
Guinevere stayed up. It was only another two hours till her parents preferred their breakfast, and when she looked out the window, she could already tell that the sky was lightening. Then again, that might have been the light pollution from the downtown area. Everything seemed to be a little artificial nowadays.
She chewed on her nails. Methodically, thoroughly, biting each one down so the same sliver-width of white above the quick was left, and for once she didn’t feel disgusted with it or annoyed at her weakness. Actually, she was a little frustrated that she didn’t have more nails to bite.
Her cell buzzed just as she finally reached to pick it up. She checked the CallerID, had a moment of shock, and then answered. “Did you run out yet, or are you on your way to do that?”
*What—oh. You called…or did he call you? No, I’ll go with you calling him,* Lancelot said. He slurred the first few words a little, as if he hadn’t yet fully woken. *I’m still in bed. I thought about running out, believe me, but…well, what did you two talk about?*
“I’m thinking of flying back early. I’ve been staring at the booking website for the past half-hour.” It’d cost an arm and a leg, and she’d probably have to improperly use her Interpol status in order to get a seat at this late notice, but she was more than willing to bear those costs.
Lancelot cursed as he banged something. *Don’t. We go into panic mode, or look like we’re going into panic mode, and then they’ve got us right there. Actually, I—is there any possible way you could start sleeping at the London office?*
“I’d love to, given that my mother and father don’t have the security clearance to get to me there, but somehow I doubt that I could do that without having to give some kind of explanation. And then that’d be giving away Arthur’s hand, whatever that is,” Guinevere replied, putting her hand up. She cradled her forehead against it, then jerked her head up when she heard a noise.
It was only the newspaper boy, but nevertheless, she ended up moving to sit on the floor, below the level of the windowsill. She hated being so damned paranoid—hated the way she had to rearrange her life in response to someone else—but Arthur was putting his faith in her to do that. He hadn’t come out and said so, but if he thought she couldn’t see to herself, then he would’ve…done something stupid to try and protect her before he protected himself.
Of course, she didn’t absolutely know for certain that that wasn’t what he was doing right now, but that was where she had to believe in him. “I hate tests of faith.”
*Well, at least you can reason that you’re five hours’ flying away. I have to sit here and tell myself that there’s no way I can go out and do anything without risking that I’ll mess up his plans. It’s bloody—God, I wish he’d drugged me,* Lancelot said, the last words coming out on the end of an explosive sigh. In the background, a rhythmic drumming noise—probably his fingers on the wall—could be heard. *I let him go off without getting specifics out of him.*
Guinevere thought she heard a little bit of a question in that and had to shake her head. “Were you hoping that I’d somehow manage to do better over a trans-Atlantic phone-call? While he was on his way to…”
*For once, yes. You’re a stone-cold bitch queen when it comes to interrogation, damn it, so didn’t you?* Pause. *Oh, wonderful. Guin, really. This was not a good time to decide you don’t need to be a professional.*
“Lance, it’s Arthur, not some international criminal who I’d love to personally post-mortem. And it’s—” She pressed her hand against the side of her head, closing her eyes against what she thought was a developing headache. Bloody Thanksgiving break—what a stupid American custom. If it hadn’t been around, her parents would’ve had no reason to guilt-trip her into coming home before Christmas, and she wouldn’t be kicking her heels now, waiting to see what happened. “He’s already doing this for us. I don’t know how much more we could possibly interfere in his life.”
*Since when did you feel guilty about that? Isn’t this the same woman who regularly changes his tea brand and cell phone ringtones?* Lancelot snorted.
Guinevere rolled her eyes. “Don’t be an ass.”
*Well, how else do you suggest I cope?* Probably a little more truth than Lancelot wanted getting out sneaked into that statement, to judge by the uncomfortable laugh he let out afterward. *I just can’t believe I didn’t push the point. I’m dying to know. It’s not like I feel bad about nagging him over it, and still…*
“I want a cigarette.” So badly that when she looked at her hand, her fingers were crooked as if she were holding one. The craving came out of nowhere and almost immediately blew up into a want so strong she could practically taste the nicotine stinging her tongue.
Lancelot made a rude noise into the phone. Then he got up, and she could hear him moving around, rattling drawers. The extra noises stopped after a moment—and then she heard the distinctive click of a cigarette lighter. *Ah. There we go. I knew I still had a few somewhere around here.*
*Don’t worry, Guin. I’m smoking for you, too.*
“I should fly home just to slap you for that,” Guinevere muttered. “You know why you didn’t push the issue? Because you already know that Arthur’s coming back to us, and because you’re not going to change. You’ve got your life and you’re keeping it as is, and he’s changing his life to make sure of that, and even though we’re all adults and respectful of each other’s right to make their own choices about sacrifices—”
*Firstly,* Lancelot started in a heated tone. Then he coughed, and then he sounded like he was really choking. He did get himself under control before Guinevere got truly worried, muttering something about it being a damn long time since he’d been driven to smoke, and continued in a calmer but no less pointed voice. *That ‘you’ is plural—you’re talking as much about me as about you. Secondly, we’ll have to change too. It’s one thing to be living with some college professor, and another to be living with someone who’s got overt ties to the intelligence community.*
Guinevere opened her mouth, then closed it and got up. She slinked past her parents bedroom—having flashbacks of sixth form all the way—and headed down to the kitchen. At least she could make herself some coffee. “All right, I’m a bit off right now and I don’t have it all right. But tell me I’m wrong about you being sorry Arthur’s the one making the biggest sacrifice.”
*Of course I’m sorry! I’m sorry he’s losing what’s probably the perfect job for him, but you know what? He is choosing to do it. And more than being sorry—I’m fucking angry because I am not his cross. I’m not his damned excuse to martyr himself and I refuse to be the weakness that took him down. I absolutely goddamn refu--fuck.* Something clattered loudly in the background. Then Lancelot cursed again, sounding like he was in some pain. *I just tried to put out my cigarette on my own damn arm. God, I hate how confused he makes me.*
“You don’t want to know what he’s really doing because then you can honestly say he did it all himself,” Guinevere said. She leaned against the edge of the kitchen counter as she started filling the coffeemaker. “You selfish idiot. I hope you did burn yourself. I didn’t ask because he said he was staying with us, and I’m going to believe that. And I remembered that we told him we’d let him tell us things when he felt comfortable. This is hard, but—if Arthur can go through the trouble of reinventing himself a third time, then I think I can wait a few weeks to ask him how he did it.”
Lancelot didn’t have anything to say back to that, apparently. He occasionally let out a loud, harsh exhale, but from when Guinevere turned on the coffeemaker to when the pot was half-full of coffee, he was silent.
*Well, I can’t run out after him because that’s exactly what happens in the movies and it always ends up being a mistake that results in an extra twenty minutes, and you tend to go into incredibly nasty rants at the characters at that point. And apparently I can’t just sit and wait for him, because then I’m selfish. So what, exactly, am I supposed to do?* Lancelot finally asked.
The coffee seemed to have finished dripping, so Guinevere started looking for mugs. Every time she came back to visit her parents, she had to relearn where everything was. “I don’t know, damn it. It’s not about what you do—it’s about why you do it, and…and damn it, apparently your parents do always wake up at the worst times.”
From the sound of things, Guinevere’s mother would still be hung up in the bathroom for another good ten minutes, but her father was going to be down in the next minute. And she’d have to put on her nice face, and try to explain why she couldn’t have stuck with a job that wasn’t “dangerous,” and all while being desperately worried about Arthur, the “non-dangerous” boyfriend they were hoping she married. God.
*What—oh, you mean your parents. Are they awake?* Lancelot’s voice faded as he moved away from the phone to do something. Then its volume went up again. *Look, I’ll…call you back when Arthur gets in. Or if he doesn’t. I…don’t have a nervous breakdown or anything, Guin. If I have to break in a new partner on top of all this, I might just kill someone.*
“‘Break in’? Excuse me, but—”
And then he hung up on her. After a moment, Guinevere let out an exasperated sigh and put the cell phone down on the counter. She rested her elbows on either side of it and propped her chin up on her hand, staring at the coffeepot. It took her a second to remember exactly what she’d been doing with that, and then her father called out a ‘good morning’ just as she reached for it, so she had to turn around instead and greet him.
She didn’t think she was going to make it till Lancelot called, if he even did remember to. If she made it to lunch without phoning, it’d be a bloody miracle.
* * *
Arthur locked the front door, then bent down to take off his shoes. He took off his right shoe and put it aside, then shifted to deal with his other shoe and glimpsed something on the stairs. He stiffened. “Lancelot?”
“I loved the note,” the other man dryly said, holding out a little piece of paper at arm’s length. “Especially the bit about calling Tristan and giving him this code statement if you’re not back before a certain time.”
Lancelot lifted the paper, then pulled it back before Arthur could do anything. He took out a cigarette lighter and held its flame to the scrap till it’d all charred away; the air around him smelled faintly of nicotine and ashes.
“I’m sorry.” There were any number of excuses that Arthur could give, but he opted for none of them. He waited a moment, then went back to taking off his left shoe. Then he stood up and slowly came over to the base of the staircase.
He and Lancelot were about at the same eye-level that way. Lancelot looked at him for a long moment, then shook his head and pulled himself up using the railing. “God, Arthur, I had more than half an idea you were going to. I wasn’t all that sure when, but…and if you chose to go out and do what you did, then I chose to fall asleep instead of staying up. I wasn’t all that sure if you were coming back, and if you were going to leave, then making sure I wasn’t awake meant I’d have no problem being angry at you for it.”
“I—Lancelot, I’ve told you. I’m not—”
“I know. Goddamn it, I know, and I’m just…I didn’t really believe you anyway because I’m not that good of a person,” Lancelot said. He tried to smile, like it was a joke, but his voice was cracking and his eyes were dark with pain. “I suppose I’m worse than you are when it comes to paranoia. But—you came back.”
He took one step forward, then suddenly lunged the rest of the way, his arms snapping around Arthur as if Arthur had begun to drop through the floor. And then he simply held on. Arthur started to try to say something comforting, but couldn’t think of anything worthy saying. In the end, he just returned the embrace, reassuring the other man as best he could with actions.
“It’s a good thing you have tomorrow off,” Lancelot eventually mumbled, hands clutched in Arthur’s clothing. He lifted his head to stare hard at Arthur, the first sign that he was recovering. “I let you go, so now you’re sitting down and telling me exactly what the game-plan is—wait, let me go get Guin on the speakerphone. Then I won’t have her telling me how bad I am at summarizing later.”
Though he needed another moment before he finally let go of Arthur, and even then his hands drifted to keep in contact with Arthur’s body for much longer than necessary. He went into the next room.
Arthur watched him, then slowly edged into the next room. He found a pad of paper and a pen and leaned his hip against the couch, thinking. Then he slowly raised the pen and began drafting his letter of resignation to Merlin.