|The Most Wanted Man in NYC
Author: Guede Mazaka
Sunlight was streaming in through the windows to paint the newspaper spread out before Arthur in gorgeous shades of gold. He was shaved, dressed, fed, and he still had a good fifteen minutes to relax. In his cup was a perfect brew of Earl Grey with just a splash of lemon. Life was being extraordinarily good to him.
Something snuffled and thumped against his back. Arms dropped around his waist, and a soft mouth nibbled mechanically at his ear before smooshing into the back of his neck. When he glanced over his shoulder, all he could see was a tousle of dark curls.
“Good morning,” Arthur tried.
Lancelot whistled a snore. He was like a dead weight with claws, because when Arthur attempted to twist around, to shift the other man onto the counter, to—actually, no matter what Arthur did, Lancelot flopped the other way. And his grip on Arthur, while deceptively loose, didn’t move an inch.
Arthur checked the clock. Now he had ten minutes, tepid tea, and the newspaper was starting to look as if it should be rolled up and put to other uses than reading.
“If you want to get him off, you can’t be so nice.” Guinevere walked in, arms above her head as she chopsticked her bun. Her first stop was the fridge for a can of the noxious instant-breakfast she insisted on drinking weekdays, and her second was the island so she could steal the newspaper. She cracked the can with one hand and flipped up the business section. “The first time he did that to me, I thought it was cute. The second time…was the last time.”
As she spoke, she leaned towards Lancelot. He slowly began to shuffle to Arthur’s other side, but he remained plastered to Arthur’s back.
“What did you do?” It probably wasn’t a good idea to ask, but Arthur couldn’t help himself. By the time the first week of cohabitation had ended, he’d figured out that the more he knew, the better able he was to avoid creating situations. Because once a situation had been created, they never, ever let him out of it.
“Bit him,” was Guinevere’s succinct, matter-of-fact answer. It was a little frightening how well it suited her.
He couldn’t help but glance down at Lancelot; she laughed and turned the page. “Other side. That little notch in the…oh, we need to get going soon. Tell him you won’t have sex with him anymore.”
“I won’t have sex?” Arthur repeated. Sometimes, when his temper was too short or he was too tired to remember he was a polite man, he wondered whether he was a magnet for the slightly-imbalanced.
But no matter what her mental condition was, Guinevere did know Lancelot very well. The moment the words were out of Arthur’s mouth, the other man’s head shot up and he stared with bleary, shocked eyes. “What? I thought we cured you of that!...and why are you looking at my ear?”
“Because there’s no notch—never mind.” Before he could be trapped again, Arthur slipped out from Lancelot’s hold and emptied out the remains of his tea in the sink. He gave the cup a wash and a rinse, set it on the rack, and turned around just in time to make sure Lancelot picked up a clean mug to bang under the coffee drip.
“Notch?” Then comprehension lighted up Lancelot’s face with well-aged irritation. He shoved his shirt-tails into his pants and did up his belt, which until then had been flapping its ends against his legs. “Guin, I told you to stop telling that damned story. You bloody moved and let me fall on the floor; you didn’t bite me.”
She merely grinned around the rim of her can. After a moment, Lancelot realized how much worse his version sounded and whirled around to hunch defensively over the espresso machine. He mumbled nasty incoherent things for a few moments, then caught sight of his reflection in the chrome of the coffee-maker. His hand crept up and poked at his hair, pulling it this way and that. A pause to do his tie, and then it was back to messing with his hair.
Right about then should’ve been a remark by Guinevere, but none came. When Arthur checked, he found her redoing her lipstick. She finished and then casually leaned in to peck him on the cheek before he could move back.
Arthur reached up and wiped off the mark she’d left. “I’m not a cosmetic pad.”
Lancelot’s shoulders jerked and he burbled into his coffee, which he really shouldn’t have been drinking that fast. Espresso wasn’t tequila, and it was already bad enough that he made it virtually his only breakfast.
“But it does accent your tie,” Guinevere cooed, draping her arms around his neck. She rolled her hips against him till he cradled them in his hands, and then she kissed him properly. “And don’t forget—you’re having lunch up at the office with us.”
“You noted it down in my planner, my PDA, and both my home and work computers,” Arthur snorted, though he did it gently. He bumped noses with her before tracing the tip of his over her eyebrow. “I don’t see how I could.”
The weight thumped back into his side; apparently Lancelot couldn’t put on his jacket without keeping at least one hip in contact with Arthur. “Did you ask Vanora to remind him? She still throws paperweights whenever I show up.”
“No—damn.” Guinevere wasn’t being entirely facetious.
Sometimes it was difficult to resist the urge to remind them that he’d remembered important things perfectly well for thirty-six years without their help. Being a professor hardly equaled absentmindedness, and what memory lapses he did have now were mostly their responsibility. For example: the hand trying to sneak around his hip. Arthur smacked it, ignored Lancelot’s yelp, and peeled himself away from both of them. “I need to go. By the way, did you find out why Pellew wanted to have me come in?”
“Oh, just a bit of wrap-up. The cases against Cerdic’s surviving men are going to trial next month, and they probably want to make sure they’ve got everything since you’re not testifying in person,” Lancelot replied. He was pointedly nursing his hand, but he clearly wasn’t in too much pain to judge by how he attacked Arthur’s mouth and hair. After he’d left his teethmarks in Arthur’s lip, he tilted back and grinned. “Positive you can’t take a day off? Guin bought chocolate sauce.”
He instantly received a cuff from Guin, which she followed up by dragging him away. “That’s for my own consumption, thank you. And we’ve got a section meeting, so you can’t take the day off, either.” The sound of her heels clicked in counterpoint to Lancelot’s cursing. “See you at lunch,” she called over her shoulder.
“I’ll remember.” According to the clock, Arthur had…thirty seconds to rinse Lancelot’s mug, grab his cell and coat, and find his damned briefcase, which always seemed to migrate from where he’d put it the night before. And he still wasn’t done with the newspaper, so he needed to fold it up and take it along. Damn.
But it still was a very good morning.
* * *
Tristan shrugged. “Probably not. It doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone.”
“Yeah, and because if you did tell Arthur, you’d have to explain why you were watching his boyfriend.” Somewhere beneath that mound of papers and books interleaved with the occasional empty Chinese take-out box was Galahad. The way the sheets shifted was a little irregular, but after several minutes of watching, the rough location of his head and hands could be deduced.
For such a determinedly heterosexual man, he made an annoying amount of innuendo about the other side. Of course the idea that Tristan would be peeping at Lancelot would occur to Galahad first, instead of, say, that Tristan wanted to make sure six years of virtual celibacy hadn’t resulted in Arthur having a severe lapse of judgment and dating a disaster. Dating disasters, Tristan corrected.
On Gawain’s desk, at which Tristan was sitting, was a very large, pink eraser of the kind popular with elementary schools. For accuracy and capacity to annoy, it wasn’t a knife or a spitball, but it might do. “He’s used to me stopping in whenever, so I could say I accidentally saw Lancelot. And he was dressed, so you can stop snickering at that.”
“Hey, hey, I leave that kind of thing to Gawain. Even if he’s too responsible to snicker. Plus he thinks Arthur’s pretty damn hot.” The rustling suddenly paused, then backtracked and collapsed, as if Galahad had just dived beneath the table. “So what was he looking at in Arthur’s briefcase?”
“He wasn’t looking in it.” As much as Gawain swore Galahad didn’t have ADD, Tristan had to wonder. The story he’d told was less complex than most rap songs, and yet Galahad still managed to mishear it as well as be completely tactless. Which was exactly why Tristan shouldn’t suddenly be worrying about Gawain, except in the sense that he might upset the man if he killed Gawain’s roommate. “He was moving it. From on top to Arthur’s desk to by this potted fern.”
The rustling started up again. “Why would he do that? Arthur’s kind of anal about where things are placed. You’ve seen his filing system, right?”
Considering he’d actually lived with Arthur for three years and continued to stop by a couple times a week, Tristan would say so. He picked up the eraser and balanced it on his fingers, rocking it a little to determine its aerodynamic quirks. Then he fitted it between thumb and forefinger—
--“Don’t throw it at him,” Gawain sighed. He didn’t actually come in the door so much as teeter through it. The stack of books, which completely blocked his vision of Tristan, immediately started to tilt the opposite way and he had to scramble to get under them in order to tilt them back.
“Don’t what—hey!” Galahad’s head finally emerged from his swamp of papers, and of course he instinctively zeroed in on Tristan’s hands. “You fucking—”
He just dodged the book that came skimming through the air. For a walking bookstack, Gawain had very good aim. “Don’t even start. Especially since Tristan got up and helped, and you didn’t.”
Backfiles of philosophy journals, a few legal briefs, thick treatises that looked as if they’d been either published or reissued in the past year…Arthur was preparing for a conference. A quick flip through memories of his schedule told Tristan the next one was coming up in three months, which sounded about right. Even edging on a late start for Arthur.
Tristan set them all down on Gawain’s desk, which was messy but was by no means the disaster zone Galahad’s was. For one, piles of documents could actually be distinguished from each other. “You want me to get the visitor, too?”
“What?” Gawain panted. He dropped the last few books besides his desk and then plopped down next to them, rolling his shoulders and rubbing at the small of his back.
Someone knocked on the door. The next second, Vanora poked her head in, a tentative smile on her face. It briefly bloomed into genuine pleasure when she saw Tristan, but quickly wilted back to business. “Oh, hello, Tristan. No classes yet?”
“Not for another fifteen minutes. If you’re looking for Arthur, he went off with Kitty about ten minutes ago.” There was someone behind her and he was shuffling in a way that was meant to be casual but instead pricked Tristan’s sense. He slid one hand in his pocket and leaned his hip against Gawain’s desk; his other hand he dropped down to give Gawain a hand up.
“Well, his next class is at eleven-thirty, so he should be back soon…” She began by talking to Tristan and ended by talking to whomever was with her. “If you’d like to wait, I can—”
Vigorous shake of the head, which had longish floppy dark hair and dark tinted glasses. Probably a man with that height.
“No, that’s all right.” The timbre of the visitor’s voice confirmed Tristan’s guess, but the accent added a new twist. The man was British. “I can come back later.”
“Well, would you like to leave your card?” As Vanora ushered the man out, she dropped a wink at Tristan and Gawain. Her heels kicked up in a bright splash of royal purple.
Tristan walked over and leaned out for a last look while he was closing the door. Expensive suit tailored to look painfully inconspicuous, hands that naturally hung as if half-curled around a gun, and a slight incongruity in the hang of his jacket. On second thought, perhaps Tristan should skip lecture. It was only forensic entomology, after all, and he probably knew more about the insects associated with the decomposition of flesh than the instructor did.
“Hey, Tristan?” Gawain had his hand tentatively floating just above Tristan’s jawline. When he saw Tristan was looking at him, his mild questioning demeanor hardened to display an underlayer of street-wise irony. “Um. We just got all the bloodstains out of the car trunk lining.”
“It’s not that. And you’re busy.” It was a seven-minute walk to his lecture, and he needed to catch Arthur along the way, so Tristan thought he’d best get moving. He just needed to do one last thing.
Galahad ducked under his desk again. “Okay, now make out. I can’t see it.”
Two last things, Tristan corrected. First roll his eyes in concert with Gawain, and then let his lips tickle along the edge of Gawain’s beard. He let his hands drift onto Gawain’s hips for support as he pressed them together, bodies sighing slow and lazy, and ended up having it go on a few moments longer than he’d planned to. Gawain had a habit of cracking mints between his molars, and it made him taste wonderful. Not to mention he kissed back hard enough for Tristan to stop worrying about Galahad’s comment.
When they drew away, Gawain grabbed Tristan’s shoulder and held him still a second to ruffle the bangs out of Tristan’s face. “I’m kinda swamped tonight—we’ve got about six months’ worth of current research to condense into summaries—so…”
“I’ll drop by at seven.” A muffled gagging sound predictably came from Galahad’s direction, and it was all Tristan could do to remind himself that staplers weren’t good replacements for bows and arrows and keep himself from reverting to the Dark Age method of settling quarrels. “And I’ll bring enough Thai for Galahad to drown in, so his eyes won’t be forced to watch and thus be despoiled.”
“You know, it’s comments like that that really show who brought you up,” Galahad snapped.
Since he was still under the desk when Tristan left, Tristan didn’t give his opinion too much weight. Arthur turned out to be on his way back from Kitty’s office, so Tristan was able to catch him in a relatively private corner. And Interpol was busy dealing with a rash of minor cases, so that meant Tristan didn’t need to listen for potential pouncing.
“Tristan? How’s the hawk—what’s wrong?” Even if he didn’t always take the right tack in addressing them, Arthur had no problem detecting changes in attitude. The concern in his voice shifted smooth and seamless to defensive mode, and when Tristan used ‘defensive,’ he meant it in a military sense.
“You had a Brit looking for you.” Tristan folded his hands behind his back and rumpled at his shirt so it lumped up as if he had a gun tucked in his waistband. The likeness would’ve been better if he’d had his jacket with him, but the morning had been so warm he’d just left it at the raptor center.
He only held it for a moment before stretching his arms and turning it into an innocuous backbone-cracking, but the flicking of Arthur’s eyes from guilt-shaded caution to strategy showed the message had gotten through without any trouble. However odd Lancelot’s—and Guinevere’s, though to a lesser degree—behavior was, it was certainly good for Arthur. This time, he didn’t even mumble anything about regrets and mistakes in the past. He merely nodded and chatted a bit with Tristan about the pros and cons of getting Iseult some company in the form of a male hawk, then went on to his office.
That was about all Tristan could do given his lack of information, so he hefted his backpack onto his shoulder and headed off to class. If he didn’t hear anything new in the first fifteen minutes, he’d sneak back out and make a few calls. There was a possibility that MI6 was in town in association with some underworld action, and if that was so, at least one person owing Tristan a favor should know what was going on.
He thought about calling Lancelot or Guinevere, but finally decided against it. Aside from the sheer danger in meddling with someone else’s relationship, he didn’t think they could stop thinking about how weird he was long enough to actually listen. Lancelot admittedly sparked the same kind of reaction from Tristan as Galahad did, but he’d been nothing but polite to Guinevere. And if she hadn’t swore so loudly, the squirrel wouldn’t have scratched her car, so that wasn’t his fault.
* * *
“For the love of God, stop preening. You’re such a poof.” A last-minute rattle of keys diced up Guin’s words. Then she locked her screensaver and snagged her coat from the back of her coat.
Lancelot defiantly finished redoing his tie in her mirror. It wasn’t preening if one had a strange ability to get one’s tie flipped all about without even moving from the desk, and he did. Irritating as hell—he could walk in with a perfect knot and parallel tail, but by lunch the knot had always slipped an inch and the tails had flopped about as if they wanted to be string ties. To which level, God help him, he was never going sink. Cowboys were fine on the movie screen, but in real life they were always tacky and drawling and annoying arrogant.
“You are coming, aren’t you?” Guin threw back. She swung out the door and made for the elevator.
As cute as her many, many stiletto heels were, they were entirely too unstable for certain activities, such as utilizing the smoothness of the wooden floor. He skidded around her and stopped himself by smooshing into Arthur, who’d just stepped off the elevator. “Oh, sorry about that.”
“Lancelot!” Arthur nearly tapdanced away and grabbed at the hem of his coat, yanking down the tails.
Honestly. It hadn’t been his belt Lancelot had been grabbing at, so that wasn’t a reaction that made any sense. Even if he did look tempting when he was completely flustered in public.
“Ass.” Guin lifted her chin like the lady she wasn’t and decorously threaded her arm through the hooked one Arthur belatedly offered. She pivoted on her heels and started to click them off.
“Yes, it’s very nice. Smaller than yours, I’ve heard it said.” Lancelot caught up in one stride and noted the lack of briefcase: Arthur was learning. A few more weeks of work, and possibly Arthur would start to realize that the briefcase was not, in fact, a child and that he could spend his extra moments doing something besides extra work without the world ending.
The air was a bit chilly. After concentrating for a moment, Lancelot decided the draft was coming from Guin’s direction. And yes, she was looking extraordinarily icy, in the same way a glacier overwhelmed a person’s field of vision with sheer massive power.
Arthur coughed. “I’d like to have a nice, peaceful lunch without having to worry about homicide. Guinevere, your—your—” he had to tuck his head into his chest and mutter to get it out “—your arse is perfectly fine.”
“So you like it best, then?” She directed a sweet smile up at Arthur, but kept her eyes frosting Lancelot with poison and so completely missed the panic that swept into Arthur’s face.
But instead of stuttering and awkwardly trying to compliment them both, Arthur blinked. The panic was still there, but after a second blink it was gone, and he was calmly lifting his hand in preparation to greet Pellew, who was just stepping out of his office. “I think last night answers that well enough.”
Well, Lancelot could twit Guinevere’s hidden insecurities some other time, because Arthur was acting…almost suave--which of course meant the apocalypse was threatening. Lancelot shot a glance at Guin, who was frowning thoughtfully at Arthur. She caught him looking and he arched an eyebrow, to which she responded by flicking a hand at Pellew.
Their boss was, however, nothing but bluff pleasantries, as he’d been in a thousand other meet-and-greets. Of course, it being Arthur and Pellew being a mutant successful strain of the old-school gentleman, the laughing was actually sincere and unforced. But nevertheless, they got through their entire lunch without the slightest hint of trouble. Even when Pellew pulled out the forms and started injecting business into the meal, he did it in a straightforward, blunt way that didn’t raise a hint of hackles or nerves in Arthur.
That was when Lancelot began to think Guin might be right. Pellew obviously liked Arthur, and had developed a rather high opinion of him. The next logical step, therefore, was for him to—
“Arthur. I know we’ve discussed this before and I respect your answer then, but I’d like for you to hear me out before you say anything.” Done with the paperwork, Pellew set aside the folders and got down to the real business.
Lancelot slouched and shuffled his leg around beneath the table till his knee knocked up against Arthur’s thigh. As much as he wanted to stay and play there, he made his leg move; right there wasn’t exactly the reaction he needed to be monitoring.
The tricky thing about trying to read Arthur was that he didn’t quite have two sets of reactions. There was definitely a difference between him as the neighborhood professor and him as…whatever bloody title they’d given him back in his asskicking days, but they tended to blend into each other at the edges. Arthur had some very bizarre reflexes encoded into his nerves.
Currently he was shifting uncomfortably in his chair and shooting glances at Lancelot for no particularly solid reason; Lancelot wasn’t trying to do anything other than get a read on how tense Arthur was. If he was lifting his feet onto his toes, then he might be thinking of running, and he certainly looked as if he might be. “What exactly are you referring to?”
“You’ve got some undeniable experience in certain fields. Now—” Pellew raised a hand to forestall any response “—you’ve made your feelings on that clear, but people like you are rare.” And there went the stern-grandfather-softening smile. “I have to ask. Lately small militant groups that are, at best, loosely affiliated with a parent organization, have been making inroads into the city.”
Guinevere abruptly sat back and swept her hand from her plate to the table-top. In doing so she knocked her spoon off, which meant she was too busy being embarrassed and apologetic to say whatever she’d been about to. She made do with a sharp look at Lancelot. He shrugged, she glared in frustration, and he wondered since when was he supposed to be a mind-reader?
“I wouldn’t presume to offer you an official position for several reasons. But if you could agree to act in a…consulting capacity, I think we all would receive some benefit.” At that point, Pellew leaned back and gazed about the table, and Lancelot understood what Guin had been trying to tell him.
Oh, fuck. Now Arthur was going to think they’d been in on this, and had deliberately kept it from him. As perceptive a man as Pellew was, his first and foremost allegiance was always to Interpol, and that was damned annoying for everyone else.
Arthur blinked, then leaned over his hands and stared at the table. His heel lowered to the floor, and then he quietly slid his foot away from Lancelot’s. “I think I—”
Lancelot looked about, saw the plan, and spent a second mourning for the demise of his shirt and tie. Then he picked up his coffee and jerked it that little bit too hard so it came sloshing onto him. “Shite!”
“Oh, bugger,” Lancelot corrected. He stared an order at Guin as he scrambled to his feet. Then he paused, frowning at a confused Arthur. Waited a beat so it seemed natural before grabbing Arthur’s arm. “Come on. I splashed you as well. Sir, we’ll just be a moment—”
By then they were already halfway to the bathroom, Guin was unhappily applying herself to distracting Pellew, and Arthur was beginning to get that wild-eyed look that meant severe annoyance. “What are you doing? You—men don’t—Vanora and Kitty explained this to me years ago! People stare if two men go to the—”
“Look, empty stall.” Lancelot elbowed it open and dragged them inside. He did have to appreciate Pellew’s insistence on quality, since that meant the toilets had actual lids. It was one moment to bang it down, another to shove Arthur on it, and two to sit himself on Arthur, since the coffee was making his shirt stick unpleasantly to him and so first he had to yank out the tails.
Once settled, he threaded his arms beneath Arthur’s flailing ones and hooked his fingers together. If Arthur wanted to leave, he’d either have to carry Lancelot, or break bones.
“There we are. Now, Guin and I had nothing to do with that back there…” Lancelot began. “And if you don’t want people to stare, then you shouldn’t flap your arms like that.”
* * *
Reading a court opinion was actually pretty fun, once Galahad had picked up enough of the lingo to understand most of it was cleverly-disguised bitching. But not everyone wrote with a good sense of sarcasm, so reading through opinion after opinion after opinion was a complete drag. Sometimes he could understand Arthur’s weird little habit of muttering nasty things about grammar while he graded—not to mention it was the only time he saw his advisor acting anything less than saintly.
“Going out to get coffee. Want anything?” Gawain shoved his chair back from his desk, then attempted to stand. He had to turn it into a two-step process, due to a cramp in his back that was bad enough to make him revert to his street-accent.
“Yeah. An Uzi and a time machine that’ll take me back to…1870. Why the hell do they bother making us learn logic? I can’t remember the last time I read someone using it right.” Why was Galahad doing this again?
Right. Because both law and business school were fucking expensive, and besides, he didn’t like the narrowness of tailoring an argument to a specific situation. Dissecting broad trends and analyzing the belief systems and conditions leading up to them was more interesting and way easier to bullshit, and philosophy didn’t have quite as nutty a reputation as psychology did.
But God, the research part was a killer.
“That’s funny coming from you.” Papers fluttered up as Gawain tried to dig out his mug, only to dislodge a stack of print-outs. He nearly dropped the cup by making panicked grabs at all the stuff.
Galahad flipped aside the brief he’d been reading and picked up the next one. He tried to scrawl a star in the upper right-hand corner—that was how he remembered which ones he’d read, since damned if he was going to read them twice if that wasn’t necessary—but discovered he’d drained yet another highlighter. “You realize we’ve got copies of basically everything. One for us, one for Arthur, as you put it.”
“I said that?” Gawain stopped and let the papers naturally crash to the floor. Then he squinted into his empty mug. “Fuck, I’m tired. Maybe I should grab a double espresso…”
Because the best coffee place on campus was right next to the raptor center. “You know, when I told you I was okay with the fucking men thing, I didn’t mean I wanted details.”
“Well, when I told you it was okay to date around as long as you didn’t get anyone pregnant, I didn’t mean I wanted porn shows every time I walked in without knocking. Besides, since when did talking about coffee equal details about man-fucking?” The last word Gawain floated on a derisive simper. When Galahad flicked him off, he forgot about being mature long enough to return the gesture.
Maybe he did need the espresso. But it was still his own fault; Galahad had the exact same workload, more fuckmates to juggle, and he still managed to get plenty of sleep.
“On second thought, I don’t want to know. Food?” After a quick wallet-check to assess his petty cash, Gawain tossed the mug into the sink in the corner and headed for the door.
“Meatball sandwich, extra grease. And don’t give me the nutrition-speech, okay?” Galahad threw his feet up on the desk and grinned between his toes at Gawain. “You should know by now that I burn it all off. Having sex uses up—”
The door closed on the other man before Galahad could finish, but Gawain did manage to shoot one last comment through it. “God help the world if you end up in public policy.”
And maybe Gawain could use the quickie in the bush, or up the tree, or wherever Tristan happened to be hiding, because he definitely was cranky today. At least they didn’t have office hours till tomorrow, so he wouldn’t be annoyed with all the girls mistakenly hitting on him.
Galahad spent a moment mourning collegial regulations that prohibited GSI-student relationships. The kind of audience that attended Arthur’s lectures wasn’t only pretty damn big, but it was top-flight, too.
Another page, another fifty lines to highlight. Soon Galahad’s eyelids were starting to drift shut on him, and his mind was wandering to the bright day just outside the window. He blinked hard and dragged his attention back to the paper he was holding, but when he found himself doing the same thing five seconds later, he gave up. A break definitely was needed.
And when he opened the door, he was immediately rewarded. Light brown hair, big blue eyes and a figure that, while less busty than his usual taste, had nothing to be ashamed about. Her eyelashes fluttered as she stared uncertainly up at him. “Ah…you are one of Professor Pendragon’s grad students?”
French. Even better. Galahad leaned against the doorjamb and hooked his thumbs over the edge of his pockets. “Yeah. I’m Galahad, and what can I do for you?”
“I am Mariette, Professor Cobham’s grad student. She sent me to ask if you had this book…” She held up a slip of paper as she read off the title.
The title wasn’t familiar, but Gawain had borrowed a few from Cobham last week, so it probably was one of those. He kicked the door open with his heel and turned, waving her in so she walked past him. Cute ass. “Hang on a moment, I think I—”
Oops. She turned around a little too fast, saw his eyes and noted their direction. Angry scarlet flashed into her cheeks and her jaw hardened. “Were you watching my ass? Are you that one?”
“What one? Hey, I’m a guy, okay? And you’re wearing a miniskirt.” Putting on his best offended look, Galahad threw up his hands to show how harmless he was.
He would’ve done better to hold them in front of his face. As it was, he had to scramble low and sideways, and the book she threw still clipped him on the ear. In a second, the sweet little French girl had turned into a…well, she still sounded sweet, but what she snapped as she stomped out didn’t sound all that complimentary.
Her book was still at Galahad’s feet and he picked it up, intending to shove it right back at her. But then he caught sight of the title, and he damn near winged it at her snobby pointed head. “The Feminine Mystique?”
“Try thinking with the head on your shoulders for once. That should help,” she called back, whirling around just for that purpose.
“Look, you sour little bi—” Galahad started to yell back, but Vanora poked her head into the hallway so he had to cut himself off and smile really wide, really casually. He flipped the book over his shoulder and hoped it’d be eaten by the half-sentient collections of French political-philosophical thought. “Um. Bird. Heard something and thought Tristan was in, looking for Gawain.”
Vanora’s look somehow conjured up the essence of all-knowing motherhood, but she didn’t take him to task about it. “Did Arthur mention to you that he’d be late getting back? He told me one, but it’s twelve-fifty now and usually he’s ten minutes early.”
“Nope. Why, is that guy back?” Acting innocent was straining Galahad’s stress muscles, so he stopped and acted vaguely irritated. Which in fact he actually was.
“He keeps popping in and out, and he won’t leave a card,” Vanora muttered. Her hand twitched against her hip, as if she wanted to deliver a hard spanking. “It’s like I have this gigantic fly that I’m not allowed to swat. I finally told him Arthur went out with friends to lunch, and hopefully that’ll keep him away.”
Friends was an interesting way to put it, but the way Vanora actually said that word, as if it was a big piece of chocolate she was slowly relishing, weirded out Galahad. He shrugged and carefully backed into the office. “Well, I hope so,” he hurriedly said. Then he shut the door as fast as it was polite to.
And promptly tripped over Mariette’s book. Galahad snatched up the damn thing and was about to toss it into the wastebasket, but then he noticed there wasn’t any room. If he tried to trash it, it’d just bounce right back out.
In the end, he dumped it in his desk and forgot about it. Back to reading…zzz….
* * *
“I swear to God I didn’t know anything about what Pellew was up to. Arthur, honestly—I might be sleeping with you, but that doesn’t mean I want to work with you. It’s bad enough dealing with Guin’s nitpickiness, and considering how you prepare for lecture…”
It was a good thing the bathrooms were very clean, because Lancelot already had a coffee stain on his shirt and so he didn’t need to be turned into a contaminant-collector. Which Arthur seemed bent on making him, given how the other man kept squishing him up against the wall of the stall. Come to think of it, the walls were impressively strong…and Arthur was giving him the look that said he’d found a severe logical flaw in Lancelot’s argument. The man really should’ve just gone to law school.
“Lancelot, could you please take this seriously? All right, I believe you and Guinevere didn’t know. But I do not want to continue to be pressured like this, and—oh, for God’s sake.” Arthur let go of Lancelot and propped his elbows on either side of Lancelot’s head so he could look heavenward for patience. “I’m not having sex with you in a bathroom stall.”
And that was the last thing Lancelot had expected Arthur to say. It shocked him enough to do a thorough evaluation before he replied, and the conclusion that he came to was: eyerolling on his part. “Look, you’re pressing me into the wall and you’ve got your prick shoved into my leg. I can’t help it. And I’d like to point out that till you mentioned it, I was doing a pretty good job of ignoring it.”
The ceiling was apparently fascinating enough to hold Arthur’s attention for a few more moments. Then he sighed and his shoulders slumped as his overbearing guilt complex dragged down his head. He leaned his forehead against Lancelot’s and closed his eyes as if in pain. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t do that, damn it.” Lancelot saw his chance and shoved Arthur back onto the toilet seat. Holding down the other man by sheer weight hadn’t quite worked last time, but it wasn’t as if Lancelot could magically gain the ton needed to keep a determined Arthur in one place. For that matter, it wasn’t as if he would do that. “Guin’s probably giving Pellew a piece of her mind right now. And if she can’t make him see the light, I’ll handle it. We’re not going to chain you here and make you help us, all right?” He flicked a short wavy lock off of Arthur’s forehead. “Pellew’s just…dedicated.”
“He’s an admirable man with admirable intentions,” Arthur said, slowly relaxing. He lifted his hands to Lancelot’s shoulders and ran them up and down Lancelot’s arms a few times, reassuring himself. “But aside from the fact that I want to stay as far out as I can, I have responsibilities to Avalon.”
That was an odd way to phrase it. Admittedly Arthur tended to qualify any statement, but nevertheless…Lancelot rose up and reseated himself so he could better look into Arthur’s face. “As far out as you can?”
A series of internal calculations flashed through Arthur’s eyes, but he was staring over Lancelot’s shoulder as he did them, so they weren’t about how much he thought he could safely tell Lancelot. “You don’t do what I did for seven years without earning some kind of name, and it doesn’t simply vanish. Merlin knows I have…issues in my past, but when he hired me, he did so trusting that I’d keep it far away from Avalon. So I am.”
“Understandably.” The atmosphere was getting far too heavy for such a cramped space. Plus Lancelot’s knees were cramping, and when he tried to relieve the weight on them—well, hello. “Arthur?”
Who blushed and made little helpless gestures with his hands. “You’re squirming on my lap. It’s very—I think we should probably go now. We’ve been in here a while.” Pause. “Are you getting off?”
“Wastes the point of getting on, doesn’t it?” Lancelot murmured, moving his hips once in a slow circle. The response was decidedly positive, so he grinned into a forward tilt and worked his tongue around Arthur’s protest. After a moment of muffled squawking, Arthur got his hands on Lancelot’s arse and started to—
--someone banged a pointy heel against the door.
In that case, it was definitely Lancelot’s turn to get the side of the bed closest to the bathroom—poor compensation, but he’d take it. He reluctantly climbed off and stood behind the door as he opened it, using it as a shield. Arthur hastily stood and was parting his lips to make some embarrassed excuse when a hand darted in and yanked him out by his tie.
When Lancelot stepped out, he was greeted by the sight of Guin examining Arthur’s throat with her tongue. She withdrew with a sneer in Lancelot’s direction and a last tug on Arthur’s bottom lip with her teeth. “That’s for leaving me with bloody Pellew so damn long. Come on; he’s all ready to make his apology.”
“Cunt.” Then Lancelot yelped and rubbed at his head, giving Arthur a hurt look. For some reason, the other man ignored it. “Fine, take her part.”
“I am not a human scoreboard for you two,” Arthur muttered, all restored to normal, and without even a proper showing of appreciation for Lancelot’s efforts. He stared at Lancelot and Guin as if he were expecting some kind of concurrence. When he didn’t get one, he started to look rather worried. “I’m not.”
Lancelot and Guin accidentally chorused with each other. “Whatever you say, Arthur.”
* * *
Modest idiot that he was, Arthur had ridden the subway downtown and then hiked the three blocks to the Interpol offices. He would have returned the same way if Guinevere hadn’t literally heaved him into the car.
That had been rather fun. She could understand a little of why Lancelot did it so much.
As they pulled into the parking lot, Guin smiled triumphantly at Arthur. “See? You didn’t grab for the handle once. I told you I’m a calmer driver.”
“Duly noted.” Like usual, Arthur was trying to pretend competition wasn’t an integral part of life by being meek and placating. He somehow still didn’t realize that that only set her and Lancelot’s teeth on edge—one of the few things on which they agreed.
Well, they could work on that. If Lancelot stopped getting distracted every five minutes by the prospect of getting bent over. Even Pellew had begun to make veiled, amused comments by the end of the lunch, after they’d all made nice, and when Pellew mentioned a personal aspect of an agent’s life, it was a good sign that someone needed to get their head straightened out.
“And twelve-fifty-eight, so you also have two minutes to spare.” She undid her seatbelt and leaned across the seat, still smiling.
“Thank you very much. Also for the lunch, which I did enjoy,” Arthur replied, slowly letting himself grin back. He slipped his arm out of the seatbelt and let himself continue to twist so he could nuzzle Guinevere. Then he tipped his head and eased his mouth over hers for a lengthy, languorous exploration.
Guinevere had a meeting in forty-five minutes and with the way traffic was snarled, she’d only just make it back in time if she left now. Instead she got out of the car and walked around to meet Arthur, hooking her arm through him. Off on the sidewalk, a couple college girls stopped, stared, and then walked quickly away, deep in a conversation that involved shooting murderous looks at Guinevere. She gave them her sweetest look of blank innocence before stretching up and rubbing her cheek against Arthur’s shoulder.
He suspiciously eyed her. “What are you doing?”
“Walking you to your office.” She stared back. “Why? Would you rather I didn’t?”
“No, of course not. I…” Arthur had been turning to get the door, but he stopped with his hand on the handle. Then he quietly but efficiently pulled them back and diverted Guinevere towards a nearby posting board. “Stand there and pretend you’re reading.”
She started to ask why, but before the first word had even unrolled itself from her tongue, Arthur had stepped away and walked up to a tall, well-dressed, very out-of-place MI6 agent. Most of the field agents Guinevere had had to meet during the course of her work were absurdly good at blending into the wallpaper—rather like Arthur’s sort-of ward, Tristan—but the special ones that got sent out on missions and “administrative housekeeping” could be picked out by a five-year-old brought up on the right movies. And they were supposedly better.
The way Arthur approached the man shaded quickly and effortlessly from his slightly-stooped ambling beside Guinevere to a sleek, focused prowl that was a beautiful thing to watch. Especially from behind, which made it a little difficult for her to concentrate on the more important implications of Arthur’s shift in stance.
“How dare you come here,” he said, hard and low and rough. He didn’t let the other man have a chance to respond, but instead kept on walking so the agent was forced to back up against the railing that edged one side of the path. In stark contrast to his voice, Arthur held himself the loosest and most relaxed Guinevere had ever seen him. It was very like watching a great cat sun itself and scan for prey. “I thought I gave notice.”
“You did. But you’ve resurfaced—you have to have realized that when you handed Interpol those anonymous depositions. London finds that…interesting.” The agent wasn’t quite a pushover, though he was visibly intimidated by how Arthur was invading his personal space. The fingers of his left hand were curling upward towards his sleeve.
Guinevere tensed, but she had barely started to think about the gun she kept in the glove compartment when something clanked. Arthur had seized the agent’s hand and pinned it to the railing, and she hadn’t even seen it happen. He leaned his weight on it as he talked, while the agent did an impressive job of swallowing pained sounds and ignoring how his hand was going whitish beneath the pressure.
“London can be as interested as they want. But I already gave the only answer I’ll ever give to them.” Another grind at the man’s hand. Then Arthur let go and leaned back, watching the agent through lazily narrowed eyes, which was an expression more familiar on Lancelot’s face, but that didn’t mean it didn’t suit Arthur’s. Quite the contrary, in fact. “You’re not in a position to make me, and you know that perfectly well. You also know, I think, what would happen should you try to apply any leverage to any person in my life.”
Agent-man’s hackles were rising, as he clearly wasn’t used to encountering this kind of opposition. “We cleared you so Interpol didn’t wash you up along with Cerdic—”
Oh. Mistake. Yet Guinevere was grinning and nibbling on her fingertip with much relish as she watched Arthur stop the other man with a simple look. No, she didn’t have any sympathy for that pigheaded blundering idiot, however grateful she was for the peek into MI6’s workings. They were such territorial bastards.
“You cleared me because if Interpol charged me and I decided to cut a deal, you’d have a very, very serious problem. Nevertheless, please tell London that I do appreciate the gesture, and thank them for it on my behalf.” Arthur nodded once, curt and sharp, to end the conversation. “Now leave.”
He stood on the steps and watched the other man slink away to his—of course—flash car. And he was still standing there when that car disappeared around the corner, and when Guinevere finally deemed it safe for her to rejoin him.
“Not quite how you handled our offer,” she observed.
The steel softly peeled from him to leave behind a tired, resigned but not yet hopeless man. “You’re law enforcement. Your offer was considerably different in nature.”
Guinevere took Arthur’s arm and tugged him inside, then continued to pull him along when he didn’t immediately pick up the pace. She waved and smiled at Vanora as they breezed past, seeing the other woman’s sly wink as a blur, and whisked them into Arthur’s office. The kick that shut the door also dealt with that shoe. She bent down to take off the other one.
Arthur finally regained his balance and scrambled backward, torn between staring at her dropping jacket and the big window behind his desk. There was a large, broad-leaved tree right in front of it, so she didn’t see why—oh. “Tristan,” Guinevere muttered.
She was sure he was a very nice man beneath all his peculiar habits—he had to be, since Arthur had raised him—but he spent entirely too much time where he could startle people. His preference for that had a childish smug element to it.
Guinevere started to unbutton her blouse and Arthur unfroze to leap for the blinds. He yanked them closed, then turned a bit too quickly and had to catch himself on the edge of his desk. The potted orchid occupying one corner of it rattled. “Guinevere, I don’t think—”
Last button. She let the silky wisp of clothing drop to the floor and then undid her skirt as she stepped forward. When done carefully, she could simply stroll right out of her clothing. When done well, she could make Arthur go speechless. “You know, I am very impressed with how you handled that man. Very…smoothly, and clearly and directly.”
Right on cue, the past guilted Arthur into hunching his shoulders. “How I handled him is how I used to—”
“But there’s a crucial difference. Intent.” She was standing right in front of him, and when she shimmied out of her stockings, their legs grazed against each other. He was far too overdressed and that wasn’t fair, so she immediately addressed the issue by whipping off his tie. Then she swayed in and put her mouth around one button of his shirt. A bit of fiddling and it was undone; she slid down to the next one. “Arthur, I happen to find you extremely sexy when you handle things.” Button. His breathing hitched a little whenever her mouth touched him. “Not that the mild-mannered professor doesn’t also have his advantages, but he comes as a package deal. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.” Last shirt button, then trouser button and zipper, which showed at least part of Arthur was sensible. “Now fuck me, damn it. Because if I’m going to be late for my meeting, I want something to show for—”
She was up on his desk and clawing at his shoulders, all her calm reason lost within a moment of hot mouth, hot hands, desperate melding bodies. He had her bra off and tracked from her lips to her breasts in hard, delicious sucking mouthfuls; his hands moved beneath to plump her nipples between his lips. His teeth, which made her throw back her head and nearly concuss herself on a paperweight, but it was teasing and there was just that edge of pain to throw everything into overwhelming focus.
They had a little tangle with her underwear, but somehow they got things straightened out without ever breaking contact, or for that matter, looking down. She was too busy licking at his ear and he was groaning into her neck as her hands yanked his clothes out of the way, as she wrapped her fingers around his prick and caressed it, squeezed it, rolled her thumb over the tip and down to press behind his balls before she eased it inside of herself. By then Arthur was cursing and praising in the same breath, and she was grinning like a mad thing because his hair was a complete mess and because his hand was sliding between the desk and her back, soothing in counterpoint to the fast rough rhythm he set up. He used it to smooth her upwards into a kiss that lasted through their climaxes and a little after, when they were panting into each other’s mouths and feeling the unpleasant flaking of drying sweat, but not yet wanting to separate.
“You constantly surprise me,” Arthur whispered, running his tongue along her jaw. He propped himself up on his elbows and smiled down at her, happy as a schoolboy let out early. Then he saw the clock. “Damn.”
* * *
Gawain walked back into the GSI offices and deposited a bag in Galahad’s lap, hoping the other man wouldn’t notice his sandwich had been reheated in a microwave. “Anything happen while I was gone?”
First Galahad’s feet came down with a thump. Then, with great care and precision, he set aside the thick, tall book he’d been reading and took the bag. His expression was something like the bastard progeny of a constipated chipmunk and a fuzzy whining puppy. “That guy who was looking for Arthur this morning came back to bug Vanora, but I just saw his car peeling out of here like he had a fire in his balls, so I don’t think he’ll be around again. Arthur’s girlfriend dragged him into his office ten minutes ago, and they’re still in there. And Cobham’s new grad student threw a book at my head.”
“So it’s a she.” Though Gawain felt a bit badly for Galahad, it didn’t sound like anything that’d leave a permanent dent in the man’s self-esteem. He plopped down on the floor and started poking at various piles, trying to remember where he’d left off.
“And you got laid sometime in the past hour that it took you to get coffee.” Harrumphing like a crotchety old man, Galahad bitterly bit into his sandwich. “Today fucking sucks.”
Gawain hummed a bit as he picked out an index card. “It’s not that bad.”
“Just—just shut up. And stop humming, for God’s sake.”
* * *
Arthur finished grading the paper and lifted his arms to deposit it in the ‘done’ stack and get the next one. Before he could put down his arms, Lancelot flopped down on the couch, stretched out on his side to nestle his head in Arthur’s lap, and clicked on the TV. “You stare at bank records too long and the numbers try to eat your eyes. Guin can keep working if she wants; I’m taking a break.”
“I can see that,” Arthur sighed. He hated putting a foot up on the furniture, but using his knee was the only way he could mark on the paper, short of employing the side of Lancelot’s head as an impromptu desk. Which was far too appealing an idea.
After two more papers, he had to give up. The jumpy noise of Lancelot’s channel-surfing was too distracting, as was how Lancelot’s head shook when he snickered.
“What?” The other man continued clicking till he found a rerun of ‘Excalibur.’ “Hey, you know you mumble to yourself when you grade, don’t you?”
“I’ve been told so.” It was probably a delayed reaction to the choking silence Arthur had had to keep on virtually everything when he’d been working for MI6. “What’s the problem with your case?”
Lancelot let his arm slump to floor, where he dropped the remote. A commercial break came on and Arthur took the opportunity to lean over, retrieve the remote and put it on the table. When he sat back again, Lancelot had a tolerant smile on his face. “I thought you were out of it, mostly.”
“I am.” And Arthur wasn’t lying. But he had been thinking about what Guinevere had said, and he had to admit he disliked the idea of knowing that what he knew might make a difference in a case. On the other hand, anything he did would have to be very quiet in order to avoid attention. “I’m perfectly happy to let you and Guinevere take credit for it.”
The smile slipped off Lancelot’s face. He stared at Nicholas Clay clanking about in armor for a moment, then twisted to look up at Arthur. “If you figure it out, you should have credit for it. I don’t need to steal other people’s work to make myself look good, and Guin may be bitchy, but she is capable.”
Arthur winced; he’d phrased that badly. “I wasn’t suggesting that you two—but I can’t allow my name to surface for the same reasons that I wanted to keep it out of the Cerdic case. I still do…I would like to offer help, if you don’t mind.”
“You sound like you’re negotiating an international trade treaty,” Lancelot snorted, turning back towards the TV. He absently played with the cuff of Arthur’s trouser-leg, mulling it over. Then his hand stilled and his voice grew very soft, though it still retained its nonchalant sarcasm. “If either of us get promoted, it’s all your fault. You…if you want, you can take a look after Guin’s gotten fed up with it. I give her another fifteen minutes.”
“All right.” There were two more papers to grade before Arthur was done for the night. He accordingly bent his attention and his red pen to them.
However, one paper still remained when Arthur had to stop again. He took a deep breath, then doggedly worked through it. After he was done, he capped his pen and slid the papers into his briefcase. While he was digging around in that, he found the newspaper he’d stuck in and forgotten to throw away.
Lancelot continued tickling his fingers up and down Arthur’s leg while ostentatiously watching the movie. He kept insulting Cherie Lunghi’s dress and mocking Arthur’s movie namesake’s stupidity. The Arthurian name-craze that had happened about twenty years ago—of which he hadn’t even been a part, but in which people tended to lump him anyway—had produced a whole slew of annoying jokes and Lancelot certainly didn’t need to add to their number. Not to mention he was in no position to talk.
Arthur took out the newspaper, rolled it up and stared at it. He looked at the elegant slope of Lancelot’s back, which led temptingly up to the rise of his arse. Then he looked back at the newspaper.
“Oh, for God’s sake. Arthur has to be completely blind to not have noticed that,” Lancelot complained. “I bet it’s because he’s so virtuous he won’t take off the shiny armor and properly service his wife. She’s completely frustrated and Nicholas Clay probably has a gigantic prick.”
That settled it. The newspaper made a lovely snapping sound.
First Lancelot stiffened, mouth open and twitching around a gasp that didn’t quite make it out. Then he pushed himself up and stared wide-eyed at Arthur. “Did—did you just—all I said was that--”
The angle was bad, but Arthur managed another slap. Lancelot jerked forward and had to clutch at Arthur’s shoulders for balance. He sputtered for a long moment, and Arthur thought he’d finally discovered the secret.
But then Lancelot grinned and deliberately twisted himself so Arthur had a better angle. “So you are into that. I was wondering.”