Author: Guede Mazaka
“I don’t know, man. She’s just been off all week—one minute she’s shoving me and the next she’s, well, shoving me. You know.” Just in case the message didn’t get across, Galahad cocked one eyebrow and coughed theatrically into his fist. He kept his hand up afterwards, and in the end started to rub its knuckles against his mouth. “Not like I object to that part, except it’s just—like, if it’s because something bad’s coming down and she wants to make it up to me in advance, I’d rather have a warning.”
Jack stared at his anatomy textbook, frozen with his pencil-eraser between his teeth. It tasted rather awful, but if he took it out, he’d have to say something and he wasn’t prepared at all to do that. He’d been studying on the couch when Galahad had come home for dinner—which had been odd because he distinctly remembered Galahad saying that he and Mariette were doing something this evening. So he’d casually asked if everything was all right with her, and then Galahad had gone into a weird ramble.
“Anyway, I have no idea how she is. Except that she had to cancel on me tonight and somehow I ended up agreeing to going over to her place tomorrow,” Galahad muttered, banging around in the fridge. He briefly ducked out to drop a package of steak and something in a plastic bag—vegetables?—on the counter, then dove back in. From the sound of things, he was getting himself a beer. “Hey, what’s up? Were you inviting Jess over or something?”
At least coughing ejected the eraser from Jack’s mouth, even if it did seem to make his cheeks burn even more. “Oh, no. I was just, ah, curious. For no particular reason. Just randomly.”
“Breathe, Jack. Did you want to have her over? Don’t you guys have a midterm coming up?” Galahad started to do something on the counter, then paused with a big knife in the air. He cocked his head to the side, thinking, and then turned around. “I mean, I can always go over and see if Gawain needs me to keep him from having another melt-down.”
“Isn’t today Tristan’s day off? I thought you said something about them catching a movie tonight?” Actually, it’d been more like a grumpy pre-coffee Galahad muttering about why the hell Tristan would want to see a crime thriller when all he’d do would be criticizing the accuracy, but Jack figured perfect recollection wasn’t a good thing in this case.
“Oh. Right. Damn.” Shaking his head, Galahad turned back around. The knife slid through something and thunked once on the cutting board. “Well, I could—”
Jack had another short coughing fit. “No, really, it’s all right. I’m perfectly fine.”
Chopping noises. An onion, judging from the smell.
“She’s got practice,” Galahad said in a knowing tone.
After another moment, Jack took the textbook off his lap and wandered into the kitchen area. Staring at those damn musculature diagrams wasn’t going to do anything for him, and he was getting hungry so he should be helping. “Yes, she has practice. And also I can’t just invite her over.”
“Why not? Here, get the salt and pepper…oh, and garlic powder.” Galahad shoved all the chopped vegetables to the side and started unwrapping the steaks.
“Because I barely know her!” Jack knew what the other man’s reply was going to be almost before he saw the expression on Galahad’s face. They hadn’t been rooming together for very long, but somehow they’d already gotten a couple stock arguments and this was one of them. It was nice that Galahad cared, but…well, couldn’t he have chosen teasing about something else for bonding? “All right, I know tons about her, but I’ve only talked to her for less than two months. I don’t want to scare her, God help me—and I think I already have.”
After Jack got the spices together, Galahad mixed up a rub in a bowl and then began patting it onto the steaks. He was a surprisingly good cook, though his tastes ran a little towards the spicy side compared to Jack. “Well, yeah, if you’re gonna rattle off every single move of one game she played a year ago including when she took water breaks, I’d be fucking scared, too.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Jack muttered. He’d already spent two weeks cringing over that moment.
“No problem.” Galahad tossed the steaks onto the frying pan, where they sizzled so loudly that Jack jumped. Snickering a little, Galahad pushed by Jack and rinsed off his hands before grabbing his beer from the counter. “The offer to sneak you into the—”
Jack rolled his eyes and poked around for some cups. The last time they’d used the dishwasher, somebody had popped in a plastic bowl that apparently wasn’t dishwasher-safe and it’d gone gooey all over the rack. Since that actually doubled as extra storage space, they’d ended up having to temporarily shove glasses and plates into a whole bunch of random places. “I think that would frighten her quite a bit. And possibly get a restraining order slapped on me.”
“Well, okay, if you’re that worried.” According to Galahad’s tone, Jack was overreacting again. “I’m just putting the offer on the table. Just would hate to see you miss out on a hook-up just because you didn’t take a chance.”
“I’ll take chances! I’ll take them when I think it’s appropriate, and I don’t think there’s any need to rush now. If I want to talk to Jess, I don’t have to go through super-spy hijinks to get to her,” Jack snapped. Sometimes Galahad’s I’m-the-grad-student attitude did get to him, though it was mostly true.
The other man paused, then shrugged and went back to what he was doing: searching for a spatula to flip the steaks, possibly. His voice flattened out a bit with his reply. “Hey, okay. I was just offering. Get me those onions, would you?”
After another moment, Jack got them and brought them over. He started to hand the plate to Galahad, but the other man just reached back and swept all the vegetables off with a quick, slightly harsh motion. He knocked some of them on the floor and cursed under his breath, trying to step away, lean down and turn steaks at the same time. Jack watched, feeling confused and rather uncomfortable, before belatedly jumping in and picking up the spilled vegetables. “Sorry.”
“No, I—never mind.” Galahad added something else that Jack didn’t catch. He pinched the bridge of his nose and squeezed his eyes shut for a few seconds, then opened them and shook his head. “How do you take your meat? I forgot, sorry.”
“Um…medium, I guess. I like pink, but not real bloody,” Jack said. He wasn’t quite sure what had just happened, but he felt it pass right then, a little like the car settling down after hitting a large pothole. “Oh! Um…listen, I should probably let you know: I have to fly home for Thanksgiving. The family insists.”
An odd kind of look went over Galahad’s face, which he briefly scrunched like he was grimacing, but without any of the annoyance. “‘Have to’? ‘Insists’?”
“I don’t think the break’s long enough to be worth the trip home. I mean, we don’t even celebrate Thanksgiving in Ireland! It’s just an excuse to have me home to—well, you don’t want to hear about that.” Jack poured himself some orange juice. Some leftover cheese—was that the cheddar?—caught his eye and he grabbed that for nibbling while the steaks finished cooking.
Galahad snorted like something was trying to stuff it back into his nose. “I’m totally clueless about that, man. I wouldn’t know whether I wanted to hear about it or not—my parents ditched me before I ever had that problem.”
The cheese turned out to be a wonderful idea, since it occupied Jack’s mouth while he tried to figure out how to react to that. Of course his first reaction was to express his sympathies, but somehow he had a feeling that that wouldn’t work like he’d want it to. Possibly how Galahad claimed his father had ditched him, whereas Gawain had told Jack that Galahad’s father had died when Galahad was barely more than a baby.
“Well, it’s just that I went to college over here for a reason. I mean, my parents have part-time residency here, but honestly, they’d rather I have went to Trinity in Dublin or something like that,” Jack finally muttered.
“Wanted a new scene?” Galahad asked.
Jack nearly choked on the cheese by snorting while chewing. “Wanted to…I love my family, but they’re blueblooded pricks most of the time. I got tired of feeling like I had to constantly apologize for them.”
“Surprised they let you room with me, then. Sounds like they’d absolutely hate me.” Galahad flicked off the burners and turned around to get the plate. He expertly flipped both steaks out of their nest of semi-wilted veggies and onto it, then went back to frying.
“They probably would. No offense. But I don’t—I think you’re really cool. Um. I sound like a girl, sorry. I know you already have one. Um.” Cheese. Cheese. Damn it, Jack was running out of bits to shove in his mouth.
At least Galahad still had his back to him. “Thanks, Jack. Don’t know if that was what you wanted when you signed up—”
“Oh, hell, I was just looking for location. I had no idea what you were like,” Jack said, not really thinking about it.
After a second, Galahad’s shoulders relaxed and he let out a short, casual laugh. “Then it’s cool. Hey, eat up already. Fucking steaks have to be congealing by now.”
“Crap, sorry, sorry,” Jack muttered, grabbing for the silverware drawer.
* * *
Mariette popped her head around the corner about an hour from lunch break, expression dead serious and hair kind of a mess, which was a warning sign. “Galahad. We need to talk.”
“Well…I’m coming over for dinner later,” Galahad slowly said.
“Yes. Yes, you are.” And she was distracted by something. “But I need to talk to you before that.”
He almost asked her if it had anything to do with the big stick that’d been wedged up her ass for the past couple of days, but right by the coffeemaker, in hearing distance of something like fifteen offices, was a pretty shitty place to have a fight. So Galahad said okay, and Mariette said something about coming back a half-hour before dinner, and then they both went back to whatever they were doing. In Galahad’s case, that was crunching data.
“Hey,” somebody said about an hour later.
“What,” Galahad snapped.
After a moment, Gawain whistled beneath his breath and pretended to back away from the door. “You’re nasty today.”
“No, I just thought you were—never mind. What’s up?” Galahad finished up with another ream of data and took a second to switch his feet from the floor to dangling over the couch-arm. His calves were beginning to twinge on him, and it’d be his back next. He really wished he could do more of this shit on the computer, but that wasn’t going to happen till he figured out the bug in his program. And in the meantime, he still had to come up with something for his progress reports. “Why are you so happy?”
“Hmm? Am I usually depressed?” Gawain asked. He wandered over to the bookcase on the wall and started poking around in the binders for the old exams.
Well, no, he wasn’t, but it hadn’t been that long ago that he and Tristan had had that blow-up, and Galahad knew they hadn’t completely fixed the problem that had caused it. Tristan worked shorter days, but he’d gotten that in exchange for being on-call more often and he had to run out pretty often. At least judging from how many times Galahad got a call from Gawain asking if he wanted to hang out.
Too fucking bad Gawain hadn’t done that the other night. Galahad still felt a little bad for ripping on Jack like that, even if the other man had taken it all okay. For that matter, he still didn’t even know really why he’d done that and that annoyed the hell out of him on top of everything else.
“Hey, how’s Mariette?” After a moment, Gawain stopped messing with the binders and turned around. “Wrong thing to say?”
“Only if you’re expecting me to have a short answer,” Galahad muttered. He shuffled through the papers with the next set of data outputs, then sighed and started over once he realized he wasn’t actually reading them. “She’s fine, I guess. Why don’t you ask her?”
Gawain snorted. Binders thumped around. “Okay, now I know what’s wrong.”
“Really? Wanna share?” Maybe Tristan had turned into some sickeningly gooey freak after their fight and he and Gawain were making with the nauseating couple-stuff, like feeding rats to Iseult together. Sometimes Gawain could have a weird weakness for that kind of thing.
It sounded like Gawain almost said something, but he stopped himself. After some more rummaging around, he found whatever he needed and started to walk back to the door. He shot Galahad an exasperated look along the way, to which Galahad raised his eyebrows and made with the ‘what?’ hand-gestures. So Gawain stopped—he actually put his hand on his hip like he was channeling Grandma Yvie or something.
“Stop being an asshole, would you? If you need help, I’ll be happy to give it, but right now I don’t feel like fighting with you. And it’s not going to make you feel any better,” he said.
“Thanks.” Galahad glanced down at the papers he was holding, but they’d flopped over on him. He smacked them against his legs to try and straighten them out, but they just flopped over again. And then he nearly threw them against the wall, but that was fucking over-dramatic and instead he just kicked out his legs so his head fell back against the other sofa-arm. “Thanks a lot. Look, I don’t know how Mariette is, okay? I really don’t, so you might as well ask her. Hell, maybe you’ll have better luck with it—God knows she seems to like you more than me most of the time.”
Gawain let out an incredulous laugh. “Uh, Galahad, she’s dating you.”
“Not that I can fucking tell right now,” Galahad muttered without really thinking. He grimaced and slapped the papers a few more times till they finally bent the right way. Then he tried to go back to analyzing, but he couldn’t focus. “Goddamn it—you know, it’s probably her period or something. She’s just been all weird. One minute she’s all over me and the next she’s acting like I pissed her off.”
“Have you…like, asked her what’s wrong?”
“Yeah, like that ever does any good. Girls always say they want you to be honest and be involved, but that’s such a load of bullshit. All that got me was her biting my head off about implying that she was emotionally unstable.” Plus him going home early instead of spending the night like he’d planned, and then getting woken up by a weird apologetic call from her way early in the morning, but Gawain probably didn’t need all the details. God knew Galahad thought he did okay just knowing mostly general stuff about Gawain and Tristan.
Gawain tucked his stuff beneath his arm and turned around to completely face Galahad. He frowned and scratched at his head. “Well, when are you going to see her again?”
“Toni—no, actually, she went and changed that on me. I’m gonna see her in a couple hours, and then we’re having dinner. I’m kind of tempted to just blow her off at the last minute and see how she feels,” Galahad said. He heard Gawain’s mouth open and rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not actually going to. God, she’d yell her head off for months. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be tempted. And honestly, I think I’m entitled to be.”
“You can have a funny idea of what that word means sometimes. But look, just ask her again. Mariette’s as—well, as stubborn as you are, so just keep asking. If it pisses her off into yelling at you, at least you’ll find out what’s the matter,” Gawain replied. His tone was all reasonable and calm, as if he hadn’t just proposed that Galahad make his life a misery for literal weeks.
Galahad stared at the ceiling for a couple seconds. “Man, why do you hate me all of a sudden?”
“Okay, now you’re just exaggerating to get some pity.” Gawain waited a beat before he added the rest. “If you need a place to hide afterward, you can come over tonight and bitch all you want to me about how crappily my idea worked. Tristan and I didn’t have anything planned.”
“Thanks,” Galahad snorted again.
After a moment, Gawain made a ‘whatever’ noise and got moving again. He opened the door and got halfway through it, then paused for some reason. Probably because he wanted to show off how well he knew Galahad, and that could get really annoying sometimes.
“You have any decent beer? ‘cause I’m not doing that weird-ass European stuff Tristan gets.” On the other hand, it was a bad idea not to have a safe-house around. Even if it came with a mother-hen and his borderline-psycho boyfriend.
“God, it’s not going to kill—okay, okay, I’ll stop by the corner store and grab a six-pack on the way home,” Gawain said. He sounded like a harassed parent caving in to a bawling brat by the candy rack of the supermarket check-out aisle. “Anything else?”
Galahad debated almost too long about whether to ask and had to rush it a little. “Hey, so you and Tristan…okay again? ‘cause no offense, but if I’m gonna be walking into my own shitstorm, I don’t want to be going from it to…yeah, you know.”
He looked up when he didn’t get an answer right away from Gawain. The other man had gone…not quite blank, but he definitely was closing down while he did figure out what expression to pull up. The place just behind Galahad’s breastbone tightened up a little; he wondered if that’d been too lousy a way to ask about that.
In the end, Gawain apparently settled for mildly frustrated mixed in with a little appreciation. “Well, it’s still kind of crappy, but we’re talking about it, anyway. He…” Gawain grinned, half-thankful and half-disgusted “…if he’s not home for lunch or dinner, he usually calls for a check-in. It’s kind of bad because I can hear people talking about skull wounds and bullet angles in the background, but at least I get to talk to him?”
“Ew. And you still watch those forensic lab shows,” Galahad said.
“Well, they make it look cool. I can kind of get why he likes the work so much when I see those.” Gawain shrugged and stared off, clearly getting all smushy inside.
Galahad went back to his data while he could. “Great to hear. Not so—”
“You can always close your eyes if you don’t want to watch,” Gawain shot back, walking out. “Call when you come, okay? The doorbell’s not working right.”
* * *
It took five minutes for Galahad to get his stuff together. Ten minutes for them to walk from the GSI room to where Mariette was parked, and then they were about three minutes into driving to her place when she finally decided to give him a clue. She’d been talking before that—a little too fast and a little too high-pitched—but it was all about nonsense stuff. And then: “My parents are in town.”
Damn good thing he wasn’t driving. “What?”
“My parents are in town.” Mariette started to slow down for no good reason, considering they were halfway between lights and this street was moving along at a pretty decent rate, and then abruptly hit the accelerator when the guy behind them honked. She nearly slammed them into the bumper in front of them.
Then again, maybe he should have driven. He would’ve swerved too, but just once, and right now Mariette had a white-knuckled grip on the wheel and was getting that wild stare that meant she was about to flip out. “Oh…kay. Since when?”
“They’ll be at dinner,” Mariette said. The car skidded a little in stopping at the next light. She started to wring the wheel with her hands so the leather covering creaked. “I had to tell them about you. You left your shirt over the last time you came.”
For a couple moments, Galahad debated whether grab for the wheel or for the doorhandle. Then he stabbed the heels of his feet into the floor and went for the gear-shift instead, getting there before Mariette did. “Pull over.”
“We’re already late!” Slip into French.
“I don’t give a fuck. It’s New York City—it only takes ten minutes in downtown for people to figure out what the traffic is like here,” Galahad muttered, practicing his French expletives. “Pull the fuck over before I do something stupid and jump out. We need to talk.”
Mariette took a left instead of a right and then pulled into the parking lot of a tiny local gym. She jerked forward, using her whole body weight to move the gear-shift, and then slowly leaned back while taking a long, shaky breath. Galahad looked at her, then turned to stare numbly out through the windshield.
“Told you,” she finally said beneath her breath.
“Well, if you fucking want to talk, we can fucking talk. But this damn well isn’t it—God, couldn’t you give me more advance warning? I…I mean…” He looked down at his jeans and buttondown shirt, which were fine but not what he’d…well, hell, he wasn’t sure why he cared. It wasn’t like he dressed up for meetings with Arthur or Kitty or other faculty members, and this was just a meal at home, not out at some fancy restaurant. “Jesus Christ, Mariette, you said they’d have problems with me before they even met me! What are you trying to do, make sure they hate me? Is this your way of saying we should break up?”
“No! No, I’m not, I’m just really worried and I was surprised and couldn’t think, and now you’re making it all worse by yelling at me!” Mariette finished with throwing her hands up in the air so hard that she hit them against the ceiling. The loud thud they made freaked her out or something because she yelped and scrunched down in the seat, staring up at the ceiling.
Galahad opened his mouth to snap at her, realized he basically had the same expression on his face, and instead tried to breathe. In the end, he had to do it through his mouth because he couldn’t relax enough to do it through his nose. “Okay. Okay. Never the fuck mind. What did you tell them about me? The truth, or did you like, lie, or what? At least don’t make me walk in blind.”
“I told them your name and that you were a grad student with Arthur, and how old you were. Then I told them I had to go to work,” Mariette said, mushing the words in her rush to get them out. She slid her arms to lie over each other on top of the wheel and then put her head down on them, looking absolutely miserable.
Well, Galahad could kind of understand, but he still was more…disbelieving? pissed off? offended?...than sympathetic. “Wait, when did you tell them? When did they come?”
“I picked them up last night from the airport. My mother found your stuff this morning during breakfast.” It sounded like something was getting stuck in Mariette’s throat with every other word. She rubbed at her nose, then pinched it and blew hard to clear her sinuses.
Just…Jesus Christ. Okay, she had parent-issues and she had a hell of a lot of problems dealing with them—actually, she didn’t even deal with them; she just shoved them under the carpet—when her parents were across the Atlantic. But this was still just fucking nuts. Galahad looked at the dashboard and for a moment, he honestly wondered who the hell was next to him, because Mariette normally had one massive backbone for it to just have vanished like this.
“Please tell me it was a surprise visit,” Galahad finally said.
Mariette sniffled once. She looked angry at herself for letting it out. “No. The Thanksgiving Break is bad for them, and so is most of the winter vacation, so they told me they were coming now about a week and a half ago. I couldn’t say no. I—I just didn’t want to think about it. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah.” Galahad scuffed his foot at the floor, his temper eating at him. But Mariette looked like she was feeling so lousy, her voice flat and her face set like one crack would shatter it, that he just knew he’d feel like crap for calling her on it. “Well, okay, so what?”
“So you come to dinner. They insist on meeting you.” After a long breath, Mariette pushed herself off the wheel. She turned the key in the ignition and put the car in drive. “I’m sorry.”
“Whatever,” Galahad muttered. He saw her flinch out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn’t feel all that guilty about that. He was fucking angry, and he had the fucking right.
* * *
Mariette was oddly quiet the rest of the way. She scrunched her shoulders inward, even when she was unlocking the front door, and then called softly into the apartment before she let Galahad come in.
To be dead honest, Galahad was mentally kicking himself for not jumping out of the car and running while he could. He even had an offer from Gawain for where to go, and then hey, Mariette wouldn’t even be in trouble with her parents since she could just blame him. And then after her parents went back to France, they could have make-up sex.
Yeah, nerves were a problem. Galahad edged his way inside, pushing at his hair and listening for movement. He nearly jumped when somebody walked into the hall from the direction of the bedroom. “Oh! Oh…uh, salut. Je m’appelle—”
“Bonjour.” The man—Mariette’s father—stiffly nodded. He was medium height, dressed precisely in the kind of quality suit Arthur favored…though Arthur never made them look like they possibly were stiffened by sheets of metal stitched into them. He managed to peer through his tiny spectacle lenses as if he were being forced to examine something he knew was crappy. And they were definitely spectacles, and not glasses.
He put out his hand, which Galahad took and shook, but then the guy pulled his hand away with a faint grimace. Too hard of a shake? Too tight of a grip? What?
“Sylvain Carnot. You speak French, but you’re American.” He spoke English, but it wasn’t that clear he wasn’t a robot. “I understand you are engaged in a relationship with my daughter.”
Mariette strayed off to the side, just within Galahad’s field of vision. She had her arms crossed over her chest and was looking mostly at her feet.
“Sylvain.” Mariette’s mother came down the hall from the direction of the kitchen. She might’ve still been a pretty good-looking woman, even with the large grey streaks in her hair, if she hadn’t had such a sour expression on her face. But that was pointed at her husband, so Galahad tentatively thought he might like her.
Mariette’s dad looked sheepish and muttered something apologetic, then gestured between his wife and Galahad. “Simone, this is…you haven’t introduced yourself yet, I believe.”
“Please, be forthright and honest. We would like to get to know the man who’s involved with our daughter,” Simone said, turning the ice onto Galahad.
He pressed his tongue to the backs of his teeth, trying really hard to swallow that one, he had been trying to introduce himself when Sylvain had interrupted, and two, he’d like to be presumed innocent till proven guilty, thank you very fucking much. After a moment, he managed to shake Simone’s hand without saying anything stupid. Or anything at all past a “I’m Galahad, nice to meet you.”
Total fucking lie. And Mariette was totally not any help at all, what with the way she was trying to fade into the wall. She could at least try to stand next to Galahad, or…or something. Jesus.
“Shall we sit down to dinner?” Sylvain asked Simone.
“I think so. It’s about all ready—I found everything all right, Mariette,” Simone replied. The second part of it was just barely for Mariette and Galahad’s benefit. “Is it all right if we speak in French, or would you prefer English?”
Galahad’s French was good enough to follow a movie and to talk with Mariette, but it clearly wasn’t going to be up to the level of her parents. He was already feeling like a fucking hick and the last thing he needed was to give them more shit to nail to his coffin. On the other hand, asking for English was probably going to get him labeled as ‘not our type’ just as quickly.
Home-turf advantage, he finally decided. “I’m still working on my French, so I’d appreciate it if we could all speak English, sir. Ma’am.”
“Well, all right,” Sylvain said. He was so very clearly being nice to the underdeveloped youth, and holy fucking God but fuck him.
This was going to be so painful.
* * *
The silence streak continued from Mariette. The food wasn’t her cooking, not that Galahad had a chance for more than a taste. He was too busy trying to handle the conversation with her parents, which mostly went along the lines of:
Parent: You’re from Los Angeles?
Galahad: Yeah, originally.
Parent: Is it true that some schools there use metal detectors?
Galahad: Yeah. They never bothered me that much, though they made it hard to run to class if you were late. But at least you had a reason to try and be early, I guess.
Parent: *telling pause* Your school actually used them?
Galahad: Um, yeah. Um…the potatoes are really good, Madame Carnot.
Sylvain: Actually, I made those. Simone and I are strong believers that adults should not be limited by gender-specific stereotyping. We brought up Mariette with the intention that she would never feel as if her femininity blocked her from doing anything. It’s very important to us and to her future.
Galahad: Yeah, yeah, I completely agree. That’s so true.
Parent: *inclines head* Good.
Though after a horrific, endless forty minutes, who ended up taking Galahad aside in the kitchen? Mariette’s fucking father.
By then Galahad was feeling every inch of his ghetto-ass background and hating it, because it wasn’t like he’d asked to be born into his situation and then fuck it, he’d done the best he could with what he had so he didn’t need to apologize. Or to feel shitty about himself. He didn’t need to defend himself at all, but that didn’t make him feel okay about keeping his fucking head down and mumbling and basically being a doormat. Though hey, at least he’d been talking. Mariette might as well have been a fucking pillar of salt.
“Can you pass the soap?” Galahad barely managed to ask. He knocked up the faucet handle with his arm while shoving the plug into the drain so the sink would fill up.
“Galahad, I think you are a very smart and resourceful young man. You’ve obviously overcome many obstacles to be where you are today. But I am a father, and so I have to put the welfare of my child first,” Sylvain said. Instead of passing the soap. “Mariette will have finished her degree in two years at the very latest, and then she will have to consider her career. She’s young, but that does not mean that she cannot ignore the effects of the connections she makes—”
The water coming out of the faucet swirled up against the sides of the sink before dropping to pool with the rest. Nice for it. Fuck it. “Look, Mr—Monsieur—whatever. I grew up in a shit part of L. A. I never knew who the fuck my dad was and my mom liked me so much she left me when I was a kid, and I got raised by the grandmother of my best friend. I ended up part of a gang for a while, and yeah, that meant guns and knives. But I fucking hauled my ass through college and into grad school.”
“I’m only saying—”
Galahad turned around, and God, it pissed him off even more that Mariette’s dad jumped back like Galahad was going to attack him. “You had your fucking say all through dinner! I’m not good enough! I’m a fucking American! I have a lousy background! I’m gonna screw up Mariette’s life—except I fucking well am not.”
After that initial step, the other man stopped and held his ground. He narrowed his eyes behind his stupid little glasses and shoved his chin forward. “I can believe that you don’t harbor the intent, but how do I know—”
“Well, fuck, you wouldn’t know from your daughter, who you care so much about but who’s so damn terrified of you that she won’t even speak up for me. That she won’t speak, period, and let me just say right now that if that’s from her upbringing, then you’re a fucking lousy parent. And believe me, I know what I’m talking about there,” Galahad snarled. He took a step back himself and put one hand on the counter, gripping the edge to try and stop the trembling that had started going through his body. But he was so pissed off right now. “Way to raise a progressive, independent young woman, you selfish fuck. What if she is happy with me right now? What if the fact that I love her, and I do and believe that, damn it, means that I won’t hurt her?”
Open-mouthed shock was a better look for Sylvain. And for Simone, who’d hurried up behind them to stand in the doorway to the dining room. Which meant Galahad’s voice was carrying far enough for Mariette to hear, and he wasn’t really sparing her any but that was fine. She needed to hear this.
“But you know, never the fuck mind about all that. You know—you know, I am so goddamn mad right now at Mariette, with how she didn’t tell you about me in the first place because deep down, I guess she thinks I’m crap too, and then how she just left me out to dry with you two during dinner. I am so—but she does it because she cares how you think about her. Because you’re her parents.” Galahad wrenched his hand off the counter. The force it took to do that rocked him back a few steps before he got his balance back. He put his hands up, forgot what he meant to do with them and just raked them through his hair. The pain of strands getting pulled out seemed to draw a little bit of his rage with it, since his voice wasn’t shaking quite so much when he spoke again. “She still depends on you. And as much as I love her? I can’t take care of her all by my—if you two drop her cold, I can’t catch her. So you know, fine. I hated my fucking mother but you’d better bet I hated having to live on the streets after she left more, and I’m not doing that to Mariette. I’m not gonna be a goddamn romantic about it.”
That…pretty much covered everything he had to say. It took a couple moments for that message to get through from Galahad’s brain to the rest of him, but as soon as everything was clear, he went ahead and pushed past Sylvain. Walked by Simone, didn’t look for Mariette because she probably was just hiding again, and then kept on going through the front door.
* * *
The couch cushion to Galahad’s left dipped. It wasn’t Tristan, because Galahad could still hear him messing around with some white rabbits. Which were a new and very weird addition to the apartment, but come to think of it, they were probably just hawk food or whatever. Mystery solved.
“I let you work through three beers,” Gawain said. “Come on. What happened? What’d she say?”
Oh, right—he still thought all Galahad had done was ask Mariette what was wrong. “Well, she didn’t say a damn thing. I think I basically dumped her.”
“It’s for her own good. She doesn’t need the complications and now she doesn’t have to worry about her parents’ reaction,” Galahad mumbled, swigging more beer. Gawain had gotten the decent stuff, which was about the only thing that had gone Galahad’s way all day. “Yeah, that doesn’t make sense, does it? Well, turns out her parents flew in and she didn’t tell me we were all having dinner together till we were practically at her place.”
Back in the kitchen, the rabbits suddenly went nuts and thumped around like crazy. That was probably Tristan cocking one ear to listen.
“Oh. Ooooooh, man. I guess it went pretty badly, huh,” Gawain said.
“Badly? They did just about everything but actually call me a jumped-up hoodlum who was gonna turn Mariette into a crackwhore. And—” Galahad started to laugh, all shaky again, and had to stop himself by pouring beer into his mouth and choking on it “—and you know what little miss Woman-Power did? Fucking nothing. She just sat there and didn’t say anything while her parents took me apart, and didn’t say anything when her dad tried to tell me to stay away from her, and—and whatever. I lost my fucking temper and yelled at him and you’re just gonna say I was being a brat.”
Gawain leaned forward to put his elbows on his knees and stared at the TV for a moment. “Hey, I don’t even know what you said to him. You didn’t hurt him, did you?”
“Well, I called him a crappy parent. That better have hurt, since he took himself so damn seriously. Jesus Christ…” This probably was going to be the last beer, Galahad thought. He played aimlessly with the bottle’s neck, finding it almost funny that apparently, he could feel so shitty that he didn’t even want to get drunk. “But fuck, he’s her dad. What am I supposed to do, make her choose? For all I know they’d cut her off for good.”
“She’s a legal adult and anyway, Arthur would feel an obligation to help her,” Tristan said from the kitchen.
Galahad lifted one arm over his head and gave the other man the finger, then flopped back down. “Yeah, sure, like that’s going to really make up for it.”
“Her mom and dad sound like shitty people, though,” Gawain protested.
They probably were all right to their students and their colleagues, and anyone else they thought was good enough. Mentally flicking another finger in their direction, Galahad drained the rest of his beer and then leaned forward to line up the bottle with the other empty ones. “They’re still her parents.”
“Yeah, but…hey, where is this coming from anyway? I mean, with you and me…” Gawain never liked to directly mention Galahad’s mom, which was nice of him but not really that necessary, since it was him.
Galahad stayed leaning forward, letting his hands dangle between his knees. A sharp, quick stab of pain went through his head and he put it down to rest on one forearm, but oddly enough, no migraine swelled up. One-time thing, apparently. “I still miss Mom,” he muttered. He heard Gawain make a weird cut-off noise and smiled sourly to the floor. “Yeah, I still hate her neglectful ass, but I miss her. Like…I miss having a mom. And a dad. Not that Grandma Yvie wasn’t great, but she was still your grandma, not mine. It makes no fucking sense, but there it is. So I can’t blame Mariette for wanting to stay on good terms with her parents, even if I think it’s shit.”
“You really aren’t making sense. Is the beer getting to you already?” A long weight dropped over Galahad’s shoulders. After a moment, Gawain let his forearm drop so it curled around the side of Galahad’s neck.
“No.” Closing his eyes, Galahad just…leaned against the other man. He hadn’t done this in years…since before he was a teenager, maybe, but Gawain’s shoulder hadn’t changed much. It still was bony and no matter how he rested his head, the point of it poked him in the temple.
Gawain gave him a couple squeezes, moving from Galahad’s shoulder to his bicep and then back up. “Hey…”
“I’m not going to cry on you.” No, Galahad’s eyes were bone-dry, and the tight rage in his throat was gone, too. “I just…I’m kind of tired. And I don’t want to go home. I mean, I’d probably end up freaking out Jack by accident. Already did that once this week.”
“No problem. You can crash here anytime, you know,” Gawain said. He started patting Galahad’s shoulder again. If it made him feel more comfortable to do that, then he could rock himself out on that.
* * *
“I don’t think I really got all of that, but I hope I don’t see Mariette for a while because I’m pretty angry at her right now.” Gawain gave the blanket another good shake before draping it over Galahad and the couch, which he and Tristan had pulled out into the full futon. He shook his head. “I don’t—didn’t he seem more mad at her parents than at her?”
Tristan shrugged. “Yes, but I can understand his reasoning.”
“Was he actually reasoning?” Gawain asked, looking confusedly at him.
It took a moment to put a response together. “Even a…even a bad parent is still a parent. Any other guardian isn’t really the same thing—Arthur was never my mother, or a…stand-in for my father. He’s different. And when you remember having a parent, you think a lot about how they might have changed. You can’t really overwrite them.”
“I thought…you, uh, loved your mom. Sorry if that came out wrong, which I think it did.” After stuffing a pillow beneath Galahad’s head, Gawain stepped back to stand beside Tristan. He glanced over Galahad, shoving his hands in his pockets.
“I did love her. But—” Tristan swallowed “—just because I don’t mind learning about how to manipulate identities and do covert surveillance doesn’t mean I think it was…right for her to bring me up so I had to do that. Just in case things from her life came after me.”
Gawain took his hands out of his pockets. “Oh. I…kind of get that.” He gave his palms a brief, wry half-smile. “Jesus, I’m the only one who had anything like a normal parent-figure the whole time, aren’t I? In this room.”
“It’s not something to feel guilty about. Not something to brag about, either.” Hopefully Gawain understood Tristan wasn’t thinking of him with that second part.
A warm hand slipped around Tristan’s. After a moment, Gawain used his hold to pull them together. He sighed and pressed his forehead against Tristan’s, then pushed his head onto Tristan’s shoulder. Tristan wrapped his arm around the other man’s back.
“Damn. Well, best thing to do now is let him sleep, I guess,” Gawain said into Tristan’s neck. “I don’t know if he’ll be okay.”
Tristan tightened his grip on Gawain. He brushed a kiss against the other man’s temple, then rested his cheek against the top of Gawain’s head. It was as much as he knew how to do, and at least it seemed to make Gawain a little less tense, which should work in Galahad’s favor later.
* * *
Life had to be taken care of. Galahad went back to his place the next day, still tired and irritated as hell from fending off Gawain in super-mother mode, and snapped at Jack for most of Sunday. Monday morning he apologized, then went to work and grimly amused himself with asking his discussion section diabolically hard questions. It cheered him up till he got back to the grad student room and saw who was waiting for him. Mariette’s fucking mother.
“We thought that you might have a less hostile reaction to me,” she said, all grave with her hands folded over her purse.
“Who would ‘we’ be?” Well, since he and Mariette weren’t dating now, he could be as rude to her parents as he wanted.
Simone looked pained. “My husband and I. We…have you spoken to Mariette yet?”
“No.” Galahad had turned off his cell-phone while storming out of her apartment, and honestly, he hadn’t turned it on since. That was probably going to come back to bite him in the ass, but whatever.
“Oh. Well, may I speak to you?” Simone asked.
In ten minutes, Galahad’s computer lab time started and he really needed all of it if he wanted to stay on schedule. “Aren’t we already doing that?”
“Well, yes, I suppose. But I want to speak to you about our daughter. Mariette—we love her very much, and she is our only child, so I think sometimes we worry much more than most people do about what is best for her. But I’ve spoken to Art—to Professor Pen—”
“Great. You got a reference for me from my advisor. God, if I’d known, I just would’ve brought a copy of my résumé along to dinner,” Galahad sarcastically said.
Simone’s whole face did this weird twitch-stone thing that just…it just kind of made Galahad want to shut up, and not in a mad or dismissive kind of way. “I’m here partly because I do believe that you genuinely care for my daughter. Please don’t be flippant.”
Galahad snorted and turned away to look down the hall. Then he sighed and turned back. “Okay, what? Though I can’t promise I won’t walk off if you start talking down to me again.”
“I wanted to apologize, both for me and for my husband, for any offense we may have given you the other day. We’ve talked at length with Mariette and she’s made it clear that she…that you make her happy. We want her to be happy,” Simone told him. She paused to draw in a deep breath; this obviously wasn’t all that easy for her to accept. “We want her to be able to govern her own life as she pleases, and if you’re her choice, then that is what you are.”
Funny how nobody seemed to be around today. Usually the hallway was bustling with people who loved to interrupt conversations and eavesdrop and all that, but right now Galahad and Simone might as well have been standing in an abandoned building.
“Damning with faint praise, huh. Well…thanks. It’s good to know that you won’t be riding Mariette’s back about me,” Galahad said. He tried to push his hand in his pocket, but the pocket fabric was all smushed up near the top or something so he had to really work to get his fingers into it.
Simone’s lips pressed tightly together. She looked like she was about to tell him off, but at the last moment apparently changed her mind. “I won’t lie. You are not who we had in mind for Mariette. But it’s her mind, her life, and we have to respect—no, the better word is that we have to trust in her. We’re being sincere, Galahad.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay.” He could give her that much. Even if he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to say anything else now. “Hey…how come your English is so much better than—”
“Our English is perfect for use in an academic setting. But we prefer French, and we always expected that Mariette would stay in France,” Simone answered. A rueful look passed over her face. She briefly looked down, then lifted her head again just as somebody walked down a nearby hall.
Nobody interrupted, but obviously it wouldn’t be too long before that happened. Galahad started to open his mouth to say so, but Simone beat him to it.
“My point is that we will—we will try, very hard, to let Mariette judge you, and then our judgment of you will be based on that. Our plane back to France takes off this afternoon—I need to leave in a few minutes to hail the taxi.” Simone hesitated, then put out her hand. “I know it was not a pleasant meeting, but I did want to meet you, and I do…I do wish you good luck.”
After a moment, Galahad took her hand and shook it two or three times, which seemed to be fine with her, too. “The same to you and Mr. Carnot. I guess I can accept all of that.”
“Thank you.” They stared at each other for another ultra-awkward moment before Simone turned on one heel. She paused again, then finally started to slowly walk down the hall. She did look like Mariette right then.
Galahad went into the next room and flopped down on the couch. He didn’t feel any better or any happier for having had that conversation, but maybe things were…clearer. For all the good that did.
* * *
Gawain rubbed at his face some more. “Her mom apologizes like that, and then Mariette’s turning the whole place upside-down trying to contact you, and you still want to act like this?”
“Act like what? I mean all of this. I’m goddamn serious.” From where Galahad was standing, he could see Gawain’s discussion section craning necks and twisting in chairs trying to eavesdrop. Even Jack had left off bugging Jess to stare; when those two realized he’d caught them at it, they got identical flushes and ducked their heads together. Good luck to Jack, Galahad half-bitterly thought. “Look, yes, her parents apologized. But that’s not the whole thing, okay? I’m sorry if this ruins your idea that one heartfelt talk and making out in Arthur’s house always fixes everything.”
“That was never my idea,” Gawain snapped. For a moment, he looked so mad that Galahad thought he’d gone—but then the other man sighed and just smacked Galahad on the side of the head. “Fine, you’re in a cranky mood. I’ve got discussion to do here, but just—if it’s not the whole thing, hiding from Mariette sure as hell isn’t going to close things up.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I know.” Though it would’ve been nice, seriously, if Galahad could have avoided that conversation for a couple more days. Just two hours ago he’d lost his temper at a frozen computer and freaked the hell out of the other students in the room. Kitty had called him on the carpet for that.
Gawain frowned and leaned in a little, staring at Galahad’s eyes like he was checking for a concussion. Then he grimaced and gave Galahad a quick squeeze on the shoulder, but he was already turning away: some idiot undergrad had just pissed off Jess about last week’s match and there was a bit of a fight brewing. “Beer’s in my fridge, if you need it afterward.”
Galahad thanked him, or something like that. It wasn’t all that clear because just then Mariette had rounded the corner and well, they were going to do this now, weren’t they.
A last squeeze at Galahad’s arm, and then Gawain had disappeared into the room. For one crazy moment, Galahad thought about diving after him. Then he snorted at himself and stood where he was.
* * *
The hallway was too busy, so they ended up moving to a recess just in front of a large, somewhat randomly-placed window. Mariette looked like crap. She kept staring straight at Galahad, which made him shift around, as if somebody would shoot her if she looked anywhere else. “I think my mother was trying to find you,” she finally said.
“Yeah. She did. She apologized for her and your dad.” Galahad had the damnedest time not jumping every time somebody passed near them. Even just the jangling of somebody’s keys would almost set him off.
“That’s good…?” A smile almost broke onto Mariette’s face, but it ran off when she saw how Galahad wasn’t exactly thrilled. Her chin jerked downwards, but it was like her eyes were connected to Galahad’s with chains that yanked her head back up. “I talked to them afterward, and I told them they were being horrible and how much you meant to me.”
Galahad didn’t really feel anything at first. He shuffled his feet and pulled at a couple of strands that kept curling annoyingly into his eyes, but they wouldn’t stay out of the way. So he pulled harder and suddenly he was cursing and was shaking the loose strands from his fingers.
“I’m sorry. I’m—I know I didn’t do it right. I know it hurt you a lot to go through that, and that I was selfish and thinking about what was easiest for me. I…I’m sorry,” Mariette helplessly said, spreading her hands out. Her eyes were wide and pleading and…
…and Galahad could honestly say that his mind hadn’t changed. It hurt a hell of a lot and he wasn’t about to make his life any easier, but he couldn’t…there were some things he couldn’t take. “Yeah.”
Mariette’s eyes widened a little more and she took a step forward; Galahad stumbled back about the same amount and she stopped. “Galahad?”
“Look, I…I’m sorry, too. I’m sorry that it’s like that with your parents, that you’d even feel that bad in the first place. And I’m sorry that I couldn’t do anything about it beforehand.” Maybe he hadn’t exactly been expecting it to be that bad, but he had known she had a problem. “But—no, Mariette, look, I can’t…you just left me out there.”
“But I’m sorry!” she said, loud enough to attract attention from passersby.
“And I, um, accept that. I understand, you know. Kind of.” Galahad grimaced at his feet, then made himself look up again. She deserved that. “But I can’t get over it right now. I—that you’d do that to me.”
Her first response obviously was to get louder and pushier, but instead she bit down on her lip, and hard enough for it to turn white. She slowly stood back, thinking hard. “What are you saying? Are—do you—not love—me now?”
“If that were true, this would be a fucking piece of cake,” Galahad muttered. “No, I do. I do, but I can’t…just get over it that quick, because I—love you and because I thought you—never mind. I just need some space, Mariette. I need to not see you for a while.”
“I…this doesn’t make sense to me,” she said after a moment. She reached towards him and took a step forward, then started looking angry when he backed off again. “What? What else do I need to do?”
“Just—leave me alone. I don’t care if you don’t understand why. If you can get that it’s something I need to do to feel better so I’m not fucking pissed off at you anymore, then that should be enough. God knows I did the same for you.” That was a hard hit, and Galahad did it on purpose. Because he was still that mad at her, beneath everything else, and she needed to know. Even if she took it like he’d stabbed her in the gut, and he felt like he’d stabbed himself in the gut. “Okay?”
Mariette obviously didn’t agree on that. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, her expression shifting from pained to upset back to sad again. Her hands curled up into fists, then slowly uncurled and flexed their fingers. She kept looking at him, but when he didn’t give her the expression she was looking for or whatever, she snorted and looked away, incredulity pulling at the side of her mouth.
“Okay. Okay,” she abruptly said. She turned on her heel and stalked off.
Galahad didn’t even try to call after her. He took a step back once she was about ten yards away; his heel hit the wall and he jerked it back so hard that he ended up spinning around to face said wall. And then it just kind of made sense to kick the hell out of it a couple times.
Gave him a fucking bruised foot. He finally made himself stand back, breathing hard, and then turned to walk in the opposite direction as Mariette had gone.