|Rumor Propagation Prologue: Heard It Through The Grapevine
Author: Guede Mazaka
“When’s the last time we had a weekend off at the same time?” Guinevere asked. It’d been about fifteen seconds since she’d flopped down on the couch and the cushions were still sinking beneath her. The springs were wearing out and they needed to get new pillows; she made a note of it.
Lancelot’s sprawl in the armchair widened and slid forward so his knees just touched the coffee table. “Oh…I’d say about a month.”
“Really.” She reached beneath her head, twisted out the big clip that held her chignon together and then tossed that on the table. She used her other hand to muss up her hair till it was comfortable to lie on. “What’s today?”
“Not a day where Arthur should be working late. Especially since I informed him three times last night and you told him five times over breakfast that we’d be coming home,” Lancelot said. For some reason, he made it sound as if she’d been doing some horrendous crime, badgering Arthur like that.
He’d been bothering Arthur more, Guinevere almost said. He’d kept waking Arthur up to say that, while she’d merely mentioned it whenever Arthur had dropped his newspaper long enough for her to know she had his attention.
Groaning a bit, Lancelot rolled over on his side and fumbled for the phone. He couldn’t reach it, so he twisted around till he got out his cell. “All right, I’ll call him and you call Tristan.”
Lancelot rolled his eyes.
Oh. Well, he would assume she was just motivated by jealousy since he was a bloody idiot. Guinevere turned herself over and reached down to the floor to snag her purse. “I don’t mean it like that, you prick. I meant why am I calling Tristan? Don’t you think that’s jumping to conclusions?”
“No,” Lancelot muttered, shooting her a look. He righted himself and flipped open his phone, then put it down to frown at it. His thumb hovered over the buttons, impatiently waggling.
Even when he wasn’t trying to be, he was hopelessly perverted. And yes, the Arthur-problem was a constant background goad for all of them, but leaping at every alarm wasn’t going to do anything but wear them out so when the real thing happened, they’d be too exhausted to notice. “Hang on, let me check my Palm,” Guinevere said. “He might’ve…yes, he did message. Says that he’s very sorry but he’ll be late because there was a disciplinary incident on campus that he’s got to see to.”
“Disciplinary incident?” Lancelot dithered a few more seconds before he finally snapped the phone shut and levered himself out of the armchair. The way he did that, he looked a good deal like a stick insect that’d fallen on its back and, after much stiff flailing, had managed to claw its way back onto its feet. It really was inexplicable how he could go from dancer-grace to utter absurdity in the blink of an eye. “Was there a fight or something?”
“Doesn’t say. Alcohol violation, I’m betting. It’s a university, not a sports club,” Guinevere said. She dropped her Palm into her purse, zipped that up, and then began the process of dragging herself away from a well-deserved rest. For weeks and weeks they’d been working themselves to the bone, and now that they were almost ready to hand over Clayton and the rest of the diamond-smugglers to the prosecuting side of Interpol, they could finally take a breather.
Except Arthur was late, and it wasn’t really a breather if Lancelot was going to fidget incessantly at home, coming up with crazier and crazier nightmare scenarios to explain the other man’s absence. So she supposed they were going to Avalon.
“You’re not driving,” Guinevere snapped.
“I’m sober. And I got seven hours of sleep last night.” Rather lame protests from Lancelot, who knew perfectly well how wound up he tended to get about Arthur lately. “Oh, fine.”
As they heaved themselves along the hall, she ran her hands a few times through her hair, then pulled it back into a low ponytail. She checked herself in passing in a mirror, then gave up and just flipped her hair over her shoulder. It didn’t look as polished as she would have preferred, but if she pulled out a brush, then Lancelot might decide to make a dash for the driver’s seat anyway. “And remember, unless they’re involved in an international crime ring, we don’t have jurisdiction on campus. So don’t—”
“I’ll leave my gun locked in the glovebox, all right? You’d better, too. Never know when one of these idiots might make a snatch for it, thinking they’re in a bloody rap music video,” Lancelot grumbled. “Honestly, Guin, I’m not some trigger-happy cowboy.”
“No, you’re edgy. Which worries me more. Look, the worst-case scenario’s probably that some moron got caught plagiarizing and is giving Arthur a headache, all right?” Guinevere paused at the door to the garage to swap shoes for a lower heel. Not that she thought it would, but on the off-chance that things did get energetic, she wasn’t about to get stuck in the damned lawn again.
Lancelot made a whole series of noises of varying degrees of rudeness, but finally ended in a half-acknowledging mumble of Guinevere’s point. “So we’ll just stand around and get in the way and visually remind Arthur that he’s got responsibilities at home too, like screwing us till we forget it was also his turn to cook dinner today?”
“No! We’re going to check on him and then offer to act as objective observers for whatever happens to holding him up!”
“Guin, you’re a top-flight mistress of spin,” Lancelot grinned. “I do love you for that.”
She smacked him, then stomped out the door. “Prat.”
Unfortunately, that didn’t make him any less right. Damn him, he couldn’t even concede a point to her without a fit of pique. He’d better let her drive, because right now she wasn’t in the mood to put up with any more of his pissy-bitch attitude.
* * *
Arthur wasn’t in his office, but after some initial skirmishing, Vanora directed them to the…forensic science department. Which raised Guin’s eyebrow, and Lancelot had to agree about that. He knew she should’ve called Tristan after all.
“He graduated over three months ago!” Guin snorted.
“Well, maybe some of his chickens are coming home to roost—what?” Lancelot irritably looked at her.
Guin pressed her hand harder to her mouth, but that didn’t do any more to hide her grin. It certainly didn’t muffle her giggles at all. “Oh, nothing. You’re just absolutely adorable when you try to use a country metaphor.”
“Oh, like you’ve got much of a rural background yourself. Having an aunt who lives in Brighton doesn’t count, you know.” He pulled open the door and walked on through it. A blast of cold air hit him and he paused just inside to toss on his coat again.
As soon as she came in, Guin was consulting the directory on the wall. “No, I don’t, so I don’t pretend to. Let’s see…second floor, turn left.”
Not that she waited for him to lead the way. No, Guin went charging right ahead, but Lancelot wasn’t too fussed about that. If she wanted to exhaust herself even more, he wasn’t going to stop her; all he knew was that he’d walked miles of hallways today and so he was fine with ambling along, checking out offices and classrooms for any suspicious persons.
It was easy enough to find the place, given the crowd in front. Arthur was about a half-head taller than everyone else so Lancelot spotted him right away: leaning against the wall, hands in pockets, looking mildly bemused. A tiny, tiny little valve opened up inside Lancelot’s chest and he just let all the built-up anxiety whoosh out of him on a long exhale. He and Guin were still rather far away, but Arthur’s head came up anyway.
Arthur blinked, then slipped through the group of people to meet them halfway. “You got my message? I’m so sorry the notice was so late—”
“Oh, it’s fine. I got it, but Lancelot thought it was a bit short and wanted to come down,” Guin oh-so-nicely said.
“Thought we’d ask if you wanted us to bring you dinner, since we’re both too beat to cook. Then Vanora directed us this way, and Guin got curious.” Lancelot death-glared her, ignored her return death-glare, and gazed over Arthur’s shoulder to check out the little gathering.
They were hanging about a lounge area in front of what was probably a small conference room. Galahad and Mariette were all cozied up on a couch…physically, at least, since they seemed to be in the middle of a heated discussion. Tristan was sitting on the couch-arm farthest from Lancelot, looking surprisingly moody; Gawain was perched on a table in front of him and quietly talking. Somebody’s secretary was wandering around in the hallway beyond, messing about with papers and trying not to look like she was eavesdropping. There was also a boy and a girl Lancelot didn’t recognize. The boy was unusually pale and the girl was a nice-looking Indian, and they both looked like undergrads.
“So…what is going on?” Guin asked with a toss of her hair. A bit too much like a shampoo commercial to be subtle.
“I’m not sure, to be honest.” Arthur glanced towards Lancelot, then behind himself. He nodded towards the new ones. “Some kind of incident occurred between Mark Kernyw—Tristan’s old advisor—and Dr. Morgan, whom you’ve met, just after a lecture. That’s Jack Hammond, Galahad’s roommate, and Jess, a classmate of his. They’re both in that philosophy of science class Gawain’s a GSI for this term, and all three apparently witnessed some of it. Oh, I forgot to mention, Kernyw was a guest lecturer for that today, and it was after that.”
That went a ways towards explaining everyone else, though exactly why Tristan was present still wasn’t clear. Galahad was probably along for moral support for someone, Mariette because she seemed like the inquisitive type, and Arthur because his grad student and department were tangentially involved.
“Are they calling on Tristan to vouch for his advisor?” Guin asked in a low tone.
“I’d…rather not talk about—” Arthur cut himself off and turned around. The conference room door had just opened and now a grave Merlin leaned out of it, looking about. He quickly saw Arthur and waved him over.
Arthur obligingly went over, which left Guin and Lancelot standing around and the others staring curiously at them. Jack Hammond coughed to the side, then offered a hesitant smile. “Hello.”
Well, that explained why he was so pale: he sounded like he’d spent most of his life divided between western Ireland and England. “’lo,” Lancelot replied, walking over. He ignored the warning hiss from Guin and smiled broadly. “So what’s on today?”
“Er…who are you, if you don’t mind me asking?” Jess asked. She put her hands behind her back and uncertainly flicked her gaze from Lancelot to Guinevere and then back again. London girl. How Arthur always managed to find the Brits in New York City was one of those minor mysteries, like why buttered bread always hit greasy-side down.
Galahad snorted and reached out to give Jack a whack on the arm, which probably was supposed to be encouraging. “Oh, don’t mind them. They’re just Arthur’s—”
Both Mariette and Gawain suddenly had a loud, prolonged fit of coughing, and additionally Mariette flopped forward to smush her breasts over Galahad’s mouth. He looked rather less pleased about this than he really should have.
Tristan briefly put up his hand to rub at his mouth, then dropped it. As usual, he handled a tricky situation with a minimum of words and a maximum of private amusement. “Jack, Jess—Lancelot and Guinevere. They live with Arthur.”
Jess got it first and her eyes went a bit wide. She started to sit down, then shook herself and instead grabbed the top of the chair, twisting it around. “Um, do you want to sit down? They said it’ll be a while.”
“Right, exactly,” Jack said, scrambling to grab and turn another chair. He kept glancing at Jess and at Galahad, as if they were supposed to be giving him advice.
“Thanks,” Guin beamed, taking one. She made a sound in her throat that wasn’t nearly as nice till Lancelot finally sat as well. Then she resumed smiling at Jess. “So, what happened here? All we know’s that we’ll probably have to bring dinner over here and cram it down Arthur’s throat. Damned man, he really never takes care of…”
Lancelot just sat back and watched how the others took Guinevere’s little act. It seemed as if Jack and Mariette might be buying it; Jess still looked a bit bemused. Gawain maybe was taking half the bait. Galahad and Tristan were all but rolling their eyes—never mind, Galahad was rolling his eyes.
“Kind of hard to say,” Galahad finally said. He sounded a touch annoyed, so he’d probably spoken up just to make Guin stop. “Gawain says—”
“I’ll tell it, if anyone’s going to,” Gawain interrupted. “Look, I don’t know a lot because I just walked into the middle of it…”