|The Second Supper
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Park Slope? Why Park Slope? There are better restaurants closer to here, and then you don’t have to venture into Yuppieville where the water mushes your brains.” Ties and belts swung out of the closet, nearly striking Arthur in the face, then swung back to flop against Lancelot’s back. The other man cursed as he stumbled over something and shoved himself deeper into the closet. He paused. “Arthur? Why do you have hollow-points back here?”
“Park Slope’s a perfectly decent neighborhood, and it’s far enough from either of our places to qualify as neutral ground.” Arthur pushed at his suits, trying to move them so he could see. But the heavy fabric meant they preferred not to, and though his closet was surprisingly deep, its other dimensions left a little to be desired. Lancelot wasn’t exactly a bulky man, but he still took up room and—Arthur smacked the hand away from his hip.
The suits Lancelot shoved into him as the other man stumbled out muffled Lancelot’s hissing, but Arthur knew it was there. He ignored the pouting silence behind him and wriggled around till he’d found the box to which Lancelot was referring.
“And of all people, Lancelot, you’ve no room to criticize about a Yuppieville.” Guinevere edged up somewhere to Arthur’s left and started to rattle the tie rack. “Arthur, you’re wearing the black, right? Then I think you should go with the—”
“Excuse me? Miss I-Drink-Only-Imported-Limited-Edition-Expresso? I might, just might, allow the word ‘metrosexual’ to wander in, but not yuppie. Yuppies are the arses who install million-dollar security systems, then give the codes to their daughters with shady boyfriends and wonder why they end up calling Interpol.” Bedsprings creaked as Lancelot flopped on them. He bounced around for a few seconds before getting bored and coming back to tuck Arthur’s shirt into his trousers. “And you shouldn’t wear a tie at all. You’re having a friendly dinner with your grad student, not taking out a head of state.”
Once they’d slipped the tails of Arthur’s shirt down his waistband, Lancelot’s fingers apparently decided they liked being there and stayed. They stroked around while Arthur cursed and ineffectually batted behind himself, then finally settled on the tops of Arthur’s hipbones. Lancelot nuzzled up to the flat stretch between Arthur’s shoulderblades and began nipping at Arthur’s hairline.
Then he yelped and pressed even harder into Arthur. Guinevere’s laugh rose above the whistling of the belt with which she was toying. “He should wear a tie. Gawain’s used to seeing him wear one, and the whole point’s to make this as everyday as possible. Sudden changes aren’t good.”
* * *
“Fuck, I was going to look up the place online and figure out if they’ve got a dress code. But I got blindsided by Holberg earlier and now there’s no time.” Some past grad student had left a head-to-thigh mirror hanging on the back of the small storage closet and Gawain was now putting that to good use.
Dust rose as Galahad flopped from beneath his stack of books. He hung his head upside-down over the couch edge and critically eyeballed Gawain. “Shoes. Shirt and pants without stains or holes. What’s the problem?”
Well, for one thing, Tristan had left the window open. Ever since he’d walked in for last-minute prep, there’d been an increasing number of squirrels chittering outside their office. So far they’d stayed in the tree, but their anxiety seemed to grow in direct proportion to how quiet Tristan got, and since Gawain could currently only tell that Tristan was around by directly looking at him…Gawain went over and shut the window.
Tristan was perched on the arm of the gigantic, sagging, incredibly old sofa every grad student affectionately referred to as the Wall because of its reputation for holding back the demons of writer’s block. But from the look on his face, the couch wasn’t helping much with whatever dilemma on which he was chewing. “Don’t ask about his first philosophy professor. And don’t ask about what he did after university.”
“…don’t we already know what he did after university?” At the other end of the Wall, Galahad disappeared back beneath his books. Frantic scribbling could be heard; it was the last day for submitting summer research abstract first-drafts and as usual, he was late. “Hey, I think I can still hear Vanora clicking around. Get her advice—she’s his secretary. Though I thought you knew clothes-stuff…”
“What, because I sleep with men? Galahad, how long have you been living with me?” Of course, now Gawain would regret not letting Grandma Yvie smack Galahad a few more times. He sighed and started yanking a comb through his hair.
* * *
Arthur quietly stepped around the arguing pair to the bookshelf. He deposited the ammunition in a hollowed-out book, then cast about for his cuff-links.
“You never answered my question about those,” Lancelot suddenly said. He miraculously tore his stony stare from Guinevere, only to turn it on Arthur.
“I think I was rearranging and left them behind.” The cuff-links turned up on the dresser beneath a wad of receipts from Lancelot’s wallet. After fastening his cuffs, Arthur automatically started sorting and throwing away the out-of-date receipts. “I’m not wearing a tie. What I asked was whether I should wear the black coat or not—it seems a little morbid, doesn’t it?”
Both Lancelot and Guinevere blinked at him. What with the way they were standing, like a matched pair of folded-arm grumpy caryatids, they looked straight out of an old Hollywood comedy.
“You’re asking if you’re too morbid?” Lancelot finally said in a faint tone. He actually limped over and put his hand to Arthur’s forehead. “Does this mean I can introduce you to the color ‘tan’?”
“Metrosexual, my bloody…stop groping him. You’re mussing his shirt, and he’ll have to change if you keep that up.” Whereupon Guinevere shoved Lancelot aside and began her own version of mussing, which wasn’t entirely free of sneaky caresses. She lifted her chin and h’mphed at Lancelot, who sourly retreated to a chair. Limping. “Oh, stop that. Your ankle’s almost healed. And black’s classy. Whether it’s funeral or not depends on the cut.”
Lancelot derisively wriggled fingers at her. “Season, darling. It’s summer. Doesn’t he have an off-white one in there?”
Arthur carefully pried Guinevere’s fingers from his neck before she could forget he wasn’t Lancelot and clutch too hard. While they argued, he went in search of a belt. Those ended up in the oddest places…
* * *
“…I wish I could get hair like this without having to mess about with deep conditioners and perms. It’s got so much body,” Vanora cooed, fluffing Gawain’s hair. She was beginning to creep him out, but her two-inch perfectly manicured nails were enough to keep him from edging away.
Thankfully, she stopped playing with it to poke around in her purse, searching for a comb to lend him. Maybe she thought it was nice, but she didn’t break combs every other week just trying to get the damned stuff pulled out of the eyes.
“And don’t mention my mother,” Tristan muttered. Some squirrel smacked its paw against the window-glass and made them all jump, but Tristan only glanced once before going back to pressing his fingers hard against his lips. “People get weird ideas about her and Arthur and that embarrasses him. And don’t embarrass him—he freezes up and then he stonewalls you for days afterward.”
“Oh, is Arthur finally carrying out loco parentis duties?” Vanora popped a comb at Gawain and a mischievous look at Tristan, who might have been yanking a chewed thumbnail out of his mouth.
Galahad tossed in his dime’s worth, though of course nobody was taking. “Christ, Gawain, your love-life’s the talk of the department.”
“It most certainly is not, and another word out of you and I’ll remind you a thing or two about mothers.” It really was hilarious how Galahad instinctively flinched from Vanora’s scolding finger, and Gawain didn’t feel a single pang of guilt about laughing. While he frantically yanked at his hair, she rounded further on Galahad. “Kitty and I are very discreet, thank you. Like friends should be. You, on the other hand, have girls talking about you left and right, and it’s not with any help from me.”
“Whatever you heard, they were exaggerating. And overreacting.” The books once again consumed Galahad until all that could be seen were random curly tufts.
Tristan was…fidgeting. Gawain had to check twice because he couldn’t believe it, but the other man was actually kicking his heels against the couch. Well, great. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t have a last-minute attack of nerves—and so far he wasn’t yet having a full one—but if Tristan was that nervous then that wasn’t a great omen.
“Maybe I should come,” he muttered.
Vanora looked like she was torn between patting him on the head and whacking him on the head. “Tristan, once I was talking to Arthur during a football game when he stopped, looked at the opposite bleachers, and told me he had to go because you wanted something. He’d notice.” Pivot. “And Gawain, you’re about to yank out those beautiful locks. Calm down, both of you. Everyone has to do this at some point.”
* * *
“Of course, you ran off to your conference and left us to handle it on our own,” Guinevere said. She straightened Arthur’s coat lapels, then briskly patted him down.
“I’m sorry?” He reached past her to get his watch from the dresser, which he slipped on before running his fingers through her hair. “You don’t…actually want to come, do you?”
Her nose wrinkled, but she took a moment to answer. She hooked her fingers behind his belt and pressed her forehead to his shoulder, then pecked him once on the cheek and once on the lips. “You already apologized for that. And…I do, a little, but I think I’d have to strangle Lancelot halfway through to keep him from laughing. Better if you go it alone.”
The lump on the bed grew an arm and batted at her leg. “I can be tactful, you know.”
“Of course you can. And I can paint myself blue and go prancing in Central Park, but the chances of that happening are worse than a million-to-one.” Guinevere whacked away his hand before walking out of the room—almost. She paused at the door. “Oh, Arthur? While you’re out, can you pick up a box of tampons for me?”
Arthur couldn’t immediately think of a proper reply for that, so his reflexes took over: he nodded. Whereupon Guinevere left and Lancelot sat up, a bit open-mouthed. “I really thought she liked you. She sleeps with you and she never argues with you about who has to deal with the wet spot…”
“One could see that as a considerate warning about her mood next week,” Arthur suggested. Upon further reflection, he decided he’d had to buy more embarrassing things under worse conditions. It was merely an errand, and it was ridiculous to treat it as anything but such. “Do you know what her brand is? No, never mind, I’ll just look in the bath…”
For a moment, all was silence from Lancelot’s corner. And then the other man leaped up and trailed after Arthur, his limp having completely disappeared in his gesticulating. “You’re—you’re actually going to buy—why are you worried about this dinner with Gawain again? Unless you somehow end up with him in an alley, I don’t see what you’ve got to worry about. And that’s not going to happen even if you were free because he’s not your type.”
“I’m worried because Tristan likes him a great deal and I’ve never seen that happen with Tristan before. Moreover, I’ve gotten rather fond of Gawain myself. He’s got a bright future ahead of him, and I don’t want it ruined because of personal issues. It’s already a bit tricky, given what I am to him and Tristan.” Arthur poked around beneath the sink till he’d found a half-used box; he noted the brand and also the pertinent details about absorbancy and size. Not much difference from paying attention to colleagues’ coffee habits and enemies’ bullet-caliber preferences. Or so he told the stubborn flush along his jaw. “And what is my type?”
Lancelot glowered. “Me.”
He continued to look irritated even after Arthur had stood up and backed him against the door, and only deigned to relax after Arthur had apologetically—mostly that—tongued him into it. His hand came up to toy with Arthur’s collar. “If you work past the nerves, you’ll be fine. You make politeness qualify as a deadly weapon. And it’s a good thing you didn’t wear a tie. Then when you come back, that’s one less piece of clothing—”
“Oh, I’d better go. It’s a bit of a walk from the subway,” Arthur said, holding up his watch. He kissed Lancelot fast and hard, then made his get-away while the other man was still trying to stand up.
“You’re getting far too good at that,” Guinevere grinned. She had come back to lean against the doorway, and when he came close enough she reached out to tuck part of his shirt back into his trousers. “Though he’s more tolerable when he’s wobbly. I’ll have something on the stove if your appetite doesn’t come back till you’re home. So go. Scare the hell out of Gawain and then make nice. That usually works.”
* * *
The door closed on Gawain. Vanora patted Tristan on the shoulder, then also left. And so it was down to Tristan, Galahad, and what sounded like a horde of fretting squirrels pawing furiously at the window. Their stupid little fucking claws were making horrific screechy noises.
“Make them stop, goddamn it.” Galahad poked around till his feet hit Tristan, and then he shoved hard. “What the hell’s with them? Does this happen every time you get upset? You send it along your magic mental connection to the squirrels and they act out your rage and insecurities?”
“My rage and insecurities.” Only Tristan could make that sound absolutely withering.
Too bad the effort was wasted, since Galahad really, really didn’t give a shit about anything except getting the fucking rodents to shut up. “Oh, for…I had to dig into Freud and Jung yesterday for a reference. It was scarring, but that’s not the point. Make them—”
--they stopped. Suddenly everything was quiet, and if Galahad hadn’t still been unclenching his teeth, he would’ve wondered if he had just imagined the whole thing.
He peeked over the edge of his book. Tristan hadn’t moved. “That is fucking creepy.”
“Did Gawain ever have to do this before?” Tristan asked, staring at the far wall.
If Gawain hadn’t made Galahad swear to be nice to his boyfriend for this one night, Galahad really wouldn’t have been able to help himself. As it was, he had to bite his lip for a couple minutes before he was sure he wouldn’t laugh. “L. A. slums, yo. Gawain couldn’t exactly be out there with his liking guys. So no, no meetings of the father-whatever of the secret boyfriends. Look, relax. Come on. Do you really think Arthur, of all people, is suddenly gonna flip and turn drill-sergeant on ‘wain?’
* * *
It was like being in the army. Not that Gawain actually knew what being in the army was like, but from what he’d seen in movies and heard from the guys that had made it out of the neighborhood via fatigues, he knew in there nothing could be off at all, orders and rules couldn’t be disobeyed, or asses got kicked.
The restaurant was okay. Nice. The servers were very nice about pointing where to go and listing the night’s specials and suggesting with a high-pressure gleam in their eyes what drinks to get. And the silverware wasn’t complicated, thank God. But it just…there seemed to be some kind of code, and Gawain was just a little to the left of it. Everyone else wasn’t exactly dressed alike, but there was a similarity to their clothes nonetheless, like a patina that was glossy everywhere except where Gawain sat. And they all seemed to know when accidentally backing a chair into somebody merited a ‘sorry’ and when it needed a full ‘I’m sorry about that,’ and they all had designated times for answering their cells and scolding their kids and it was like high school. Unspoken gangland lines drawn all over.
“Ah, Gawain…I think the bread’s quite buttered.” Arthur coughed politely and nodded at Gawain’s hands.
Which had been fooling around with the same piece for the last five minutes. “Oh, right. Shi—I mean, sorry. And, um, thanks.”
“That’s all right. It just looked as if you were going to flip the butter at her.” Nod at someone over Gawain’s shoulder. Judging by the look on Arthur’s face, Gawain had a feeling it was the teenage girl who’d been chattering for the past ten minutes to her cell about the two hotties that had just walked in.
Gawain pretended to look at his menu. “Oh. You, uh, sure you don’t want me to? I think it’d shut her up…”
“In this case, I think the Stoic’s approach to life would be more socially acceptable.” The waiter swung by and Arthur did something with his fingers that, after nearly four months in New York, Gawain still hadn’t figured out how to do. It promptly brought the man to their table, perky pencil poised over perky pad. “I think we’re ready. Gawain?”
Oh…fuck. Fuck. Um. Not a good idea to look like you were stalling even if you were, so…Gawain randomly pointed to an appetizer and an entrée. “I’ll have those.”
The server’s eyebrow started to arch, but he was well-trained in giving the customer whatever they wanted, so his twitch instead ended up in his nose where he could pretend he was sneezing. He apologized brightly and turned to Arthur, who ordered some kind of noodle thing. In the meantime, Gawain finally got around to reading the menu. He winced.
Well, the entrée wouldn’t kill him. He might even enjoy it. But hopefully the appetizer was small so he could just drop it in the plants by which they were sitting. And hell, there went the trip he’d been planning to catch the latest comic-book movie adaptation.
After the waiter left, they fell back into awkward silence. The teenager squealed about Arthur’s eyes and Arthur promptly tried to hide behind the salt-shaker. Some couple a table away ripped on what they thought were highlights in Gawain’s hair, and he just avoided flinging the damn salt-shaker at them. “It’s natural, you jackass—sorry.”
“I’m not your mother,” Arthur said, amused. “No need.”
“Well, yeah, but…so how’s the conference in July looking?” God, this was going so badly. If it were possible, Gawain would have quietly excused himself and gone to drown in the toilet.
Arthur blinked. “It was moved to August due to a conflict with the convention center. I thought I mentioned that to you yesterday.”
“You…did. I…forgot, sorry. Um.” Gawain kicked once at the table, hastily pressed down on it to make it stop rocking, and then smiled nervously at the old woman who’d stopped rambling to her dog to watch. She gave him the evil eye and he barely swallowed his urge to curse her out.
This was going so, so badly. And he’d thought it wouldn’t be a big deal? Christ.
* * *
“You know, he never actually said what those hollowpoints were for.” Frantic chopping, occasionally interrupted by a flourish as Lancelot finished off the scallions, or the garlic, or whatever Guinevere had given him to chop up. Ever since she’d made the mistake of letting him watch Iron Chef with her, he’d always had to proclaim his victory over the vegetables in some way. Getting the Food Channel hadn’t helped—Lancelot preparing crawfish was a scary, scary thing.
She dashed some oil into the wok and began heaving in food. “Putting in a gun and making messy holes in people?”
“Ha-ha, Guin. Think he was dodging the issue again, or just in a hurry?” Little specks of garlic went flying up to stick to the wall in front of the sink. “Doesn’t it worry you just a little that we’ve been here a third of the year and we still don’t know where all the weapons are?”
“Well, I told you to make an inventory, but you kept getting distracted. And I’m impressed—you’re actually considering that Arthur isn’t doing something merely to give you the run-around.” Spicy smoke boiled up from the pan; Guinevere smacked on the kitchen fan with her elbow and then made a quick run to the sink to rinse off her fingers. She picked up the spatula, gave Lancelot’s arse a test whack with it, and wandered back to the stove. “Don’t even think of flicking that garlic at me.”
So instead an oven mitt hit the back of her head, and only thanks to her hairspray did it bounce onto the floor instead of into the pan. But when she turned around to glare, all she saw was his back. Of course, he had to go over the top and innocently whistle, too. “You’ve had plenty of time to catalog, too. You organized my DVD collection in one afternoon, damn you.”
“Still can’t figure it out, I take it.” Guinevere flipped about stirfry with one hand while with the other, she dug around for the jar of dried chili peppers. Usually she liked two, Lancelot went for four or five…she tossed in three. It would’ve been fun to throw in eight and then make herself a salad, but Arthur might end up eating some as well.
“Where the hell did you put my—never mind. So why don’t you know where all the weapons are?” For once, Lancelot was being responsible and picking off the flecks from the wall.
Maybe a little sesame oil. No…the wok was a bit too hot now. And a little cramp had just squeezed Guinevere’s insides. She told it very firmly that she was wearing a very nice thong and she didn’t want to spend the evening scrubbing blood out of it. It could hang on for another half-hour.
“…you were distracted, weren’t you? I wondered why the couch looked different—you had it reupholstered, didn’t you?” Lancelot was grinning fit to be smacked again.
But Guinevere needed her spatula and there weren’t any other ones in reach. “The sangria ice cream stains didn’t blend in quite as well as your butterscotch ones did.”
She hid a grin herself as Lancelot started to choke. He finally heaved himself around, eyes big as eggs, and stared his question.
“You should try that sometime,” Guinevere airily said. “Hmm, it looks like we’ve even got a carton. Mine, though.”
* * *
For the past six years, Arthur had spent most of his coffee-breaks listening to Vanora’s tales of raising children and preventing breakouts of hell. Now he was wishing he hadn’t exchanged that for…interesting email conversations with Lancelot or Guinevere just as Vanora’s children had started to hit dating age. He could have used the advice. “How’s your dinner?”
“Oh. Um, fine.” Gawain surreptitiously dumped more of his appetizer in the plant, then munched far too enthusiastically on his main dish. He vigorously nodded.
One would think that between teaching as a college professor and running covert operations for the British government, the method for handling nervous boyfriends-of-somewhat-adopted-son would have come up. But no, it hadn’t, and Arthur was left more or less on his own.
He took a deep breath, looked about—most of the people sitting near them had left, which should remove some of the pressure—and then picked up his fork. “So how did you and Tristan meet? All he said was it involved a tree.”
Gawain jerked and generally acted as if Arthur had crammed a rock down his throat. But he recovered soon enough and warily answered. “Well, that was the second time. He came by with a message during…that one lecture where you came in with your clothes messed up.”
Arthur flushed. He absently wondered if he could blame it on the low lighting or the spices. “Oh. That would have been right after my meeting with Lancelot.”
“I guess he’s started coming after class finishes now?” There was a hint of levity in Gawain’s voice, but it quickly disappeared when Arthur didn’t immediately react. The other man coughed uncomfortably and flipped around his knife. “Uh…because Galahad and I never see him around. Just Guinevere.”
“Actually, Lancelot doesn’t particularly like coming to my office. Vanora and he got off to a bad start, and I don’t think he’s ever persuaded her to relent.” After another few minutes, they could probably ask for the bill and not receive too many odd looks. The amount of food left on Arthur’s plate made him feel vaguely guilty, but if he ate any more he suspected his arteries would explode from the grease.
Gawain laughed, surprisingly enough. He fiddled with his knife a little more in a way Arthur usually associated with assassins on downtime. “How long has Vanora been your secretary? She acts like Tristan’s another one of her kids.”
“Since we got here. She’s a lovely, lovely lady whose advice has saved me a few times.” Arthur scraped at his leftovers and tried not to pay attention to the oil oozing out from beneath it. He’d eaten far worse.
Of course, then he’d been in conditions so bad that he hadn’t really been able to tell what he was eating.
“Just so you know…I’m really grateful for the job. And for your not making a big deal out of…well, Tristan and…um, thanks.” Either Gawain was struggling with the right words or he was coming down with a rare tropical disease. His face reddened and he pinched his nose, mumbling into his hand for a while before managing to say anything else. “And I’m not going to fuck it up. I swear.”
That had come out clearly enough. And Gawain meant it with every bone in his body.
Arthur suddenly felt oddly sad. No, that wasn’t the right word. Wistful, perhaps, because this probably was the last time Tristan would need him to act like a father, and Arthur wasn’t sure if he could ever risk having a child of his own. “Gawain, by now I’ve learned to trust in Tristan’s judgment. What I care most about is that he’s happy, and that he’s happy on his own terms. If you help that happen, then I don’t see where there’s anything to worry about.”
Someone rattled a plate nearby and Arthur snapped out of it. He was happy for Tristan, and for Gawain. And to be honest, he was a little relieved to have that duty over and done with. “In other words, I believe you. Now, were you thinking about dessert? Because if not, we can get the—”
“Check, please?” Gawain called over his shoulder. He gave Arthur an embarrassed look. “Sorry. But this is…really bad.”
“I know. I’m beginning to think I should stop asking Bors for restaurant tips—he and Vanora live about three blocks from here.” When the bill arrived, Arthur had already slipped out his credit card. He had it in the tray before the waiter had even let go. Then he turned to meet the protest rising in Gawain’s face. “I have to warn you, this isn’t really free. I’m sorry that this is so last-minute, but I said I’d meet with some prospective graduate students next Saturday and I accidentally scheduled for the same time that I’m meeting one of our largest donors. I know you’re not scheduled to work--”
Gawain needed a second to process all of that, but then he shrugged and grinned. “Hey, sure. Who are they headed for?”
“Probably Holberg or Chan. They’re interested in the political philosophy sub-department that Chan and I are trying to spin off.” The credit card came back almost immediately, so the place had at least one saving grace. Arthur tucked his wallet into his trousers and got up. “I also need to run an errand, if you don’t mind…”
“Nah. Tell me more about these new guys,” Gawain said. He looked relieved to finally be back on familiar territory. “They aren’t connected to anybody, are they?”
“No. I think we’ve filled our quota for interesting backgrounds for this year.”
* * *
Tristan stared at the ceiling.
The crumple of books, papers and random pencils at the other end of the couch suddenly heaved upward. “For fuck’s sake—you’ve got another half-hour before he’s even late.”
“I didn’t say or do anything.”
“And yet you’re still managing to make me twitchy with how worried you are,” Galahad snapped. He dragged the rest of himself out of the books, then dove back in to retrieve a piece of paper that looked as if it was the sole survivor of the bibliographical apocalypse. “Thank God I’m done so I don’t have to hang around here any more.”
After waiting till Galahad reached the door, Tristan sat up. “Gawain’s out with Arthur. Every single girl on campus is currently annoyed with you over Saturday night, and the only one that’s still talking to you is Mariette.”
“And that’s why I’m submitting this fucking abstract and then going home.” Galahad took one step.
Then he looked back over his shoulder. “Christ, do you really need the company that badly? When was the last time Arthur killed anybody?”
Tristan rolled his eyes as Galahad flinched. The man had a memory like a sieve.
“Oh, hell with it. Come on,” Galahad muttered, coming back to yank at Tristan’s wrist. “Gawain will kill me if you go…weirder. You can help me whack Mariette’s carburetor into shape.”
That came out wrong and Galahad’s flush showed it. But Tristan did appreciate the offer. “You know, she’s even starting to complain to me about how long you’re taking on her car.”
“Ungrateful bitch. It’s a total wreck—what’s she expecting? Magic wands and sparkly things?”
On second thought, Tristan could just as easily distract himself by going up and playing with the new baby raptors, or sneaking into the pathology lab and doing some side-work on his decomposition research. Of course, neither of those options came with the possibility that he’d see Galahad get bitch-slapped in another five minutes. “Galahad. There’s a girl waving at you. She looks—”
“—fuck!” Galahad instantly dodged down a side-hall. “Come on, do your ninja thing and get a move on!”
* * *
Gawain stood in a corner and pretended he was interested in the aftershave. Which was kind of stupid given his beard, but it was either that or act like he was actually with Arthur. And as much as he did owe the man, he wasn’t about to stand by while Arthur deliberated on tampon brands. Jesus Christ, how Arthur did it with a straight face was something Gawain would never figure out.
“Damn it. I wish these had an information strip. Something like a nutrition label, where it’s all in one place instead of spread all over the package…” Arthur picked up one box, frowned at all six sides and then put it down in favor of scanning the entire aisle. For the third time. Women were starting to get over their giggly surprise and get looks in their eyes like they were going to hogtie him and toss him into the trunk of their car. “Oh, there it is. They changed the box color…”
“Do that just about every month,” one Latino woman snorted. She smiled up at Arthur. “Buying for your girlfriend? That’s so sweet—I can never get my Lucas to even look at these things. He thinks they’re evil or something.”
Okay, at this point Gawain thought it might be justifiable to just grab Arthur and make a run for it. If he stayed in here for much longer, his face was going to explode—
--oh, shit, had it? He started to grab for his cheeks, but then he realized that those were just gunshots.
And then he snapped out of L. A. ‘hood mentality and looked towards the front of the store, where two guys were waving around shotguns and semiautomatics while yelling really loudly. One woman was already on the floor and sobbing for God.
“This is a robbery!” the man with the shotgun shouted.
No shit. Amateurs. “They aren’t even looking for the security cameras,” Gawain muttered.
“Gawain, I think—” Arthur started to say.
He was interrupted by the handgun-guy running the six yards between them and screaming curses. “Hey, big man? You want to fight? Huh? You want to make this tough? Well, don’t even fucking think about it, ‘cause I’ll kill all these bitches and yeah—” gun swinging away from Arthur and towards the Latino woman “--blow they fuckin’ heads—”
His head smashed into the shelf and brought the whole damn thing crashing out so he and Arthur disappeared in an avalanche of feminine sanitary products. Snarling, his partner whipped around just in time for Gawain to toss a heavy bottle of shampoo in his face. Then Gawain ran to yank up the man’s shotgun, but didn’t quite make it because he skidded on the spilled shampoo. But his arm did slap the end so the bullet went into the displays.
Soon as he hit the door, he used the frame to whirl around. The clerk had jumped over the counter and was taking out what sounded like a couple years of bad relationships on the guy, so Gawain quietly stepped around them and, wrapping his shirt-tails over his hands, pulled away the shotgun so it couldn’t accidentally shoot anybody. “Arthur?”
Who was gingerly picking his way through the boxes and boxes of pads, semiautomatic in one hand. He paused to retrieve his box of tampons, then turned to the Latino woman. “Ma’am? Are you all right?”
“Jesus, I’m fine. What the hell are you two, Green Berets?” She looked adoringly up at Arthur.
He blushed. “Oh, no. I teach philosophy at Avalon College.”
“Sign me up!” she called after him.
Still pink-cheeked, Arthur made his way to the front where the clerk was finally climbing off the first gunman. “Sorry about your shelves. I’ll pay for that and this—”
“Huh? Oh, man, no. No, it’s on the house—here, lemme get a bag for you so you aren’t waving that shit around where anybody could see it.” The clerk snatched away the tampons before Arthur could protest and disappeared around the counter. “And hey, you mind hanging ‘round till the police come by? It’ll make it easier for me to file insurance.”
“Well, don’t know what else we’d do with this…” Gawain carefully put the shotgun on the counter, careful not to get any of his own prints on it. He leaned against the door and watched Arthur do the same with the pistol. “So…”
Arthur glanced at the men on the floor, then turned to Gawain. “Thank you.”
“I was just backing you up,” Gawain said, a little surprised. The other man sounded deadly serious—and yeah, the whole thing had put Gawain out of breath, but he didn’t think it was that bad. Well, for him and his life.
“And thank you for it.” A sigh, and then Arthur stared out the window. Some memory was bugging him, maybe. “Gawain, I haven’t been able to give Tristan the safest life. All I want is to know he has someone he can trust. Do what you just did for me and I’ll be happy.”
“Uh, sir?” The clerk offered a plastic bag. “The cops’ll be around in about two minutes, and here’s your stuff.”
Gawain took it and handed it to Arthur. “That’s what I’m planning to do,” he quietly replied. Then he just had to look at the aisle they’d messed up again. “Holy shit. Thank God I never have to buy those for anybody.”
* * *
“Ow! Fuck!” Galahad gingerly backed the rest of the way out of the hood to see Gawain walk in, looking perfectly fine. He was an hour and a half late, but he was healthy and even bouncing a bit. “Hey. You survived. Go in the back and get Tristan before he has a nervous breakdown.”
“Tristan doesn’t have nervous breakdowns,” Gawain snorted. But he’d already changed directions, so it wasn’t like he wasn’t worried. “Oh, by the way, got stuck in a robbery. I’m praying really hard Arthur made it so we don’t end up on the evening news, but if we do…”
And Galahad whacked himself on the car again. He put down the wrench and wiped his hands on a rag, then went after Gawain. “Hey, the fuck do you mean by—Jesus motherfucking Christ! That was five seconds!”
“Shut the door,” Tristan mumbled. Just before dropping down and—
--oh, yeah, Galahad damn well was shutting the door. Honestly, like there was ever anything to worry about.
* * *
“What about Rio? The pineapple?” Lancelot grunted, biting at Guin’s ear. He ducked her slap and pushed hard into her so her hands temporarily fell to the side. “Top that.”
Her knee slammed into him and they went rolling across the kitchen floor, only to fetch up against the table…and a foot. Panting, Guin and Lancelot both looked up to see a bemused Arthur stepping over them. He was carrying a small plastic bag from which he withdrew a box of tampons.
“Did you two get to…” dishes rattling in the sink “…oh, you did eat before you started this time. Is there any left? The restaurant didn’t live up to its recommendation.”
“Arthur in the lecture-hall very, very late at night. Up front. Against the podium,” Guin purred.
A sharp clinking of dishes. Lancelot growled and nipped hard at Guin’s earlobe. “God, you cunt. You two—that’s not fair! Arthur, you said no to me!”
“What are you, three?” And Guin flipped them over so she was on top. She scooted her knees up his ribs so the angle changed and oooh, fuck, that was good. Damn her and her photographic memory for weaknesses like that. “And he buys me tampons without moaning like a…Arthur, why is the box bloody?”
“I might have run into a bit of trouble after dinner. Attempted robbery. That’s why I’m late.” Arthur wandered back over, looking faintly disappointed. He nodded at the stove. “Did you put the leftovers in the fridge?”
Well, if he was that hungry, he could get down on the floor before Guin ate all of Lancelot. She had teeth like pincers and they were currently stinging up and down Lancelot’s chest. “No, we got a bit carried away and finished them. So how was dinner, aside from the bad food? And—did you say robbery?”
“Awkward in places, but overall it ended well. I think those two are going to be very good for each other.” He pulled out a chair and sat so he could reach down to run his fingers through Lancelot’s hair. “Robbery. Minor thing—no one was hurt, but I had to file a police statement. A couple of smalltime criminals, nothing professional enough to worry over.”
“And I take it you took care of them?” Guin might as well have been drooling, what with how she sat up and ran her hands along Arthur’s arms. Her eyes half-closed and she started unbuttoning his shirt. “Want to tell us about it?”
Lancelot let his arms fall back and laughed at her. “God, Guin. You get off on the most bizarre—” she flexed around him “—oh, God. All right. Truce for now—wait. Arthur. Those hollowpoints? Country?”
“Left over from a jaunt to the Sudan.” Arthur was still hesitating, but at least he was answering without much protest. He got off the chair and traced Lancelot’s mouth with his finger. “I really do need to eat something.”
“There’s sangria ice cream in the freezer,” Lancelot innocently suggested.
Arthur looked embarrassed enough to cuddle. But then Guin finally applied her cleverness to something mutually beneficial and Arthur’s eyes went dark and hungry. Dessert was the best part of any meal.