|The Second Time Around
Author: Guede Mazaka
“It’s seriously driving me crazy. I never realized how small the place really is before this, and I just—I just—God!” Gawain tossed the peppercorns into the pot so hard that a couple of them bounced back out. They plinked off the stove, then fell to roll around his toes.
He moved aside so Tristan, already bending down, could pick them up and reached for the jar of dried chiles and the bottled spices. The workplace was driving him nuts, but for the first time in months, he and Tristan had overlapping vacation time and he wasn’t going to waste it. They were going to have a nice dinner, and some time on the couch while Gawain tried to explain the appeal of watching a college football bowl game, and then later they’d probably fuck like bunnies.
“Good thing I finally took those to the raptor center,” Tristan said. He flicked the dropped peppercorns into the trashcan before moving back to the cutting board. “I never realized how much rabbits in heat smell. Or how loud they can get.”
Gawain blinked, then turned to stare at the other man. Then he shrugged and went back to spicing the broth: Galahad thought that that was pretty creepy, but Gawain could tell Tristan was holding back a grin. It was kind of eerie, but the other man made it cute.
“What’s driving you crazy?” Tristan asked, cutting up carrots. He couldn’t read minds all the time, after all. Which actually would have been frightening.
“Galahad and Mariette. Trying to avoid each other, while also trying to keep up on each other. Well, no, Galahad’s actually just in a funk. Mariette’s the active one.” After a taste, Gawain added some more salt and chili powder. He set the stove for a fast simmer, then went around Tristan to get the chuck roast out of the sink where it’d been defrosting. “She says if Galahad wants space, he can have it. She’s trying to pretend she’s mad at how he took her apology, but she really just wants to talk to him and she’s too scared to, or something. I haven’t really talked to her long enough to figure that out.”
Tristan slid a handful of carrots onto the knife blade and carried them over to the pot, then came back for the rest. He gracefully spun to snag a couple onions on the follow-through. “You’re still mad at her on Galahad’s behalf.”
“Damn straight. And damned if she hasn’t figured that out yet, though I’ve basically done everything except tell her,” Gawain muttered.
“Because that’d probably make her start avoiding me, and if they ever are going to get over this, they’ve got to keep contact somehow. Arthur and Kitty are staying out of it, which leaves me.” The chuck roast went into the pot and raised the level of the broth dangerously near the rim. With a sigh, Gawain rummaged up a spoon and then started ladling broth into a cup for when the stuff in the pot had boiled down a bit. “I think Galahad’s had plenty of time, and now he’s just depressed because he can’t figure out how to shake himself out of it.”
Tristan didn’t say anything. He chopped up onions with precise efficiency, then moved on to potatoes. Every piece of potato-peel he took off arced straight into the trashcan, and he didn’t seem to have the problem of catching his fingertips on the peeler that Gawain did.
“Don’t think so?” Gawain asked. He glanced at Tristan as he moved over to the sink to wash his hands.
“I haven’t seen him in a while.” Which was Tristan’s way of saying he didn’t. He dealt with the potatoes, then handed the knife to Gawain to rinse off as he dumped the veggies in the pot. “You’ve lived with him. It just doesn’t seem like he’d like somebody shaking him, from how I know him.”
Gawain opened his mouth, changed his mind about what he wanted to say, and slouched against the fridge. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. Which is the really hard part about all of this. I just really want to smack both of them on the head, but I can’t do it, can I? I think even telling them about how each other’s doing is pushing it a little, but it’s just driving me—”
“Nuts,” Tristan said. He glanced at Gawain.
A couple months ago, he might’ve just trusted Gawain to get the joke. It was a small but telling reminder that they weren’t picture-perfect yet either. But they were getting there, Gawain told himself. They were talking, they were trying.
“Yeah.” He put the knife away and stepped up to the counter to let Tristan get behind him. Then he turned and moved up behind Tristan, wrapping his arms around the other man as Tristan started to wash his hands. He felt Tristan tense up, then relax. Gawain buried his nose in the other man’s hair, rubbing it till he got through to the bare skin.
Tristan stiffened again. “I smell like chemicals.”
“I ever tell you Galahad and I used to work in a car repair garage? Believe me, it smelled way worse there,” Gawain murmured. He unwrapped his arms and reached up to curl his fingers around Tristan’s biceps, then slowly slid them down to the other man’s hands.
They were covered in slick soap that hadn’t yet been worked into a lather. So Gawain helped with that, running his hands over and around Tristan’s, working his fingers in between Tristan’s fingers, curling Tristan’s wrists with his thumbs. Tristan’s body slackened and leaned forward, though he tilted his head back a little. “No, you didn’t. I thought so, though.”
Gawain hummed and kissed the back of Tristan’s neck. There wasn’t any formaldehyde or any of the other stuff Tristan used on the skin, though he could smell traces of it in Tristan’s hair. He pressed his nose down hard against Tristan’s nape to get around that and inhaled deeply; Tristan abruptly twisted his hands around to tightly grasp Gawain’s and draw them under the running water. He gently rubbed down the length of each of Gawain’s fingers with his thumb and forefinger to take off the suds.
“I don’t hate your job. I think it’s cool. I just wish we had more compatible hours, you know. But I know you’re doing what you can—and it shouldn’t be all you,” Gawain said. “I wish my hours were more flexible.”
“They’re already pretty good. I miss being a grad student for that.” Tristan arched so his ass rolled back into Gawain and his throat stretched out so close to Gawain’s mouth…then cursed and twisted, reaching for the stove dials. “Boiling.”
It wasn’t quite spilling all over the place. Thanks to Tristan’s great reflexes—Gawain swore as well and hastily adjusted the heat. By then somebody had thumped on the door and Tristan had gone to check on it, and by the time Tristan had come back, the moment was dead and scrubbed into the floor.
Well, they had the whole evening to revive it, Gawain thought. “Mail?”
“Yeah, I think it’s the dissection kit I ordered.” Instead of opening it, Tristan just dropped it on the dining table. He came back over to stand in front of Gawain. After a second, he lifted his hands to cup Gawain’s face and pull them together for a kiss. “If you want any help about Galahad—”
“It wouldn’t be a good idea. No, they just have to fight it out with each other,” Gawain sighed. Then he reached over and grabbed Tristan’s arms when he felt the other man starting to withdraw. “But thank you for offering.”
“Mmm.” Tristan leaned forward just enough to rest his forehead against Gawain’s. He dropped his hands to Gawain’s shoulders and kneaded them a little, just enough for Gawain to realize he could do with a good massage. “Gawain?”
The other man pressed in a little harder, then abruptly ducked so his lips grazed against Gawain’s mouth. “Thank you for…for not asking for space. I think if you had—if you’d wanted to leave it even till the morning, I wouldn’t have come back. And I would’ve regretted it, not being brave enough for that.”
He started to turn away, but Gawain wasn’t going to let him off that easily. Not after hearing something like that; he grabbed Tristan about the waist and pulled him back, holding him tight enough for the body language to at least get through. He wasn’t about to risk words when they could get messed up so quickly and so easily.
“Good luck to Galahad,” Tristan eventually added. “Him and Mariette.”
“Yeah.” Gawain rested his chin on Tristan’s shoulder. “Yeah. But Galahad’s stubborn as hell, and so’s Mariette. So…I think I believe in them.”
* * *
On some level, Galahad knew that he was taking out his weeks-long bad mood on Jack, and that eventually the poor kid would run out of patience. Deservedly so, and then Galahad would be on the outs with his roommate, his best friend and his…girlfriend. Goddamn it, he wasn’t even sure what to call her now.
“Ah, Galahad? Terribly sorry to interrupt, but have you seen the laundry change—”
Galahad jabbed his finger at the top of the fridge; he’d forgotten to put the stupid jar back after he’d finished making lunch. He’d probably forgotten to put back a lot of the stuff he’d moved when clearing the kitchen counter, but if he got up right now he’d have to punch something. And if he spoke, he’d probably run Jack’s back up against the wall way, way sooner than later.
Fortunately, Jack was tactful and just muttered a thanks as he got the jar. Then he bundled himself, it, and the laundry out the door. He’d be gone for a good couple of hours, so that’d give Galahad some time. Though what exactly Galahad was going to do with it, he wasn’t really sure. Try to work? That’d been doing the trick for a while, but now it just increased his frustration. Sit around and stew in his thoughts? Not really his style; his feet got restless and usually he ended up sucking down a beer, then going out to pick a fight somewhere.
Gawain had put out a standing offer, but it’d be the third time this week if Galahad went over. Besides, all that ever happened then was Tristan lurking around in the background while Gawain prodded, apologized for prodding, and then prodded some more. ‘wain meant well, but he could be just…annoying.
Maybe a change of setting, Galahad thought, and then jumped onto his feet. He wasn’t really that excited about the idea, but suddenly it seemed like even that possibility of some peace would disappear if he didn’t hurry. So he did, and in a record thirteen minutes and five seconds, he was wandering around the Philosophy department, looking for a quiet spot where he didn’t remember making out with Mariette.
He was still looking when he found Arthur scanning a bulletin board in the hall. Galahad politely coughed to let the other man know he was there. “Man, don’t you ever take a vacation?”
Arthur smiled slightly when he saw Galahad, and then a little wider at Galahad’s words. “I did. I just came in for a few hours to wrap up some paperwork—Lancelot and Guinevere are cleaning the whole house as one of their Christmas gifts to me and it’s a bit noisy at home. So what brings you here?”
“Same reason, I guess,” Galahad said.
It didn’t seem like Arthur had anything else to say, so Galahad started to walk on. But then Arthur held up a hand, his smile vanishing and a deeply concerned expression coming onto his face in its place. “If I had something easier to say, I’d call it serendipity. But…can I speak to you for a few minutes?”
“Sure.” Galahad stopped where he was, then frowned when Arthur started off towards the front doors. A nagging, nasty suspicion was beginning to coil up in his gut.
He tried not to let it show. After all, this was his advisor, and his mood wasn’t so bad that he’d turned suicidal. But nevertheless, he couldn’t make himself follow Arthur at quicker than a snail’s pace. Arthur noticed, but typically didn’t comment and instead just adjusted his stride so somehow they were even, despite the couple of inches his legs had on Galahad.
“Sorry to force you outside again, especially with the chilly temperatures,” Arthur said. He looked uneasy and for once, wasn’t really looking Galahad in the eye. The suspicion growing in Galahad began to flower. “But I—well, you may want to raise your voice at me.”
“Look, Arthur, I know you mean well, but I just…it’s okay. I’m okay without it.” Well, not really, but Galahad knew exactly what he was doing and why he was doing it, and he didn’t need any help with it. He was doing plenty himself—it wasn’t ‘plenty good’ but not every time was a winner.
Arthur frowned and looked sharply at Galahad, his brow creasing. “Pardon? Wait, I don’t think you—”
“Hey, she didn’t ask you to do this, did she? Because oh, my God, way for her to get over her issues. Spring another f—parental interference on me,” Galahad muttered. His temper suddenly surged and he had to dig his nails deep into his thigh to keep from swearing. “I just can’t believe—”
“Oh. Oh, no, no, Galahad. This isn’t about Mariette at all. I’m sorry, I should’ve made that clear earlier,” Arthur interrupted. His expression flashed from relief to sympathy, then settled on regret. He shook his head, a grim smile briefly touching his mouth. “No…I wouldn’t interfere in your private life like that. And Mariette hasn’t…she hasn’t spoken to me at all except to greet me when we pass in the hallways for the past few weeks.”
Ah…shit, was basically Galahad’s state of mind. Like he wasn’t fucking up things enough already, and now he’d just—he grimaced and looked off to the side, feeling embarrassment heat up his cheeks. He scrubbed at one of them, but that just seemed to make his blush worse. “Crap. I’m sorry. I—sorry. So what were you really going to say?”
Silence for a minute or two. When Galahad looked, Arthur was steadily regarding him. Their eyes met and a little puff of cloudy breath popped out of Arthur’s mouth. Then a big one came out as he sighed and rubbed at his nose, which was turning a bit red. “I need to talk to you and Gawain about this as soon as I can, but on the other hand, it’s the kind of problem where I wish I…well, I wish I didn’t have to present you with it at all, but that can’t happen so I had been hoping to at least catch you at a good time.”
“Yeah, well…that’s life,” Galahad shrugged. He met Arthur’s concerned gaze for a few seconds, then shrugged again and dropped his eyes to check out their feet instead. It was so cold that the morning frost was still hanging around on the dead brownish grass. “I’d honestly like to just have it out now. It’s not really a good time for me, but the more advance notice I’ve got, the better I’ll probably be for dealing with whatever it is.”
“All right then.” Arthur hesitated, then seemed to steel himself. “I wrote a resignation letter over the break and I’ve been preparing for the eventuality that I’ll have to use it. Which I suspect will be sooner rather than later. I know this puts you and Gawain in a bad position—I’m speaking to Kitty and to a few members of the department who I trust in order to make sure that my decision affects you as little as possible. You’ve got my word on that.”
Galahad blinked. Reran Arthur’s words through his mind, then blinked again.
“What?” he said. His voice was so quiet he could barely hear himself. So he repeated himself, and this time it was pretty much a shout. “What? What the hell?”
Arthur winced. “I’m sorry.”
“I—my fucking God, I’d hope so. You’re resigning? Since when? How—how long have you had this letter, and what kind of advance notice is this? I—Jesus Christ, with all due respect, Gawain and me can afford Avalon because you’re the Monmouth Chair and you’ve got that extra money for paying us,” Galahad snapped. He threw up his hands and stamped his right heel into the ground, and with all of that he still had extra rage to burn. “Thanks a fucking lot. Thanks for thinking about us.”
At first it looked as if Arthur was going to fold into a major guilt-trip: he actually took a step back from Galahad. But then Galahad ended with flinging his arms back and leaning aggressively forward, and Arthur stopped ceding ground. His jaw tightened and his eyes flashed, and even though his expression overall was still remorseful, something about him told Galahad to shut up.
Of course, right now Galahad was in a totally irrational mood. “It’s not because you want to spend more time at home, is it?”
“No. It’s because I have a choice between resigning or between dragging this college and you into a war with the British Secret Intelligence, and I care too much about both things to do that,” Arthur snapped. “I know you and Gawain are very capable and can handle yourselves, but I don’t think it’s right for me to ask you to fight off trained professionals coming for me.”
Well. That was one way to shut up a person.
Both of them stared at the little tendrils of whitish breath curling from their mouths and nose. When he wasn’t sighing, Arthur seemed to breathe entirely through his nose with no apparent discomfort. On the other hand, the cold was so bad that every couple of seconds, Galahad had to suck air in through his mouth to give his nasal passages a chance to thaw out. Lose the needle-like, painful frost that he could feel forming in them.
“Sorry.” Arthur moodily scanned their surroundings, then looked back at Galahad. “You’ve got reasonable points, and in any case, I shouldn’t lose my temper at you like that. I apologize.”
“So—so do I. I—goddamn it, I’m sorry. It’s just really a shitty time for me right now,” Galahad muttered. He flicked a glance at Arthur, saw forgiveness, and for a moment, felt like the asshole Gawain occasionally called him. “Wow. It’s really that bad? I mean…well, I was lying and an idiot a moment ago. It’s not like Gawain and I haven’t been getting bad vibes from Tristan, though he hasn’t said anything specific…”
Arthur grimaced again. “Tristan actually doesn’t know too much, I think. Which is deliberate on my part—this really shouldn’t be your problem and I’m trying to minimize its effect on all of you as much as possible.”
“Thanks. Really, I’m not being sarcastic this time.” Galahad scuffed at the grass with his foot. “I…thanks, but you know, it’s not going to be the money we miss the most. I guess I’ll be all right since I’m joint anyway and I’ve still got Kitty, but Gawain…well, he’s got the people over at the School of Education. But still…you’ve been a really great advisor.”
A small but brilliant smile appeared on Arthur’s face. For a moment, it looked like he’d begun to tear up as well, but then he blinked and it went away, so maybe it’d just been the stiff breeze. “Thank you. That means a lot to me.”
“Listen…is there anything we can do? I know, I know, we’ve got as much right to interfere in your personal life as you do in ours, but I’d just like to offer…” After all, they’d held up pretty well in that mess that’d started them off with Arthur. Of course, it had been nearly two years since then and New York City life had been relatively peaceful, so Galahad knew he’d be rusty. But there were some things a guy just didn’t forget how to do.
When he and Gawain had left L. A., they’d both sworn never to get trapped in that kind of life again. And he wasn’t planning on it, but still…Jesus, talk about frustration. There was nothing Galahad hated more than seeing a problem and not being able to do anything about it. And he kind of already was having his patience tested about that without bringing Arthur into it.
“No. I appreciate the offer, but no,” Arthur said. He paused, a flicker of uncertainty going over his face. “I’ll try to give you more notice about when the resignation goes into effect. Right now, I estimate a few months, possibly the end of the semester…and Galahad? I know I said I wouldn’t meddle with your life, and it’s entirely up to you what to do with what I say…but it’s possible I’ll have to leave town for a while. Tristan seems as if he’s settled down, so I’ll be asking him to keep an eye on Mariette. I did promise her parents.”
Galahad opened his mouth, but instead of replying right away, just sighed. Things could get so damn complicated despite everybody’s best efforts—but then, Arthur couldn’t even bring himself to ask. “Hey, we’re both Kitty’s grad students. I’m not going to turn into some evil monster bent on driving her out.”
“That wasn’t what I—”
“I know that wasn’t what you meant. Probably not what you were thinking of either, but…well, yeah. Look, worry about yourself, okay? We’re grown adults. Gawain acts like one by default, and I’m—I’m gonna try, I swear,” Galahad said. He mustered up a bit of a cocky smile.
Arthur’s return smile was considerably less strained and more relieved. “Thank you, Galahad. For what it’s worth, you and Gawain are the grad students I think the most of. I’ll…I’ll let you get back to your work now.”
“Wh—oh, yeah. Right.” Galahad awkwardly nodded at Arthur, then turned to walk inside. He paused when he saw that Arthur wasn’t coming along, but the other man was looking in an entirely different direction, and…well, Arthur had his own things to see to. At least he knew what he was going to do.
* * *
Tristan blinked, then rapidly reviewed his memory for the past couple minutes. “Which point conversion are they going for?”
“One-point,” Gawain grinned, putting his head down on Tristan’s shoulder. He stared at the TV in rapt concentration, hand gradually tightening on Tristan’s knee till the ball crossed the line. Then his fingers snapped loose and excitedly rubbed up and down Tristan’s thigh. “Yes!”
College sports had some nice side-benefits, but Tristan still couldn’t see the appeal of the main attraction. But for once they’d had the time to really plan a day and so he was trying to go along with what Gawain wanted to do. The other man had waited long enough for it.
“Hey, thanks for pretending to pay attention.” Gawain seemed to be genuinely amused when Tristan hastily checked on his face. Little sun-wrinkles creased the corners of his eyes when he smiled. “No, it’s okay. I appreciate the effort, you know. Long as I get to lean on you, you can think about new blood-detection staining techniques or whatever.”
Tristan smiled in relief and shifted his shoulder so the bony point of it wasn’t catching Gawain’s head in the temple. “I wasn’t thinking about work, actually. I was thinking about Mariette.”
Cue the surprised, confused look from Gawain. He was startled enough to actually turn away from the TV. Though the roar of the crowd a moment later had him instantly twisted back.
That didn’t mean he’d been totally distracted, of course. “It’s just a little weird. I know about her parental issues, but she’s been in America for a few years now. And even when she was still living in France, she wasn’t afraid to confront anybody besides her parents. Why is she staying away from Galahad?”
“Well, from what I could get from him, he did tell her off pretty strongly,” Gawain muttered after a moment. He shifted uneasily; he wasn’t the kind of person who carried grudges, and being unable to really make peace with Mariette’s actions was bothering him quite a bit. “Give Galahad some credit—he might act like he really does have dandelion fluff for a head, but he can be pretty damn frightening when he’s pushed to it.”
“Hmmm.” True, but Tristan really had been expecting Mariette to put up more of a fight. They hadn’t gotten along during Arthur’s time at the Sorbonne, but he did respect her. More than he respected her parents, to be honest—he thought they were lucky to exist in the Sorbonne’s stasis chamber of an ivory tower. Anywhere quicker-moving and they’d be having a lot of trouble.
They sat in relative peace for the rest of the quarter, Gawain occasionally lifting his head to lip at Tristan’s cheek-tattoos as he explained some fine point about the game. Tristan absently filed the facts away on the off-chance that they’d ever come in handy—they might; drive-by shootings in college sports seemed to be on the rise—and enjoyed hearing Gawain babble without that slight strain in his voice that he’d had lately.
A marching band spilled onto the field in gaudy colors for the halftime show and Gawain abruptly slouched down so his elbow dug a place for itself in Tristan’s tricep. “I just want Galahad to be happy,” he said. “I can’t make him do things, but I just really want…he doesn’t have a lot of people, you know.”
Tristan could completely understand that.
“And I wonder…because it’s our second year, and we’re halfway through. I think Galahad’s going to finish at least a semester early, and then I wonder what he’s going to do.” Gawain drummed his fingers on Tristan’s knee, then pushed back up to resettle his head in the crook of Tristan’s neck. He whistled low through his teeth. “We moved from L. A. together, but I don’t—I’ll be happy if I just get a teaching position and get to sleep next to you every night. Galahad’s not going to settle for that, though. And he deserves more. He’s good enough.”
“Mariette would be able to keep up with him,” Tristan remarked. She’d need a bit more work in the social skills section, and Tristan had to hide an ironic smile as he had the thought. No, he wasn’t too qualified in that either, but he’d learned how to make do with what he had. He didn’t think she’d picked up the former or figured out the latter yet.
Nod. Then another sigh from Gawain. “He needs somebody to keep up with him. And I can’t do that anymore. I—God, I feel like a mom. I think. I’m guessing this is what parents say when their kids move out.”
“You’ve probably got it right. Arthur was a little bit irritable for the first few months after I moved into my own apartment.” Tristan could grin about that now, though at the time he’d been rapidly approaching the end of his patience. Thankfully, Arthur had had two students complete their dissertations and graduate at the same time, which had distracted him long enough to regain his balance.
Gawain glanced at him. “Really? What’s irritable for Arthur?”
“Calling me to invite me over for dinner when I’m about to do a downtown run, incessantly reorganizing his library and purposefully assigning term papers to a hundred-plus class so he’s got an excuse to be exhausted and on the curt side,” Tristan said. He opened his mouth to add a comment about Arthur’s tendency to collapse asleep on his desk, but spotted a waver on the movement on the TV screen.
He got himself braced just in time to absorb the accidental hits as Gawain, gape-mouthed and wide-eyed, cheered his team on to the touchdown. When the ball hit the end-zone, Gawain threw up his arms and whooped. Then he noticed what else his arms had been doing and more carefully dropped them around Tristan’s neck to give Tristan a long kiss that had a bit too much tongue to be just apologetic. Not that Tristan was in any way objecting. Flush-faced and sparkling-eyed was the way he liked Gawain best.
It didn’t last as long as Tristan liked, though. And he could tell the moment Gawain started getting depressed again by the way the other man leaned heavily against him, like he wouldn’t have minded slipping behind Tristan for a while.
The one thing Arthur did have, irritable or not, that Tristan sometimes envied was the ability to pull out the right speech at a crucial moment. But he did his best. “I…don’t think Galahad likes being unhappy. Some people…they’re more comfortable that way. But he isn’t. So I think he’ll figure out a way.”
“Yeah, I hope so.” Gawain meditatively pushed his nose into Tristan’s neck, then chuckled a little beneath his breath. He laid a soft kiss on the side of Tristan’s jaw. “I think you’re right. It’s just that I’m not sure he’s going to do that any time soon, and…damn it. Well, I can’t do everything for him.”
“You do a lot.” Tristan paused. “Do you want to have him over tomorrow?”
He was rewarded with a brilliant smile, though Gawain shook his head. “Thanks. But no, I think—he’s been over so much that I think now he’s getting annoyed at me and himself about it. Don’t ask me to explain that ‘cause it’s just him. We’ll just have to do things by ourselves.”
“Which isn’t such a bad thing,” Tristan dryly said. He pretended to wince at the elbow-dig he knew Gawain was going to give him. Then he suppressed a sigh as something happened on the TV to get the commentators so excited they were getting ear-piercing screeches out of their microphones.
The game was half-over, and then they had the night and the next day, Tristan told himself. He could put up with it for a little longer.
* * *
If Galahad hadn’t really been in the mood to do work before, the talk with Arthur pretty much sealed the deal. He did make an attempt at it, but gave up after he mistyped his computer password three times and temporarily locked himself out of all the campus computers. Instead he went walking around campus, hoping that if it didn’t clear his head, it at least would get him tired enough for him to get in a good night’s sleep. He hadn’t had one of those in a good long while.
Unfortunately, Avalon wasn’t big enough. Eventually Galahad ran out of campus, and then had to start wandering around the coffeeshops and boutiques and videostores that lay just off-campus, and that was where he screwed up. Maybe it was New York City, metropolis extraordinaire, but irony meant if he looked at enough girls’ heads that looked like Mariette’s, then eventually it was going to be her.
She’d had her back to him so he started to duck around the corner, but his reflection in the storefront window must’ve caught her eye or something. Mariette went stiff. “Galahad?”
He thought about pretending he hadn’t heard her.
She lifted her hand to touch the glass in front of her, then completely turned around. She had her hair back in a ponytail, but it wasn’t tightly pulled back like she usually had it. It looked like it was about two seconds from falling out, with big chunks of hair straggling from it.
Galahad almost grimaced on the outside. He sure as hell was swearing like crazy inside of his head. “I was just walking around.”
“Oh.” Mariette’s fingers slowly curled up so her hand knuckled down against the glass. “So was I.”
“No kidding.” Okay, this was lame. This was really fucking stupid, and now they both had no backbones so that insult couldn’t be thrown around. At the very least, Galahad could be straightforward about this. “I’ve got to go.”
Some comment was lurking in Mariette’s expression, something sharp and hurting and bitter. But instead what she said, in a disappointed tone that stabbed a lot harder than any knife or rant would’ve, was: “Really?”
Of course not. It wasn’t like Galahad was doing anything, other than trying really hard to avoid anything and everything while Arthur’s revelation was still knotting up his head. God, he was getting pissed off at Arthur again. If he could’ve waited maybe a couple more months—but okay, his situation was way worse than the situation in which he was putting Galahad. It was more the circumstances than anything else. But still a fucking pain in the ass. And Galahad had been standing in place and staring blankly off for a good couple of minutes, hadn’t he? Great.
“Galahad? Are…are you okay?” Mariette warily asked, like she might lose a hand or something by doing it.
“Not really.” He did grimace for real this time, hoping she didn’t take that as some kind of opening or anything. Yeah, he wasn’t exactly together right now, and he really could use somebody to talk to about the whole Arthur thing, but…not her.
But the last time he’d went over to Gawain’s, the other man had been going on about finally getting a couple days off with Tristan—who’d pulled the post-Christmas shift, which made even Galahad feel sorry for him—and Galahad just couldn’t break the news to him. He’d be in too good of a mood, and besides, then Galahad would have to tell Tristan too, and Arthur had implied that Tristan wasn’t up to speed. And Tristan was totally not Galahad’s problem and wasn’t going to become his problem, thanks. It probably was better if Arthur told both of them.
“Do you want to go sit down and get a coffee?” Mariette glanced away, pretending to be interested in the storefront display. She rubbed nervously at the frosted glass with her hand. “I mean, you go…by yourself. I just think…you look like you could use it.”
“I probably do,” Galahad admitted. From where he was standing, he could see four coffeeshops that’d do. Not that he was moving towards them or anything. He just—he gave himself a hard shake, then sighed. Nope, life sucked and was complicated and totally not how he would’ve wanted it, but that was it and it couldn’t be ignored.
Arthur was putting him in a bind. He was losing the best advisor he’d had in his life, Gawain wasn’t just his anymore, and he knew right when he’d recognized Mariette’s profile that he still loved her. Assholeric parents and crappy decision-making and feminist temper tantrums and all.
“I miss you,” Mariette abruptly said. She had her chin up and her eyes moist, and after one second of staring straight into Galahad’s eyes, she turned away. “I have to g—”
“Wait,” Galahad called out. He took a step forward, then stopped and hung back on his trailing foot. “I…your ears look like they’re about to fall off as ice cubes. You really should go inside for a while, too.”
She looked back at him, poised on the edge of the curb. A lock of hair fell across her face and she absently pushed it back as she gave a noncommittal shrug. “I suppose…”
“I…” Galahad stared at his feet “…want to go to the same coffeeshop? Listen, I can’t guarantee anything here. I mean, I’m not going to buy you the coffee. But I’ll, y’know, share a table. Or some—I miss you, too.”
Mariette regarded him for a couple seconds without any particular expression on her face. But then, coming from nothing that he could see, she suddenly smiled. Tiny and close-lipped while abruptly looking at the ground, but it was definitely a smile. “You never bought me coffee anyway. I wouldn’t let you.”
“Nope,” Galahad agreed.
“I…okay. Okay,’ Mariette said. She nodded jerkily to herself, then hesitantly stepped away from the curb.
They watched each other till finally Galahad got impatient and took a step forward. A half-second after him, Mariette took a step so they were the same distance apart, and like that they edged their way into the nearest shop. Mariette briefly held the door for him, and he nudged an umbrella rack out of the way with his foot before it would’ve caught the hem of her coat.
They sure as hell weren’t back together, but…he looked at the back of her head and he thought he might not mind if this ended up blindsiding him.