|The Theorist Prologue: Put into Practice
Author: Guede Mazaka
Merlin held out the paper at arm’s-length for a few seconds before he put it down. He reached beside him and pulled out a drawer, from which he took a small leather case. After opening it and taking out his glasses, he took some time to deliberately settle them on his nose before beginning to read the paper again. He did that silently, though his lips occasionally moved a little as if repeating a word or two to himself. His fingers seemed to exert the same amount of gentle pressure as they held onto the sides of the paper throughout the process.
Arthur wasn’t normally fidgety, but then, Merlin was a past master at provoking unexpected reactions from a wide range of people. And to be honest, if there’d ever been a situation that justified fidgeting, Arthur believed that this was it.
“This doesn’t explain everything,” Merlin suddenly said. He stayed as he was except for his eyes, which flicked up to peer over the top of the sheet. It was a grandfatherly pose, but he didn’t give off an air that matched.
“No. I’d be happy to discuss the fine details with you as a friend, of course, but I think my letter satisfies all university and other public inquiries into my decision.” They’d had a similar discussion, all wary probing beneath the politesses, when Arthur had first been hired, and Merlin had seemed to understand then that certain matters were best not put into paper. At least as far as the well-being of Avalon College was concerned.
Merlin didn’t look like a fool now, but he also seemed rather unsettled. He even went as far as to shift in his seat, which Arthur had almost never seen him do. “I would like to talk to you more—if I’d known it’d be this sort of meeting, I would have scheduled a longer block of time for it.”
“My apologies. I should’ve given you better notice but…well, honestly, I wasn’t sure if there was any good way to put it,” Arthur said.
Nodding, the other man slowly turned to draw the old-fashioned leather-bound scheduling book he used. “Can we set a further meeting time now, or should I have my secretary talk to your secretary?”
That…well, it had both a joke and a barb wrapped up in it, and Arthur wasn’t quite expecting the second. He’d thought it’d be less sharp, anyway. “No, we can go on ahead now. This evening should be fine for…well, I had other dinner plans but I can cancel them if you don’t want to meet after that time.”
“I think it might be better to do this over a good meal. A full stomach tends to slant perspective,” Merlin muttered. He didn’t qualify his statement as to whether he meant that in a favorable or unfavorable way, but instead went on to suggest various restaurants.
They settled on one and a time, and then Arthur had to go because whoever was next had just knocked on the door. He glanced at his watch as he walked out: just enough time to head over to his office and check his email before tackling the finance department.
His phone rang. He checked the ID, but didn’t recognize it. After a long, wary moment, he pressed to answer the call and put the cell to his ear.
* * *
“It just doesn’t seem proper to me. They keep on professors who are idiots, who bring on lawsuits with the bullshit they spew, and then Arthur’s got to leave?”
Guinevere mistyped, back-spaced and retyped. She finished that line and then tabbed to the next one, but the lump on her office couch kept talking, and talking, and finally she lifted her fingers off the keyboard. “One, he potentially poses a great danger to all the people around him.”
“My old maths teacher did, too. Bastard would wallop us on the shoulders and ears when he thought we were being fresh with him. Drew blood and left bruises and God, did I ever want to sock that arse good—”
“Two, you know how much trust matters to him.”
“And they aren’t going to trust Arthur anymore to do the right thing?”
Some days Guinevere wished she could lock her door. But maintenance and accounting wouldn’t let her install a proper one, and the one she currently had, Lancelot had proved was easy enough to pick several times over. “It doesn’t matter. He thinks they can’t possibly trust him, because he’s got these government intelligence connections. Add that to the history of activist movements on university campuses to get one compromised professor to whom probably half the place has confided all sorts of things. That’s how he sees himself right now.”
Lancelot didn’t say anything. After a moment, Guinevere went back to typing. She paused to consult her notes a few times, but surprisingly enough, got all the way to the end of the form without any more interruptions. Not that that made things much better; she knew it was coming sooner or later, and the longer the silence dragged on, the more she had to clamp down on her own nerves. Damn it, she needed Lancelot to be an idiot so she could slap a lid on him. Otherwise she might not be able to keep herself from going out and doing something stupid.
“…what is he going to do?”
She almost breathed a sigh of relief. “What?”
“I mean, he’s a workaholic. It’s his natural state of being. If he can’t teach, and he won’t go back to his old profession, what the hell is he going to do?” Much frantic gesturing of the hands. So much so, in fact, that Lancelot nearly flung himself off the couch.
After some undignified scrambling, he managed to keep his seat. While he was at it, he even pulled himself upright—he almost put his feet up on the glass table, but Guinevere glowered and he put them back down with a pointed thump—to stare hard at her. She eventually figured out that he hadn’t been asking that rhetorically. “You think I know?”
“You seem to have everything else figured out,” Lancelot said, just barely civil.
She rolled her eyes and almost did some hand-waving herself. “Just because I can logically analyze Arthur’s rationale for what he’s already done or told us he’ll do does not mean I can predict what he’ll do next. Or what he’ll want…want to do next.”
That last part had come out as a bit of a surprise. It was true, but…she looked up and saw Lancelot grinning at her, his smile edged with a little ruefulness and a little mockery. “That hurt to admit, didn’t it?”
“You don’t know any better what’s best for him,” she snapped, spinning back to her work. Well, the relief was completely gone now; she was back to wishing Lancelot was out of the room and pestering someone else so she could get through her day and…and…and not have to really think about Arthur. Damn.
“I know he’d better be around for the Islamic Art special exhibit the Met’s putting on this spring. Because I didn’t get behind-the-scenes passes for that to go with just you.” Lancelot dropped his arms to rest on his knees and irritably scuffed at the floor, thus completely missing Guinevere’s attempt to will him into spontaneously combusting. Then he sighed and glanced to the side, absently yanking on his tie. “I just thought he might’ve mentioned something to you. Since he seems to talk about that sort of thing with you.”
He sounded a little…chagrined, surprisingly enough. When Guinevere looked over, Lancelot only met her eyes for a moment before jerking his head back aside, cheeks slightly pinked. Her turn to grin. “You know, it’d help if you didn’t mock his philosophy, his profession and his students every chance you got.”
“It’s academia! It mocks itself!” Lancelot protested, though not terribly strongly. He slightly turned back. “…so he didn’t say anything?”
She shuffled a few papers, but answered before he got so edgy that he tried to kick her table again. “Just that it’s hard to put a timeline down since he wants to expedite the process, but he wants it to look normal so he’s going to set Gawain and Galahad up with another professor, help interview his replacement—hard since he’s also Monmouth Chair—and hand off all his duties to other people in his department.”
Lancelot rubbed at his mouth, then tipped over onto his back on the couch again. He put up his feet on the end, and didn’t move them when Guinevere cleared her throat. “I don’t know how to take that. Does he have a contingency plan? He’s got to—it’s Arthur. But is it a good one? Is he going to have a nervous breakdown two months from now? Is the lack of work going to—”
Knock on the door, and then Pellew poked in his head. He took in the situation, nodded to Lancelot and ended up looking at Guinevere, which was the sensible thing to do. Hopefully he had something that’d get Lancelot off the damn couch. “Terribly busy?”
“Not terribly, at least for me. I’m typing up some reports,” Guinevere said. “I’m not quite sure what Lancelot’s doing or how much thought it involves.”
She sensed Lancelot’s death-glare so she didn’t bother looking for it as she sweetly smiled at Pellew. He blinked a few times, eyebrow up, before coughing a bit. “Then I’d like to see you two in my office now, if you please. Something’s come up.”