|The Theorist I: Unforeseen Consequences
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Do you think—”
“I don’t want to think about it. I want to get my gun out of my office, get my coat, and get moving already,” Guin snapped.
Honestly. She was halfway to both, and it wasn’t like Lancelot was the least bit in her way. Considering how she was already going on about what a great multi-tasker she was, she didn’t really have any right to voice that complaint.
He let her get away with it anyway; he was busy trying to get on his own coat, which for some reason had moved its arm-holes or something like that when he wasn’t…oh, never mind. They’d just been twisted back where he couldn’t reach them. He turned the coat the right way, then threw it on just in time to keep Guin from noticing. “So much for analysis.”
“So much for—oh, I almost can’t stand you sometimes.” Her hand had been going for some files, but it briefly zigged towards her stapler before coming back to finally grab the folders and slip them into her desk. She locked the drawer before reaching for her coat. “Look, they’re holding her downtown for us. The fastest way to find out is to go there and get her in an interrogation room.”
“Arthur said he’d be in a crucial meeting right now. Check his schedule.” Guinevere rounded the desk and stalked towards Lancelot with the kind of set to her shoulders that meant she would plow through anything in her way. But when he nicely stepped aside, she slowed and turned to look at him. “You do have it, don’t you?”
Lancelot rolled his eyes as he fell in behind her. “Memorize it every day over my first coffee.”
“It doesn’t change that often.”
“Well, I like to check daily anyway just to make sure I don’t miss any deviations. It’s called being thorough—I’m sure you’re familiar with the concept,” he icily retorted.
Of course, that didn’t get to her at all. She merely tossed her pretty hair, clipped back in its pretty barrette, and cut so sharply in front of somebody that their coffee nearly tipped onto Lancelot. For a moment, it looked as if she were going to toss an acerbic comment Lancelot’s way as well, but then she simply squared off her shoulders and strode away. Which pointedly said a few things all by itself.
Swallowing his own comments, Lancelot went after her and caught up just in time to make the same elevator. He didn’t think Guin would leave him behind—for one, Pellew had made it clear he was tired of scolding them—but she certainly did like her little power plays. “How long can we keep Swann anyway? She’s got diplomatic immunity, and besides that, I doubt MI6 is going to let us detain her for more than a day.”
“Depending on whether she’s here on their orders.” Guin idly fingered the cuff of her blouse, her brow furrowing like it usually did when she was running the odds through her head. She never could stick to a no-brooding vow for very long—she was like Arthur that way. “I just don’t think she is. Not sure why, but…it doesn’t feel like that.”
“You’d think Arthur would have seen that coming, for one. He seemed normal enough this morning,” Lancelot muttered. He shoved his hands in his pockets and looked up at the ceiling. By the time they’d reached the garage level, he’d decided that no, he didn’t remember a Swann. “They have any connections we know about?”
Guinevere looked at him.
“What? I know the moment Arthur said we could, you were reading through all his personal papers. You’ve got to be through them by now.”
“You’d be surprised. For a profession where a paper-trail’s a bad thing, he’s managed to amass quite the collection. Suppose that’s why he held them off for so long.” She absently reached into her pocket. Her hand stayed there for a moment before Guin took it back out, looking a little annoyed with herself. Well, she could wait till they got to the car for her panic-smoke. “Anyway, even that doesn’t cover all of it. But I don’t…think so. Swann’s in her early twenties. She’s risen fast, but she hasn’t been part of MI6 for that long. Her time and Arthur’s time don’t overlap.”
Lancelot thought about that as they walked out. “I don’t like that,” he said as he got in the car. His car. It’d been closer and he’d gotten to it before she’d gotten to hers, and they were beyond simple little plays like driving separately to places. Somewhat. He still enjoyed the almost-face she made at having to get in the passenger seat. “No connections. That might mean the worst, since they’d have to get to know each other before Arthur could appeal to anything in her.”
“Possibly. But that’s not her primary job, as far as Interpol can tell. If they wanted to send an assassin, they could’ve sent a slew of more qualified candidates.” Guin got her seatbelt on and then opened the glove compartment. She glanced in, shot an irritated look at Lancelot, and then closed it and opened one of the overhead compartments instead. Luck was on her side; she found the cigarette pack first thing.
“Hence why you’re not running out,” Lancelot muttered. He ignored the startled, then smug look he knew would be coming by putting the car into gear. Yes, he used her as a barometer to gauge how much he needed to care. So did she, even if it wasn’t for the same set of worries.
She didn’t retort. Which was not a good sign, despite her managing not to test the strength of her high heels. Lancelot looked at her again and she shrugged, stiff and jerky. He bit his lip as he peeled out of the lot.
* * *
“I just can’t believe it. I—no, you don’t need to repeat it again. I heard you fine the first time,” Gawain said. “I just…Arthur’s resigning?”
“I hope not, man. ‘cause if you did, after that hour-long talk you had with him and after the hour-long talk you had with me when I could’ve been debugging my program…then I’d really worry. Like, if Tristan’s bringing home too much formaldehyde and killing off your brain cells again.” All that was visible of Galahad were his feet. The rest of him was hidden by reams of paper, both still connected and torn into sheets. He’d started working again five minutes after Gawain had sat down to talk, and from the looks of things he had gotten through a lot during their discussion. On paper, anyway.
Gawain briefly thought about smacking Galahad’s feet off the sofa-end. Instead he stared into the mug he’d been clutching, and after a moment, he decided that yeah, he’d just let a perfectly decent cup of joe cool into sludge. Damn. On top of everything else. “I…guess it was a good thing I decided to go for an Education degree, too. If things in Philosophy go really bad after him, I can always hide out there for a while. And you can do the same thing with Econ. Nice that we’re both doubling up.”
The rustling of the paper stopped. Then it started up again, but only so Galahad could dig his way out and sit up to glower at Gawain. “Oh, Jesus, what? Now you’re rambling and making no sense, and okay, fine. What’s bugging you?”
“Well…well, what’s not bugging you? I thought you’d be going nuts over something like this?” Gawain asked.
Galahad stared at him for a moment. The other man’s cheeks might’ve pinked a little. Then Galahad snorted and sat back. “I did. You just weren’t there—I went ballistic and Arthur basically told me to shut up and act like a man, and so I did because I think he might actually have socked me if I hadn’t.”
“He would not.”
“Oh, I think he was thinking about it, at least. I mean, of course he’s gonna apologize like crazy afterward and all that, but…well, whatever. I shut up and he didn’t hit me and we kind of had a good talk afterward.” A pause while Galahad’s eyes fuzzed out and he thought about that. “If you can call that kind of talk good. I understood where he was coming from, anyway.”
He looked like Galahad. He talked like Galahad—syntax-wise, anyway. But everything else was pretty pod-person-like.
“Don’t give me that look. I think I’ve been pretty damn mature for enough damn bad situations for you to stop doing that,” Galahad grumbled, going back to work. He finished the sheet in his hand, dropped it over the side, and then sifted through the piles on and stuck around him till he found the next one.
“Yeah, for what, the past six months? You’ve still got twenty-four years of hot-headed stupidity to make up for.” Gawain shifted in his seat, then grabbed the chair-arm and pulled himself off the spring that was suddenly poking him in the ass. He glanced at the clock; he really should’ve been grading papers, but…but hell, he was losing the best advisor he was ever going to get. In anything. He figured he deserved a couple moments of shock.
Galahad rolled his eyes. “What, you want me to blow up a second time? You’re not having a fit. Why do I have to?”
“You don’t! I’m just—fuck, never mind.” Which covered a lot of things, come to think of it.
Honestly, from a practical standpoint it looked like everything was going to be taken care of. Arthur was shifting them over to other philosophy professors, and while Gawain and Galahad weren’t going to be with the same one anymore and they’d have even less chances to see each other, and while whoever they ended up with wouldn’t be nearly as close to a, well, friend as Arthur had been…right, positives. There was no way Arthur would leave them with an asshole, so their new advisors would be friendly and not stupid and they’d still get their Masters on time.
Probably Masters for both of them, Gawain decided. When Galahad had first applied, he’d been thinking about a doctorate in either economics or philosophy, but Gawain really doubted that the other man would go on that long in philosophy now that Arthur was leaving. And Gawain wasn’t that interested in academia for its own sake, and anyway he needed to earn a living. He and Galahad would still have the financial aid package, but their pay rate would drop a bit; Arthur had been able to afford boosting it due to the Monmouth grant, but now they’d be on regular GSI rates…Galahad might switch to Econ there, since he could get higher-paying fellowships through them. And Tristan’s salary would cover…but Gawain didn’t feel comfortable not making a contribution himself—
“God, can you think any louder?” Galahad suddenly said. He scooted to drop his head on the sofa-arm and loudly blew out a sigh. “’wain. Calm down. It’ll be okay. It’s not going to be great, because that’s what we’re losing out on here, but it’s not exactly the Titanic going down. I mean—life sucks, man. Sometimes people have to leave.”
That—oh, now that explained the weird calm. It wasn’t that Galahad was taking things particularly well…well, maybe that was part of it. But it was also that he was having issues, and when he had issues, he either exploded—which was messy but healthier—or he pretended they weren’t there. Which was stupid and annoying and sort of part of being him.
“He’s not abandoning us, you know. He was telling me that he’d keep in contact as best he can, and if we’ve got any problems, we can still go to him. I mean, far as I know, he’s not planning to move away,” Gawain said.
Galahad flipped up the sheet he was holding to hide his face. “I know. Jesus, you sound like he’s your mom or something.”
“Hey, I swear I won’t laugh if you—”
“Oh, my God. I finally do like you say and try to think from Arthur’s point of view and decide that if he’s got the British intelligence on his ass, then he probably doesn’t need me bitching at him, and you think I’m like, losing my mind. See if I ever take your advice about maturity again,” Galahad snapped. It looked like he was going to stop there, but then he came back with a paper wad and threw that at Gawain’s head, as if he hadn’t been clear enough.
It missed by about two feet, but that was still close enough to touch a raw nerve. “Look, you asshole, I’ve got plenty to deal with already. I’m just trying to make sure you’re okay, because you know, I care. Even if sometimes it feels like I’m paying somebody back for one serious fuck-up in a previous life.”
Gawain flopped back into his seat, mostly because he needed to kick out at something and he didn’t want to break a couple toes doing it to the wall, and ended up nearly falling out. Cursing a bit, he yanked himself back into place. Then he stared at the ceiling. He was vaguely aware that that stack of essays wasn’t going to grade itself, but for once he just didn’t want to do the work.
A sigh from the couch. “Gawain, Jesus…look, I really did have that moment where I hated Arthur and thought he was a bastard for doing this to me and all that. And we talked about it and now I hate the guys who are putting him in this position, but…I don’t know. I’m tired of being pissed off. No, I’m not happy, but I think I’m already doing everything I can do and getting frustrated on top of that just wears me out nowadays.”
“You are working a lot,” Gawain said after a moment. He laughed a little, turning so he could look at Galahad. “I remember when I used to have to call you at five in the morning and scream for you to remember to get your shit done in time, and now every time I see you, you’re busy.”
“You seem stressed, too. Did I catch you kicking a trashcan the other day?” Galahad raised an eyebrow till Gawain ducked his head in embarrassed acknowledgment. Then he grinned; a trace of something sober sneaked into his voice, though. “Dude, you’re supposed to be the laidback one. Now you’re freaking out all the time and I just—what the hell’s up, man?”
Gawain shrugged. Then he ran what Galahad had just said through his mind again, and after much thought, shrugged again. Only with less nonchalance, because damned if Galahad wasn’t right, and damned if Gawain knew what was going on with himself. “Yeah, I should be really chilling now. You’re mostly out of my hair nowadays, the whole finances thing hasn’t given me a real problem since we moved here, Tristan’s Tristan…I’ve got less things to worry about than ever.”
“Old habits die hard?” Then Galahad shook his head as Gawain came to the same conclusion. “Okay, I don’t know either. But man, you need to stop. Stop spazzing and caring about me and whatever, and…and um, do that New Age-y care about yourself thing. I don’t wanna be IDing you for a heart attack before you even hit thirty.”
“Yeah…” Something in that struck a much deeper chord than Gawain was expecting, or that he thought Galahad had been aiming for. He noted it down for thought later as he levered himself up out of the chair. “Yeah, well, I don’t think you’d get there first anyway…but that’d be really bad.”
Galahad…Galahad was looking at Gawain as if he were suddenly, deeply concerned that he had a crazy person in the room. Which might be somewhat justified. “Um, yeah. Talk about your morbid thoughts, man—Tristan already jumps out fucking windows when you guys have a fight. I don’t even wanna think about what he’d do there.”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry! I just—my head’s in a weird place right now,” Gawain hastily said, putting up his hands.
“Well, just so long as you get it back, ‘cause this whole being mature thing is new for me. I don’t know how much more it can take before I lose it again.” Which wasn’t totally a joke. And which was saying a bit more than just Arthur could account for.
Gawain had been going to finally do those stupid essays, but he stopped at that and looked back at the other man. At first Galahad tried to brave it out, but whatever growing-up kick he was on hadn’t included that, and it wasn’t long till he dropped his head and rubbed at the side of his face.
“Mariette and I are kind of…we’re having fucking coffee again. I feel like I just went back a year,” Galahad muttered.
“Minus the part where you two spend the first ten minutes talking about how you can’t stand each other every time you meet?”
Instead of glowering or loudly snapping about what a jerk Gawain was, Galahad just sort of sank lower into his papers. “Yeah. Pretty much. It’s weird and I don’t really know what it’s supposed to be or go towards or anything. I just buy coffee and sit with her.”
Gawain opened and closed his mouth a couple times as things to say came to mind, almost came out and were dropped at the last minute for stupidity or shallowness or annoying-to-Galahad capacity. Since honestly, he didn’t know quite where he was, and so he wasn’t sure how qualified he was to offer advice here. But he wanted to do something.
In the end he just backtracked and gave Galahad’s shoulder a squeeze. After a moment, Galahad reached up and grabbed his wrist. Only for a second; the next second, Galahad was shrugging Gawain off. So he gave Galahad a quick ruffle-cuff at the hair and then he went to go do his work. He was way behind on that.
* * *
Elizabeth Swann was young, blonde and quite pretty. A perfect picture of English womanhood.
“Minor nobility, though she’s been disinherited,” Lancelot muttered, perusing the file. “If you aren’t already glowering at her, which I’m sure you are.”
Guinevere sipped at her paper cup of coffee and ignored the local law gawking at her from the doorway. They’d been shown in by a brisk, professional female detective who’d then promptly disappeared, and now Guinevere thought she knew why. Pity the other woman couldn’t come back and give her some intelligent company. “Do you really think I give a damn about class differences right now?”
“Just an observation.” Something in the report must have been interesting, since Lancelot didn’t half-try to make his wounded tone sound convincing. “Was browbeating somebody who’s probably a contact and their cousin walked in on it, didn’t know what was going on and called the cops on her. Men’s toilet talk implies that MI6 is already coming down to get this wiped from the record, so we don’t have that long to talk to her.”
“Which Pellew already told us.” After finishing her drink, Guinevere put her hand on the knob and walked in.
She pitched the empty cup into the trashcan in the room instead of into the one outside in the hall. Swann didn’t bat an eye. “Squeezing blood from the stone while you can, aren’t you?” she said, lounging in her chair. “What’s your name? I want to make sure it’s passed on.”
That did get Swann’s attention. She sat up, then briefly turned her head as Lancelot came in and shut the door. “Oh…let’s see…Interpol.”
“Did our accents give us away?” Lancelot mock-cooed. Though the idiot couldn’t help preening a little when Swann predictably gave him a long once-over. He grinned charmingly at her as he pulled out both chairs.
Guinevere resisted the urge to look over and see what exactly Lancelot had in mind. “Would you prefer Elizabeth or Liz?”
“I’d prefer for full introductions,” Elizabeth said, staring at Lancelot with a slight smile on her face.
Lancelot smiled back in exactly the same way, folding his hands in front of him on the table. He cocked his head Guinevere’s way. “May I?”
Oh, that one. Well…it might work. It involved letting Lancelot have the lead with the interrogation and Guinevere wasn’t really fond of that idea, but if Swann thought she had Lancelot by the balls, then she might be more careless. And somebody had to be, and damned if it was going to be them or Arthur. “Certainly.”
“Can’t you give your own name without filing paperwork? Oh, well, I suppose that an international bureau is still a bureau,” Elizabeth sighed, studying her nails.
“Lancelot DuLac, and I do appreciate the value of a name.” Lancelot pretended to look through the file again. “I see you gave yours as Liz Borden. Bit more of an American joke, wouldn’t you say?”
Elizabeth shrugged. “When in Rome…”
“Rome’s across the Atlantic, and Lizzie Borden lived in Massachusetts, not New York City,” Guinevere pointed out. She put up a blank expression to the slightly annoyed look Swann shot her way. “What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for my lawyer,” Elizabeth promptly replied.
Guinevere wasn’t particularly amused. Neither was Lancelot, though he laughed and sprawled back in his chair convincingly enough. “Take the question less literally.”
The official age for Elizabeth Swann was twenty-five, but she had to be at least a year younger than that. She did have a good nonchalant act, but she didn’t have the patience yet to keep it up very well. Her fingers were already tapping on the table. “I co-run a boating business out of Miami and the prick rented a few from us, then tried to get out of paying for them. So I came up to discuss the matter with him and he attacked me. I was just acting in self-defense. I mean, if you compare his height and weight and mine…”
“Rather compare his combat experience in drug-wars to yours, I’d think. He’s in the hospital with a broken jaw and here you are without a hair out of place,” Guinevere said.
They stared at each other for a long minute after that. The tension was high enough so that Lancelot forewent his usual fidgeting, even with the folder in his hand, and Swann stopped clicking her ruby-red French tips on the table.
“All right, those boys outside don’t have a clue, but you two know who I am,” Elizabeth finally said. Her expression had turned considerably more serious before hardening that way. She scooted back from the table a bit before pulling herself out of her lounge. “Why are you here?”
“As Interpol agents, it’s our job to be concerned with possible violations of international laws and disruption of global security. I understand you have quite a reputation in that department,” Guinevere replied.
“Particularly when it comes to handling fellow covert intelligence operatives,” Lancelot smoothly added.
Elizabeth looked at Lancelot first, then slowly scanned over to study Guinevere. She pursed her lips, then put up an elbow on the table and leaned her head on her hand. Her eyebrows went up inquisitively. “Just what is it you two think I’m here to do? If you know so much, then you should know that my scope of powers hardly goes so far.”
“Well, no, you’re not a double-o, but that doesn’t seem to have held you back before.” A trace of venom crept into Lancelot’s tone.
Guinevere slid her foot over and slowly, ruthlessly crushed it on top of Lancelot’s toes. If he couldn’t hold in his temper for a little longer, then she was going to send him for coffees and he could just swallow his damn pride.
At least he didn’t yelp or swear. He did shift in his seat a bit, but he covered well and made it seem as if he was just adjusting for a cramp.
“All right…so you think I’m here to do something big and splashy and illegal, and that it involves spying, and that it might involve assassination. That’s…interesting. Very interesting,” Elizabeth drawled. An odd accent drifted into her last few words, making her sound vaguely Caribbean. Then she dropped her arm on the table. Hard. “Look, I’m not saying anything while I’m in custody. I’m just a businesswoman who had a spectacularly bad customer, and who right now is thinking of taking up the American habit of suing. You don’t have any evidence, any hard accusations, and in fact, I think you’re just having a bit of fun with me.”
A light knock came at the door. Lancelot got up to get it and had a brief, whispered conversation with whoever was on the other side. Then he turned while grinding his heel into the concrete floor so Guinevere looked at him; he nodded.
Sighing, Guinevere twisted back to face Swann. “Well, you’re a businesswoman with diplomatic immunity, according to the British consulate. Very well, Miss Swann.”
Elizabeth’s brows drew together in confusion. When Guinevere got out of her seat, the other woman tensed up, and didn’t relax when Guinevere went for the door.
“Now that you’re a free citizen, you’re also free to join us for a coffee,” Lancelot said over Guinevere’s shoulder. He smiled at Swann. “No hard feelings, one pro to another?”
Guinevere thought that was laying it on a bit thick, and was about to let her feelings be known, but then she heard a slight clearing of throat from behind.
“I think that’d be very nice,” Swann said. “Thank you very much.”
* * *
Galahad threw his pen. He missed—damn, he was out of practice—and so he followed up with Jack’s pen. This time he was on-target.
One short, yelping jump later, a wild-eyed Jack had re-righted himself on his chair and was staring at Galahad as if Galahad had shot a gun at him or something like that. Big, betrayed puppy-eyes. How the kid never noticed his trail of devoted female classmates was beyond Galahad. “What on earth was that for?”
“Hey, I said I’d help you with your paper. I didn’t say that I’d sit around and wait while you daydreamed about a certain soccer star…”
Jack went dull red in the cheeks and shut his lips together. He dutifully picked up his pencil and, for the first time in the last ten minutes, really looked at the sheets of paper before him. “‘Football,’” he muttered.
“Man, we’re in America so I’m not putting an ‘American’ in front to tell the difference. And I’m sure as hell not calling our version rugby,” Galahad sighed. He covertly checked his watch. He’d gotten all the work he’d wanted to get done for the day done, but it was nearing midterms and someone had booked the room they were using for…ten minutes from now, they’d have to leave. “Look, you’ve gone to every single game of hers. Her teammates call you her personal cheerleader. Just get it out of your system already and ask if she wants coffee.”
“I have,” Jack said in a heated tone.
Galahad rolled his eyes. Thanks to Jack thinking he was some mediating agent—Gawain would so get a laugh out of that—all of those times had happened during his office hours, so he’d gotten to watch. And go from snickering to boredom to flatout exasperation. “No, I mean ask her out for coffee. Not ask her if she’s walking towards Starbucks and then almost have a meltdown when she says yeah, she thinks so. Jesus, Jack. You don’t even really like philosophy. You don’t need it for your major, and if you don’t ask soon you’re going to end up really, really hating the subject just because she likes it. Which isn’t, you know, healthy.”
“I know. I know, I know, I know. It’s just—not that easy.” Jack scuffed at the floor, then sighed and put up his arm so he could lean his head against his clenched hand. If he’d tipped his head just a little more, he would’ve stabbed himself in the temple with his pencil. “My mouth gets all dry and my hands turn disgustingly clammy. I keep expecting to find little puddles of water beneath them.”
“Yeah, well, either be disgusting and hope she likes you anyway, or end up resenting the hell out of her,” Galahad muttered.
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he was grimacing and checking for Jack’s reaction, but the other man was just staring blankly at him. After a moment, Jack frowned. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. What did you just say?”
A load of bitter, confused bullshit that wasn’t going to make sense to Jack, but would make way too much sense to Gawain. Luckily, Gawain wasn’t around, or else he probably would want another talk—never mind, Galahad was taking too long to reply. “Jack, man, you’ve got two choices and…three possible outcomes. Choice one: you ask her out. Two outcomes—she says yes and we rush you to the ER afterward for extreme shock, and she says no and life really sucks but beer will help with that, trust me. I’ll even buy it for you.”
Jack was already making a face, but suddenly Galahad was just really fed up with the whole business and wanted something to happen already. Whether it was good or bad…anything was better than sitting around in limbo and not quite getting it. Nope, he wasn’t a patient guy, but at least he didn’t have a whole bunch of missed chances to think about when he was drunk;
“Choice two: you don’t ask and just do this puppy-dog thing for the next couple of years. Taking classes you hate, having a shitty time in them and all for her and she doesn’t know. And eventually you’ll realize she’s been responsible for the worst time of your life and you’ll hate her, and you’ll turn into a bitter old fuck at the ripe old age of twenty-one or so,” Galahad finished.
That…had come out kind of harsh. True, but…Galahad put up his hands and rubbed them over his face, then pressed them to his temples. He thought about all that for a second.
Even Jack couldn’t help picking up on something there, but his manners had him lasting a full two minutes before he hesitantly cleared his throat. “Ah…Galahad. Is there…something on your mind? I…of course you’ve got a heavy workload and all but…”
“I’ve been really bitchy lately,” Galahad suggested. He grinned briefly at Jack’s stricken face. “Yeah. But that wasn’t…look, what I said you just now was all for your benefit. It’s not me doing some weird thing where I need to yell at a stand-in to yell at myself.”
Jack’s eyebrow did a funny hitch where it started to arch, but quickly went back down, and actually it went too far that way so he ended up cock-eyed for a second. He flashed a wary look. “Um.”
“I let Mariette know exactly what I wanted a while ago. And doing things just because she liked them wasn’t responsible for the worst time of my time.” For one, Galahad thought, this wasn’t the worst time of his life. It was pretty damn close, but it wasn’t that bad.
The thing that made it sucky was that it was coming after the best time in his life so far.
“Um,” Jack repeated.
“I still don’t really want to go into details, okay? Just…what’s between her and me is not the same thing that’s with you and Jess. For one, you still don’t know for sure that it won’t work out.” Whatever the whole coffee thing was right now, it sure as hell wasn’t working. Not really. They were talking to each other again, but in that stilted, awkward way that made Galahad kind of dread running into her. And not in the way where he thought he’d blow his top if she brought up the wrong subject. “Ask her.”
Jack chewed his lip, looking torn.
“Ask her or I’ll get the locks on our door changed and won’t let you in till you do,” Galahad said.
That finally made Jack stiffen up. He stared at Galahad for a long, long second. “You would not.”
“Okay, no, but I might start teasing you about it in front of her. You only get one shot at a lot of shit, Jack. Try it and see if you can get anything out of it before you’ve got no shot at all.” Nodding, Galahad reached over and picked up Jack’s paper. He’d…he’d actually forgotten what the damn thing was about, so he quickly skimmed the top page. “And Jesus, if you’re going to include something about reality in a paper on Descartes, you can’t not include the cogito ergo sum argument.”
“But everyone talks about that! I don’t want to just rehash things.”
“Man, that’s philosophy. Same basic questions, looked at by a zillion people.”
Jack started to object again, but changed his mind. Instead he slumped and sighed, poking his pencil at the table. “I suppose you’re right. No wonder I hate the damn subject too much.”
“You can still drop the class, can’t you? Dunno exactly how the undergrad schedule’s like, but—”
The other man waved a hand. “No, no, we can. We have to get the professor to sign off on it, but that won’t be too…you know, I think I will. If I drop the class, then the only times I’ll see Jess will be at games, and that’s with a couple hundred other people. Unless I talk to her.”
“Great.” One uncertainty out of the picture.
The next few moments were a little weird. Galahad felt way, way too smug and accomplished over what he’d just gotten Jack to agree to, considering he wasn’t usually the it’s-meddling-for-good! one, and Jack kept staring at him funny. Finally the other man put his fist up to his mouth and coughed into it a couple of times. “Ah…so, you know, I don’t think you’re out of chances either.”
“Jack, I was just giving you a kick up the ass. That in no way turns this into a mutual counseling session,” Galahad said. He read through a whole page of Jack’s paper before he realized that hey, if Jack was dropping the class, then he didn’t need extra help and Galahad could get back to his regular work.
“Oh, clearly, clearly. But…I…just want to say that a chance to start a relationship and a chance to fix one are totally different things and thus constitute totally different opportunities so it’d be a shame if you misconstrued the one for the other. And oh, I think the next person’s waiting for this room so I’d better be going and thank you very, very much for the help and advice and er, ass-kicking.” How Jack got that all out in one breath, and furthermore, without turning blue and falling over right afterwards, was pretty fucking amazing.
And it was distracting. The other man had grabbed his stuff and scooted the hell out before a bemused Galahad even got around to looking at whoever had just knocked on the door, and…it was Mariette. Figured.
“I’ve got the room for a review session,” she said stiffly, her heel clicking nervously against the floor.
“Yeah, I was just finishing up anyway. Let me just get my things and I’ll be out.” For a moment, Galahad almost added that he needed to go kill Gawain now, but this probably was one of those universe-was-laughing-at-you coincidences. When Galahad had checked the room’s listing, he’d noticed it was booked for one of the sections of the class Mariette was GSI-ing, but he’d just kind of assumed it’d been by one of the other three GSIs. Guess it wasn’t his lucky day.
He scooped all his crap into his backpack and zipped it, then stood up. When he went by Mariette, it looked like she might say something, but in the end her lips stayed together and Galahad just walked off, awkward tension trailing after him. Again.
Okay. Jack had had a point. Galahad really needed to do something about this, too.
* * *
“So just between us, what exactly have you been trying to accuse me of?” Swann delicately asked.
She tried a sip of her coffee, grimaced, and then pried off the lid to blow at it. Across from her and next to Lancelot, Guinevere was watching with a look of extreme irritation. Not that that was going to lead her to make things go quicker; she still seemed concerned that giving away anything would end up harming Arthur.
Which was a valid concern, but ultimately Lancelot thought it was better to find out as much as they could as soon as they could, and thus maximize the amount of time they had to deal with anything that turned up. He moved his feet away from Guin’s heels. “Arthur Pendragon.”
A flicker of surprise went through Elizabeth’s eyes. She frowned and sipped a little too quickly at her coffee so some splashed up onto her lip. After dabbing that off with her napkin, she put her cup down. “Well, that’s an interesting name to bring up.”
Guin stopped glowering at Lancelot and started paying attention to the discussion again. “So you’re familiar with it.”
“I’ve heard of him. Rather well-regarded professor at a local college, isn’t he? Not that I really keep up with his field…what is it? Ethics?” Elizabeth said. She leaned back, one hand drifting to toy with a lock of her hair. She knew exactly who they were talking about, that was obvious enough from the hard gleam in her eye. “Why on earth would you be worried about him?”
This time when Guinevere shot an annoyed side-look, it wasn’t because of Lancelot and he completely agreed. “Miss Swann, you’re no idiot no matter what the color of your hair might suggest. And neither are we. And I, for one, am not in the mood for word-games.”
Swann’s expression hardened, though she remained in a relaxed posture. “You sound as if you aren’t speaking as a professional now.”
“Does your business here involve him?” Guinevere said. Tone cool enough, but now the way she was tracing her finger through the condensation pooling around her iced chai was giving away things. She tipped her head to the side and gazed back at Swann through narrowed eyes.
After a moment, Swann’s mouth began to twitch, and soon enough she was laughing. She kept it low and under her breath, and then mostly stifled it by drinking some coffee, but her eyes were still dancing. “You think I’m here to kill him, or something like that?”
“Nice to see you aren’t pretending you’re not a professional like us,” Lancelot commented in a biting tone.
Swann flicked him a look, but still seemed amused. “Fine, I know who Arthur Pendragon is and what he used to do, and for whom. But how that necessarily means that we’re automatically connected—”
“You showed up in this city at this particular time and even if you’re based out of Miami, you’d be a fool if you didn’t have an ear to the ground for current MI6 politics.” Guinevere finally picked up her own drink. She stirred the ice cubes in it around with her straw before she tried it. “And it wouldn’t terribly surprise me if one or two of yours has already paid a visit up here.”
Oddly enough, Swann looked…annoyed. She heaved a sigh and moved restlessly about for a few seconds, then slouched still. “I think we need to clear a few things up. First of all, you’ve been misinformed; my primary’s not what you think it is. I’m sure London loves pretending that I answer to them, but Langley would be more like it.”
Langley…CIA? That hadn’t shown up anywhere in what Guinevere had showed Lancelot, and from the look on Guin’s face, she hadn’t expected that either. Why would the CIA have a British national running one of their operations?
“I do, however, have a…shall we say, unique understanding with London’s boys down south, so I suppose you could consider me better informed about their doings than most.” Swann looked pointedly at Lancelot and Guinevere, just in case they hadn’t already caught the insult. Her eyes dropped to her cup and her lip quirked; she wiped off the faint lipstick stain she’d left on the pressed paper. “You’re right. They have contacted Pendragon before, but only to let him know about an old colleague of his.”
The last old colleague of Arthur’s who’d popped up had apparently been the catalyst for this whole mess, so Lancelot wasn’t very reassured to hear that. “Clayton?”
“Who?” The confused surprise in Swann’s face seemed genuine enough.
“Who else?” Guinevere asked. The point of her heel briefly and painfully introduced itself to Lancelot’s ankle.
Swann rolled her eyes. “Oh, ask Pendragon if you’re so concerned. All I’ll say is that it was a friendly, one-time visit and that as far as I or that part of MI6 is concerned, Pendragon isn’t on our radar. If someone has a problem with him, they haven’t brought us into it and I’m happy to stay that way.”
“You certainly could have done a better job of checking local circumstances before you planned your trip up north,” Guinevere said after a moment. Her tone was sarcastic but distant: she was already disengaging. Then she was getting up, and dragging at Lancelot’s arm so he had to go as well. “It was an…interesting meeting, Miss Swann.”
“Yes, though not the kind I’d care to repeat.” Slightly strained smile. “Have a day.”
Lancelot couldn’t help but roll his eyes, even though he was also rather irritated at the moment. “Oh, we will. Guin, what are you doing? We’ve barely found out anything, and on top of that, if we go now I can guarantee we’ll not be able to find her again for further questioning.”
Guinevere didn’t answer him, but instead continued at a fairly brisk pace till they were outside of the café. Pity it was so crowded, since otherwise Lancelot would’ve repeated himself a bit more forcefully. Instead he had to follow along behind her until they were out on the sidewalk.
Then Guinevere stopped, and so suddenly that Lancelot almost walked right up her heels. He swerved to avoid that and grabbed onto the side of the café’s front window to right himself. “Guin—”
“If she’s not MI6, then why is there so much documentation showing that she is? For that matter, why is the British consulate getting involved? Collaboration or no collaboration, if she’s CIA, then it should be much easier to just leave it up to them to get her away from the local law,” Guinevere muttered, pulling out her cell. She positioned herself so she could look back into the café, but only if she strained her neck…which she was indeed doing. “I think we’ve just been thrown a red herring.”
Lancelot was in a slightly better position and glanced inside. “Swann’s not calling anyone. She’s…somebody’s joining her.”
“They’re waving at us. You’re doing a lovely job of keeping out of sight.” With that snap, Guinevere pivoted and started off towards the car. “Did you at least get a good look at the man?”
“Yes. Are you calling Arthur?” Lancelot asked.
Guinevere got out her keys, but was a little too distracted by whatever she was hearing to get the right one into the door. She didn’t even toss a vicious look in Lancelot’s direction when he took them from her and got into the driver’s seat. He leaned over and opened the other door for her, then started the engine as she got in.
“His line’s busy,” she said. She chewed on her lip, then put up a hand and almost chewed at a nail.
Lancelot bit back a swear-word. His first impulse was to whip towards Avalon, but if he wanted to try and match the man with Swann to an ID, they’d have to go back to the office. “Try Vanora.”
Guinevere was already re-dialing. “Go to the office. We need to update Pellew. It’s New York City—we need more resources if we’re going to be searching the city for MI6 agents.”
“Which is why I have a cell—” Lancelot stuck his hand into the right pocket, but it was empty. Then he remembered and this time, he let the curses flow. “Goddamn it.”
“I told you not to wait to get your new one. My God, how you lose so many of them…oh, hello, Vanora. It’s Guinevere. I was just wondering if you knew where Arthur was…I’ve tried his phone but can’t get him…oh…” Guin put her hand over the cell “…never mind, go to Avalon. She says Arthur just asked her to postpone all his afternoon meetings.”
Lancelot sat and drummed his fingers on the wheel. Then he gritted his teeth and glanced over his shoulder, making sure no idiot was about to ram them from behind as he peeled out into the road.
* * *
“I hope he can stay in the city,” Tristan said. His hands didn’t stop chopping vegetables.
Gawain, however, stopped browning meat. Then he swore and hastily jumped back to it when the smell of char reached his nose. He yanked the pan off the stove and glanced it over, decided everything would still be edible, and then dumped it in a pot with canned broth for the stewing part.
It was Tristan’s day off. He’d been down to the Conservatory to spend a big chunk of quality time with his hawk, and usually after that he was even more relaxed than usual. But he’d seemed a little distracted when Gawain had first come home, and then a comment like that coming after Gawain’s long ramble about the Arthur-situation…“Did—has he said something to you? I—hey, he’s already told you about this, right? You aren’t hearing it for the first time through me or anything, are—”
“No, we already talked about it.” After running his knife through the last onion, Tristan put that aside and started dumping handfuls of the veggies into the pot. His left shoulder twitched. “He hasn’t told me exactly what he’s doing afterward, though, and I don’t know if he can work in academia again. I don’t think Merlin will let him go looking bad, but it’ll still seem weird to people.”
And oddly enough, academics did seem to do a lot of judging based on first impressions, which wouldn’t help. “You think he’ll try for another teaching job?”
Tristan cocked his head as he stepped back from the stove. He ran his hands under the faucet and dried them off before poking into the refrigerator for a beer. “Honestly? No, not in a university. He doesn’t take the same risks twice if he can help it. So he might be thinking of a small town now, since trying to stay low-profile in New York City didn’t work out.”
“Did he say he was thinking of moving?” Gawain asked, a little bit of panic creeping in. He’d just gotten used to the idea of not having Arthur as an advisor—Arthur not even being in Avalon anymore was still sinking in—and not even having Arthur somewhere in the city?
…would be even worse for Tristan, come to think of it. He didn’t have many constants in his life; he didn’t need very many, but the ones he did, he needed very badly.
“No. I…I don’t know,” Tristan muttered, tone a bit curt. He flicked the top of his beer bottle into the trashcan with a little more force than really necessary. He wasn’t really one for drinking with dinner either, though he was more than willing to pull out a bottle afterwards. “I know he’d be thinking about it. But that’s all.”
“Well…he already tried running from them, kind of. So if he doesn’t like repeating ideas that don’t work out…” Gawain shrugged, wanting to offer reassurance but not really sure how. Or what, considering he wasn’t Arthur.
Tristan nodded, but not very decisively. He turned around as he took a pull from his bottle and rooted around on top of the fridge for a couple garlic cloves. When Gawain reached out to squeeze his shoulder, he stopped for a moment. Then he put his beer down and reached behind himself to grab Gawain’s hand while his other hand nimbly got the garlic.
Well, since he was there, Gawain figured he might as well drop his arm around Tristan’s waist and rest a chin on the other man’s shoulder. He searched around for a change in subject and his gaze happened to land on the calendar. “Hey. So did you see about putting in to take Spring Break off?”
“Oh, that already went through. I meant to tell you yesterday, but you were asleep when I came home,” Tristan said. Bare statement of fact, not accusing at all. There was a slight trace of curiosity in his voice. “Are we planning to do something?”
Gawain pursed his lips a couple times. “I was kind of thinking about something. Not that I’ve booked anything yet…it’s still just an idea. I mean, right now it looks like I’m going to spend it trying to catch up on my sleep…”
Tristan turned his head. Then he let go of Gawain’s hand and twisted all the way around; his other hand suddenly crunched its heel down on the cloves, squishing them against the cutting board so the sharp, distinctive garlic smell rose into the air. “What?”
“Going back to Los Angeles. Just for a day…it’s still probably not a good idea for me to stay in town longer than that,” Gawain said. He moved back in case Tristan wanted some more space, but it looked like the other man just wanted to be able to see Gawain’s face. “I’m not even planning to call any of my old friends to let them know I’m coming. I think—I don’t really want to risk even a little getting caught up in all the old shit in my life.”
“So why?” Tristan asked.
Yeah, straight to the hard part, even if his expression wasn’t judgmental. It took a couple moments for Gawain to get it right in his head, since he really didn’t want it to come out too weird. “My…grandma’s grave. Galahad and I used to visit it every month to clean it up and leave something, but we haven’t been back since we came to New York. I just…it sounds silly, but I just want to go and see it. It just feels like everything’s changing and people are moving around—that’s not a bad thing, but I want to go while I can still talk Galahad into it.”
“You think he’d say no?”
“I…I’m not sure. He loved her like I did, but him and graves…he’s always been kind of like, it’s just a body in there and not the person. And lately he’s just been really different. Growing up.” Gawain laughed a little, both at himself and at the situation. “Used to be he whined a lot, but he’d still follow my lead. He’s finally figuring out his own lead, I think.”
Tristan raised his eyebrows at the last part, but didn’t comment.
“And…well, I kind of…wanted to…since you took me to see…” Saying ‘yours’ just sounded like it was some drunken bet, and that was about as opposite as you could get from what Gawain wanted to say. Not that he really knew how to say it, thus the stammering and awkwardness. “If you want to go. It’s not what you’d call your usual vacation—”
Tristan cupped Gawain’s face and soundly kissed him. Which was a very succinct and pointed answer, and when they separated a moment later, Gawain had a feeling that he had a pretty silly smile on his face. Whatever. The only one looking at it was Tristan, and Tristan obviously didn’t care.
“I’ll start checking up on the LAPD,” Tristan said.
Gawain opened his mouth. Then he closed it. It wasn’t like Tristan didn’t know what he was doing there, and it was really nice of him to do that without Gawain even asking him to. And it’d probably be really helpful.
“Great. Now I just have to tell Galahad,” Gawain grinned. Which he wasn’t looking too forward to, but Tristan’s kiss was still on his mind.
Tristan made a little bit of a face, but a small smile sneaked onto his own face as he began to turn. Gawain made a grab at him and spun him back around and kissed over the surprised noise he made, and in short order they were stumbling back against the fridge, Tristan’s hand clawing at Gawain’s back. “Wait, dinner.”
“It’s stew. It can take care of itself,” Gawain muttered. He pulled at Tristan’s shirt, then shifted his hands to the other man’s hips. “People can’t.”
“Oh?” Raised eyebrow.
In the time it took for Gawain to drag his attention back to the conversation, the moment had gone sober on him. He sucked on his lip, looking at Tristan through the strands of hair falling between their faces. Tristan stared back, eyes dark and wide and possibly a little shaky deep in there.
“Well, they can, but only so far. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, it’s that.” Gawain raised his right hand and stroked the hair out of Tristan’s face, letting the ball of his thumb linger on those cheek-marks. Then he pressed forward and covered the other man’s lips with his own, and it wasn’t long before Tristan was reciprocating.
* * *
Vanora got up as Guinevere and Lancelot walked in, a concerned expression on her face. They immediately stopped.
“You just missed him,” Vanora said. “He stopped by and asked me to rearrange his afternoon schedule because he had an important interview he needed to go to.”
Guinevere frowned. “Interview? Not a meeting?”
The other woman nodded emphatically, then bent down to riffle through the papers on her desk. A moment later, she came up with a scribbled note, which she handed to…Lancelot, because he’d nipped in at the last moment to get ahead of Guinevere. “I said you’d called and he left this for you. It must be important since his writing is absolutely atrocious—I can’t make out a word.”
“He says he’ll meet us at…our office,” Lancelot said, squinting at the scrap. His head shot up and he and Guinevere looked at each other.
“Who’s he seeing there?” Vanora asked.
Guinevere took the scrap from Lancelot while he was getting out the car keys. “No idea, but I believe we’re about to go see,” she said. “Thank you very much, Vanora, but we’ve got to run.”