|The Theorist II: Revised Paradigm
Author: Guede Mazaka
Galahad rubbed at his temples and tried to ignore the musty smell of the closet in which he and Jack were standing. “Jack, man, you’re my roommate but that doesn’t give you the right to shove me into small dark places.”
“I promise I’m not about to make a pass at you,” Jack hastily said.
That…that didn’t really help, aside from increasing the uncomfortable atmosphere. No, it wasn’t homophobia—it was exasperation almost to the point of strangulation. God, give the guy a crisis situation like some girl slipping down the steps and possibly breaking her ankle and he was fine. Cool, collected, quick-thinking, able to make ten other girls around him faint with his firm jaw. Then give him an ordinary situation that required him to say one damned sentence, and what did he do? Closet.
“Jack, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to. On the other hand, I’m also pretty sure that Jess is hanging around outside right now, wondering what the hell was behind her that made you go that white before dragging us in here,” Galahad muttered. “She’s not going to go away either. Any moment now she’s going to—”
The knock on the door nearly sent Jack leaping into the opposite wall. Considering there was barely a yard between the two, that would’ve hurt a hell of a lot.
“Jack? Jack, are you all right?” Jess called.
Jack jerked his head sideways and down, clearly spitting out a bunch of silent curses. Then he pushed himself back to a standing position, but only so he could look pleadingly at Galahad.
“He’s working on it. I think we’ll be out in a second—is anybody around?” Galahad asked.
“Do you need me to call the paramedics?” Jess wasn’t quite panicking, but the level of concern in her voice had jumped a couple of good-sized notches.
Galahad was really tempted. Tempted enough to pause till Jack was almost bursting from obviously trying to think Galahad into doing what he wanted. “Nah, he’s just having a moment. He’ll be fine in another minute.”
A weird kind of spasm took over Jack, momentarily making his face look as if it’d blown up like a balloon. He flapped his hands around a little, and then spun in place before finally glaring at Galahad. “I can’t do this,” he hissed.
“It’s one sentence!” Jesus Christ, where was Gawain’s meddling when you needed it, Galahad thought. He’d know how to ask Jack to get on with it without throwing in a few dozen expletives, like Galahad really wanted to do. “Look—we’re not leaving till you do.”
“Guys?” Jess sounded as if she’d calmed down and gone right into suspicious curiosity.
Jack flinched, then attempted some kind of puppy-dog look at Galahad. If he’d made an actual pass at Galahad, that might’ve worked better; honestly, who the hell did he think Galahad was? “You don’t even have to look at her right now. Say it.”
“But how? What if she still thinks I just mean it as a friend?” Pause. “That…might work better, actually…”
“No. No, it wouldn’t. It’d just leave you right where you are right now, and that just means that a couple weeks from now, we’re gonna be in another closet. And I fucking hate closets,” Galahad said. He started to look at his wrist, but then realized it was too dark to even see his watch. Then he had a thought and pulled out his cell-phone; it looked like they’d already been standing there for a good five minutes. “Jack.”
The other man just stood there. His feet shuffled a little bit.
Galahad grimaced. “You’ve got twenty more seconds before I do something.”
“Do what?” Jack whispered.
“Hey, guys. Come on. If you want to have a private conversation, you can just say that you want me to go,” Jess called through the door.
“No, no, you don’t need to go. Actually, you really, really need to stay. It’s important.” It had been…actually, Galahad had been too busy glaring at Jack to count off, but he figured it’d been at least twenty seconds.
Jack’s eyes bugged out when he realized where Galahad was going with it. He even jerked forward a little, but then he pulled back and just gestured desperately with his hands, his lower lip jutting out. In the weak glow Galahad’s cell-phone screen was emitting, it had a really weird gleam to it.
“What? Why? What’s going on?”
“Jack’s got something to say to you,” Galahad said. “Jack?”
Death-glare from him. “I hate you.”
“Whatever.” Like Galahad hadn’t been hearing that kind of crap from Gawain for years. He checked the time on his cell-phone again, then stifled a sneeze as the dust got to him. Actually, he did hope that Jack got things done soon, because he still had to go down to the financial aid office and do some talking with them to straighten out his paychecks. God, he hated doing his taxes. “So?”
“Well?” Jess echoed. “What is it? Jack? Are you all right? Is Galahad…um…”
Jack shot one last look of anguish towards Galahad before turning towards the door and…thumping his forehead against it. He stayed slumped like that, though after a moment, he did put up a hand to keep his nose from being squished. “No, no, we’re not doing anything. We’re standing in a closet, is all.”
“Are you sure? I don’t think…standing in a closet is quite…what you usually do.” Jess was really, really trying, and if that wasn’t a sign of how she’d take Jack’s proposal, then Galahad was a human-sized dandelion.
“Oh, no, definitely not,” Jack hastily said. He jerked back his head like he was going to bang it.
It looked like maybe at the last minute, he realized either that it’d hurt a lot or that Jess would hear it and that’d be another thing he’d have to explain, but Galahad reached out and grabbed Jack’s shoulder just in case. The guy’s reflexes did tend to go really screwy around Jess and he probably wouldn’t have been able to stop in time.
Jack stiffened. Then he suddenly grabbed Galahad’s wrist, really hard. And when Galahad tried to twist it around to silently tell Jack to loosen up, the other man twisted it like he was wringing out a rag. Galahad started to bite back a curse, then decided that hell, he’d been polite long enough. He opened his mouth.
“Jack, what on earth—”
“Jesswouldyouliketogetcoffee?” Jack mumble-spat. If he’d crammed his words together any more, he would’ve gotten white noise from their overlap.
A moment of silence.
“Um, I’m sorry…I didn’t catch that?” Jess said.
Galahad pulled his wrist free, then soundlessly grimaced as both blood and pain rushed into his hand. Then he kicked Jack in the ankle and squeezed the guy’s shoulder—careful to reach around so that Jack couldn’t grab him again.
Jack ground his hand into his face, his shoulders going first up and then slumping down so far that it was amazing his arms didn’t disappear into his sides. “Would—would—”
Well, Galahad wasn’t going to kick him again. He wanted Jack to get over it and ask her out; he didn’t want to be a dad or a big brother or…whatever the hell. He’d done about all that he could, and it was all up to Jack now.
“Coffee? Sometime? Just…you know, going out…together…and…coffee,” Jack finally got out, voice hopeful and wary all at once.
“…are you asking me out?” Jess said after a moment. Thank God, she had a brain. And while she sounded a bit surprised, she didn’t sound as if she were rejecting the idea.
It seemed that that got through to Jack, because he managed to say the next part without so much stuttering. And in whole sentences. “Well, yes, I suppose. I…I think you’re really great, and I was just wondering if you’d like to go sometime…but if you don’t, it’s utterly fine with me. I won’t take offense and I just want you to know that whatever your decision, I’ll completely respect every par—”
“When were you thinking about?”
“—because in no way do I want you to feel—ow!”
Okay, maybe Galahad was going to kick Jack one more time. But that was it: he was letting go of Jack’s shoulder and everything. Totally hands-off now.
Jack paused, then slowly pushed himself off the door. He raked his hand through his hair a couple times—which didn’t really get it out of his eyes—before stuffing his fidgety hands in his pockets. “Um…um…oh, you have that exam tomorrow night, so tonight you’ll probably want to study…”
“How about after the exam? If it goes well I’ll want to celebrate, and if not, well, I’ll need time to recover. Coffee sounds good for that,” Jess said. She waited a couple seconds, then rapped on the door. “Ah, Jack? Do you think you can come out of there now and talk about it? It’s—a little odd talking through the door, and there are some people walking through the hall who’re looking at m—”
“Oh, of course!” And Jack practically ripped the door off its hinges getting it open, he was suddenly so happy and enthusiastic. Seriously, he was practically glowing.
He was almost whacking Galahad in the goddamn face with his flailing elbows. Jack completely didn’t notice and just jumped out, babbling excitedly while he also missed how he nearly scared Jess into stumbling as well, and…God, Galahad didn’t even really want to hit him. Not really. Maybe just a smack on the side of the head. But really, it was like he was turning into Gawain or—
Galahad blinked and stopped in the closet doorway. “Mariette. Hey.”
“Hi…were you just in there?” Mariette said, ducking her head and craning it a bit to look, as if she hadn’t known the closet had existed till just now.
“Oooooh…” Jess said. While looking in an odd way at Jack, and Jack was…Jack was…
…furrowing his brow and obviously thinking hard, and suddenly Galahad was beginning to think maybe he’d walked into something a little more planned than Jack freaking out over Jess for the umpteenth time. But okay, he’d hijacked it and turned it around on Jack, so—
“Hi, Mariette. Thanks for coming,” Jack said in a really, really fake bright voice.
Mariette shot him a warily questioning look. “Sorry I was a bit late. Now what did you—”
“Oh, look!” Jess said.
She pointed. Galahad didn’t look, and in fact tried to step out of the way, but Mariette did look and Jack was a fucking quick shover, and Mariette basically tumbled them both into the closet. What a time for her to start wearing fucking high heels again.
“Quoi—” Mariette started.
Slam went the door.
And Galahad said: “Shit.”
* * *
It would’ve been an exaggeration to say that Guinevere and Lancelot steamrolled their way back into the Interpol office. They walked. Quickly. With purpose. And since Interpol generally hired people with at least half a brain, nobody was stupid enough to get in the way and so they got through normally crowded hallways and rooms fairly quickly.
“It doesn’t say where?”
Guinevere rolled her eyes. “For God’s sake, you got to see it first. Did you see any specific location in that scribble?”
“No, but Arthur’s always scrupulous about detail,” Lancelot said, as if that was a logical retort. “Did he mean our personal offices, or just the office in general, or…yes?”
Isolde blinked and took a step back, startled by the snap in Lancelot’s voice. He did usually show a surface appreciation for her chest. “You two are back. Pellew wants to see you.”
Lancelot pulled at his hair, making sure that if each curl hadn’t been messily kinked before, they damned well were now. “Again? My God, can’t it wait?”
Both Guinevere and Isolde stared at him for a moment. Tactless as he could be, usually Lancelot at least had a sense of proportion: one did not act like one’s superior was an annoying uncle demanding some frivolity. Then Isolde slowly blinked and shook her head. “No, he said to send you in as soon as you could be contacted. We’ve been trying to call, but—”
Guinevere frowned and checked her phone, then swore. “Goddamn it, the battery’s gone out. And Lancelot—”
“You still haven’t gotten a new mobile?” Isolde said. Then she shook herself and moved aside. “Never mind. You’d better get going.”
After shooting her a glower, Lancelot stalked on by. Personally Guinevere didn’t think much of Isolde in general, and in this specific situation, wasn’t inclined to revise that opinion, but that was a little bit stupid. For one, if Lancelot went into Pellew’s office like that, that was going to mean they’d be stuck there even longer before they could find Arthur.
“You panicking yet?” Lancelot hissed.
Guinevere looked sharply at him. “I’m concerned. But we know where Arthur should be, so—”
“So? So we’ve been running around half the day already and if that isn’t a deliberate run-around, I don’t know what is.” Lancelot paused, then grimaced. At least he wasn’t so out of it that he didn’t realize he certainly no longer knew how to use the English language. “Maybe Swann wasn’t here for the worst-case scenario, but somebody definitely is yanking us around.”
“And in that case, we need Pellew on our side so don’t be an arse,” Guinevere snapped.
The laugh that came from Lancelot was slightly nervy. He fiddled with his tie, pulling it loose and then snugging up the knot again. “Not till later, right?…and ‘arse’? Guin, your Welsh is showing.”
She almost hit him, but fortunately for Lancelot, they reached Pellew’s office right there and it wouldn’t have looked well either to get into a scrap in front of it. So instead she gave him a hard shove forward to get him through the doorway, then daintily pivoted after him.
“Sorry we took so long downtown—” Guinevere started. Then she stopped.
Pellew and Arthur had been sitting down, but they’d risen as Guinevere and Lancelot had come in. Arthur was already up on his feet, but Pellew was going at a more leisurely pace. In addition, he seemed to be somewhat distracted by all the papers spread out before them, which argued against an immediate crisis situation.
For a second, Guinevere actually wanted to snarl for making her worry so much, and she hesitated from doing it more because she wasn’t sure whom she had in mind as a target than because of how irrational that would’ve been. Then she got herself under control again and smiled tightly at Arthur. “Oh—”
“You’re here,” Lancelot said, sounding started but curt. He’d seen Arthur the moment he’d gone in—that had been why he’d stopped so suddenly and had needed the shove—and he still was looking at him. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be at work?”
Eyebrows quirked, Pellew seemed a little embarrassed for Arthur’s sake. He glanced back and forth between Lancelot and Arthur, who was sensibly stalling by blinking and pursing his lips, before lifting a hand. “Ah, Lancelot, I’m sorry to interrupt, but if I could have a word with you and Guinevere…”
“I’ll go wait in—” Arthur started.
“My office,” Guinevere finished. She didn’t look at Lancelot; she already knew that’d have ratcheted up his temper a bit more and that he’d be showing it. She stepped back as Arthur passed them at a casual pace ,then leaned forward for a quick word. “Good to see you.”
He frowned and looked at her twice, obviously catching on to her unsteady undertone. It seemed as if Lancelot was going to say something as well, but then Pellew stepped forward and the window of opportunity for that snapped shut. Lancelot had to put in a bit of effort not to show his aggravation at that to Pellew.
“While you two were downtown, I received a pair of rather odd phone-calls,” Pellew said, coming over. He went past them and shut and locked the door, then crossed back over to his desk. “One was from a known MI6 contact in London, and the gist of it was to mind the neutrality of Interpol—actually, I’d been expecting something like that and the surprise was in how mildly it was framed. But the other was a total surprise—from an old Naval colleague of mine whom I haven’t spoken to in years. James Norrington.”
Guinevere was startled as well, but because the only James Norrington of which she knew had been a long-time MI6 operative in the States till a couple years ago, when he’d abruptly dropped out of sight. That had happened in the middle of a rather nasty flare-up in the Caribbean’s perpetual druglord wars, but there’d been rumors that it’d been more of an internal issue.
“I’ll tell you more about that in a moment, but first I’d like a summary of your interview with Elizabeth Swann,” Pellew continued.
When Guinevere checked, Lancelot was already looking at her. She slightly moved the shoulder closest to him, whereupon he sighed and absently began to stab his toe into the floor. “Seems like that was a bit of a false alarm,” he began. “There’s actually not that much to tell…”
* * *
The phone was ringing. Tristan’s shoulder was really comfortable, and whatever he was tracing on Gawain’s back felt nice. But the phone was ringing. Damn.
Gawain eventually stretched out an arm—making Tristan’s hand move, so damn again—and scratched around for it. He got it just as Tristan finally began to stir, making a few slightly grumpy noises.
“When the squirrels come out of hibernation, I should look into training them to bring phones,” Tristan muttered.
That…would be kind of cool, actually. Especially if they could also find the damn things, since half the time Gawain didn’t know what pocket his cell was—“Yo, Jack. What’s up?”
*Gawain! Hi! Actually, it’s Jess—oh, wait, here’s…no, shouldn’t you…why me? You were the one—oh, all right. Gawain, um, we’ve got a bit of a bother.*
Well, okay, Jess was a truthful person. But she also was very genuinely nice and thoughtful and…and hey, if she was sharing Jack’s phone, did that mean they’d finally worked things out. “What happened?”
Some more hissing, and then Jack’s voice: *We, ah, we shoved Galahad and Mariette into a closet and they’ve been very quiet. So we were, ah, wondering if you knew what the signs of…of…well, not homicide, but any…physical…altercation…*
Tristan raised his head and gave the cell an incredulous look. Then he put his head back down and gave Gawain an exasperated look. “Did they really—”
“Fuck, yes, they did. Fucking hell…” Gawain barely remembered to slap his hand over the phone so Jack and Jess couldn’t hear him “…stupid undergrads…” And took his hand off “…Jack, Jess, don’t move. I’m coming—wait, which closet? Where are you?”
“How long have they been in there?” Tristan added, already shifting to get their clothes.
Good question. “How long has it been?” Gawain repeated. “Why can’t you just open it and check on them? Or if you’re scared of their reaction, ask somebody else to open it?”
*…stuck…* one of them replied.
Gawain prayed really, really hard that the rest of their answer wasn’t what he thought it was. “What?”
*The door. It made this click sound when it shut, and I did try the knob,* Jack said, sounding more than a little sheepish. *But the knob won’t turn. I told Galahad and Mariette that—at least, I called it at the door—but I haven’t heard them say anything back.*
*They’ve only been in a few minutes,* Jess added. But she sounded worried.
Hell, Gawain was worried. Gawain—he had his pants on. When had that happened?
“I’ll tell you after we’re sure that Arthur doesn’t also have to call Mariette’s parents and explain to them why he’s shipping back their daughter’s body,” Tristan said, scooping up somebody’s car keys from the floor. He pushed his hair out of his face and stuck his foot into his shoe at the same time. “Though it really would be easier to resituate just one grad—”
“Tristan, I love you, but if you finish that sentence—what? No, wait there, we’re coming. If they come out before then…um, stall them. No, actually one of you go get the janitor. If the one staying hears anything weird, call me again and hold the phone up to the door. I’ll yell at them,” Gawain hissed. Then he snapped his phone shut, and he and Tristan were out into the hall.
* * *
“Don’t just go off—” Guin started.
“Arthur, what the hell is going on?” Lancelot snarled, stomping in. He let Guinevere come in, then yanked the door shut and locked it. “Some MI5 bint showed up in downtown and completely gave us the run-around, and then you’ve been out of touch, and when you were in touch, it was to meet us here? You’ve got ten seconds to tell me exactly why I shouldn’t be trying to handcuff you to something right now.”
Arthur was holding a Styrofoam cup of what was probably tea, since no coffee odor was coming from it. He blinked, took a step back so he could turn to fully face them, and then put his cup down on a shelf. “For one, I could pick Interpol issue in less than ten seconds.”
“There. See, he’s being witty, so stop panicking and let the man talk.” Though Guin’s stalk to behind her desk—behind her desk, and if her positioning didn’t already say plenty on her own—made it clear she wasn’t too pleased at how the day had gone either. She whirled her chair around, then sat down with her hands delicately folded together. Just like when they’d been talking to Swann.
Lancelot stood. If he was furious with someone, he wasn’t going to bother hiding it in hopes of getting a better response. If they’d done something to upset him that much, then in his opinion he shouldn’t be the one needing to do something. “I’m calm, thank you. I’m very calm. Very calm and very curious to know exactly what—”
“I received a job offer,” Arthur abruptly said. “It was a little odd, so I wanted to ask Edward’s opinion, and it turned out he’d received some collaborating information…”
It took a second for Lancelot to recall that that was Pellew’s first name. He vaguely remembered Pellew once telling them to feel free to call him by that when off-duty during some dinner party, but it felt like violating a natural law just to think of the man by that name. And generally speaking, he was more lax about being respectful than Arthur was. “Have you two been talking a lot lately?”
“You’re not having an affair with him, are you?” Guin asked. Her joking tone was undercut by the palpable edginess in her voice. So much for staying cool as ice.
For a moment, Arthur just stared at her as if he didn’t quite know whether he needed to shout for help. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then frowned as he dug in his pocket. Then he pulled out his cell; the buttons beeped loudly in the tense silence.
He finally looked up, glancing between them with a half-surprised, half-apologetic expression. “Oh…did I miss something? I didn’t realize you’d called so much…I was at the U. N. and had to turn off my phone.”
Lancelot started to make a smart remark—and it would’ve been a very smart one. Smart as Einstein. But then he processed what Arthur had just said and he completely lost track of his train of thought. “The—the U. N.? Who the hell wants to kill you?”
Moment of silence. Then Guinevere and Arthur both turned to look at him: Guinevere as if he were some loud drunken idiot in a pub, and Arthur as if Lancelot seemed in danger of needing an ambulance.
“So what’s the problem?” Guinevere said in an overly pleasant voice, turning back to Arthur.
Who still looked a bit taken aback. He blinked a few times, then slowly came over to stand in front of Lancelot. “There isn’t—well, there may be a problem, but I think you two have the wrong impression. I’m sorry about that…let me start over. Earlier today I received a phone call from the U. N.—”
“Have they picked up on MI6?” Lancelot and Guinevere both said. Lancelot added a pointed look at her afterward; she and he weren’t thinking so differently after all, so she could stop with the smugness.
Arthur shook his head, then stopped. Now he looked pained. “No, they--damn it, this is not going how I wanted—all right, all right. The U. N.’s known about MI6 for a while, if you mean in general. If you mean my…situation…I hardly think that they would’ve bothered even finding my name on their own. I’m nowhere near important enough.”
“How could it not—” Then Lancelot stopped. He hadn’t gotten it all out, so if Guin was even looking as if she were thinking about giving him that face…she wasn’t watching him at all. She was still staring at Arthur. “So what were they calling about?”
“A job,” Arthur said, sounding as if he would’ve been bemused if he hadn’t been so worried. He kept looking at them and gradually his expression leaned more and more towards concerned. “No, not that sort. A…kind of teaching position. For their analysts.”
Guinevere slowly started to sit down, but when she noticed that neither Lancelot nor Arthur were moving that way, she got back up. “The U. N. offered you a job? And you asked Pellew about it?”
Lancelot looked around, found the spare chair, and sat down. He ignored the quick glare he got from Guinevere. He also ignored the disconcerting effect of having to look up at Arthur; better to feel irrationally annoyed for the other man’s unconscious superiority than to embarrass himself with weak knees. “What’d he say?”
“Well, he tried to hire me again—” Arthur paused. Then he started looking about for a seat himself, but not before Lancelot had caught that grimace.
“…Pellew tried to hire you,” Guinevere slowly, calmly repeated. An idiot could’ve seen that for the warning it was.
Being very, very far from an idiot, Arthur immediately looked regretful. Then he squared his shoulders and met her probing gaze straight on. “I think a better way of putting it would’ve been that he encouraged me to seek employment in Interpol. I doubt he intended to hire me himself, and anyway I made it clear that I’m not interested in any sort of field position. But they do take on analysts and also instructors.”
Arthur teaching rookies how to be international policemen. Lancelot thought about it, opened his mouth to make fun of the idea, and then thought about it some more. Actually, it might work. And it’d certainly be more convenient and more reassuring if Arthur was working in roughly the same location and system in which Lancelot and Guinevere were.
“I still don’t think that’s terribly appropriate. I don’t—Pellew’s usually more on than that. What was he thinking?” Still muttering, Guin absently spun her chair around. She stared at her computer’s screensaver for a few seconds before turning back, clearly not quite having figured out her reaction yet. Then she put up her elbows and pushed her fingers through her hair. “The U. N.? Interpol? Are you seriously thinking about this?”
“You could still teach and get that annoying need of yours to try and improve the world out of your system,” Lancelot thoughtfully said. He rubbed his lip, then glanced up at Arthur. “Don’t take this to mean I haven’t forgotten to be irritated about the first half of today. We still need to talk about your equally bad habit of not discussing things with us.”
The other man frowned as he cautiously leaned against the wall. “I didn’t mention Edward’s offer because it never went anywhere. I was going to speak to you about the U. N.’s, which is why I’m here—”
“Arthur, I know you mean well, but if you think that the U. N.—” Guin started sharply. She stopped just as abruptly and drew in a breath, pushing distractedly at her bangs. Then she looked down at her fidgeting fingers, her lower lip dragging in and out of her mouth so that the tracks where her teeth had pressed in were briefly, whitely visible against the red. Her brows pulled down and she suddenly flattened her hands against the desk, then just as suddenly jerked around to stare at the far wall. “You don’t have to sell yourself for our sake,” she said in a tight monotone. “I want you to stay here, but I don’t want to be the reason you put yourself up for auction.”
Lancelot’s tongue got to it first. “Well, that’s a new one. What happened to manipulating him into the ideal situation?”
She shot him a glare for that, but it didn’t half-carry its usual venom; she was still more focused on Arthur, who was studying Guinevere with an odd kind of dawning comprehension on his face. “As if I haven’t had plenty of time to see what happens when you—” she was looking at Arthur “—twist yourself to fit the circumstances. I fell in love with the bits of the man I could see behind the professor act—lovely and charming as it is—and I’ve spent the last two years waiting and hoping to see more of him. I am not prepared to settle for you going into hiding again. Even if it’s in plain sight.”
And…Guin had a point. The U. N.—or Interpol—could give Arthur the kind of protection he’d need. And teaching or consulting for them in some capacity would suit him, but only so far as what he wanted to do. He hadn’t mentioned at all whether that’d be all he’d have to do in order to earn his asylum.
Arthur had a huge collection, both physical and mental, of information on the British intelligence’s covert operations. For years he’d been counting on the threat of it to keep him safe, but now it seemed like that wasn’t enough. But finally deploying it would drop him right back into the kind of political and tactical maneuvering he’d left behind when he’d quit MI6, and moreover, he’d sooner or later end up having to betray more old colleagues. The whole Clayton situation had nearly sent Arthur into a nervous breakdown while he’d decided what to do, but this would be like that times…Lancelot couldn’t even calculate.
“She’s right,” Lancelot said. He ducked his head so he didn’t have to see either of their expressions: Guin would be surprised as always and he didn’t have the patience for that, and Arthur just wasn’t going to make Lancelot feel much better about himself. He was already late catching on as it was, and having Arthur look grateful to him just pointed out how much better the other man was. And he didn’t even realize. “If they’re offering because of what you can tell them about your old agency, then it’s not worth it. You’re not the information-brokering type, Arthur. It’d kill you to do that.”
It was silent in the room for a long moment; the sound of Guin’s clock ticking was not only audible, but also felt as if each click was a heavy lead weight banging on Lancelot’s shoulder. And then…Arthur laughed?
He…Lancelot looked up, and Arthur was. Quietly, disbelievingly, with his hand over his mouth and his eyes moist and relieved. “Oh…no, there’s been such a misunderstanding here,” Arthur said. “No…it’s not like that. The U. N.’s only interested as long as I can continue to prove that I’m no longer active in that and have no desire to be active in it. They aren’t—they don’t have the same taste for gamesmanship as an intelligence agency.”
“But…then why are you talking to Pellew?” Guinevere leaned forward, frowning.
“Because the offer came out of the blue, and at first I had the same worries you had, so I talked to him to get another perspective on the situation. It actually seems that you can trace the offer back to a James Norrington—”
Lancelot straightened up. “But he’s MI6.”
“Was. He had to speed up his retirement and dropped out about a year and a half ago,” Arthur explained. He absently wiped at the side of his nose, then slipped his hand into his pocket. “We crossed paths a few times, but we didn’t work the same territory so…but anyway, just after he retired, he sent somebody up here to sound me out about whether I’d be inclined to leave him be.”
“Which you never mentioned…” It looked as if Guinevere was remembering she needed to maintain her annoyance from earlier as well.
Arthur flashed her an apologetic face and she visibly lost concentration. Then he shrugged. “I’m sorry. I’ll give you the details later, but at the time it seemed rather…back then I thought it was better if you knew as little as possible about that. I told his messenger I would, and I thought that was the end of it. But now here comes this job opening, and I’m leaning towards thinking that it’s Norrington’s way of thanking me.”
“Or indebting you?” Lancelot suggested.
“Well, that’s what I wanted to see Pellew about, since he’s ex-Navy and so is Norrington. They actually seemed to have been fairly close acquaintances at one point, and he’s assured me that Norrington doesn’t mean it that way.” A crooked, ironic smile briefly graced Arthur’s face. “In fact, he told me it’s probably a better offer than Interpol can give.”
The smile didn’t last too long. Barely ten seconds later, Arthur had shoved both hands into his pockets and was warily watching them, lips in a flat tight line. His expression flicked from disappointed—so momentary Lancelot almost missed it—to concerned to nervous.
“I’m sorry I didn’t speak to either of you about this before,” Arthur quietly added. He ruefully hitched his shoulders back. “But it mostly seemed like castles in the air, so I didn’t want you to worry about something I wasn’t even sure was going to turn out real.”
“We were worrying more about what we didn’t know about. God, in the past few months I think I’ve been more frightened than I ever was when someone was holding a gun on me,” Guin muttered. She looked down at her hands where they were pressing flat on the desk. Then, still looking at that, she slowly stood up.
She finally had to lift her hands to move her chair out of the way. Lancelot thought she was going to go over to Arthur, but instead she stopped beside the desk, head slightly down so a few locks of hair fell into her eyes. He shifted in his seat to lean his arm against the other end of the desk.
“If it’ll make you happy, then do it. As long as it’s what you want, and it’s not forcing you to be what you don’t want to be, then I have no objection,” she said.
“She does make a lot of sense, doesn’t she?” Lancelot tried to laugh, but his throat was too tight and so the sound got mangled into more of a wet croak. He shifted again to drop his hands between his knees, his fingers twisting and knotting around each other on their own. “When she stops being a cranky quip-first bitch.”
Guin flicked him a side-long, narrow-eyed look. “Takes one to know one.”
He almost replied, but was cut off by Arthur’s brilliant smile. Maybe it didn’t make a sound, but it didn’t need to in order to completely take over the conversation.
Arthur came over and stopped in front of the desk, in the middle, and after a moment, Guinevere and Lancelot moved so he could pick up a hand from each of them. He pressed their hands together and kissed both at once, eyes almost too bright compared to the slight shadow in which his hair threw them. “Thank you.”
Lancelot grabbed Arthur’s hand and used it to pull himself out of the chair. He slipped in next to the other man and pressed his forehead into Arthur’s shoulder. “It would make you happy, right? I know it’s not a university…”
“No. It’s different and I know it’ll take me a while to get used to it and figure everything out, and I doubt that even then it’ll be perfect. But I think of all the options I’ve got now, it’s got the most potential,” Arthur said after a moment. His shoulder twitched a little beneath Lancelot’s brow. “I want to try. I’m—looking forward to trying.”
“Then that’s good enough for me,” Guin murmured.
And for once, Lancelot didn’t feel the need to have the last word.
* * *
Galahad just stood there for a good thirty seconds. “They shoved us in a closet.”
“They did,” Mariette echoed, sounding just as wondering.
After a quick calculation, Galahad figured that Jack plus Jess couldn’t possibly weigh enough to hold the door against him—well, Jess did have some muscles in her legs. But the floor outside was slick linoleum, so it wasn’t like she could get good traction. He backed up a little, put his palms flat against the door so he knew where it was, and then threw himself forward.
The door bent, shivered, and then…didn’t give. Galahad bounced back a few inches, teetered and then caught himself on the wall to his right. On his left, Mariette sighed.
“Do you even know if it locks?” she asked. Her clothes rustled as she moved in front of him, and then there came the sound of a knob turning. Turning and clicking weirdly. Mariette gave it a shake so it rattled, then stepped back. “It won’t go all the way.”
“Oh, Jesus.” This was one of the older buildings on campus, and now that Galahad was thinking about it, he just had to remember reading something about a class going out for a fire drill and then not being able to get back into the room because of a crapped-up door lock. Oh, fuck. Oh, fuck, no.
He banged on the door, waited to hear the tail-end of a couple of gasps outside, and then banged on the door again.
“Jack!” he shouted. “Jack, you’d better still be there or I swear to God, I’ll—”
“I’m here! I’m here!”
“Jess?” Mariette said, loudly and with enough bite to make Galahad stare at the slightly darker shape he guessed was her. Usually she didn’t go off at other women nearly that fast, and especially when she didn’t know them that well.
Mariette muttered a couple nasty things in French beneath her breath. Then she cleared her throat. “Is something wrong with the door?”
“Ah…it worked all right a couple minutes ago,” Jack said. He was starting to sound sorry about what he’d just done. He’d better. Not that it was going to increase his life expectancy, which right now was about ten seconds longer than whenever Galahad got out of the closet, but he still should be fucking sorry. “The knob turned and it opened and all, so I don’t know…” door knob rattling, door still not moving “…I…well, that’s rather odd. I—wait—I—damn. Damn.”
Galahad took a nice, deep breath. If he needed to explode, he was going to need it. “Jack? Just what kind of ‘damn’ was that?”
“Was it a ‘the door’s broken and you’re stuck’ kind of damn? Or was it a ‘we locked the door because we’re stupid mushy undergrads but we’ll let you out because we like living’ kind of damn? Think really, really carefully, because the answer could just determine your continued existence,” Galahad said. Only two curse-words, and both of them mostly quotes. He thought that that was pretty good. Gawain would’ve been proud.
For that matter, Mariette wasn’t hissing at him to be nicer or whatever, so she agreed with him. “Mon Dieu. Dieu, s’il vous plait, disez-moi que la porte n’est pas…”
“Ah, Galahad? Can we get back to you on that? Don’t worry, everything’s under control here, but I just want to, ah, well—”
“—make sure everything’s all right before we try anything,” Jess helpfully supplied.
“You can stop praying,” Galahad said to Mariette. “I think God’s too busy laughing to listen.”
Good thing, because after a stunned moment, she cut loose with a stream of French swears that, if God had been listening, definitely would’ve ended up on her column of bad deeds. She scuffed about in place a little, then abruptly stomped at the floor. Then she cursed again, but this time at her shoe’s heel, which was a little too high for real stomping ease, apparently.
“I don’t believe it,” she finally muttered. Galahad’s eyes were readjusting to the light and he could see her irritably shake her head as she leaned back against the wall, arms folded over her chest. “What are they? Children?”
Nah. Kids were too small to have pulled something like this off. Plus they usually had better instincts about what was and was not going to get them dismembered. “I get first dibs on Jack when we get out of here. I have to live with him.”
Mariette just blew out a long, annoyed breath. She didn’t say anything or do anything.
Galahad’s feet were starting to hurt some from all the standing, so he leaned back against the wall as well. It was stuffy inside the closet but not too hot or too cold, and they did have enough room so that they weren’t right on top of each other. Still awkward as all hell, but survivable, he decided. He’d just…have to do that thing where you concentrated on pretending you were somewhere else.
Outside Jack and Jess were furiously whispering to each other, but none of it was loud enough to make out. At least they hadn’t been so stupid as to run off.
“Galahad?” Jack suddenly called. “Mariette? Are you going to be late for anything? Can we call in for you while we, ah, figure out how to get the door open?”
Oh--shit. Right after remembering he had a cell phone, Galahad discovered that the damn thing didn’t have reception. And judging from the frustrated noise Mariette had just made, she didn’t have hers on her. “Jack, you don’t happen to know what the building manager’s number is, do you? Or see a janitor around?”
“…no…” Sounded like a crushed puppy. Big deal.
“So call Gawain—he knows that kind of shit. Then one of you go look for a janitor, just in case.” It was too close to dinner-time for them to have much luck of finding one, but it was worth a try.
Jess and Jack both caroled a very desperate, apologetic-sounding ‘okay!’ Mariette snorted. “That was sensible.”
“Well, somebody has to be and it didn’t look like they were up to it. I can be pissed off once I’m out and can actually get to them,” Galahad replied.
There wasn’t really a lot to say after that, and ever since they’d started with the whole coffee thing, Mariette hadn’t been babbling or bitching just to fill in the awkward silences like she’d used to. So she didn’t say anything either, and they ended up just kind of standing there. In the dark. In the fucking closet.
“Why did your roommate think this would work anyway?” Mariette finally asked.
“Hell if I know. Every time I start to think that Jack’s got some brains in him somewhere under all that stuttering Britishness, he goes and pulls shit like this.” Not being able to see anything was beginning to get to Galahad a little, so he pulled out his cell phone again. The greenish light from its screen flared up to garishly highlight Mariette’s raised eyebrow. “I don’t have service in here.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know. I saw when you pulled it out the first time.”
“So what was that look for?” Galahad retorted.
Mariette blinked a few times, then frowned. “What look? This look? This is my face.”
“Yeah, yeah, your face. Looking at me like I’m an idiot.” That one hadn’t shown up for a while, but once it had, Galahad remembered just how much that expression irked him. “It’s not my fault we’re stuck in here. Why’d you show up, anyway? Didn’t you think it was weird that Jack would call you—and how did he get your number, anyway?”
Her expression became even more exasperated. “From you, I think. I did not give it to him. I don’t know why he called. That’s why I was asking him that when he pushed us in here. Don’t blame me.”
“I’m not blaming you.”
“Oh? Did you even listen to what you were just saying? Or did it fly out of your mouth without a thought, like usual?”
“Wow. You’re still a total bitch without coffee.”
“Ah, thank you for the proof that I’m right.”
“You—” Then Galahad stopped. After a couple moments, he just shook his head. He wanted to laugh too, but she’d probably take that the wrong way. He wouldn’t be laughing because anything was funny, really.
Mariette must have been holding her breath waiting for him to come out with something else, because about ten seconds later she kind of gasped for air. Her heels clicked a rapid tattoo against the floor before her latest shuffle ended in her dejectedly slumping back against the wall.
“Still the same,” she muttered. Her voice came out muffled; Galahad pressed a cell-phone button so the screen relit and saw that she’d turned to press her face into the wall. “I don’t think I can take you much longer.”
“…it’s a utility closet,” Galahad warily said after a moment. He wasn’t really sure that she meant that, given the deeper echoes of weariness in her voice. “Even if those two outside have completely lost it, it can’t be too long before we get out. I’m sure you can be an adult about it.”
Amazingly enough, she didn’t take the bait. She just inched her head around to look at him with an oddly tired kind of exasperation. “No. I can’t—I can’t take this…this…I apologized, you’ve had your time and space, and now…what? Do—do you or do you not believe in second chances? Because I want to start again, to try to not make another mistake—but I cannot live this without knowing if you will even let me try.”
Mariette lifted her chin and looked him straight in the eye, long and steady. Then she sighed and turned away again. Her shoe clacked hard, and she belatedly cursed and bent down to fix something about it.
“I can’t believe this,” Galahad’s mouth said. His brain was pretty busy thinking things over, and he thought that was the proper reaction so he was a little irked when he got glared at. “Is this stuck-in-closet thing actually working?”
Her shoulder jerked hard as Mariette yanked at her shoe. “You…you…” Some half-intelligible French which, if Galahad was translating right, meant ‘crass bastard.’
“Don’t go off at me, damn it. I’m—look, I’m not used to the idea of second chances. Giving or getting them,” Galahad snapped.
“Shut up,” Mariette muttered. Her head cocked, and then she repeated herself in a much stronger tone. “Shut up. Yes, you have—you had a different life than me, you had all those problems, but sometimes I think you use them as an excuse. You were brave enough to get past them to come here, but you aren’t brave enough to stop blaming them. I’m no princess in a tower—I’m a woman and I failed and my—I have dirt on my knees, but I am not the type to stay on those forever. I want to get up and walk again.”
And she did stand up just then, and leaned back against the wall with her arms tightly clutched around herself. Mariette stared at him, the dark not enough to mask the hope and challenge in her face.
Galahad’s throat tightened up. His hands clenched and unclenched, trying to provide some kind of release for the tension in him, but that didn’t work. He knew that this was do-or-die time, last chance, and if he wanted a say in the outcome he had to do something now. And he’d never had a problem with that before; he’d never had a problem saying what he wanted even when it was just an ordinary day, with some random unimportant discussion going on. He’d never had a problem with that even when guns and the real, mouth-drying possibility of death was in the same room with him.
But right now, just looking back at her, it was the hardest thing to just to open his mouth. It took all his willpower, and then he was looking for what to say but he’d already used up—
--the door cracked sharply, then groaned as it opened. “Gala—”
Mariette turned and Galahad felt the chance go, and he just made a wild grab for her. He was so focused on that that he sort of lost his balance, but she couldn’t take his weight so that they ended up falling backwards. He heard her hiss as her back hit hard against the wall, and then he’d pressed his mouth down on hers.
For the longest moment of his life, her mouth didn’t move. He thought--shit, she’s going to push me off and say I was assau-- and then her lips parted, and her arms went up around his neck.
The pieces of his life didn’t fall together right then, but they made a whole lot more sense.
* * *
“I’m sorry,” Mariette was mumbling in between enthusiastic kisses.
“French mumble French mumble,” Galahad was going. Or something like that. It sounded like French, and Mariette’s reaction made it obvious that she could understand it.
Jack shuffled up beside him, looking a bit less hang-dog. The other man drew Jess with him, and when Gawain checked, he saw hands being held, all right. “So…I guess it worked out?”
“No, I’m still going to kill you la—” Galahad was muffled by Mariette yanking his head back around.
“You’re grinning.” Tristan leaned onto Gawain’s shoulder, which was his way of grabbing for a hand. There was a slight jingle as he slipped his lockpicks back into some pocket; they hadn’t been able to get hold of a janitor or a building manager, but Tristan apparently never left the house unprepared for a jammed door. Even when he was scrambling to dress after a good bout of on-the-kitchen-floor sex. “It looks like it hurts.”
Gawain laughed. “It does. It’s totally worth it, though. It’s okay—it’s not the most painful expression Galahad’s made me have over the years.”
Totally oblivious, Galahad and Mariette kept kissing. Any moment now they were going to stop and have a spat—Mariette had already switched to muttering about not tearing her blouse—but that didn’t spoil it at all. Actually, it convinced Gawain even more that things were going the right way. Maybe not the least painful way, but definitely the right way.