| Theory I: Philosophy 150
Author: Guede Mazaka
A half-hour break in between his first Intro lecture and his lecture for his Humanism and Capitalism class usually gave Arthur just enough time to switch his notes, get fresh tea, and duck into the bathroom, if he so happened to need that. But today, delay was waiting in his office.
To be accurate, it was flipping through his classical Roman texts and it was also smoking by the window so the ashes would drop out, as he didn’t have an ash-tray. He coughed politely and the woman with the cigarette flicked a slow smile at him. The man disordering his books nodded, expression serious but eyes dancing, and shoved back a Pelagius anthology in the ‘M’ section. Arthur’s urge to object was narrowly overruled by the sharp warning prickle of his instincts.
He tried not to let that show. For all he knew, they could be on some innocent errand. “Can I help you?”
“Arthur Pendragon? Undergrad in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and Ph.D in Philosophy from Oxford, now resident Monmouth Professor at Avalon College? ” the woman asked, pivoting. She held everything still except for her ankles and feet, so she remained more an elegant silhouette than a person. When he nodded, her smile widened to show teeth. “I’m Guinevere DeGrance, and—”
“—I would be Lancelot DuLac. We’re from Interpol, and we’d like to ask you a few questions in connection with a case of ours.” The man absently rubbed at his hands and stepped back from the bookshelf, eyes flitting about the room but always coming back to rest on Arthur. He briefly showed his identification.
Interpol. Arthur’s feet twitched hard, wanting to run, and he was momentarily afraid that that showed on his face, but then he made himself move. The best cover, he’d learned through hard experience, was in staying too busy to lapse. “I see. I’d be happy to help you, but I have another class in an hour, and it’d be difficult to get a substitute lecturer at this late of a notice. Could we possibly put this off till later?”
There was a misshapen candy dish Vanora’s son—the one with the freckles and the scarred eyebrow—had gifted Arthur last Christmas, which should do. And if it didn’t, an ungrateful little voice muttered, then he finally had an excuse to get rid of the eyesore.
He picked it up as he came forward and set it down on his desk by Guinevere, who murmured a thank-you. She leaned over to stub out her cigarette just as he rounded the desk, her hair grazing a sweet perfume over his shoulder. “I’m afraid this is an urgent matter,” she said. “But if we could ask you a few preliminary questions now, I think we might be able to put off the rest to a more convenient time.”
“Fascinating class, by the way.” Lancelot had wandered over and was now reading Arthur’s lecture notes along with him. “How long have you been teaching?”
It was hard to tell whether the incongruity of the conversation twist signaled entrance into a suspense-drama or a farce. And the odd looks Lancelot and Guinevere were shooting over and around Arthur weren’t quite clarifying matters, though they were putting absurd notions into his mind. “Five years here. One at Oxford.”
“And you’re only thirty-six.” Guinevere reached out and tapped a long, gleaming red nail on the notes. “Typo.”
For some reason, that made Lancelot twitch. Closer to Arthur. And Guinevere had failed to lean back as well…Arthur hastily gathered up his papers and backed out from between them. He snagged a pen from the steel-wire organizer and corrected the date. “Thank you. What kind of case are you here to see me about?”
“You got your degrees early, too—five years, total. Which leaves a bit of a gap…something like seven years?” The other man had swiveled to follow Arthur, and now Lancelot slipped around to brace himself against the desk to the right of Guinevere. He swept back one side of his jacket with one hand, then tucked that hand into his pocket. Combined with the hair and the face, he looked rather like an polished-up gangster from the East End. “What were you doing then?”
But Arthur never had a chance to deliver his usual excuse; they certainly were a well-rehearsed and well-trained pair. “Do you have any interest in antiques?” Guinevere interjected.
“Antiques?” The surprise was genuine, since Arthur had been expecting them to ask about something completely different. “Are you sure you should be speaking to me? I do enjoy the museums here, but I’m afraid I’m rather—”
“Artwork. Artifacts. Very pricy items.” Lancelot tilted his head to scan Arthur’s face for some sign, then exchanged a glance with Guinevere. “No?”
Arthur gave them an emphatic shake of the head, blinking in confusion. “No…”
“Oh. I see,” Guinevere sighed, looking downcast. She visibly seemed to crumple a little, her shoulders drooping and a curl of her hair falling to veil one eye.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help,” Arthur added, a shade before he’d finished thinking through his response. But she did seem so disappointed…and so did Lancelot.
“Well, thank you anyway.” One smooth roll of the hips saw Lancelot off the desk edge and on his feet, and saw Arthur slightly distracted. Apparently, that was noticeable because the other man threw him a careless grin. “Oh, by the way? What were you doing during those seven years?”
They were very good. Arthur had to give them that, in between his mental slaps at himself for flinching. The moment he did, Guinevere’s shoulders went back and her head up, making it quite clear that her earlier dejection had been a…a sympathy ploy. Damnation.
“I think we should make an appointment for lat—” she started to say, honey voice sticking false sweetness in Arthur’s ear. However, the mesmerizing delivery was rudely interrupted by a cell phone ringing.
The bane of every lecturer, but for once Arthur was grateful to the damn things. Especially after he saw the time. “If you don’t mind, my class is starting in two minutes,” he hurriedly told them, sidestepping Guinevere’s attempt to grab his arm.
She missed, as it was her phone. Lancelot, however, didn’t. Moreover, he managed to hang on halfway down the hallway in spite of Arthur’s fast pace. “Hey—”
“I’m really very sorry, but—” they turned into the narrow side-corridor that ducked behind the lecture hall “—the department secretary has my schedule. You can stop and see her on the way out to schedule a time; I think I have an opening later this afternoon. But right now, I have a class I need to teach, and it’s unfair to keep the students wait—mmmph!”
Crunching sounds—paper crumpling. Wet tongue playing havoc with Arthur’s brain by way of his mouth. Palm. Forcing his hip against some irregularity in the brick wall.
Old reflex pulled up the last few seconds and did an instant analysis: Lancelot had turned with him, but had gone faster to overtake Arthur. Then he’d used their momentum to twist them backwards, and he’d promptly shoved his tongue into Arthur’s startled gasp. One thing was clear. Arthur’s physical reflexes definitely had degraded. Then again, he’d wanted them to—though apparently he wanted Lancelot further down his throat as well. Or his hand did, since it’d somehow ended up in Lancelot’s hair and was yanking the other man forward.
Muffled sounds were coming from nearby; Arthur stared over the curls he was ripping at and saw the door to the auditorium. Class. Interpol. Damn, damn—he pulled on Lancelot’s hair till he could talk. “I need to—”
“Tell you what.” Hand pressing between them, beneath Arthur’s tie and down his shirt. “Situation’s complicated. Long explanations.” Mouth transferred to his throat and sucking the blood to flush heat just under his skin long after Lancelot’s lips had moved on. “And you seem to like this.” Hand now feathering fingers over Arthur’s prick, and completely disregarding his—his—it should’ve been a distressed squirm. “So dinner. When’s your last class?”
“Is—is this supposed to be some kind of blackmail? What happens if I say no?” Arthur breathed hard through his mouth and attempted to get his hands between them. Problem was, they seemed to like staying on Lancelot.
There, they could feel the stiffening run all through the other man. The licking and nibbling at Arthur’s neck abruptly stopped and Lancelot lifted his head. It was quite dark in the hallway, so all that Arthur could see was a cold, judging glitter.
Then Lancelot chuckled, and he relaxed till Arthur was supporting virtually all of his weight. “If you said no and I still tried, then you’d have an airtight accusation of sexual assault to take to my boss. So you’re safe. Unless you’re afraid that even the slightest scrutiny on you might turn up something.”
If Arthur wanted to, he could simply put his palms against Lancelot’s shoulders and push. He could. And instead, he let his head fall back against the wall and grimly resigned himself. It’d been a nice six years. A better six years than he deserved, so there was no point and no justice in avoiding his reckoning.
Which at the moment consisted of a sharp jabbing elbow in the side. Lancelot removed himself, gaze now intensely curious. “Bloody mixed signals,” he muttered. It didn’t seem as if he meant for Arthur to overhear that. A little louder: “Or we can do an interview in your office, and after everything’s settled, I could come back and ask if you like Thai or Italian. By the way, if you’re trying to take the fall for someone, you shouldn’t. It’s never worth it.”
“If I’m trying to…?” Arthur belatedly noticed the disaster that his clothes had become and hastily tried to salvage some order from them. He shoved his shirttails back in his waistband, internal time clock blaring his lateness at him. “I’m not—what would I be taking a fall for?”
The lag between his first word and his correction was far too long, and both of them knew it. Wincing, Arthur reminded himself to work on that before the interview; he was far, far too rusty, if the visit was really about what he suspected it was.
“I can’t believe you don’t have a wedding ring,” Lancelot snorted, stepping back in. He batted aside Arthur’s hands and fixed Arthur’s tie with a few deft, quick moves of his fingers. “Or have you taken a vow of celibacy?”
That irked an old grievance of Arthur’s. “Why, exactly, does everyone assume I’m a monk? There are other perfectly—”
No, he couldn’t fall back in Lancelot’s mouth because he had—“I have class,” Arthur gasped, prying the other man from him. “I’ll—”
“Six good for you? Great. I’ll pick you up outside.” And then, having rewrecked Arthur’s clothing, Lancelot pecked Arthur’s lips and walked off.
On the other hand, Arthur wasn’t sure whether he’d come across anything remotely like this. So perhaps it wasn’t his fault he had just completely fumbled the entire exchange—not that it’d made too much of a difference.
He was supposed to be worried about that, not…anticipatory. Actually, he was supposed to be thinking about Keynes. The afternoon was going to be very long and very hard on the nerves, Arthur thought as he opened the lecture hall door.
* * *
Not only was the bastard swaggering out of the corridor, but he was cheerfully whistling while he straightened his tie. Guinevere made sure to step hard on his toes when she pivoted to walk alongside him.
“Bitch.” But Lancelot was irritatingly breezy about the insult. “So pick-up here at six, and dinner to be provided by m--us. What was the phone about?”
On second thought, she should’ve said to hell with dignity and just slapped him. Considering how distracted he was, she probably could’ve gotten it in this time. “The phone was the office. Someone’s stolen a statuette from a private collection in Manhattan—same period as the one we’re currently sitting on.”
“Probably ours, then. They’ve specialized for moving one thing, and now that they couldn’t deliver the money to those mercs, they’ve had to scramble.” Lancelot was fiddling with his hair again, slowing to check it in a window as they headed to the parking lot. Then he finally figured out the rest of what the new development meant and he grinned at her. “Oh. Your specialty, isn’t it? So I take it you’ll be going uptown to check that out, and won’t be able to join us for dinner.”
“No.” It hurt. Not only because he hadn’t even lifted a finger and he’d still manage to get one step ahead of her, but also because she genuinely wanted to do well on this case and now she was going to have to delegate an important part of the investigation. The first really significant one she’d gotten, and Lancelot was probably going to fuck it up with his stupid dick. “Do not--”
He fluttered a hand at her. As if she wasn’t even deserving of a full dismissal. “Guin, I’ve done an interview before.”
First she looked about the parking lot, which was tucked behind a building and thus fairly out-of-sight from the main pedestrian thoroughfares. In addition, the day was well under-way, so students were in class and weren’t wandering about to see anything like Guinevere clamping her nails in Lancelot’s shoulder and hauling him about to look at her. “You will be careful. You will be observant, and your observations will not be limited to his eyes and his goddamn cock. And if you let him off, and later it turns out there was something, they won’t find enough to identify you. Believe me, I’ve been visiting forensics enough to know how to do that.”
He rolled his eyes and shook her off, then tried to jerk his door open. Her sweetest smile on, Guin lifted the remote and beeped it at the car. The locks promptly clicked.
Lancelot was barely suppressing a snarl as they got inside. “For God’s sake, Guin. If I really were that bad, I would’ve been kicked out on my ass a long time ago. And anyway, the man’s throwing around enough signs to confuse an army of psychologists. First he’s hiding and doing not a bad job of it, and then he’s being guilty, and then he’s…Jesus, if I were into giving punishment…”
“You make him sound like he’s more spineless than a jellyfish.” She twisted the key and let the engine roar a bit before she pulled out into the road. At least Interpol had the decency to give her a generous expense account, even if it also made her put up with Lancelot’s adolescent analytical skills. “Somehow I don’t think he’s without a sting.”
“Oh, definitely not.” The strange silence that followed that prompted Guinevere to look over, but it turned out that Lancelot was just busy staring glazed-eyed at some memory. Light-footed bastard. “Still. He doesn’t act like an ex-soldier. Well, except for the bookshelves… alphabetical, and organized by periods in chrono order as well. But he could just be anal.”
It was Guinevere’s turn to roll her eyes, and she swerved into the fast lane while she was at it. If she had to go, she might as well get uptown early and thus get it over with sooner. Husbanding her time right might even see her out soon enough to ring up Lancelot before he tripped Arthur onto the nearest horizontal surface. “What, did he turn you down? Or—no, I bet he would’ve, but you snowballed him so you wouldn’t have to hear his answer.”
The look Lancelot shot her could’ve doubled as a bullet. Then he propped his arm against the window and pressed two fingers against his lips, ruminating on something. “My self-esteem isn’t anywhere near that pathetic, and you know that.” He looked at her again, but this time it was with wariness. “He thought I was blackmailing him for it. And—don’t laugh, you cunt; you do this too—I was trying to see if he thought he’d need to do that. Partly. But he just…acted as if he owed it to me. Which is both faintly repulsive and--”
“Doesn’t seem to have dampened your interest any,” Guinevere drawled, but she did acknowledge the point Lancelot was making. That wasn’t a normal reaction to have, either for an innocent man or for a criminal trying to bargain his way out.
“Well, his reaction after we straightened that one out was rather encouraging.” Serious moment over, Lancelot folded his hands behind his head and stretched out, smiling at nothing.
Guinevere eyed the movement of the cars in front of her. So he thought she wasn’t aggressive enough at driving…well, his almost-slam into the dashboard a second later was entirely his fault. He should’ve been wearing a seatbelt.
* * *
Gawain checked his watch, then the clock on the wall. All around him, the students were starting to get restless, and for good reason: Arthur was nine minutes and thirty seconds late. Another thirty seconds, and they’d be free to go.
“Maybe he had to take an emergency piss?” Galahad suggested.
“Arthur?” Which was all that Gawain needed to say in order to counter that. Professor Pendragon was notorious for his extreme punctuality.
Just then, the door across the space flew open and Arthur walked in, his normal stride weaving a bit. His tie was yanked out so the loop stretched to the third button of his shirt--which was pulled partly out of his waistband--and his cheeks were flushed, eyes slightly dazed. A deathly silence fell over the room.
“Oh...ah...” So clearly embarrassed it was painful to watch, Arthur straightened up and made futile efforts to reorder his clothing. He was still panting. “Sorry for...the delay. I hope...you’ve spent...your extra time...studying a little more for...today’s quiz.”
The usual groan that would've accompanied that statement didn’t come. Instead, a knowing titter started somewhere in the shadowed upper left and quickly spread around the room.
“Highly respected, you said,” Galahad muttered, attempting to fade into the blackboard. “An honor to be selected as his grad students, you said. Philosophy’s a good major for management, you said. Fuck. I should’ve just gone straight to business school.”
“Shut up.” Gawain halved the stack of quiz papers and shoved one half at the other man, then bundled off to distribute the other half. It kept him from staring too hard at Arthur; while Gawain had no intention of crossing school regulations about professor-student relations, he also wasn’t blind. Just when he was composed and neat, Arthur was a distraction great enough to alter the traffic flow in the hallway. And when he was disheveled like this…well, Gawain was glad that one, it was the first time this had ever happened, and two, they weren’t anywhere near a busy street.
Even with the inevitable complications of over-attentive women—and the occasional man—passing out the papers didn’t take much longer than five minutes. Then Gawain took up his post sitting on the top steps, where he could watch both the students busily scribbling away and Arthur, who now looked…less obviously ravaged.
The professor was clearly still shaken, and even from his high perch, Gawain could see how the raggedness of Arthur’s breath was making his shoulders jump.
And Gawain nearly pitched forward to roll all the way down to the front. He grabbed at the arm of the nearest seat, then twisted around to glower at the whisperer. “We’re having a quiz, thank you.”
“I noticed.” Unruffled, the man squatted beside Gawain and absently flipped his messy long bangs out of the way, briefly revealing triangular tattoos on his cheekbones. He was frowning at Arthur. “What happened to him?”
“Oh…well, no idea, really. He just walked in like that; I saw him about two hours ago, and he was fine then.” Then Gawain remembered what he was supposed to be doing instead of chatting and winced. Damn it, he really didn’t want to lose his position. He hadn’t known Arthur too long, but the man was an excellent teacher and advisor. And he also paid the most, which Gawain needed. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to leave since you’re not a student in the class. There’s no room for visitors.”
The other man nodded, a faint, amused smile on his face. “I noticed that, too. Do me a favor—tell Arthur that the heating’s fixed.”
“From…?” Gawain caught at the man’s sleeve and kept him from scooting away.
“Tristan.” He re-lowered himself, glancing again at Arthur. “You’re one of his new grad students?”
“Gawain. Galahad’s sitting on the other side. Are you one of the others in the department?” On closer inspection, Gawain saw that Tristan was not so young as he’d first assumed; in fact, they were probably about the same age. It was a bit difficult to tell under all that hair—before Gawain really thought about it, he’d flicked a lock out of Tristan’s eye.
Blinking, Tristan went very still. Then he gave a little shrug, letting it pass. “No. Arthur’s my guardian. Was, anyway.”
“Oh, I didn’t know he had an adopted son…what?” Tristan had given a little shake of the head, and Gawain was suddenly worried he’d made a blunder.
“I’m not that. But he was listed as my legal guardian till I was eighteen.” A flick of the eyes toward the clock, which Gawain should’ve been watching. “I think I need to go.”
There wasn’t any good reason to keep him, but Gawain’s hand still made an aborted move in that direction. Lips quirking upwards, Tristan deftly avoided it and melted back into the shadows. “Nice to meet you.”
“Same to you,” Gawain muttered, turning his attention back to work. The time for the quiz was nearly over, so he stood and got ready to start yanking papers from students. He didn’t particularly enjoy that part of being a GSI, though Galahad seemed to positively thrive on it…slightly better than taking it out as road rage, but still annoying.
* * *
Back at the office, Lancelot snagged some sushi from the cafeteria and chopsticked spicy tuna rolls while he ran data searches. The sketch of Arthur given in the file slowly began to fill out: upper-middle-class family, but all close relatives dead by the time he was sixteen, so despite the money he’d most likely had a crash course in maturity more like the kind street brats got. Excellent scholastic record all the way through…but occasional notation for troublemaking. Odd.
Though when Lancelot got to Arthur’s collegial information, it started to make sense. Protests, active in student political organizations…ah, an idealist.
And suddenly, right after getting his doctorate, Arthur Pendragon dropped out of sight. The next seven years were a complete blank.
Frowning, Lancelot put down the half-eaten roll and tapped a few keys. Nothing. He checked the other regional databases. Nothing. Just to check, he went through the French and Arabic databases, in case a file had gone untranslated. Nothing. It was still possible that something was hidden in a language he didn’t know, but at this point, Lancelot was doubting it. There were too many blanks coming up, and no explanation for why such an active personality would suddenly go silent.
Arthur’s next appearance was just where he’d said it was: a year teaching at Oxford, his alma mater, and from then on, he appeared to be the distinguished but unassuming scholar Lancelot had met. Queer. And not in a prospective way, either.
“Porn or work?” Guinevere leaned in the doorway, lightly rapping on the frame. She had her satchel slung over her shoulder, and the slight irregularity in the line of her jacket said she was armed as well.
Lancelot raised an eyebrow at that; their job wasn’t always conducive to personal safety, but it was uptown Manhattan she was hitting, not Brooklyn or the dockyards. Barely out of their office building’s backyard. “I have more class than that. I was trying to trace those missing years and I’m still not getting anything. People having mental breakdowns and turning into hermits leave more traces than this.”
“Have you checked for erasures?” Her bitchiness temporarily submerged as the problem caught her interest, too.
“Yeah. Nothing that I can see from here—I’ll send in a request to London and see if they can find anything. If they want to find anything.” Another explanation for the mysterious lack of information suddenly occurred to Lancelot. At first, he was inclined to laugh it off as too many reruns of X-files, but on second thought, it wasn’t unheard of. He leaned forward and sent off an inquiry to the British intelligence agencies.
While he was doing that, Guinevere had moved about till she could see what he was typing. She folded her arms in front of her and snorted her skepticism. “You think he was an operative? Come on—they’re usually better than that. If he was, they would’ve inserted some kind of cover-story to fill in the blanks.”
“Usually, but not always. And maybe he’s not an operative, but maybe he had some connection. Anyway, it doesn’t hurt to ask.” That settled, Lancelot picked up the chopsticks and finished his food. Which was bloody warm now, and tasted a bit off. Damn it.
“No, the worst they could do is clamp down on us so fast you wouldn’t have the time to pull in your balls,” was Guin’s acerbic reply. Her heels clicked a contemptuous tattoo on her way out.
Lancelot indulged in a rude gesture of chopsticks and fingers at her back, then kicked off the corner of his desk to spin around. Outside, the afternoon sun was playing hide-and-seek with a bunch of fluffy white clouds, causing the light to dapple and redapple itself over the room. The shadows traced graceful arabesques over the glittering skyscrapers of the city.
Possibly she was right to worry. But if Arthur was an active intelligence operative, then he should’ve called his superiors right afterward and there already should have been some kind of response. And if he was an inactive one, or retired…well, he was pretty damn young for that, firstly. Secondly, he should’ve been able to easily outmaneuver Lancelot and Guinevere. So it was something else.
It still was a good idea just to check, Lancelot thought. The last thing he wanted was to accidentally step into MI6’s territory; if he had to tangle with those creepy bastards, he wanted to do so with eyes wide open.
Though then the question would be why the fuck would MI6 be involved with a group of mercenary smugglers and hitmen? Maybe it was a red herring. Maybe Arthur had just snapped and wandered off into the woods for seven years…only to re-emerge competent enough to jump right into teaching and land a coveted chair at a high-ranked private college. Right.
Maybe Lancelot was just overthinking without having enough information to work with. He checked the time…still two hours till six, and his searches weren’t turning up enough for him to keep bothering with it. If he took care of the electricity bill and stopped at his apartment to spruce up a bit, he’d only be a little early. And anyway, it might be useful to do some more poking about Arthur’s office.
It was a good plan, and it worked all the way up to when he got to the Philosophy floor. The voluptuous redheaded secretary, who’d been perfectly friendly in the morning, shot to her feet the moment she saw him and stood, arms akimbo, in his path. “Mr. DuLac.”
Lancelot jabbed his short-term memory hard and squeezed a name out of it. He also dragged up his most charming smile. “Vanora. You’re a lovely sight to have twice in a day. Is the professor in?”
“Oh, depends. Are you planning on telling the truth this time?” She poked a finger at the middle of his chest, jaw firm and eyes blazing. “You and your lady friend said you were here to see Professor Pendragon about his research.”
“We were.” In a manner of speaking. Looking hurt, Lancelot stepped back as if he were that sincerely offended. As he did, he caught sight of the many, many gilt-framed photos crowding Vanora’s desk and he dove for the opening. Picked up the nearest and nodded approvingly at it. “Beautiful son you have.”
Vanora was unappeased and snatched it back. “I’ll thank you to keep your—hey! You can’t go back there! Not without my say-so!”
First lesson of crashing any occasion was to never pay attention to shouting coming from behind. It really was a pity, given how nice she’d been earlier, but what had to be done, had to be done. And currently that was skidding around a corner just ahead of Vanora’s raging pumps and…
…oh, how convenient. Arthur was right there so Lancelot could grab him and swing them both into an empty side-hall. And get a handful of that arse, since it was right there. “I take it you’re done with classes?”
“You’re early!” Arthur accused, a bit bug-eyed. Apparently, he wasn’t used to being spun around and then groped.
“Well, punctuality’s a hallmark of professionalism.” Lancelot untwisted his hand from Arthur’s sleeve and patted at the rumpled fabric. Then he paused—that had felt like a scar—
--the sharp intake of air by his ear was all the warning Lancelot had. The next thing he knew, Arthur had spun them around to pin Lancelot against the wall. And fuck, but the man was actually kissing back now and he damn well knew how to do that. Definitely not a monk. At least, not a very devout one…
“You can’t—oh. Ah. Sorry to interrupt, Arthur. I thought…” Vanora’s voice flicked from strident to embarrassed to knowingly amused. “Silly man, you should just tell me who you’re seeing. Then I’ll know to let them straight in.”
“I—what—I’m not—we’re—he--” Arthur sputtered, letting go of Lancelot to direct a horrified look at Vanora.
But, like most women, she read what she wanted to see in his expression, then smugly patted his cheek. “I’ll just go block the way so you two aren’t interrupted again, all right?”
“That’s not necessary.” A whole sentence finally out of Arthur’s mouth, and it was to no avail since Vanora had already clattered out of earshot.
Lancelot gave his coat a few tugs and tentatively licked at his lips, testing how sore they were. He ambled up to Arthur’s side and tapped on the man’s elbow. “Seemed like it from where I was—”
Skittish as a deer, Arthur had jumped away from that light touch and was now staring at Lancelot as if he were a…a…an alien that burst out of men’s chests, or something nasty like that. If the man didn’t look so damned delicious like that, Lancelot would’ve rolled his eyes. “And next you’re going to tell me you had a temporary fit of insanity.”
“I…” Arthur closed his eyes and pinched at his nose, taking a slow breath. Then he dropped his hand and nodded down the hall. “I need to get a few things from my office, and then we can go. And…I’m sorry about that.”
“I’d just be sorry if we didn’t get to do that again,” Lancelot muttered, walking after the other man. He tried not to grin stupidly at the flush rapidly spreading down Arthur’s face.
* * *
In retrospect, that had been an incredibly stupid way to divert Lancelot’s attention. Some days, Arthur wondered why he’d bothered trying to live a normal life again, considering how off his instincts still were. And now the scar on his arm was itching and his lower lip was throbbing, low and aching, at one corner. He touched it with a fingertip and found a trace of blood.
“So I never did hear your answer. You have any food preferences I should know about? Vegetarian?” Lancelot meandered about Arthur’s office, frequently stopping to inspect this object or that book more closely. He had long fingers, and he seemed to be fond of running them over things.
Arthur swallowed hard, reminded himself once again what was at risk, and concentrated on slotting papers into his briefcase. “No. No food allergies, either. I…suppose I wouldn’t mind something spicy.”
He could use it to burn off the slow warmth creeping beneath his skin. God, six years of ignoring all the interested looks and having no difficulty in doing so, and suddenly he was acting like a teenager. It was grating. And stupid. An Interpol agent…albeit one that was very nicely put-together. Two, actually, and it was interesting that the second was missing. “Where’s Ms. DeGrance?”
“Something came up. There’s a small chance she might be joining us later, but it’s by no means likely.” The glance Lancelot send his way was speculative on several levels, and not all of them pleasant. Despite the man’s earlier disavowal, there was more going on than sheer…physical attraction.
That sounded about—something was tapping at the window. A quick look showed that Lancelot was still busy inspecting Arthur’s bookcase, so Arthur carefully backed toward the window and glanced outside. “Would you mind putting the books back in the order that you found them?”
“Oh, sorry.” Lancelot cheerfully reinserted one thick volume. Then he pulled out another and flipped through it, occasionally stopping to read a line.
Directly outside Arthur’s window was a tall, thick-branched oak tree, and sitting in it was Tristan. He made a questioning gesture at Lancelot, then held up his hands and twisted them as if he was wringing a small animal’s neck.
Arthur instantly shook his head, as he’d no interest in taking up that lifestyle once more. If the law came down on him, then it came down on him. On the other hand, he had a feeling that Interpol wasn’t the only group interested in his whereabouts, and the other possibility was not only decidedly illegal, but also extremely dangerous to anyone around him.
“‘For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill’,” Lancelot read. His eyebrow arched, and he looked over just in time to catch Arthur blinking back at him. “Interesting sentiment. You’ve got it underlined…agree or disagree?”
“Qualified agreement. I would hope that humanity can develop ways of cohabiting without having to resort to any of Sun Tzu’s methods. But if war is necessary, the way that spares the most human life is best.” Hopefully, the stance in which Arthur was standing was blocking sight of Tristan.
It seemed so, since Lancelot turned back to the book without having any kind of reaction to the otherwise. Arthur silently sighed in relief and turned back to flap a sheaf of papers at Tristan. Then he mimed hiding them under his jacket before tucking them into his briefcase.
Tristan looked a little dubious, but he nodded his acknowledgment and slipped out of the tree. With any luck, he’d have gone through their brownstone and made sure anything untoward was safely hidden by the time Arthur got home.
“What are you looking at?” Lancelot was suddenly beside Arthur, staring through the glass.
Arthur barely avoided flinching. He thought he managed his reply with commendable steadiness, all considering. “There was a squirrel. Fat little thing…he comes around and begs once in a while.”
“You don’t feed him, do you? Because then you’ll never get rid of him.” The other man leaned forward, peering at the thick green foliage. He gave up after a moment, one shoulder lifting in a shrug, and made a grandiose gesture at the door. “Your car or mine?”
His. And it was his choice for the restaurant as well, as Arthur was trying to keep as much of himself separate from the situation as possible. When under suspicion, show as little personal preference as one can.
It was almost amusing how fast old thinking patterns returned, given the proper circumstances. It should also have been reassuring, but all Arthur could feel was a deep, bitter hollowness, which tended to convulse whenever he tried to put food in it. Shame, since the Thai was top-notch.
“Sensitive stomach?” Lancelot, on the other hand, was chowing down with great gusto. He’d kept a light, witty monologue going, which mostly covered up Arthur’s failure to fully engage himself. To any outside observers, that was; this couldn’t have been making a good impression on Lancelot.
“No, I’m…it’s very good food,” Arthur lamely said, poking at a perfect pink shrimp. He tried to work up an interest in transforming his visual appreciation of it into gastronomical appreciation, but he met with no success. “So what’s the case about?”
The amused chuckle Lancelot emitted was mostly muffled by his mouthful of food. Before answering, he washed it down with a healthy swallow of the wine—God, it was such a waste. Arthur reminded himself to get the tip, too, since he was already feeling guilty over how much of his meal was going to go straight into the trash.
A clinking caught his attention and he looked up to see Lancelot, now thoughtfully watching him. “You can stop worrying, you know,” the other man said. “There’s no way someone acting as obviously as you could make it in any line of crime. Honestly, what is it—overdue parking tickets? Oh, never mind. We should probably get down to business.”
“I would appreciate that. I’ve work to do.” Some of Arthur’s irritation from earlier surfaced through his worry and crept into his voice. He mentally slapped himself and shoved that back down where it belonged.
“God, you are one dedicated man.” Chopsticks waggled in his face, then dipped to filch the shrimp from his plate. The delicate morsel disappeared between Lancelot’s lips, which were bruised and—if Arthur kept slapping himself, he was going to end up with a very sore mind tomorrow. “I’m currently tracking a smuggling ring. Deals in high-end antiques, artwork. Scythian gold jewelry, that kind of thing. We caught one of their couriers, and he happened to be carrying your name and phone number.”
Something twisted hard and sharp and cold in Arthur’s stomach, and beneath the table he dug his fingers into his thigh. Above the table, he let his confusion show, but kept his other emotions rigidly under wraps. “Really? I…I have no idea why…did you get a name for him?”
Pause while Lancelot snitched another shrimp. It wasn’t the time to be amused, but the likeness to Vanora and Bors’ brood was too apt; Arthur smiled and shoved his plate over to the other man.
“Thank you.” Faint embarrassment momentarily colored Lancelot’s face. “Thomas Mallory—you know him?”
Not only did Arthur know him, but he also now had a way out. Mallory had been a pugnacious punk, but Arthur could’ve kissed the man if he’d appeared in front of him.
As it was, Arthur tried to restrain himself to the appropriate degree of surprise. “Yes, actually. Old schoolmate of mine…we were together in a rather radical student organization, but I dropped out to pursue my doctorate. I lost track of him after that. Spent seven years buried in some private research, in some very isolated places.”
“Any idea why he might want to contact you?” Arthur’s noodles were rapidly disappearing into Lancelot’s mouth, yet the man maintained a commendable clarity of speech.
“Not the slightest. Possibly for nostalgia’s sake, but we were never that close…” Shrugging, Arthur picked up his wine and let a good half of it vanish down his throat, as he was finally in a state of mind to appreciate it. He set down his glass and threw his napkin on the table. “I’m sorry I can’t be of more help. I hope you have better luck elsewhere.”
And that was when something grazed Arthur’s knee. He startled, then started to look down, but Lancelot speaking prevented that. The touch turned into a full press of a knee against Arthur’s own, and then a slow slide up the inside of his leg.
“Well, you might be able to help with that.” Lancelot’s voice had dropped about a half-octave and was suddenly rather like liquid smoke. He was also easing himself around the table, which was ridiculously small, come to think of it…
Arthur found himself kneading the edge of the seat. Which was difficult, considering it was wood. “This is an…ah…interesting way to conduct an investigation.”
Those very, very dark eyes started to roll, but arrested themselves to continue staring at Arthur, producing an effect that had to be similar to what a mouse felt when spotting the cat the moment before the pounce. Of course, that reminded Arthur of Lancelot’s behavior the other two times they’d been relatively isolated, and that turned Arthur’s empty stomach into soup. Though he couldn’t quite decide whether it was with horror or with…well, the man was bloody attractive. And it’d been a while.
Now the knee was just resting against Arthur’s cock, which was starting to take notice. Oh…fuck. On the other hand, this was completely—indecorous, for one.
Lancelot put his hand on the table and rose a little out of his chair, leaning in so his and Arthur’s noses were nearly touching. He tilted his head just enough for Arthur to see how long and thick his lashes were. “It’s interesting how you keep bringing business into this.”
Then the other man was completely on his feet, knee withdrawn, and he was moving to get their coats from the hooks on the wall. From a bystander’s viewpoint, it probably had just looked as if Lancelot had gotten up and squeezed around the table like anyone else would.
Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He took the coat handed to him and slowly put it on so that by the time he was standing, he wouldn’t make a complete fool of himself.
And then he did so anyway. “Would you mind dropping me off at my house instead of at the campus? I actually don’t drive to work; I usually walk home.”
The grin Lancelot flashed over his shoulder didn’t help settle Arthur’s stomach at all. “Sure.”
* * *
“God! Yes!” Galahad scratched long furrows in the thick carpeting and pumped his hips forward twice more as he came, while the blonde beneath him moaned and puddled, her long legs relaxing from their tight hold on his waist. He dropped to his elbows and grinned, kissing lightly at her slack-mouthed, exhausted whimper. “Good?”
“Oh, Jesus…I’ve got a fucking meet tomorrow and I won’t be able to move…” Her head lolled with every pant. “Yeah, good.”
He patted her on the forehead and carefully got off, then stripped the condom from his prick and tossed it in the trashcan. The arc it made through the air perfectly framed Gawain’s repulsed face. “For God’s sake, we fucking eat in here.”
“Eee—ohmygodohmygodwherearemyclothes—” The girl—Sandy? Cindy?—went from limp piece of flesh to scrambling red-faced squeaker in an impressively short time. No wonder she was on the track team.
For his part, Galahad took his time putting on his clothes. He and Gawain had been roommates, then apartment-mates all through undergrad, so it wasn’t as if they hadn’t seen each other naked plenty of times. Not to mention dumped each other in the shower after drinking sprees…well, all right, that was mostly Galahad, but Gawain had had a few of his own. “Thanks, ‘wain. Just because you’re between boyfriends, you’ve got to scare off my tail?”
That earned him an annoyed grunt and a thwap on the head from a bunch of rolled-up papers. Gawain stalked around the office space allotted to them to his desk, where he started to dig around in the stacks completely blotting out its surface. “Aren’t you supposed to be grading quizzes? We’ve got to have all of them done in two days.”
“And they will be. But Christ, we’re not in the military. We get time off for fun.” Galahad retrieved his shirt from a nearby bookshelf and threw it on. “Why are you back here? I thought you were going to spend the night in the g-brary.”
“I was. But that one’s missing the volume I need, and I came back because I wrote down a couple other places I could find it…” A paper was triumphantly thrust into the air, and then almost immediately thrown across the room in frustration. “Fuck!”
Blinking, Galahad stooped to pick it up. Why would…oh. Only one of the locations was actually a library; the others were storage facilities. And prying anything out of those was an absolute bitch. “Uh. Maybe you could fuck one of the librarians? Cindy—Cinda—the girl you just chased out of here thinks that quiet one’s gay. You know, what’s-his-name?”
“It’s a good thing you didn’t go to business school. You have no head for personal-interaction skills. And his name’s Dagonet, and he’s married to the librarian that works the u-brary. Fulcinia. Which was why he quietly overcharged you a late fee when he caught you flirting with her, you jackass.” Gawain snatched the paper from Galahad and administered another whack on his way out.
“Hey, I’m just trying to help!” Galahad shouted after him. Wasn’t much point in it; Gawain just went storming off, probably to go see Arthur since their advisor had an eerie gift for making resources turn up. He probably had the whole library staff eating out of his hand, what with the eyes and excessive politeness.
Galahad finished dressing himself in much worse of a mood than he had any right to be in, given that he had managed to come before Gawain had interrupted. And that, unnoticed by Gawain, he’d actually graded all of his share of the quizzes before he’d invited that knockout English major in for a little cross-departmental interaction. So he didn’t have any reason to feel bad. He certainly didn’t have any reason to let Gawain ruin the night, since it wasn’t his fault the library didn’t have—
--oh, goddamn it. He grabbed his jacket and ran down to the parking lot just in time to jump into the car beside Gawain. “Jesus Christ. I’ll come in early, borrow the carpet-washer and clean the spot. All right?”
Gawain blinked. “Okay…”
“Great. Now start the car; if Arthur’s got it, no problem, but if we’ve got to sneak into the back stacks, then you’re going to need someone to boost you to the window.” Galahad shrugged off the weird look he got. “You’re my roommate. If you’re gonna be pissy, I’m the one that’s got to live with you.”
“Someday you’re going to find a girl to knock you on your ass, and I’m going to laugh and laugh,” Gawain muttered, but he was already looking a little less stressed.
* * *
Two hours ago, Guinevere had given up on getting out early. One hour ago, she’d started plotting ways to avoid Lancelot, should he happen to come back disgustingly smug and…and…and well-laid. Bastard. It was completely unfair. They could’ve at least had the decency to tell her she was dealing with a murder as well as a theft; then she could’ve come prepared and she wouldn’t have had to scramble about, borrowing things from people. She could almost hear them snickering derisively behind their hands.
“Fresh off the press, forensics prelims.” The man handed her the thick file and was about to add a flirtatious comment, but Guinevere didn’t feel like going through that routine. She glared and he scuttled off.
With a sigh, she sat down at her desk and started reading through the analyses. To all appearances, it just looked like a robbery turned bad, but little niggling details kept striking at her. Perfect, clean theft—not a trace of the burglar to be found—yet the body had taken five shots, only the last one being fatal. That was either messy as hell, or deliberate cruelty.
The victim, however, had been a well-to-do, inconspicuous businessman: rich enough to have a small art collection, but so nondescript that no one had anything to say against him. Guinevere propped her head on one hand and desultorily flipped through the pages, thinking of the undoubted fun she was missing because of this horse-shit. Arthur—
--seven years of nothing. Frowning, she flipped back and checked the dates on the skeleton bio. Then she turned on her computer and started searching.
Not seven years, but five years. Graduate of Oxford, same year as Arthur, and though the length of time wasn’t the same, the absolute paucity of information for those missing years was. So was the general time-frame.
Very odd. Very, very odd. Guinevere thought a moment, then picked up the telephone. Perhaps they shouldn’t have dismissed those statues as just cargo to be sold, then. There was more going on here than money.
* * *
Thank God Arthur was the carpeting type, and not one for hardwood floors. Otherwise it would’ve been a lot more painful to go tumbling to the floor, and as it was, Lancelot’s elbows and knees were going to be a bit jarred, come morning. Not that he cared now, when on top of himself he had a firm, lean body slowly writhing out of its clothes. He yanked down Arthur’s shirt another inch and bit at the bared shoulder, then licked at the red marks he’d made.
“Oh, God…” Arthur buried his face deeper into Lancelot’s neck, mouthing at the skin there, and frantically rubbed their pricks together. His hands would clench in Lancelot’s pants, unclench to drag them down a bit, and then clench to a stop when Lancelot twirled a tongue in his ear. “Fuck.”
“Yes, that sounds about right.” Lancelot hooked a leg around Arthur and pulled him up, adjusting the angle of pressure till things momentarily blacked out. He licked a long streak up the side of Arthur’s neck, following the vibrations of the man’s absolutely gorgeous deep moan. “You have any—”
Ding ding dong dong ding.
Goddamn fucking piece of shite—
--God, Arthur was pretty when he was dazed. “Doorbell?” he asked, raising himself on his elbows.
“What’s that?” Hands molding to Arthur’s hips, squeezing and moving and slowly mapping out the firm long muscles there. It was a nice view from below, watching how his lower lip trembled when he groaned and the way he twisted into Lancelot’s caresses.
Ding ding dong dong ding.
“No, there’s someone.” Well, at least Arthur sounded as irritated as Lancelot felt. With a sigh, the other man peeled himself off and staggered toward the door. About halfway to it, he suddenly remembered personal appearance and made some frantic clutches at his clothes. Ridiculously cute.
Lancelot flopped backward and muttered at the universe’s fucking awful sense of humor, then made a decision. He got to his feet and, since they were coming off anyway, stepped out of his trousers. His tie and jacket were somewhere in the entryway, so no need to worry about that. Just his shirt left, and that garment looked rather nice draped over Arthur’s armchair.
Arthur was standing with the door shut as much as possible, talking to someone through the crack. Sweat was making his shirt stick to his back, nicely outlining the top third of his spine and his shoulderblades, and his pants were dangerously low on his waist, mostly secured by the hand he was pressing to his right hip. “…Professor Cobham should have a copy. If she doesn’t, I know I’ve got one, but it’s back at my—gah!—office! My office!”
Tasting salty wet skin through cotton wasn’t quite as good as the Thai had been, but the shiver Arthur made certainly was delicious. Grinning, Lancelot curled himself tight against the other man’s back and traced out one shoulderblade with his tongue.
“Are you all right?” the other person said.
“I’m fine. What’s—I think Galahad’s blinking your lights,” Arthur choked. He backed up a little and reached behind to bat at Lancelot, but then something happened outside and he had to grab at the door again. Which gave Lancelot free rein to nibble at the nape of Arthur’s neck and scrape his teeth, in short teasing strokes, down Arthur’s spine.
The person outside moved, probably to look at the blinking lights, and Arthur twisted to glower at Lancelot. Then he actually saw Lancelot and his eyes widened quite a bit before he went back to glowering. “I would very much appreciate it if you put some clothes on.”
Lancelot gave it a moment’s thought, just for politeness’ sake. Then he nipped at Arthur’s jaw. “No, I don’t think you would.”
“For God’s sake—” Sound on the other side of the door, so Arthur had to turn back. “I’m—I’m terribly sorry, Gawain, but this isn’t quite a good time. Come early tomorrow if you’ve no luck, and I promise I’ll help then. Is that ahhh—all right?”
Easing his hands into Arthur’s trousers and feeling about proved to Lancelot that maybe Arthur was embarrassed, but his prick certainly wasn’t. In fact, it was making a spectacular handful. And the way Arthur was jerking his hips back against Lancelot, rubbing and pressing at Lancelot’s cock, was almost enough to make Lancelot’s knees melt.
“Uh…yeah. Are you sure you’re—” Gawain sounded as if he had more than a little idea of what was actually going on.
“Yes. Perfectly fine. Have a good night, and see you and Galahad tomorrow morning.” Arthur got out the last few words in an almost unintelligible rush, then slammed the door shut and flicked the locks. “Don’t you have any sense of—”
And there went Arthur’s pants. Caught off-guard, he tried to whirl around and got his feet tangled in his fallen trousers, which made it easy as swallowing for Lancelot to knock them over. He clamped himself to Arthur as soon as possible, straddling one of Arthur’s thighs and rocking against it while he re-explored Arthur’s mouth.
After a moment, a gargled sigh passed from the other man into Lancelot’s mouth, and Arthur put his hands on Lancelot’s back. They rested there for a moment—Lancelot pointedly flicked at one of Arthur’s nipples—and then stroked down and up, over back and buttocks, sides and hips and wherever they went, they spread a tingling heat that melted the ends of Lancelot’s neurons. He murmured and moved against Arthur, tangling them together while Arthur rolled them over and did an awkward but thankfully short shuffle-crawl into the next room.
A quick hand-flopping in a nearby drawer produced a jar of Vaseline™, though for some reason Arthur looked bemused upon seeing it. “He puts these in the oddest places…”
“He?” Lancelot stopped twining.
“Huh? Oh, not—I’m not seeing anyone. I meant my…I suppose you’d call him an adopted son, though he didn’t need a father when I met him. Tristan.” Arthur’s gaze went distant with sudden worry. “Damn. I hope he wasn’t coming home tonight.”
Well, no reason for him to pause, then. “Ahem.” Bucking of hips together to drag Arthur’s attention back. “Shag?”
“Oh, right.” The worry snapped out of Arthur’s face and he fumbled to get his fingers slicked up.
That concerned Lancelot for a moment, but once Arthur had gotten his fingers inside of him, there was no fumbling. There was just grabbing at Arthur’s shoulders and arching at every clever flutter of fingertips, and then there was panting through the hard stretching that usually preceded a good fuck. And that prediction held true here; Arthur went at fucking with an intensity and focus that was absolutely devastating. So incredibly different from the confusing, hesitant professor…Lancelot had to just hold on and try to ride it out. But then Arthur, still so considerate, got a hand down and started working Lancelot’s cock, rubbing a thumb over the head, and he was also coming down for a hard kiss with every shove in, so that Lancelot had to let go and crash apart.
Usually Lancelot was back on his feet within a few minutes of climax. Most people made the mistake of assuming inability to move due to exhaustion equaled intimacy, so he tried to avoid any misunderstandings. And anyway, it was hard to find someone that could take him that far. Even Guin couldn’t do it all the time—they’d developed a kind of partial immunity to each other.
But Arthur had. And, listening to the man’s breathing slow, Lancelot muzzily thought that in this case, he wouldn’t mind a wrong assumption. So when Arthur turned around and nuzzled at the side of Lancelot’s face, Lancelot slung an arm around the man’s neck and held him there.
When something rang, Lancelot thought time had bent back on itself and that they were repeating the evening. But then he rubbed his eyes clear and saw the sunlight streaming through the window, and he realized they’d actually fallen asleep on the floor. Hell. He hadn’t done that in years—and God, the crick in his back was why.
Something was still fucking ringing...oh, right. That was his cell. Damn thing tried to flop out of his hand when he dug it out of his trousers. “Hello?”
*Get off his fucking cock and get down here, you jackass son of a bitch.*
“And good morning to you, Guin,” he groaned. It took a second to lever himself up because beneath him, Arthur started shifting and murmuring. And Arthur looked even better peeled out of that suit. “Be down in a few. Here.”
Thank God for gentlemanly reflexes, for Arthur just took the phone and answered it without firing off any nasty questions. “Hello?”
* * *
“Lancelot, you goddamn bastard, you’d better be—”
Guinevere stuttered, swallowed it so she wouldn't embarrass herself, and sat down. Fuck, but Arthur had a nice morning-after gravel in his voice. “Arthur. Hi. I hope I didn’t wake you--it's a bit early…anyway, how would you like to come down and see our offices? It might be necessary for your personal safety.”