|Theory II: Prerequisite
Author: Guede Mazaka
What Gawain liked about Avalon College was that it was small without being exclusive: everyone basically knew everyone else, but as it was decently in the city, there was enough in-and-out traffic to prevent stagnation. It made for a nice relaxed yet vibrant atmosphere.
And yes, it made it a hell of a lot easier to keep tabs on people. Normally Arthur was the last person with which Gawain had that problem, but yesterday morning had definitely changed that.
“He’s…going to be in phone contact till Friday. Possibly.” Galahad shoved his hands in his jeans pockets and rocked back on his heels, staring at the sign taped to the door. For the most part, it was written in Arthur’s precise, elegant hand, but the last two letters trailed off into an intriguing squiggle. “What the fuck? He’s never missed a lecture.”
“Exactly what I said, though of course in less direct language.” Lace flounced in between them, and a rich contralto warbled from the puzzled Professor Cobham. She put one hand on her hip and frowned at the posting. “Well. I thought I was dreaming when he rung up to ask me to cover his turn, but I suppose not. Oh, Gawain—I got your message, too. And here it is.”
She poked the book that had ruined Gawain’s night at him, which he gratefully took. “Thanks. You wouldn’t believe how grateful I am, Professor Cob—”
“Oh, call me Kitty. Professor just sounds too stiff, like so much whalebone propping up us stuffy academics. Though I’ll make an exception for dear Arthur.” If Professor Pendragon was the fantasy of the college, then Professor Cobham was the idol of it; she carried off a joint professorship in Economics and Drama in grand but never arrogant style. Up close, fine wrinkles betrayed a grandmother twice over, but the sparkle in her eye as she beamed speculatively at Gawain showed the still-lively divorcée, always ready for a little tit-for-tat. “Speaking of, I’ve been hearing the most delicious rumors…”
As was typical of him, Galahad was completely ignoring anything that wasn’t related to his current annoyance. “Oh, great. Humanism and Capitalism is covered by you, but what about tomorrow’s Intro lectures? Does this mean we’ve got to put up with Professor Dieck--”
Gawain cut him off with a smack upside the head before he could say anything stupid in front of a full professor. “What rumors?” Gawain quickly asked, trying to distract Kitty’s keen sense for gossip.
She was still eying Galahad with a few questions in her eyes, but something about Gawain’s desperation must have persuaded her to take pity on them. “Oh, just that Vanora caught your advisor tonguing a gorgeous fellow Brit yesterday. In fact, I believe it was right over there.”
Kitty pointed, and Gawain made a note never to lean on that wall again. Then he made a note to break Galahad of that annoying habit of snorting disbelief. With a rolled-up newspaper, if the man was going to be that immature.
“Great. So what, he’s fallen madly in love and is eloping?” Unneeded emphasis was added by Galahad’s overdone eyerolling.
Frowning a little, Kitty smacked him on the shoulder. Then, when he hunched over to grab at the point, she whacked him at the small of the back so he had to straighten up. “Chewing the scenery not only is unfair to your castmates, but also tends to give you indigestion. Anyway, the really interesting part was that the Brit was a man.” She pouted for a second. “I think I’ve just lost five dollars in the office pool.”
“You had him pegged as straight?” Galahad had skipped back a few steps and was now watching Kitty with a mixture of caution, accusation and offended pride. “Come on. He’s so organized.”
“He’s British and in academia; that doesn’t tell you anything for certain. And no, actually I had him pegged as bi and possibly open to poly. But it’s been years and I’ve not seen him take a second glance at any of the girls.” Despite her obvious disappointment, she was smiling quite broadly.
For obvious reasons. First Galahad’s lips twitched and he swallowed hard, a flush spreading from his throat upwards. He tried to press his mouth firm and still, but the more effort he put into it, the worse the twitching was. Finally he whirled past Professor Cobham into the GSI offices, barely muffling a laugh.
“He doesn’t believe you,” Gawain observed.
Kitty shrugged, not a single inch of her lace skirt ruffled out of place. “Oh, most people have a bit of a problem seeing the world the way I do. I’ve been telling students for years that economics is nothing but drama written in numbers, but they insist on being intimidated by it. Pity—oh, I’ve got to run. Just drop off the book in my office whenever you’re finished.”
“Thanks again,” Gawain called after her. Then he turned around to look at the sign again.
Personal emergency, out for the rest of the week. That certainly was unusual, and not only because it was out of character for Arthur. Gawain hadn’t thought the man had had any family till he’d met Tristan, and even then Tristan wasn’t a blood relation. It was strange…well, no point on dwelling on it till he could ask Arthur about it. And with all the inevitable upset in the schedules, he’d best get working.
Five minutes later, he had his bag loaded and slung over his shoulder, and was walking briskly towards the g-brary. The mess Galahad and his blonde had left last night looked even more disgusting in the light of day, and Galahad had just started to clean up. If Gawain had to pull extra hours today, he’d rather do it somewhere that was at least sanitary.
He was passing a broad-branched, grand old maple tree when something plopped beside him. Gawain stopped and picked up…a sneaker. Old, worn, smelling more of grass than of the usual foot-stink.
“Jesus!” The next thing Gawain knew, he was flat on his ass, bag spilling papers and books over the ground to his right, and staring wide-eyed up into the tree.
Tristan was hiding his laugh, but he was being a lot more gracious than Galahad about it. His hair was bound back in a loose ponytail, but a generous number of bangs had slipped out to stripe-mask his face, and he had a squirrel on his shoulder, chittering away at the stupid human below. And he was missing a shoe. “The chapel’s two blocks that way, if you’re looking for a religious experience.”
Reason slowly crunched data into a conclusion: Gawain was having a weird day. That settled, he persuaded his body that it didn’t belong to a klutz who’d just tripped himself and sat up. The shoe went up to Tristan, who snagged it and curled to slide it on in one seamless, teetering motion that had Gawain momentarily panicking for the other man’s safety. Not that he was in any position to judge gymnastic skills, since he couldn’t even walk properly.
He started stuffing his things back into his bookbag. “You know, a lot of religious experiences didn’t happen in a church.”
“I know.” Foot re-shod, Tristan continued twisting about till he was lying on his back. The squirrel moved to his chest and they traded pokes with forefinger and paws. “Arthur’s got exact numbers somewhere on that.”
“I told him what you said, by the way.” Gawain rezipped his bookbag and stood up. He lifted a foot, then said to hell with it and resigned himself to another late night to catch up. “What in God’s name is your major?”
The other man stopped playing with the squirrel and glanced down at Gawain. It was hard to tell, given the hair and the blank expression, but Gawain thought he saw a spark of interest in Tristan’s eye. “Forensic science.”
“That squirrel looks pretty alive…” Lame comment. In his defense, it’d been a while since Gawain had done this.
“My undergrad was biology, field-based. I try to keep it up.” Tristan petted the squirrel, then sent it off with a gesture of two fingers and thumb that was too fast for Gawain to really see. Then he seemed to roll off the branch—Gawain jerked forward, but Tristan was already on the ground and grabbing his bag from where it’d been half-hidden in a bush. “Where are you going?”
Gawain checked his watch and promptly cursed. “Right back inside. I was going to hit the g-brary for a bit, but the class I’m GSI for is starting in seven minutes. Speaking of, you wouldn’t happen to know what’s the personal emergency Arthur’s got?”
The air cooled. Then Tristan blinked and everything was normal again. It’d happened so damned fast…but no, the man had definitely been assessing Gawain, and not for any regular reason. “I’m in the Conservatory all afternoon—I work at the raptor center. Come on up after your class is done.”
“Ah…yeah, okay. Thanks.” That weird moment was still throwing Gawain, and so he’d gotten three steps before he realized he’d forgotten to say see you later, or something polite like that. But when he looked back, there wasn’t the slightest sign of Tristan.
God, he was an idiot; Gawain mentally slapped himself and checked the trees. He waved at the one that was rustling against the direction of the wind, and then grinned when the rustling stopped. A bit more cheerful, he headed back for the Philosophy department.
* * *
As soon as they walked in, it was glaringly obvious how Lancelot had spent his evening. His slightly lopsided saunter bloody oozed with self-satisfaction, and the way he kept turning to whisper in Arthur’s ear was a particularly grating method of flaunting newfound intimacy. If it hadn’t been so damn unprofessional, Guinevere would’ve thrown a stapler at his head.
“Morning,” Lancelot caroled, breezing through the doors of his office. He could do that; he’d had a reward for his lack of sleep, and he hadn’t spent hours pouring over a bloody torture-murder scene.
Meanwhile, the other agents gave Arthur a collective double-look; he was a little too tentative to be someone in the business, and a little too visually spectacular to be the usual kind of criminal they handled. Contrary to the movies’ idea of things, most criminals were flashy, overdressed slugs who figured money negated the need for personal hygiene.
Arthur’s hands were twitching at his sides as he turned about, as if he wanted to put them in his pockets and hunch away but was too polite to. He stepped vaguely in the direction of Lancelot’s office, eyes wandering about the place, and then spotted Guinevere. Whereupon he smiled, and she had to grab her wrist to keep herself from fussing with her hair. “Ms. DeGrance?”
“Call me Guinevere. ‘Ms.’ always makes me feel like a schoolteacher.” Well, if Lancelot was just going to abandon him like that…Guinevere smoothly whirled Arthur into her office and death-glared the other agents into acknowledging the lay of the territory. She ushered him over to her desk, which was covered in open files. “Chrétien de Troyes. A businessman in Manhattan who was robbed and murdered last night. Interestingly, the perpetrators only took this.”
The flicking of the photo before Arthur was rather well-done, she thought. His jaw tightened a little, but not so much that it couldn’t have been attributed to casual swallowing. More telling were his eyes, but again, the glint there didn’t remain long enough for her to determine anything from it. He was much less uptight than yesterday—goddamn Lancelot. Arthur had had time to get himself braced against any more lapses.
“Identical to the statuette recovered from the courier, Thomas Mallory.” She tossed a second photo before him. “And I’ve a report hot off the wire from Ireland, where Mallory’s flight originated. Murder there as well—a Peter Bede. They were all in your class at Oxford.”
“Yes, the names are familiar.” Arthur said the words slowly, voice having dropped to a low murmur. He appeared to be calculating odds on several options at once, and he was watching her closely enough that she wished it wasn’t because of the situation.
A sound at the door made Guinevere glance at it, only to see Lancelot amble in. He still looked too damned smug, but at least he’d picked up on her intent and was coming in quietly. And his complacency was bending into a pensive frown as he watched Arthur.
Come to think of it, Arthur’s stance had changed. Barely perceptible, but nevertheless, it had. “We were all part of a radical political group—I told Lancelot a bit about it last night, over dinner.” The color briefly flushed into Arthur’s cheeks. “Later, I understand it turned violent and mercenary, but that was long after I left. Peter stayed a few months longer, Thomas another year. But while we were there, nothing happened. Just some drunk university students, shooting off their mouths.”
“Do you have one of those statues?” Guinevere pressed. She leaned forward, following a hunch, and saw a telltale flicker in his eyes. Another inch forward, so her hair was just brushing his shoulder. “Arthur. Please. We’re trying to help you, and we can’t do that if you don’t help us.”
Arthur lifted his head to look at her, and the way he moved wasn’t hesitant at all. His eyes were brilliantly clear in their honesty. And their regret, which made Guinevere even more raw. “No. I’m sorry, but--”
“Ahem.” When they turned towards him, Lancelot made a mock-apologetic face. Then he hooked one thumb over his shoulder. “Guin, I need to see you for a moment. Oh, and Arthur—there’s coffee if you want any. I know we didn’t really have time for breakfast…”
Damn him and his bloody cute gesture to show how considerate he was. Some days, all Lancelot seemed to be fit for was flipping upside-down so his head could be used to scrub toilet bowls. Fucking curls certainly would’ve made him a good brush.
“No, thank you. But—” Arthur patted himself about, then came up with a cell phone “—can I make a phone call? I left my colleagues and my grad students barely any explanation, and Tristan—”
He was entirely too composed. Closed-down. At least yesterday, he’d been reacting with sincerity, whether he’d been trying to deny or to tell the truth. And if there was one thing that always got on Guinevere’s nerves, it was people trying to fake her out.
“If you stand over there, you’ll get better reception.” Guinevere barely managed to keep from shaking him and telling him he was a fucking liar and worse, a fucking idiot if he thought she’d believe him. She clamped down on herself, pointed and then dragged Lancelot to the other side of the room.
Once Arthur was standing by the window and thus couldn’t hear their whispering, she backed Lancelot into her coffeemaker niche. “So you fucked him first. Congratulations. But did you get anything useful while you blew our fucking hand? He was shaky and ready to break yesterday—today, nothing. You dick.”
“He admitted to knowing Mallory, and to being a student activist. He’s got scars from a few barfights when he was younger. And at the time, I thought that was all we needed to know from him.” He reared right back at her, furious like he had any reason to be. “Murders? Why the fuck didn’t you call earlier?”
“I wouldn’t have wanted to interrupt,” Guinevere acidly replied. She smacked the heel of her hand into his shoulder and ground down hard so he would feel the beat of her words even if he was letting the content pass right through his ears. “Anyway, I had to spend the whole night researching de Troyes—he’s got a big blank in his life, same period as Arthur’s but only five years long—and the news about Bede only came a half-hour ago. And if you hadn’t been busy with his cock, maybe you could’ve been responsible and come in to find out for yourself.”
Lancelot yanked off her wrist and then used it to pull her in, too fast for her to resist. “You goddamn cunt, can’t you forget about your petty jealousy and think about—” He was so angry the words twisted his lips too much for them to be spit out. For a moment, Guinevere stood in shock—he’d never taken that kind of insult seriously before.
Then Lancelot looked to the side, pressing his lips into a hard grim line, and dropped her hand. She promptly hit him on the temple, hard enough to get his attention but not hard enough to leave a mark. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Go to hell.” He kept up the peculiar stonewalling for another moment before giving himself a shake and meeting her eyes again. And there was the usual Lancelot, all business beneath the nonchalant exterior. “So Arthur’s a target, you think?”
That was a perfectly reasonable question to ask, given the circumstances, but he said it in a very odd way. His voice was a little cramped, as if he were repressing part of it, and his professional detachment was strained.
“Given the circumstances of the other two’s deaths—” she began.
What cut her off was the door swinging. Pellew came marching through it, expression like a man who’d swallowed horseshit and had to look stoic about it, accompanied by a bland-faced suit that set Guinevere’s nerves on edge.
“Sorry to interrupt.” Her boss gestured brusquely at the man with him. “This is Medraut Cowden. MI6.”
“I came in response to the inquiry Mr. DuLac sent.” Cowden had a voice like vanilla cream, and it left a sour taste in Guinevere’s throat. “I believe I’ve some news that would be of interest to you.”
* * *
Tristan set her back on her perch and waved at the bench to his left. “Have a seat. I’ll be a moment.”
“Ah…I’m okay with standing.” In fact, Gawain seemed to like wandering, since he came right up to Tristan’s side and looked curiously at the hawk. His hand edged out, then hastily snatched back to the rail. “Been meaning to walk through here, but haven’t had a chance so far.”
“All semester?” Surprised, Tristan paused in closing the cage and turned to look at the other man.
Gawain bore a strange resemblance to a teddy bear when he was embarrassed. He made a jerky, apologetic shrug, and it was suddenly clear to Tristan why Arthur had hired this grad student. Birds of a feather…sometimes his guardian could be so predictable.
“We…Galahad and I had some problems moving, so we only got here a few weeks ago,” Gawain muttered, poking around a stick with his toes. “Had to start mid-semester.”
As Tristan finished stripping off his gauntlets, he tried not to grin too much. The bashfulness was just so incongruous, given Gawain’s appearance. With that beard and the thick ponytail, most people probably would’ve mistaken him for some kind of delinquent. Like they did Tristan, though in his case they were probably closer to the truth.
“I guess this must be a pretty nice job, given your background.” The strap over Gawain’s shoulder was digging deep into the flesh, though he didn’t seem to notice. He was too busy checking things out and pretending that he wasn’t.
“It suits.” Tristan tossed the gauntlets onto a shelf and led Gawain into the next room, where he retrieved his bag and jacket. He nodded to the center director and continued on out to the parking lot. “I need to get a few things from the house. It’s a short walk. Maybe ten minutes.”
Gawain blinked, caught on, and hurried to join Tristan on his right side. “I’ve been stuck in a lecture hall since lunch. Be nice to get some air.”
They passed through the main courtyard of Avalon and Tristan dabbled in his fingers in the school fountain, then used it to slick some of his hair back. Arthur kept telling him to pull it back, and he probably should, but his hawk liked chewing on the strands.
Once by the fountain and once while they were passing the undergrad library, Gawain coughed as if about to say something, but never quite managed it. He kept looking over at Tristan, searching for clues, and Tristan let him. How a man acted when trying to open a conversation was one of the most telling hints to his personality, Tristan had found.
Eventually, Gawain stopped trying so hard. He laughed softly at himself and threw back his head, staring at the sky, just enjoying the company.
Then it was Tristan’s turn to sneak a few glances, since he hadn’t seen anyone do that since Arthur. And Arthur stared silently at the sky when he was depressed or angry or confused, not when he was happy.
“How long has Arthur been your…um…yeah. Since you said he wasn’t your adopted father.” When Gawain didn’t quite know how to phrase something, he had a habit of adding meaningless hand gestures. “I take it you two…ah…live together?”
Tristan caught himself trying to smile again. “Since I was seventeen, and no. I have an apartment three blocks from here. But I come over once a week to make sure he’s eating.”
Gawain shot him a familiar grin, warm and white. “Yeah, he does kind of forget about that when he’s researching. Vanora fusses over him a lot about that; it’s hilarious to watch.”
After a few more steps, Tristan decided what he’d observed merited a little more information divulged. “My mother and he worked together. She was shot and killed, and he took care of me after that. It was only a year to my majority, so that’s why I don’t call him my adopted father.”
“Oh.” More words wanted to come out of Gawain’s mouth, but he was patently uncertain of their reception. Interestingly enough, the emotion that seemed to be motivating those words was not pity, and not quite sympathy, either, though it certainly had qualities of both of those emotions. “Well, here’s where people say I’m sorry. But that just strikes me as…as irrelevant. You’re okay now, right?”
Very interesting. Tristan’s eyebrow started to arch, but then he realized it might be mistaken for him being offended, which he wasn’t. And then he realized he wanted to be nice to Gawain, whereas usually he didn’t much care if the other person was uncomfortable or not. “Yes,” he finally said.
“Good.” Which was all Gawain said.
All he had time to say, because they were on the street to Arthur’s house, and Tristan’s nerves suddenly jangled. He raised his arms over his head in a stretch and took the opportunity to do a quick scan of the neighborhood. Everything quiet, but that car parked two brownstones down from Arthur’s wasn’t one Tristan recognized. And Arthur had given him a thorough description of Lancelot DuLac’s car, so that possibility was out.
Tristan casually took Gawain by the arm and pulled him into the nearest side-alley. “Do me a favor. Don’t ask any questions, and don’t make any sounds. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
Gawain blinked, but did as he was told. He leaned back against the wall, hands in pockets, and stayed quiet while Tristan went around the corner.
Too perfect. The man was starting to get Tristan’s hopes up, and he was starting to want to let Gawain do that.
Sneaking around to Arthur’s back-door was something at which Tristan had had much practice, so he was soon dropping softly through a second-floor window. The guest bedroom seemed like the safest choice, and his judgment was immediately borne out: no one there, but soft movements in the study off Arthur’s bedroom, and downstairs. Tristan got as low to the ground as he could and finger-pushed open the door, thanking Arthur’s compulsive housekeeping. Perfectly-oiled hinges, silent as the air was still.
It made more sense to tackle the person closest to his escape route, so Tristan slithered across the hall and peeked in the study. The shadow moving about, carefully riffling through papers and books and drawers Tristan had vetted the afternoon before, was tall and broad-shouldered—a man. And, in the brief instant before Tristan chopped a hand into his neck, his face turned into the sunlight from the window. There was a line of tiny red dots tattooing the curve of his ear.
Tristan mouthed a curse as he caught the slumping body, easing it noiselessly to the floor. He quickly removed and inventoried the man’s personal arms, keeping the best and secreting the rest behind a thick set of encyclopedias; volume ‘D’ he left sticking out half an inch so Arthur would know. Then he trussed and gagged the man with the man’s own supplies before slipping downstairs.
One there, waiting near the door. He was alert, which was going to make this diffi—
“Don’t move.” The voice came from directly behind Tristan. British accent. Something small and cold touched the back of Tristan’s head, while in front, the other one stood and moved to cover him. “Scoot your hands out.”
He really hadn’t wanted to leave any bloodstains or bulletholes in Arthur’s house, but it didn’t seem as if he had a choice. Very slowly, Tristan did as he was told. And then he shoved off and flipped over to grab the tip of the gun. Jackknifed his legs to help throw the other man down. Something exploded by his head and splinters flew by.
They were professionals of a high enough degree that they didn’t curse when they fought. Tristan blocked the man’s punch and slammed into him, using his body to shield any more shots. Then he smacked an elbow into the man’s throat and kicked free, flipping out a gun to deal with the other—
--who was down, temple bloody and rifle in Gawain’s hands. He stood back from the unconscious body and held up his hand, flexing it. Wince. “Ow. I’m out of practice.”
And Gawain noticed. “I didn’t ask questions, and I didn’t make a sound. You didn’t say anything about staying put.”
“It was implied.” Feeling a bit dazed now, Tristan leaned down to knock out the choking, writhing man at his feet.
“Yeah, well, you shouldn’t talk to a philosophy major about implications. Ambiguity’s our specialty.” Gawain slung the rifle over his back in a way that expressed much familiarity with that as well. But when he met Tristan’s gaze a second time, he looked terrified and resigned and pleading all at once. His mouth opened, closed—his face cleared to resolve, and he finally decided on what to say. “We were late to start the semester because it’s harder getting out of a gang than getting in.” Shrug. “L. A. Bad district.”
Tristan felt the smile coming once more, and this time he let it bloom in its full wolfishness. “International. Same.”
* * *
The moment Cowden had walked in, Arthur’s stomach had frozen solid and it’d stayed that way all through the afternoon. His face felt as if it’d turned to ice as well, though that was probably fortunate for him, since it kept any reactions from showing.
After Pellew’s announcement, Lancelot and Guinevere had been bustled off to speak with Cowden, and Arthur had been quietly shoved into an unoccupied office with some trashy magazines and a rotating staff of ‘company’. Thinly-disguised guards.
Well, it gave him time to think. When he’d heard Mallory’s name in connection with smuggling, Arthur had felt instant relief because, though it was a crime, it was a far cry to what he’d feared was going on. But when Guinevere had tossed those photos at him and had listed those names, it’d been all Arthur could do to not break down and confess.
The reason he hadn’t was that it was very, very clear they had no idea what they were up against. And Cowden’s appearance a minute later had told Arthur that he wasn’t sure what they were up against, even if he knew who. The bastard wasn’t MI6, but if he was in a position to impersonate an intelligence operative, then there had been some serious changes since Arthur had left.
He’d gotten out a warning to Tristan, so hopefully the man would have more information when—
--when. When what? What was Arthur planning to do? Go back to that hellish, soul-sucking, black-bloody addiction? Not if he had to kill himself first.
Him dead, however, wouldn’t stop them. So he had two choices. He could call over one of the Interpol agents and tell them everything in hopes that one, they’d believe him, and two, they’d listen to his advice. If they moved now, they might be able to stop things; Mallory and Cowden both showing up meant that most of the group had to be here. Cerdic, certainly, and he was the head guiding the wheel. Without him, they were nothing but a pack of ravening, blood-blinded fighters who’d never learned to see beyond the next battle. Without him, they’d fall apart and be eaten by the underworld.
And Cerdic, therefore, was why Arthur was resisting his first instinct to turn the matter over to the proper authorities. Because he knew the man: how intelligent and cunning and farsighted he was. Because he knew the proper authorities: Lancelot curled up on his floor, dappled with sunlight, and Guinevere, staring so hard at him with pieces of his past spread out before her.
The second choice, on the other hand, was laughable. Go after Cerdic himself, after six years of pretending to be a peaceful, ordinary man so successfully that Arthur had let Lancelot and Guinevere set him off-kilter. He was out of practice, out of touch, and…
…and he was still afraid of the backslide.
“Isolde, Pellew wants to see you. I’ll take it from here.” Guinevere stood in the doorway, staring not at the other woman but at Arthur. She was worried and she was trying very hard not to show it, which meant that she only betrayed how bad the situation was.
Isolde huffed out, throwing insulted looks equally at them. Amused, Guinevere flicked her fingers in a derisive gesture. “Didn’t respond to her plumping her breasts in your face, I take it.”
“I don’t recall her doing that…oh.” Arthur started to stand, but she waved him back down.
Then she perched on the table edge and leaned in, urgently whispering. “Listen, because I’m not supposed to be here. I said I was going to the bathroom. Cowden says you were part of a paramilitary group called the Red Hounds. You helped organize finances—smuggling.” She paused to check his reaction. Curiously enough, she looked worried for him. “He also says you dropped out when they turned criminal, and that now they’re cleaning house.”
Shock was what she saw, and shock was what Arthur felt because he hadn’t expected Cowden to say that. After all, it was the truth.
Guinevere bent closer, wobbled a little and steadied herself by putting a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. That faint perfume from yesterday wafted from her hair and the white skin of her neck. “He’s here to help direct operations to shut down the group. Lancelot’s being sent to Brooklyn to meet someone there, and I’m—”
Arthur had grabbed her arm and yanked before he could think; she came all the way off the table and landed sprawling in his lap with a startled meep. But he wasn’t really registering that because he was panicking. “No. Get Lancelot back, and don’t let anyone go anywhere with Cowden. He—”
A finger crossed his lips, and Guinevere rose in his arms to look down at him, gaze more intense than the sun. But her jaw was firming, and not in his favor. “So he’s telling the truth. That you didn’t tell me. Or Lancelot, even though you bloody fucked him.”
“Yes, he’s telling the truth insofar as—”
“Don’t go professor on me, damn it. I’m not an idiot.” She shoved off of him and teetered, then caught herself against the table. Her eyes were blazing, and her voice was a low hiss, and she was more beautiful that way than when she was trying to be coy. “You could’ve sat down and told us yesterday instead of giving us the run-around. Instead of going off to fuck us two ways. And then your old schoolmate de Troyes would still be alive. What, Interpol’s not good enough, but MI6 has you running scared?”
Irritation rose too fast in Arthur’s throat for him to swallow. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t, so you could solve your case sooner. But I didn’t know about him, and I didn’t know they were ki—right now you have to listen because—”
“Well, I seem to be doing nothing but interrupting.” Medraut posed in the doorway, one arm up to lean against the frame. Over his shoulder, Guinevere’s superior was giving her a disapproving look.
And she was off-balance, glancing between Arthur and the other men. Then she looked at Arthur and kept looking at him as she edged toward him. “Yes, you are. Now, if you’ll excuse me, this is still my case and Dr. Pendragon is my—”
“I’m afraid it’s a joint case now. Come on; we’re going to be late to Kay’s place, and you wouldn’t want to be responsible for another body, would you?” Cowden drawled, walking in to take Guinevere by the arm. Her hand twitched as if to push him away, but her superior gave her a glare and she subsided.
Arthur stepped forward, frantically shaking his head at her, but—what was his name? Pellew?—blocked his way. “Dr. Pendragon, I’m sorry, but—”
“You’re making a—do you care about your agents? If you do, you won’t—” Guinevere was in the elevator with Cowden, and Arthur was now being held back by Pellew.
“I’d behave a little better if I were you. Considering you’re now under consideration for charges of crimes against the government of Britain,” Pellew said, iron in his voice and grip.
Goddamn it—the frustration and the anger rose, boiled…and abruptly chilled to ice. So that was one choice settled for Arthur, because he’d never manage to explain everything in time.
He breathed, smiled—that was far too easy to remember how to do—and nodded. Casually reached down to the desk beside him and picked at the paperclips, palmed a few and kept one to dig hard into his hand. “Right. I apologize.”
Pellew was instantly suspicious, but Arthur stayed docile and calmly chatting with him till another agent came to escort Arthur to a different floor. Probably one with better security.
They were heading for a different elevator when Arthur slowed down, looking embarrassed. “I’m terribly sorry, but could we stop at that restroom there?”
“I’ve been drinking coffee non-stop all day, and apparently it’s decided to go through all at once.” He used the smile he saved for when Vanora had had an especially bad day with the children and needed soothing.
The agent was dubious, but apparently Arthur still looked harmless for he allowed Arthur to lead them into the restroom. A glance as Arthur pushed aside the door showed that it was empty. He abruptly stopped, let the other man walk into him and then pivoted around the door so he could slam it into the man’s head. Then he grabbed the agent under one arm and yanked him inside, ensuring unconsciousness with a quick blow to the back of the neck.
“Sorry,” Arthur muttered, searching the man. He came up with Interpol identification, a gun and ammunition, car keys. They hadn’t taken away his cell phone yet, so he left the man’s with him.
This part of the floor was quiet, partly obscured from view by a huge fern, and near a staircase. Arthur scrambled down one flight of stairs and then casually walked to the nearest elevator, which he took to the parking-garage floor.
He stepped out to the sound of alarms and promptly looked as confused and panicked as everyone else. Which wasn’t difficult at all, since he was feeling exactly that, stuck halfway between the man he had to be and the man he wanted to be.
It was near the end of the day, so many people were leaving. That made it easy to mingle and keep clicking the car remote until he spotted the car with blinking lights. He hurried toward it and slid inside just as someone shouted in his direction.
Obviously they didn’t have this alarm very often, because people had just stopped their cars all over the place and gotten out to see what was the matter. Arthur clipped a few rearview windows, wincing with each, on his way out. Though it wasn’t too bad--first piece of luck of the day that the agent drove a small, fast compact.
It handled so well, in fact, that he was almost sorry to wheel it into a tangle of side-alley and abandon it, but it was too easy to trace. He raced out of the alley and dodged into the masses of people on the sidewalks, hunching so his height didn’t make him so noticeable, and pretended to watch the car chase while he briskly walked up the street from it. When he hit normal traffic, he started scoping the cars parked along the curb. One soon presented itself and he got out the paperclips, straightening them into makeshift picklocks.
A car with a lock old enough for him to pick with only paperclips naturally was a piece of shite, but it’d do. Cowden and Guinevere weren’t going that far, anyway—and the bastard’s downfall had always been his tendency to gloat. Kay’s place, indeed. Kay was long dead, at Cowden’s hand, and the man would never get to visit his beloved neighborhood park again, would never sit and listen to Arthur’s long rambles as he unloaded his troubles.
Arthur sat back in the seat and stared between the hands he had clenched on the wheel, breathing shallow and slow. He’d forgotten how badly he’d wanted to kill certain people. And now he was having a slight problem remembering why he’d wanted to forget.
* * *
Guinevere had assumed they were going uptown, but soon after they’d left, Cowden took a right into a dreary, decrepit residential district. “You’re very beautiful, you know that?”
She was already sitting as far as she could from him, and her arms were folded across her chest to hide how her right had slipped inside her jacket. The cold weight of her gun was a small reassurance. “So I’ve been told.”
“Just his type,” Cowden sighed, a nasty edge to his dreamy smile. He pulled up next to a long-abandoned park and reached for the brake.
It was fucking hard to push off on three-inch heels, but Guinevere did and threw herself out the door. She hit the sidewalk and rolled just as a shot winged over her head, then scrambled for the back-end of the car. Spun back and clipped his shoulder when he flopped over the seat and hung from the door.
He ducked back inside and she could hear him falling out the driver’s side, cursing like mad. His posh accent was gone. “Fucking whore!”
Goddamn it, but she’d been hurt that her case had been wheeling out of her hands and that Arthur had taken Lancelot so damn quick and that the man hadn’t told her anything, and she’d lost her judgment. She’d lost her temper as well, and she hadn’t listened when Arthur had finally had started talking. Goddamn it. Usually she was better than that. More objective than—
--footsteps and Guinevere whirled, shooting. Fire whipped past her arm, but it was only a scorch and dulled to a low ache after that first shocking second. Her shot, however, had taken Cowden high in the chest.
He staggered backward, choking and clutching at himself. His gun dropped to make a loud clatter and sent a shot into a nearby telephone pole. “Bitch.”
“You aren’t MI6, are you?” she said, carefully stepping around the back of the car. Her gun stayed squarely aimed at his head.
“No, he’s not,” said a new voice. “And you’re very good, girl, but you’re outnumbered.”
Guinevere froze. Then she slowly turned her head to the accompaniment first of Cowden’s laughter, and then his strangled gasp.
The man probably never knew what hit him. For that matter, Guinevere thought she’d suddenly taken up ESP, because Arthur couldn’t have been there and he damn well couldn’t have walked up that quietly. But then he cracked a gunbutt into the other man’s temple, and the sound was wet and strangely loud—it shattered the illusion and left only the stark reality. His face was ice.
He didn’t pause to see whether the man was fully unconscious, but kept on walking till he was standing over Cowden. “I told you I wanted nothing to do with it,” he said, very softly. His gun lifted.
So did Guinevere’s as she snapped out of her stunned state. “Arthur. I can’t let you do that.”
Cowden’s mouth opened in a wide, trembling ‘O.’ Arthur’s thumb slowly slid onto the gun-hammer.
“Arthur. Arthur.. You can’t just kill him.” The world was shaking a little, so Guinevere planted her heels in it and willed it to stop. She tasted blood and hissed, thinking that Arthur had shot and she was tasting the splatter, but barely a beat later she realized it was from her own lip. “Arthur, this is not right—” no, lies wouldn’t work “—what about Lancelot? Brooklyn? Arthur, for God’s sake, don’t make me sh—sh—arrest you.”
Something in there got through, rocked him back so he blinked. Dazed, he shook his head and stared at her. “Wouldn’t you anyway? I’ve done worse than what he told y—”
And that idiot lunged for Arthur’s feet. It didn’t work; Arthur’s reflexes had improved by orders of magnitude and he leaped out of the way while Guinevere shot. Twice. Cowden’s head disappeared in a mess of bone chips and brain and blood.
“Oh…God.” Suddenly every single muscle in her body decided to unravel at once and she slumped against the car. Her breathing was very loud, it seemed, and it almost masked hesitant steps coming towards her.
A hand touched her shoulder. “Was…was that your first?”
“No!” she snarled, hitting out at him. Then her fingers caught in his shirt and she ripped him back and kissed him with every single ounce of herself. Hand in his hair, hand on his chest pressing the hot gun between them, body melting into his.
It was a moment before she noticed he was kissing back. Blinking, Guinevere withdrew a little. “You…Arthur, my God. Even if it was my first kill, I wouldn’t give a damn. I’d still be falling over because you almost made me shoot you, you fucking—” she hit him again “—goddamn men—fuck, Lancelot.”
Who was her fucking son of a bitch to kill, if anyone ever got around to it. She started to go for the open driver’s door, but Arthur caught her with an arm and pulled her back. He had a cell phone out, and was talking at breakneck speed into it. “Tristan? Who do you know in Brooklyn—right. I’m—I’m sorry, but it is the Hounds, and—oh. You know. Damn it, I…never mind. Listen, Lancelot is going that way, right into a trap. I need you to get to him first.”
Guinevere slowly stopped struggling and leaned in to listen. Arthur absently adjusted the angle of the phone so she could hear.
*Should I drop off Gawain first?*
If she hadn’t been lying right against Arthur, she never wouldn’t noticed the way he stiffened, it was so fast. The frightening hardness in his eyes momentarily reappeared. “Gawain? Why is he there?”
*Well, he…helped with the three bodies currently locked in the trunk. They’re alive, by the way. And your house has some bulletholes, but no bloodstains.* Whoever it was had a bizarre sense of humor that clearly came through the phone. He sounded almost bored, except for the wicked black edge to his voice. *Right now I’m staring at his and Galahad’s illegal gun collection.*
Someone on the other end sputtered and made all kinds of incoherent noises. Though he remained silent, staring into space, Arthur’s expression spoke volumes.
At last, he answered: “They’re both good young men that I expect will go on to have great careers, despite their childhood upbringing. You’re adults—if you know all the facts and make your own decisions, I can’t stop you. But Tristan—”
*I wasn’t planning on it any time soon. I can’t have coffee with your grad student if I’m in a coffin.* More choking noises, which nearly covered up Tristan’s farewell. *I can’t either if I have to go to your funeral. See you at the Interpol office.*
The line clicked off, and Arthur put away his phone while still struggling with something. He stared down at the cracked-open skull that was oozing around his shoes. “The Hounds were a combination of government operatives and bright young college students they recruited on campus. We were supposed to go in and stop wars before they started by knocking out potential warlords. But rivals want them dead, too, and they pay better than the government. The operatives were all slaughtered one night, and I was too late to stop that.”
“You were just the financial side…” Guinevere started to say. She fiddled with her gun, not quite sure how to handle someone like Arthur. He just…defied logic. Any kind of rational anticipation.
And he was laughing, hard-voiced and without any humor. “That, and one of their best field strategists. I have my share of blood on my hands. God…I should’ve known. Even now—I may be a professor of philosophy, but I’m no pacifist.”
“If you were, I’d be dead. So frankly, I’m glad about that, even if you aren’t.” Her brain finally began to start working again; Guinevere got out her own phone and made a quick call for back-up and body retrieval. Then a thought occurred to her. “We’re not arresting you. I don’t care how much you think you deserve it—you don’t. You just saved me, you’re going to save Lancelot—doesn’t that count for something?”
As she spoke, she turned to face him. His eyes flicked to her gun and she deliberately lifted it, then lowered her hand to press it against his. “This is what people have to do. Would philosophy or history, or anything you’ve ever learned in school, give you a different solution to the one we just used?”
His pupils had grown to nearly crowd out the green. When he spoke, his voice was as rough as the hand touching her hair was gentle. “I should’ve stopped hiding sooner. Either stopped them before, or told you two sooner.” Sudden remembrance and realization made Arthur wince and try to lean away, though his body definitely was reluctant to do so. “Guinevere. I…well, I’m not sure what exactly last night was, but Lancelot…”
God, the man managed to interrupt even when he wasn’t physically around. Since Arthur was still too fragile for much levity, Guinevere toned down her reply. “He and I actually have a…loose sleeping arrangement. Anyway, this is a lousy time to work out the details for that.”
It was a good thing guilt didn’t look half-bad on Arthur, because he used that expression a lot. He slid out from beneath her, stammering his apologies, and almost stepped on Cowden because he wasn’t looking. Of course, then his eyes shot down and the guilt was for all of that instead of for…imposing on her moment of weakness? Guinevere didn’t have moments of weakness. She just had moments where her thinking was lagging a bit.
“Arthur, look in the mirror sometime.” The other attacker was beginning to stir, so Guinevere knelt down and whacked him over the temple again. Then she got up and stalked after Arthur until he stopped backstepping and let her grab him by the lapels. “You are not a criminal. Even when you are committing a crime, you’re not. You’re just not built for it.”
She muffled whatever he was going to say with her mouth. And after thirty seconds of futile struggling, he gave in to the better logic and let her.
* * *
‘Happy’ definitely didn’t describe Galahad’s mood. Neither did any of its relatives such as ‘content’ or ‘okay.’ And even ‘apathetic’ was pretty damn far from the truth.
He was a little bit amused, but other than that, ‘pissed off’ was probably the best descriptor. “Gawain, you goddamn dick. You leave me to put up with gushy Cobham, hold office hours all by myself, and deal with the morons that can’t read signs and want to know where Arthur is. You don’t call at any point to let me know what’s going on. And now you’ve got three bodies in the fucking bathroom, rifles on the table, and a tree-climbing voyeur on our phone? You’re supposed to be the responsible one!”
Instead of hanging his head, Gawain flopped around on the chair so he could stare at Tristan. “Tree-climbing voyeur?”
“I was stuck up one while he and a redhead had sex against the trunk.” Tristan listened to something and scribbled down a note. “Meant to drop my shoe beside them as a warning, but missed and hit his head.”
Gawain blinked. Then he covered his mouth with his hand and hunched over, shoulders shaking. Even when Galahad bounced onto the couch next to him and whacked him in the head, he wouldn’t stop laughing.
“What the hell is all this, anyway?” Fucking idiot was hopeless, so Galahad gave up and turned his attention to the other incongruities in the apartment. Incongruity, since bodies in the bathroom wasn’t exactly a new sight to him. “What are you doing here?”
Leaning back in the chair, Tristan slitted his eyes and coolly assessed Galahad. If that was supposed to be intimidating, he was wasting his time. Galahad had caught him playing hide-and-seek with one too many chipmunks for that to work.
“Arthur’s my guardian,” Tristan finally said. He jerked a hand at the bathroom door, which was starting to emit muffled groans. With a sigh, Gawain got up and wandered inside to make thwacking sounds. “He’s also a former member of a paramilitary group called the Red Hounds, which went mercenary and criminal about six years ago. They’re being chased by Interpol and some other organizations, and they’ve probably assumed that someone confessed. So they’re trying to kill Arthur, plus some Interpol agents he’s been sleeping with.”
“I can get that line of reasoning.” Given Arthur’s personality, he probably would be the most likely one to have a change of heart. Even if he’d been faking some of—wait. “Sleeping with?”
Gawain ducked his head back in the room. “What? You mean the gossip’s right for once?”
Tristan wasn’t obvious about it, but he definitely was the kind of person who enjoyed knowing more than anyone else. He said goodbye to whoever was on the phone and stood up. Fingered through the assorted weaponry on the table and snagged a few. “For the one that we’re going to meet. I think there’s another one, but I don’t know for sure.”
“Wait a minute…” Galahad caught at Gawain’s arm and dragged him back for a quick whisper-conference. “Hey. Juvenile records, remember? And you want to get involved with fucking Interpol?”
“You want to let Arthur get hurt? He knew. He knew, you jackass, and he still took us on.” The look in Gawain’s eyes was hard, unyielding and pleading beneath that. He dug his fingers into Galahad’s wrist and pulled Galahad up an inch. “Anyway, how else are we going to get rid of those people in the bathroom?”
In point of fact, Galahad had already come to the same conclusion. But just because he was going to do it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to raise the necessary objections. If he was going to do something, he was going to do it for a reason and not on blind faith.
Not to mention that Gawain wasn’t telling everything, but his quick glance at Tristan did. “Okay, okay,” Galahad muttered, pushing off the other man. “But you can’t ever rag on me for the quality of my dates again. At least they never came attached to an international crime ring.”