|Theory III: Thesis
Author: Guede Mazaka
“Next time, we’re getting London on conference call, or having them email a photo beforehand. It may be more work for them, but if they can’t keep their bloody experts from getting mugged in airport bathrooms…” Pellew went on for a few more seconds, and he had the right to all of them. Cowden hadn’t even been a plant in MI6; what he’d done was shadow the real MI6 man into a stall at JFK, knock him on the head, and steal his identity. It was a pretty smooth operation and due to MI6’s stuffiness about acknowledging mistakes, Cowden had had the time to take in just about everyone except Arthur. Which was damn insulting to everyone’s professional pride.
Again, except for Arthur. The man wouldn’t even take credit for what he’d done, but instead kept apologizing for not having the time to explain things and get it all done “properly.” Whenever his connection to the Red Hounds was mentioned, he would wince and his voice would drop to a gravelly whisper that would’ve been fantastically sexy if he hadn’t looked so hangdog about it.
“Have you heard from Lancelot?”
The question made Guinevere blink, startling her out of her musings. It wasn’t that she wasn’t worried about Lancelot—she was, and rather a lot, much to her annoyance—but that there were more uncertain matters to use up her attention. Lancelot could handle himself fairly well, and Arthur had also sent someone after him. Considering what she’d seen of Arthur’s abilities, she translated his ‘I did the best I could’ to mean ‘an asteroid would have to hit the earth to stop me.’
“Not yet, but he’s got this habit of losing his cell in a fight.” She put down the file on Cowden, hastily faxed over by an MI6 smarting from a Pellew-haranguing, and checked on Arthur’s face before she finished answering Pellew. “He couldn’t have gotten to Brooklyn before Arthur’s man caught up with him. Give it another five minutes.”
“I suppose you’re right. Lancelot’s cell phones take up an inordinate percentage of his expense filings.” Her boss’s diction was getting curter and more gruff with every second that Lancelot didn’t call, which was a surefire sign he was concerned. Hopefully, the jackass would stop gloating over his downed opponents and remember to phone in before Pellew finally snapped and hauled in someone like the FBI. Since Pellew had taken the director’s post, he hadn’t lost a single agent to violence, and he was determined to keep the record that way.
Arthur glanced up from the files he was studying. He looked even more on-edge than Pellew, as if by sheer force of nerves he could set things to rights. It was a wonder he hadn’t worked himself into a grave by now. “Tristan has a cell phone. He’ll call.”
“Tristan?” Pellew asked.
“My…ah…I never know what to call him. Godson might be closest.” One file separated itself from the pile before Arthur, seemingly of its own accord. After squinting a bit, Guinevere spotted the deft, covert motions of fingers and thumb he used to open the folder to a glossy photo of a woman. “He’s the son of Lizabetta Cornwell, one of the operatives in the group. She and I were good friends, and when she was killed by Cerdic, I took care of Tristan.”
Eyebrow raised, Pellew absorbed that with no visible expression on his face, but Guinevere detected a hint of bemusement in his manner. Understandably, since the more common story for children of agents with blown covers was a quick nasty death or a foreshortened, bitter life. Not to mention the implication that, since Arthur had unhesitatingly sent the young man off to retrieve Lancelot, he considered Tristan more than equal to any mercenaries that might get in the way. Guinevere wondered what Arthur’s conflicting impulses thought was a well-rounded education.
Final reaction was Pellew tucking in his chin in reluctance acceptance. “Very well. You seem to have the best handle on the situation—I don’t suppose you’ve ever considered joining another security organization? Interpol’s not as…flexible about some things as MI6, but it’s a good career for—”
“Oh. Oh, thank you, but…ah, no thank you.” Embarrassment replaced the haggard darkness in Arthur’s face, which was a slight improvement. It really was amazing how he could go from lethally focused to utterly adorable and still be sincere about each emotion. “I’ll just be happy to get back to teaching.”
“Well, to each his own, and I suppose what the world’s police loses, the education system gains.” Pellew actually gave Arthur a smile showing teeth. The best Guinevere had ever gotten out of him was an approving glint and a dignified nod.
She wasn’t jealous of Arthur, she reminded herself. He wasn’t in her line of work, and anyway, what she wanted was to get him where she could work that tension out of him.
Someone knocked at the door and they all turned to look. Isolde stood there, eyes dazed and face flushed as if she’d just been given a good, hard slap. She was panting and clutching at the doorframe for support, and for once it seemed as if she actually needed it, instead of her just trying to shove her breasts in some man’s face. “Pellew, sir? Downstairs…there’s a young man…asking for Arthur…has three Red Hounds in his car trunk.”
Arthur perked to attention. “Long hair or short and curly?”
“Short and curly…” She essayed a smile at him and Guinevere glared holes into the airhead’s empty skull. With all Guinevere had just been through, she wasn’t about to lose him to some skulking office blonde.
“Galahad.” He started for the door, but Pellew stepped in to push him back.
Seeing the objection in Arthur’s face, Pellew hastily offered reassurance. “One of the grad students you mentioned, I take it? He’ll be up directly, but we need to process him and his prisoners. Please just stay here and wait.”
Guinevere took Arthur by the arm and drew him back to the table, judging that he’d be less likely to throw her off than Pellew. After all, she had a bandaged arm and even if it was just a surface graze, yanking his arm away would still make it hurt. About as much as a bad scrape, but she worked with what she had. “You’d get in the way and make it slower. He’ll be fine.”
Reluctance still showed on his face, but he let the door shut behind Pellew without any fuss. Then Arthur quietly withdrew his arm from her grip and bent back over the table, pulling out this paper and flipping over that photo.
Her first reaction was to be insulted and to verbalize it, but if that worked for Lancelot, she doubted it would for Arthur. So instead Guinevere breathed till she thought she could be patient, then eased up beside him. She was just close enough for their sides to touch, but not so close that he should feel any pressure, lest he turn skittish again.
“I did a better job of sticking my head in the sand than I’d thought,” Arthur finally commented, running his finger along a sheet. The corner of his mouth briefly flipped up, but the humor motivating it was ironic and quite bitter. “I had no idea they’d gotten their fingers into so many pies.”
His tone was excoriating, but given his choice of descriptive saying, Guinevere suspected he was directing it at himself. “You had a reason for acting how you did, I assume. I doubt you’ve ever done anything without a reason in your entire life.”
“Stop flattering me. I like you better when you’re honest.” For a moment, Arthur was almost light and teasing as he looked at her. Then he sobered and lifted his hand to rest it carefully on her injured arm. “I wanted to get Tristan out of there. But he was perfectly capable of living on his own years ago, so that’s not a sufficient excuse. I suppose…I just got used to being a part of regular society. I do love teaching—it gives me more rewards and less pain than my other career choices.”
“So why should you be expected to give that up? Or to be suicidal and confront what is a very dangerous and well-organized mercenary group?” She covered his hand with her own and edged closer, staring up at him. He went still, but didn’t flinch when she lifted her hand to his cheek. So she went ahead and curled her fingers around his neck. “You realize that Interpol, with all its resources, has been working on breaking this ring for years? No one’s made you responsible for saving the world, Arthur. And no one should.”
He opened his mouth to protest and she lightly pressed her lips to his, swallowing it. Arthur stiffened and she backed off, but then he made an aborted dive for her mouth. Which she turned into a successful meeting, finally letting her weight fall against him. His hands slid onto her back before diverging paths, one climbing to her hair and the other sweeping over her skirt to—
--phone ringing. Asshole talking. “Whoa. Cobham just got to keep her five bucks.”
Arthur made a frantic attempt to answer the phone and what was undoubtedly his obnoxious grad student at the same time. “Galahad—Tristan. Do you—oh, good. And you—” directed at Galahad “—are all right? Good.”
Guinevere resisted the urge to slap that admiring stare out of Galahad’s face and made herself turn back to the desk. She absently combed her hair back in place while she tried to figure out how they were one, going to take down the Red Hounds fast, and two, going to keep Arthur alive.
Something rough and warm touched her hand. When she looked over, Arthur had already wrapped his fingers around her palm where it rested on the glass table. He was still conducting two conversations at once, but he staggered a little when she gleefully leaned in to peck him behind the ear. Perfect mix of adorable git and cool professional.
* * *
Lancelot was still blinking at the scene of his double carjacking when a big black boat of a car crept up beside him. It was about ten years too old, but had been restored to look like the shadow that lurked in the alley just beyond, so fuck off before someone gets hurt, thank you.
The window rolled down, and an amused man hung out of it. “Lancelot DuLac?”
“Why?” His cell had dropped out somewhere, but he still had his gun. As he turned to face the car, he casually folded his arms over his chest in order to get to that.
The man nodded at his hand. “You don’t need that. I’m Tristan. Arthur sent me to pick you up.”
“Tristan?” That name rang a bell…right, Arthur’s pseudo-adopted son. Which could be a lie, given the car that had tailed Lancelot on his way to the address Cowden had handed him. And that car had run him off the road, so he wasn’t currently inclined to be trusting.
Some of his thoughts must have showed on his face. It was a more believable explanation than the one that said Tristan was an eerie mindreading crazy, however appealing that one was to Lancelot’s irrational side. “Someone followed you and shoved you off the road, then tried to drag you into their car. They went about a block before a gang shot out their wheels and hijacked them, leaving you on the sidewalk.”
“And how would you know that?” If Tristan would just get rid of that vague, grating smile, Lancelot might be more inclined to trust him.
“The gang owed me a few favors. Now please get in. Arthur’s having a bad day, and I don’t really want to see him snap. It’s not pretty.” Tristan ducked back in the car, and a second later, the back passenger door opened. “And it’s a pain talking him down afterward.”
He was weird, but he didn’t seem to be trying to fool Lancelot. On the contrary, he seemed to be finding it fucking hilarious how much he was rubbing Lancelot the wrong way, which made it unlikely he was lying in order to lure Lancelot into more suit-scuffing annoyances. Therefore Lancelot got into the car, but he wasn’t happy about it. If he’d seen a single taxi, he would’ve taken it instead, but this neighborhood was tellingly devoid of those.
As it turned out, there was a second man taking up the front passenger seat, who introduced himself as Gawain once they’d started off. Lancelot recognized the voice from last night and finally began to relax, certain that he was out of danger.
“I’m one of Arthur’s grad students. You’re…hey, are you the—ah—I mean—” Gawain suddenly stammered in the middle of his sentence, going pinkish.
A tiny sigh escaped from Tristan. “He wants to know if you were the one screwing Arthur yesterday.”
“Oh. Yeah, that would be me.” Giving them a quick grin, Lancelot slouched down and started investigating his various aches. He had a few big rips in his trousers and coat and some scrapes that were deep enough to have bled through his clothes, so that was one bloody expensive suit down the drain. Nothing immobilizing: the worst was a large bruise on his jaw where they’d swung for his temple, trying to knock him out, and missed.
Well, no, the worst was having to be rescued by a bunch of street punks. Plus it was clear he was more out of the loop than some grad student who had pine needles in his hair and drove a car that could probably take an SUV and eat it for lunch. “Why would Arthur snap? And why the hell did I just get dumped on the sidewalk?”
“Because if you hadn’t been, you’d probably be dead.” Tristan hit a main road and without warning switched into composed kamikaze mode, breaking every traffic law Lancelot knew of in addition to a few laws of physics. Gawain yelped and banged out of the sight, probably to brace himself in the footspace, Lancelot hung onto the strap above the window, and Tristan just kept talking. His voice didn’t even waver like it should’ve, what with all the insane maneuvers. “The ex-paramilitary group you’ve been chasing is called the Red Hounds. Arthur and my mother were both members; she was killed and he left and took care of me. So did some other members, but I think he might now be the only ex-Red Hound still alive. The group assumed he betrayed them and is trying to kill him. And you and your partner, since they think he’s working with you.”
Swerve around a truck. When Lancelot had steadied himself enough to see Tristan’s head again, the other man was just finishing up a phone call.
“Arthur’s never really forgiven himself for not stopping them,” Tristan added. His dry irony briefly went away to be replaced by a kind of irritated sympathy. “And he was one of their best.”
What the man was saying didn’t accord at all with what Lancelot had seen—or maybe it did. Arthur had generally acted like a neurotic fish out of water—albeit a pretty one—but it could be possible that the water hadn’t always been the university. There’d been moments when Arthur had shown a harder edge, like how he’d handled Guinevere’s attempted interrogation this morning…and his expression when he’d seen Cowden. Who definitely had a stink around him.
And then there was Tristan, who might’ve been already seventeen when Arthur had taken him in, but that still left some time for influence to be applied. As much as he got on Lancelot’s nerves, he hadn’t gotten his unbreakable composure and calm way of handling both rescue effort and hurtling car from some humanities professor. He’d had practice at this, and recently, which meant that Arthur was a decent teacher of street skills as well.
The car screeched over a curb and lurched back down just in time for some cyclist’s terrified face to whisk by Lancelot’s window. He felt his stomach try to climb his throat and firmly shoved it down. “Huh. Hard to guess that just on meeting him. So what more current events did I miss?”
“Gawain and I caught three men waiting in Arthur’s house. Hold on.” Tristan whirled the wheel and sent them skidding into a side-alley, which turned out to be a nice way of cutting past the dinner-hour traffic. Lancelot gritted his teeth and took a few mental notes, since he could use it.
Gawain, or the part of him that jounced into view, was beginning to look a little ill. “Galahad—Arthur’s other grad student—took them up to Interpol. Which is where we’re going, too.”
And which belatedly reminded Lancelot of the other agent that had gotten sent off—with Cowden. “Shit! Guin!”
“Oh, she’s fine. She’s waiting with Arthur; he broke out of Interpol long enough to take down the two going after her—no, he knocked out one and she shot the other in the head. Cowden.” The tone of Tristan’s voice was decidedly satisfied; when Gawain’s face next swung into view, he was eying the other man with some wariness. Tristan glanced over, his smile saying that he was happy and that was what he was.
“Maybe I should choose the coffee place…” Gawain muttered.
How cute. They were flirting. And Lancelot was slightly dizzy, and the car wouldn’t stop jerking long enough for him to figure out whether that was from Tristan’s driving or from Arthur breaking out of Interpol. Saving Guin.
On the one hand, he was relieved she was all right, since if she weren’t, he’d have lost the only partner, however annoying, that had ever been able to keep up with him. It was also good news to hear that Arthur wasn’t totally defenseless, but on the contrary was very, very capable. Intriguing to imagine—right, not the time. Also not the time to wonder why he’d gone after her and not Lancelot.
“She was closer, and from what I remember, Cowden was one of the more psychotic of them.” Tristan met Lancelot’s eyes in the rearview mirror and just barely avoided looking smug.
“Does he always do this?” Lancelot sat up a little straighter, then ran his fingers through his hair so it wasn’t so damn poufy. If Guin took that the way he thought she would, a bit of sprucing up was justifiable.
A hand clamped down on the front passenger seat’s headrest. Gawain yanked himself into view long enough to shrug. “Looks like it. Cool, isn’t it?”
“If that’s your taste,” Lancelot snorted. He slammed his heel into the floor just in time to avoid being slammed into the back of Tristan’s seat. When he rocked back into his seat, he saw that they’d arrived.
* * *
The ground was more steady under Arthur’s feet. It helped that the Interpol office was well-lit and full of people bustling in busy but orderly fashion, which called to Arthur’s structured tendencies and helped bolster them against his anger. That was still seething deep inside, but now he thought he could control it.
At the very least, he knew it was possible to snap out of it, and to do so without causing more pain to others. Guinevere had shown him that.
For a moment, Arthur slumped in his seat and stared ahead of him, mulling on that thought. Then he tilted his head back and banged it a few times against the headrest. “God, I’m an idiot.”
“If you’re calling yourself one for the Red Hound issue, I may have to slap you.” A weight suddenly settled on Arthur’s knee, warm and yielding soft pressure. Guinevere put a hand on his other knee for support and began typing at the computer on the desk. She murmured at the screen and shifted her position. Specifically, the location of her hand. “If, however, you’re calling yourself that for not having a…more creative way of looking at the world, then by all means, do.”
Arthur found his fingers suddenly locked around the chairarms and his feet braced hard against the floor. When he spoke, his voice cracked in ways it hadn’t since puberty. “Guinevere. That is not the mouse.”
“I’d hope not. I don’t do small…in any application of the word.” Her tone had modulated to rich and vixen, and her twist out of his lap to kneel on the floor was as smooth as her hand was vigorous. It was slightly embarrassing how fast she and Lancelot both managed to get the better of Arthur.
Lancelot—and they hadn’t settled that. “Ah…Guin—oh, God.”
Well, so much for his attempt to rise. And his legs were more mush than bone and muscle now, so Arthur very much doubted the success of a second try. Nevertheless, he couldn’t in good—Christ, that was good—good conscience just lie back and enjoy it. Even if her fingers had teased down his zipper and she was running her very, very pink tongue over very, very red lips.
The chairarms were a godsend, though they suffered for it under Arthur’s grip. “Guinevere, about—you and Lancelot have something going, and—”
“He fucked you, so I’d say he wasn’t too worried about that.” Tongue-flick just over his head; Arthur threw a panicked look at the slightly-ajar door and Guinevere promptly, incredibly swallowed all of him down. Her throat squeezed so his bones went from mush to liquid, and then she was off. It’d taken maybe five seconds, which had been long enough for civilizations to rise and fall without Arthur noticing. “And I’d like to fuck you, too. So I’d say I wasn’t too worried about it. Funny how you worry about things that no one else bothers with.”
“But I’m not—” Arthur’s knees solidified long enough for him to rise and put his hands on the desk, preparatory for standing. Unfortunately for his intentions, right about then Guinevere took him all the way in again. This time, she took her time working him with mouth and tongue and a slight flutter of teeth while he staggered, grabbed the edge of the desk and awkwardly splayed his legs in an effort not to fall on her.
Good thing the door and the one glass wall of the office was thickly frosted, he thought. Then he remembered that he wasn’t supposed to be happy about that because he needed to be concentrating on other matters. Like the men trying to kill him, and like the still-alive possibility that he’d be included in any charges brought against the Red Hounds. Which led to his worries about Tristan and his grad students now being involved, when the last thing they should’ve had to be concerned about was—
--his thoughts were beginning to sound rather frantic. It matched the movements of his hips: jerky, disconnected. When they did follow a rhythm, it was Guinevere’s and not his. She’d lifted her hands to wrap around his thighs, stroking and petting them in time with her mouth.
“Guinevere, I really think—”
That annoyed her. Enough for her to make a disgruntled sound deep in her throat, which traveled up through Arthur to shake him loose and make him scramble for a new grip on the desk. He tried to warn her, but all that came out was an incoherent choking; she still seemed to understand and deliberately tightened her hold on him so he had to come in her mouth.
Arthur went down on one elbow, bent over the desk so far his forehead almost touched the glass—which his panting was fogging up. Beside him, Guinevere daintily rose and perched on the edge, licking at her lips. Her lipstick hadn’t even smudged, but she whipped out a compact to check anyway.
“Arthur, I think you should realize that our advances aside, neither Lancelot nor I are the kind to throw away our careers for a simple fuck. Well, I’m not—he might, but still, he’d need to think about it first.” She muttered something about the only time he bothered thinking was when it involved himself, then snapped shut the compact. “We’re not going to arrest you. We are going to arrest everyone else, but the real MI6 man gave us information exonerating you. And I, for one, wouldn’t still be flirting with you if I didn’t want to be around to see a version of you that wasn’t murderous or just-fucked.”
“Lancelot?” Arthur gasped. He hastily redid his trousers and stood, just in time for Guinevere to haul him down by the tie and thoroughly kiss him.
“I have to put up with him anyway,” she muttered. “Anyway, could you choose right now? Of course not. You’ve known us for all of two days; that’s not enough time for an informed decision.”
Oh. Yes. Dating. For some reason, the thought of that as applied to Lancelot and Guinevere sent a shiver of terror through Arthur. It was an irrational feeling and he therefore ignored it…although he couldn’t quite ignore the urge to muss Guinevere’s lipstick just a little. Possibly he was annoyed at them beneath all his confused, nervous objections. After all—she tasted like caramel. And he was beginning to get used to her clawing at his shirt and shoulders.
Someone knocked and they hurriedly slid apart. This time, Guinevere was considerably more disheveled, and her stalk over to the door was a bit off-balance.
“Hello—Guin. I hear you’ve been busy.” Lancelot’s voice. Dry, pointed, and quietly irked.
“To better effect than you, I believe,” she hissed, swerving out the door.
Arthur grabbed at his clothing and attempted to make himself presentable, but he still looked suspiciously rumpled when Tristan eased himself in. The other man thoughtfully looked him over, then threw a glance at Guinevere’s departing back. “You look mauled.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.” The sarcasm popped out before Arthur could stop it and he instantly regretted it. After all, Tristan had just done a great deal for him, and he owed the man a corresponding amount. “Sorry. I meant, thank you very much for—”
“—you’re welcome.” Tristan stepped back, gaze shifting towards a small knot of people outside. “Gawain’s got a bit of motionsickness. I’m going to get him some orange juice.”
“Please tell him thank you, too,” Arthur called after him. And then Tristan was gone and Lancelot was not, and Arthur had absolutely no idea what to say.
The other man was physically all right, though there was a nasty bruise on his jaw that made Arthur’s nails curl into his palm. His movements, however, were unimpeded by any serious injuries, and his clothes were ripped but had only a few small, already dry bloodstains. What had suffered the most seemed to be his hair, which was an unruly mess, and his attitude towards Arthur.
He came in readily enough, but his hands stayed in his pockets and he was watching Arthur on a wary slant. “So. I hear you’re somewhat more dangerous than you seem.”
“I wish I could say otherwise.” Arthur shut the door and turned so Lancelot had to either directly face him or face the wall. “Are you all right?”
“Well, the suit’s had better days, and I’ve lost my car and cell phone. But since I’m more hacked off at those bastards than in pain, I’d say I’m fine and dandy.” Lancelot stopped circling Arthur and took a step forward, then paused. His gaze wandered over Arthur’s face down the neck, finally coming to rest on Arthur’s arm. He lifted a hand, eyes shooting back to Arthur’s, and carefully touched an old bullet-scar. A corner of his mouth quirked. “I thought so. And some of those other ones didn’t look like barfight souvenirs to me…but I just had a hard time picturing you in a barfight, let alone a paramilitary group.”
Then he was flush against Arthur’s chest and his mouth was hot and soft on Arthur’s, his arm going around Arthur’s neck. They traded a few breaths before Arthur came to his senses and pulled Lancelot off enough for speech. “I’m a teacher. I’m a killer. I live with both of those men—I am both of those men, and neither of them is going to go away, it seems.”
The fingers around the back of Arthur’s neck curled, moved their tips in teasing circles as light as the chuckling breath grazing his face. “I don’t think I was fucking half a man last night. And Guin and I are…a little more active than the normal Interpol agent, so you wouldn’t be the only one with a gun under their pillow.”
“That’s the other thing. I…I like both of you very much.” Stupid way to put it, but Lancelot was licking heat into Arthur’s jaw and that made subtlety rather difficult. “And I—don’t want to hurt--” exasperation made the final slice across Arthur’s stretched patience “—would you two stop trying to distract me?”
Lancelot ignored Arthur and stared instead from one of his wrists to the other, which were pinned to the wall. He blinked, nodded approvingly and then writhed in Arthur’s grip, sinuous and mesmerizing. Lifted his chin so he was both challenging and offering his throat. “Where’s the downside in that?”
“Arthur, Lancelot—oh.” Guinevere rocked back on her heel and folded her arms over her chest, watching them spring away—well, Arthur sprang and Lancelot leisurely followed, rubbing pointedly at his wrists. She seemed torn between amusement and dagger-pointed aggravation, which was mainly focused on Lancelot. “I see you’ve gotten a glimpse of his other professionalism. I hope you enjoyed it; Pellew wants to hear the plan now, and I doubt he’d take a porn-script.”
Sarcasm was perfectly embodied in Lancelot’s arched eyebrow and languid reply. “Guin’s a nasty girl with nice claws, as you can see. If we can still manage to share an apartment, I think we can handle anything you throw at us.”
A thousand valid objections rose in Arthur’s throat, but he swallowed them. He could still taste Lancelot and Guinevere in his mouth, and suddenly he thought he wanted that taste to linger.
* * *
“As you’ve asked, your house has been staked out and men are in position to seize whatever intruders happen to show up,” stated the Interpol man in rolling rich tones. Combined with his ultra-serious expression, he reminded Galahad a lot of those captains in old sea films, who were always making great speeches in the middle of huge smoky battles when they should’ve been ducking.
Someone kicked his foot. “Don’t you fucking flick that pen at him,” Gawain hissed. “And sit up straight.”
Oh, for God’s sake—Galahad hadn’t even been thinking about that. Much. Not seriously, since he’d only managed to steal one pen and he wouldn’t have anything to fiddle with if he threw it. And fiddling was about the only thing keeping him from falling asle—hello, busty blonde walking past. She gave him a once-over and he shot her a quick smile before reluctantly turning back to the war council.
“Due to what’s happened, the FBI has moved in and seized most of the Red Hounds. The ones still at large, however, seem to be the leadership elements.” Interpol guy handed Arthur a stack of photos, which he quickly shuffled through before passing them on to the others. “Cerdic, for one. Are you certain he’ll be coming for you? It would make more sense for him to be working on getting safely out of the country…”
“Yes.” Arthur didn’t waste any time in wavering on that, at least. He sounded as certain about that as he did when standing his ground in an ideological debate. “One, Cerdic is…old-fashioned, in a sense. He won’t let what he perceives as my betrayal stand.”
On second thought, the way Arthur faltered on the word ‘betrayal’ was a bit worrying, and not only to Galahad: those two other agents both shot him searching looks, and even Tristan shifted a bit as he noted it. As good as the man was, he was still receiving more attention than Galahad thought that his behavior warranted. He had one gorgeous woman doing everything but grabbing his ass and one man even Galahad’s disinterested eye said was equally good-looking leaning far too close on his other side, and he still managed to be nagging himself about the distant past.
Actually, scratch the ‘everything but grabbing his ass’ part. Galahad slouched so he could snicker without drawing glares to himself. In front of him, Arthur hiccupped in the middle of a sentence. “Two, I took a lot of money when I—ai!—left. Later I sent it to the families of the dead MI6 operatives, but he probably assumes I still have it. And he’d need that, since you said you’ve cut off his other sources of cash.”
The Interpol man bent a severe look on Arthur’s sudden flush, but restrained himself from asking the obvious question. Well, if he was Lancelot and Guinevere’s boss, he should already know the answer; it’d taken Galahad about five minutes of watching those two around Arthur to figure out things, and usually Gawain was the one who paid attention to things like that.
“True. We’ve been trying to get permission for a while and the attacks on our agents gave us a reason that couldn’t be argued with,” Interpol guy said. He stared down at the papers strewn across his desk for a bit longer, then briskly shuffled them out of the way and looked up. “Well, I believe you’ve settled all outstanding matters except two. Your statuette and where you’re going to stay tonight.”
“Statuette?” Galahad asked. He’d caught up to speed on nearly all the story, thanks to Tristan’s creepy omniscience, but he didn’t remember anything about artwork.
Arthur pulled out a photo and held it up so Galahad could see: a small, ugly blob-thing was featured in it. “The Hounds’ first operation took place near some ruins. We found a set of statues and each of us took one, as a reminder to be loyal. But I don’t have mine; after I left the group, I found myself feeling so sick whenever I saw it that I just dumped it.”
That made Interpol man frown and produce some prodigious forehead furrows. “Those statuettes are part of the cultural heritage of that country. We’d like to return the whole set, if possible.”
Regret made a reappearance on Arthur’s face—and down below, he intercepted a hand sneaking onto his hip. “I wish I could help with that—”
“I’d need till tomorrow,” Tristan interrupted. When Arthur twisted around to stare in surprise, he shrugged and stood up. Gawain hastily followed, and handed Tristan his coat so he could tug on the worn, faded near-rag. “You told me that if something’s that important, it’s a bad idea to throw it away because it’ll probably be needed later, if not wanted.”
“I was talking about your mother’s notebook,” Arthur muttered. Funny how he was unhappy that someone had actually listened to him and followed his advice. “So you’ve got it?”
Tristan shook his head, sending his hair into his face. Beside him, Gawain’s hands twitched up, then held themselves back. “No. It’s in Avalon’s Attic. But I can get it tonight, and if you want, you can use my place while I’m out. But the plumbing’s being a little spotty.”
“It’d probably be better if you were somewhere Interpol could keep an eye on you,” Lancelot hastily said. He laid a couple fingers on Arthur’s arm and, when the other man turned, smiled like a pretty girl trying to guilt her boyfriend into moving the fridge. Arthur’s reaction was somewhere between bemused and succumbing.
“And our plumbing works,” Guinevere added, nearly cooing at Arthur. Behind her, her boss was first startled, then understanding, and finally eye-rolling at the antics of his agents.
Gawain ducked his head as if to muffle a cough. “Man, they’re trying hard.”
“But this is a good thing, right? If he’s getting some, he’ll be more likely to be easy on us.” Galahad sneaked a look at Tristan to see how he was taking it, but of course he was just plain amused. It was probably easier to list all the things that didn’t amuse Tristan than to list what did.
“I’d recommend you stay somewhere you can contact us if you run into trouble,” Interpol man finally said. He gave them all a brisk nod, tossed Lancelot and Guinevere a final set of odd looks, and strode out of the room.
Done with his coat, Tristan handed Arthur a briefcase before heading for the door. “I thought you might want your work. See you tomorrow morning.”
“Tristan?” Somehow Arthur dragged his eyes from the importuning pair before him and got his brain thinking. “Thank you. You didn’t need to help.”
“They killed my mother, and they’re hunting you. Of course I do.” Tristan raised his hand in a curt wave, then brought it down to pull on Gawain’s shoulder. After a brief moment of confusion, Gawain went along with him.
And so did Galahad, though when Tristan saw him, annoyance definitely crossed his face. “You can go home, you know.”
“So you two can make out madly. Yeah, well, you can still do that when I’m not looking. But I’ve gotten into this mess this far, and I want to see this statue.” Not to mention Galahad didn’t have any dates for the night, and he wasn’t inclined to catch up on his grading. He was going to be alternating between boredom and worry if he let Gawain go off with Avalon’s resident weirdo. Plus he’d been hearing about the Attic for weeks, and his curiosity about the historical-artifact storage facility was running high.
“Just let him come. Trust me, it’s easier than fending him off,” Gawain said, throwing Galahad an uncomplimentary look. “We can use him to keep Dagonet busy.”
Galahad smacked him for that, and then quickly jogged ahead to avoid getting a beating. To no point, since something small and pointy and painful jabbed him in the back of the head. A pen.
When he turned around, Tristan was actually smiling. Mockingly so…and great, his roommate’s new boyfriend was a fucking bastard. All the more reason to keep tabs on him and Gawain.
* * *
“His appetite might still be down. I don’t know if spicy’s a good idea.” Tie off and sleeves rolled up, Lancelot busied himself with unloading the dishwasher. He stacked up all the bowls, waited for Guin to pass him and then pivoted out from between the lowered dishwasher front and her back. The bowls rattled, but he didn’t lose any before he could start shoving them in the cabinet.
Guin had pinned her hair back and was browning onions in a pan. “No, that’s you when you’re hungover. He seemed to have plenty of appetite to me.” She stepped back long enough to kick at the fridge. “Go chop the scallions when you’re done with that.”
Lancelot rolled his eyes, but did as he was told. He had to pause when one of his bandages got yanked half-off—took all the hair on that part of his arm with it—and so he nearly backed into Guin as she went for the meat. “You’re in no position to be smug.”
“Why not? Because technically we’re not supposed to be competing anymore? Or because you snowballed him into bed before I did?” She sneaked in an elbow and was at the stove before he could retaliate. “Thanks a lot for that, by the way. Not only did you delay the case, but you also reinforced his skittish tendencies.”
The thud of the knife was a nice, hard rhythm that matched Lancelot’s thoughts. Plus the scallions were lanky and skinny, echoing another shape in the kitchen. “Because I was out of the goddamn loop on a few certain—”
Polite cough. Arthur had finally gotten rid of his coat and tie, and he’d unbuttoned cuffs and top of collar as well. It was a good thing Lancelot had stopped chopping before he’d looked, or he might’ve lost a fingertip. “Ah…do you have any red pens? Mine’s out of ink.”
“You swear you saw him knock out that guy?” Lancelot asked under his breath.
Guin nodded. Which Lancelot had to see out of his peripheral vision, since neither of them were going to bother looking at each other. “Wanted so badly to have him on the car, but he was too jumpy.” She raised her voice to answer Arthur’s question so he’d stop being so…apologetic. “There’s some in the second drawer of my desk—that’s the one with the bamboo shoot. Lancelot’s is the one with the gigantic coffee stain.”
“Thanks.” Arthur ducked out of the kitchen and thus left Lancelot with no reason not to eviscerate that bitch.
“Not competing, are we? You’ve got a funny definition of that.” He finished chopping her stupid scallions with an angry flourish that flipped a couple onto the floor. That made her curse and snarl at him, but he just wiped off the knife and put it away. A little food on the floor never hurt anyone; if she wanted it off, she could pick them up herself.
She flounced past him to grab the vegetables and sent them flying into the pan so hard one of the little green circles bounced back out. Hypocrite. “For once in your life, could you not be a complete prick? In case you haven’t noticed, Arthur has issues. He’s got enough guilt to found his own religion and he’s obviously spent a lot of time denying himself things so he wouldn’t attract attention. The last thing he needs is for you to come barging in and—”
“Well, it seemed to work all last night,” Lancelot purred, reaching past her to slam on the pan lid. Time for the food to simmer.
And time for Guinevere to explode and smack him precisely on his bruised jaw.
About two seconds later, Lancelot was banging his knees on the tile and the hellcat beneath him was doing her best to rip into his lip and to whack them into the refrigerator. He yanked her skirt off and shoved his palm between her legs, ground down and laughed when she couldn’t help but squirm into it. But then she had her hand in his hair and was wrenching them over with little more than that, was savaging his neck so his head lolled back and—
--Arthur looked even more embarrassed when viewed upside-down. “Oh, sorry. I thought—there was a lot of noise, and—”
Guin just swiped out a hand and knocked him over, which was about the smartest thing she’d done all day. Lancelot gave her a soft kiss in appreciation, then pushed her down so he could crawl first onto Arthur. He tugged off one shoe and sock. “No, we’re fine. We’re adults, you know. You don’t have to worry about us all the time.”
Arthur was bug-eyed, and he kept flailing behind him for a grip in order to pull away. “I just don’t want to see anyone hurt. Especially you.”
“I am not in pain, I assure you.” A thudding behind Lancelot signaled that Guin had gotten to Arthur’s other shoe and sock, so he reached for Arthur’s belt and whipped that out of the way. It flew over the island and, to judge by the clatter, landed somewhere in the sink. Then he grabbed for Arthur’s hip and hauled himself another foot.
“But—” the flailing stopped, but Arthur still had his hands on the floor and not on Lancelot “—the food!”
“Oh, bugger it.” Rustling noises and then clicking as Guin turned down the stove heat. “We’ll just make it quick, then. Before it burns.”
By now, Lancelot was sliding himself up Arthur’s chest, and there was finally a hand running through his hair. But stubborn man, Arthur was still using his other arm to hold Lancelot off. “I have—papers to grade—”
“You’ve got me climbing on you and—” quick check behind “—Guin in a naughty lace bra. They can fucking wait, Arthur.” After another blocked dive for Arthur’s mouth, Lancelot added, “Six years between lays is a long while. The faster you start making them up, the better.”
In retrospect, he should’ve been able to predict that every man capable of functioning within society still had some level of pride. And given Arthur’s peculiar guilt, he probably had some weird code of personal honor he felt it was necessary to defend on top of his pride. Though it was anyone’s guess whether Lancelot would’ve refrained from commenting, given what happened next.
Actually, he didn’t know what happened next. What he did know was what happened maybe five or six steps later, when he emerged from a sudden whirling haze into breathless, moaning, helpless squirming. His hands were good and pinned against the floor and a tongue was ruthlessly taking his mouth, seizing any breath he had and then disappearing so he gasped. Waiting till he had enough air to power enough thought to miss the heat and hard pressure, and then swooping down again to keep him permanently on the edge of suffocation.
Not that he could think long enough to dislike that. He had the impression of too many hands relieving him of his pants. Then he remembered Guin and tried to lift his head to see her, but Arthur forced him down with a long, punishing kiss. Lips played along his throat that was desperately swallowing air, then came back just as he’d gotten enough breath to take. And they stayed over his when fingers flicked oil up into him—definitely Guin’s doing, though they weren’t her fingers. No, broader and rougher and they were taking Lancelot apart in a systematic, ruthless way she’d never managed the few times he’d let her try this way. She spent too much time trying to figure out the one twist or knuckle-crook that would do the most; Arthur just assumed and swamped Lancelot in those assumptions till he was whimpering into Arthur’s mouth. Rocking frantically against his leg, knee, trying to loosen the pressure and trying to seek more of it at the same time. It didn’t make sense.
But it worked, and it worked so that Lancelot didn’t know what happened between that last hard stab of the fingers and him opening his eyes to find himself slumped on the floor, and Arthur and Guinevere sitting across from him. Arthur looked about as dazed as Lancelot still felt; he had his hand up, fingers still retaining some traces of cooking oil, and he was staring at it like he’d been without it his whole life.
“He looks good like that,” Guin murmured, licking at Arthur’s ear. “I think I could put up with him if he ended up that way every time.”
Lancelot tried to hit her, but his muscles were still wrung out and it came off more like a kitten batting at some yarn.
She smacked back his hand and then climbed into Arthur’s lap, burying her face in his neck so he’d stop looking at Lancelot. Grandstanding cunt.
And it seemed that she made a similar impression on Arthur, because suddenly she was on her back and Arthur was turning her into a senseless moaning body just as thoroughly as he had Lancelot. Her hands at first tried to keep up with his mouth on her breasts, his hands on her belly and thighs, but then he lifted her hips and rocked into her, and Guin’s knees jerked into an awkward splay. She grabbed onto his shoulders and couldn’t let go until her climax had melted her into the tiles.
“You look good like that,” Lancelot told her. “Bet we’d wreck less furniture if you spent more time in that position.”
Arthur just caught himself on his elbows, then eased down to rest his head on her breasts. “Do you two always do this when you argue?”
“Well, it wears us out before we can kill each other.” Lancelot flopped over and pressed his mouth to the point of Arthur’s shoulder. When Arthur looked over, he darted in to more thoroughly express his appreciation of the rougher spots beneath the polite professor.
“Bloody insatiable,” Arthur muttered, though he didn’t sound particularly unhappy about that. After a little more resting, he dressed himself, hauled himself up and lifted the pan lid. Then he picked up a spatula and started attending to dinner.
Guin barely repressed an irritated sigh as she wormed back into her clothes. She was up on her feet and shoving Arthur away from the stove when Lancelot was still dealing with his pants. “I’m cooking, thank you. You—”
“—go answer the phone.”
“Bitchy, bitchy, bitchy.” Lancelot hooked his arm through Arthur’s and dragged him out before Guin amended her order to only include Lancelot. “See, even sex doesn’t make her nicer—” picked up the phone “—hello? Sir—oh, shit.”
* * *
Gawain stared at the side of the building that housed the Attic. It consisted of old, irregularly-sized slabs of rock that were half-covered in ivy. Running vertically down the center was an old, rusty drainpipe. “I’ve seen this in some period film. The hero had to scale the wall, so he used the pipe, and halfway the pipe ripped off and all hell broke loose.”
“Hmm?” Tristan looked up from where he’d just picked the lock to a first-story window.
“Never mind.” There was no reason to be nervous, Gawain told himself. After all, they had the easy job; Arthur was positive Cerdic wouldn’t bother looking on the university, and anyway, Interpol had had security around campus quietly stepped up. If Tristan didn’t have 19th-century architectural plans in his head, he and Gawain and Galahad never would’ve made it in, and he swore that the only place to find those plans was inside the building into which they were currently hopping.
Well, Tristan and Gawain were hopping. Galahad got over the sill all right, but promptly banged his toe on a shelf and spit out a muffled curse. The resulting thud seemed abnormally loud—or maybe the Attic was abnormally quiet. Either way, it made Gawain flinch and duck nearly to touch his knees on the carpet.
Tristan smoothly twisted around, glowered, and turned back to calmly, soundlessly walk towards the nearest stairwell. Though the place was extremely dark, some streetlamp light made it through the window and every so often, he’d let a beam hit him. He looked good as a silhouette.
“Stop looking at his ass and hurry up,” Galahad muttered. “This place is giving me the creeps.”
“Stop talking.” The word ‘brat’ got chopped off the end of that at the last moment, and only because Gawain suspected Galahad might be feeling jealous. Not in the screwing sense—they had been covering each other’s backs and sharing bathrooms too long—but in the…attention-hungry sense.
No, that was too nasty. Then again, Galahad kept moving in front of Gawain, so maybe Gawain being sarcastic would be only fair…
They were up the stairs and just coming onto the landing when something made a noise on the floor below. A creaking, slow and hissing at the end as if a great weight was causing it. Gawain had hit the floor before he’d even realized; he started to blush and then saw that the other two had gone down as well, which made him feel better. At least he wasn’t the only one with that reflex.
“Galahad.” Tristan jerked a hand at the stairs.
Instead of going like a sensible person, Galahad made a face. ‘What?’ the arch of his eyebrows and widening of his eyes said.
Gawain shoved the annoying pest’s shoulder. “You came to help. So go help.”
“But what if it’s—”
“If it’s the boogeyman, you’re too big for it to eat now. If it’s anything else—you’ve seen worse in L. A. You’re not an idiot; think of a way to distract them.” Another second and Gawain was going to just tip Galahad over the edge. The man was agile enough to land on his feet, and it would definitely make a nice diversion.
Thankfully, that wasn’t needed. Though he was muttering nasty things about Gawain’s parentage all the way, Galahad went. Relieved, Gawain slumped and rested his forehead against the ground. Sometimes Galahad was the best possible back-up to have, and sometimes he was just a pain in the ass.
A finger lightly tapped Gawain on the arm. When he looked up, Tristan was nodding towards a shadowy row of shelves.
In all honesty, Gawain wasn’t too fond of the nighttime Attic either; the air was musty and thick, the dark seemed to be dense enough to have substance, and the cramped spaces set off every survival instinct Gawain had. But so far Tristan seemed to know what he was doing, so Gawain just held his breath and followed.
Once they were among the shelves, Tristan produced a penlight and used it to read the faded, sepia labels haphazardly organizing the place. “They had the same head librarian for sixty years—he was a complete dictator and a bit eccentric. Ordered the whole Attic according to his private system, which he never explained to anyone before he died. Been three years since and they’re still working on reordering the place.”
“But you remember where you put this statue, right?” A draft suddenly skirted the back of Gawain’s neck and he jumped forward just as Tristan pivoted to face him.
Huh. He couldn’t see Tristan’s front, except for the dim outline of nose and the glitter of eyes, but what he could feel of it was pretty nice. Gawain wondered how long he could get away with leaning into him before he became too obvious.
After he’d counted to ten, what was obvious was that Tristan didn’t care. Or he had the patience of a saint. There really was only one way to find out which it was. So Gawain leaned in and…rammed his teeth into Tristan’s cheek. Dark wasn’t romantic, he decided—it was just fucking inconvenient.
Very, very soft laughing accompanied a pair of hands moving Gawain’s jaw. “More left,” Tristan whispered, and then they finally were properly matched up.
He had a nice tongue, too. And Gawain was having stupid thoughts when he should really be using his mind for something else, like getting some support—ow. Or finding a trick around this damned blackness that had just resulted in him whacking his hands on some iron box. More careful now, he groped till he found the slope of Tristan’s shoulder. Cupped his hand around it, tried tugging and found that the changed angle helped melt his knees. Okay. Good. And Tristan didn’t seem to be averse to a hand easing onto his ass, so…
…a light shone on them. Gawain jerked around, his hand still trapped behind Tristan, to squint and silently panic. “Uh…hi. We’re students. Grad students. And we’ve got an explanation.”
Tristan casually curved his arm behind himself to grab and squeeze Gawain’s hand, which helped ground Gawain. “Dagonet?” Tristan called.
The flashlight dimmed enough for Gawain to see that yes, it was that librarian. He looked grim. Or tired. Either way, it was pretty damn intimidating.
“What are you doing here this late?”
He’d talked. In fact, Dagonet’s voice was perfectly normal down to its faint exasperation, and Gawain felt even more stupid.
“Just trying to find something for a paper,” Tristan replied. Dagonet made a sound that might have been expressing disbelief and Tristan briefly ducked his head, as if embarrassed. “This is Gawain, by the way. What are you doing here? I thought you stopped working nights after Fulcinia had your first.”
“One of Arthur’s.” Nod towards Gawain, and then Dagonet returned to his conversation with Tristan. “I did. But I had a feeling I should come down, and then Merlin called to let me know the police were stepping up security for the night.”
That was one dedicated librarian. So dedicated, in fact, that Gawain was torn on whether to be admiring or weirded out. “Oh? Well, we’ll just find what we’re looking for really quick and then go so we don’t keep you up. Sorry, but the paper kind of fell on my desk at the last minute and…yeah. Please?”
Dagonet regarded them for another long, inscrutable moment before flicking off his light. His footsteps headed for the staircase. “Fifteen minutes. And please get your friend before he knocks over another plant.”
“Too damned dark for anything, anyway,” Gawain muttered. He paused, then darted in to…fumble into Tristan’s mouth. Messy, but very nice after the first couple of seconds. “Come on. Let’s find this thing and then put Galahad to bed.”
“So we can have coffee?” Tristan squeezed Gawain’s hand one last time before turning back to the shelves. “Sounds good. Though I don’t actually like coffee, so we can skip that part.”
Gawain swallowed hard. If he was going to be stupid, at least he didn’t have to sound stupid. “Okay,” he said, voice perfectly normal.