|Theory IV: Defense and Rebuttal
Author: Guede Mazaka
The night was cooling, but it was far enough into summer so that the earth retained a comfortable degree of warmth. Tristan shrugged, rolling back his shoulders into the grass and stretching them. He paused to dig his heels into the ground, then arched further until he felt the cramps in his back begin to give. Another nice source of warmth was the stare of the man sitting next to him on the hill.
“So, Dagonet’s got some super-sense that lets him know when someone’s in his stacks?” On the other hand, Galahad’s presence fell into the dampening category. He was wandering around them, waiting for Gawain to finish prying open the box that held the statuette. And once the box was open, he would probably be waiting to hold it, and then to put it back in the box. After that, maybe he’d try and wait for morning.
“Why? Were you planning to break into them again?” If Tristan aimed right, he could put down Galahad for a few hours with the pebble beneath his head. He reached under and got it, sussing out the rough spots with his thumb. Chances were it wouldn’t cause any permanent damage: too small, too smooth.
Galahad stopped his incessant pacing long enough to glare. In the dim light cast by the streetlamps below, he looked orange-y and about twelve.
“Hey, he’s my roommate. Don’t throw that.” The last word Gawain said was almost cut off by his grunt and the loud whine of rusted hinges. He deposited the opened box in front of all of them, gave it a satisfied look, and then parceled out an annoyed look to both Tristan and Galahad. “And Galahad, don’t even think of bringing a date into the library. That’s just too…too…my God, you’ve got a bed. Can’t you use that?”
“Then I’d be washing the sheets every day,” Galahad complained, plopping down. He leaned over the box, then grabbed for the big flashlight Tristan kept in his car. “Can’t see—whoa. Damn, that’s ugly.”
Tristan didn’t need to look, given that he had every curve and jag of the thing permanently engraved in his memory. So when Gawain twisted the box towards him, he tilted his head back to look at the sky. “My mother had one. I remember it.”
“What happened to that one?” Gawain asked.
It might’ve been easier if that question had come from Galahad, because then Tristan could be as nasty as he wanted in his reply. As it was, he was glad there were tufts of grass he could quietly jerk. “When Cerdic killed her, he took it. That’s how they kept track of members. The statues.”
Awkward, long silence. Several times Gawain started to say something, but he always cut himself off before he became intelligible.
Snap. Galahad shut the box and tucked it under one arm. He stood up to look down on them, which put his expression in the shadows where it couldn’t be read. Then he sighed, irritated and suffering as if he were some old man struggling with a war wound. Though the rude gesture he flicked Gawain’s way was lively enough in its nonchalance; he seemed to mean it more as a signature farewell than as a genuine insult. “I’m going to go take this home. When we hop over to Arthur’s tomorrow, I’ll bring it.”
Gawain quickly sat up to stare after the other man. “What’ll you be doing between now and then?”
“Using my bed,” Galahad called back, already halfway down the hill. “You’re not coming home tonight, so I don’t need to worry about interruptions, anyway.”
“I’m not—God, sometimes I just want to smack him into the mud for being such a—a—”
It was about time Tristan stopped brooding and paid attention to the present, he thought. He was alive and living a good life, and he ought to enjoy that. So he rolled over on top of Gawain and stole a kiss while the other man was still trying to babble. Then he leaned back and folded his arms over Gawain’s chest, trying not to smile at the shocked look on Gawain’s face. “For being such an arrogant, presumptuous bastard?”
Half an agreement slipped out of Gawain’s mouth before he stopped himself, thinking. After a moment, he came to his conclusion and buried his hands in Tristan’s hair, yanking Tristan down for a longer, wetter kiss that soon segued into nuzzling at Tristan’s neck and tugging at his clothes. “Well, he does have his good points.”
Tristan supposed that was true. At least Galahad was capable of getting the point, even if it took him a frustratingly long time to act on it. Or to be shoved into acting on it in the desired fashion. “You didn’t offend me.”
“What?” Gawain stopped to puzzle over that, which gave Tristan a chance to swipe broad, hard licks beneath Gawain’s collar. “Oh, that…” Gawain groaned. “You’re…okay, right? You said so before.”
“More or less. She’s dead, but she didn’t die in vain. And her ghost is well-fed on the blood of her assassins.” The body beneath Tristan’s mouth momentarily stiffened and he gently bit at it. Then he squirmed up to catch Gawain’s lower lip between his teeth and tug not quite as gently at it.
There wasn’t any warning. One moment, Gawain was beneath and the next he was above, grinning uncertainly while his hands busily petted Tristan’s shirt up his chest. He ducked to kiss Tristan on the mouth, brow, mouth. “Quoting, right? Movie?”
“Yes. Though I agree with the sentiment.” When he was using his mind to think, Tristan silently amended. At the moment, he was slightly more preoccupied with using his mind to will his arms over his head so he could get off his shirt. The task was made slightly more difficult by the reluctance of Tristan’s hands to move without tracing out the flex of Gawain’s muscles beneath his button-down, or to tangle in Gawain’s hair.
After another short freeze, Gawain shrugged and nibbled his way from Tristan’s jaw into the crook of Tristan’s neck, where he proceeded to make a good quarter of Tristan’s neurons burst. “Can’t really say as I can blame you. So—um—on the grass?”
“You want a bed?” Tristan humped up—had to pause because he’d shoved their pricks together and even through their jeans, the friction was enough to disrupt his thoughts—and hooked his hands in Gawain’s waistband. He tugged, was faintly surprised when it wouldn’t slide and then remembered.
His fingers slipped a few times getting the other man’s fly open, but Gawain didn’t seem to mind too badly. Not at all, to judge by the way Gawain was suddenly ripping at Tristan’s shirt. “Uh. No. But…no, you’re here, so you can’t drop shoes on my head…”
Laughing, Tristan rolled them over a third time and sat up so he could get down their pants. Then he laid back down on Gawain to press his grins and groans into a sweaty throat. Hands ran down his spine, grazing tremors out with sandpaper calluses and surprisingly silky inside of wrists. Curved down around his thighs and lifted him up, realigning their cocks. He arched and let a shudder burn him twisted, let his cock slip down by Gawain’s into the hot crease where Gawain’s leg joined his body.
After a moment, Gawain got it and slid one palm up between Tristan’s shoulder, pushing them together. He hooked his leg around the backs of Tristan’s knees and jerked up his hips so their abrupt, frayed gasps were matched.
“Fuck.” In the dark, the glitter of Gawain’s eyes was almost drowned out by the gleam of the sweat on his face.
Tristan licked up some of it, felt the difference when his tongue moved from clean-shaven parts to beard. He bent down and rubbed his cheek against it, then decided he liked that rasping. “That’s later. Don’t have anything here.”
Gawain’s eyes went wide, sucking in what little light there was. Then his hand was between them and working both pricks, and his mouth was a hungry brand on Tristan’s jaw, shoulder, chest. Two of his fingers raked up Tristan’s side, caught a nipple and twisted it just at Tristan’s hips seemed to melt into a final buck.
Lazy now, feeling the aftershocks lace themselves sweet and jagged-edged through his nerves, Tristan went boneless while Gawain pressed himself a few last times against Tristan’s leg. Then the other man came, hoarse shout trying to stifle itself, eyes squeezed hard shut, hands clenching in the grass so he wouldn’t fall on Tristan.
“That…that was nice. I mean, really, really good…oh, fuck it.” Rag-doll floppy, Gawain came down and messily brushed his lips over Tristan’s. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Depends. If Arthur’s all right, I might go to a movie. There’s a midnight special—double thriller feature.” Tristan turned his head to suck at Gawain’s knuckles, tasting the fresh pungent grass stains on them.
A chuckle nestled itself against the side of his head. “Want to let me get the popcorn?” Gawain asked.
“All right,” Tristan murmured, wrapping his arms around the other man.
* * *
The wrist beneath Arthur’s right hand unexpectedly relaxed; his instincts fired just in time for him to slap the other wrist down, then tighten his grip on the first one before it twisted loose. He sucked in a deep breath—
Lancelot abruptly threw his whole body into a violent twist that nearly sent Arthur off of him, and it was only after Arthur had wasted more than that one breath that he got the other man’s legs still. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing.” In a blink, Lancelot was supple and yielding, an invitation to debauchery as he peered up at Arthur, eyes half-closed. “Unless you’d like to start something…”
Arthur closed his eyes and dredged up the remains of his patience. He was annoyed at Lancelot. But he also, apparently, cared a good deal for him and wanted him in one piece for frenetic screwing—for wit and companionship and yes, compatibility in bed. So no strangling. “You cursed at your director. And then you went quiet and said nothing but ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for three and a half-minutes. What. Happened?”
“Funny. I was about to ask the same question.” Guinevere stood hipshot in the doorway, garbed in wrinkled blouse and skirt and a huge kitchen mitt. When she caught Arthur staring at it, she grimaced and yanked it off. After staring at it for a second, she threw it at him.
Actually, she threw it so it should’ve gone slightly to the left of his ear, but by the time Arthur realized that, he’d already ducked and thus let Lancelot scramble free. The other man clawed forward, twisted around long enough to say, “Really, everything’s fine,” and then dove for Guinevere’s waist. He dragged her back into the kitchen, and the last thing Arthur saw before the door slammed shut was Guinevere’s outraged face and her smack at Lancelot.
Still catching his breath, Arthur stared at the door. Something flapped against his legs and he looked down to see his shirttails moving in a draft.
Behind the kitchen came muffled, raised voices that crested fast and sharp before descending into inaudible murmurs.
Well, he wouldn’t find out anything just sitting here. Arthur tucked in his shirt and then went about the apartment, searching for the draft. After a little searching, he tracked it down to a window someone had cracked open for air. He put his hands on it to close it, then paused.
He could go out. The roof was an easy climb to make, and then he could go down the staircase to the elevator. A car might be trickier to find—or he could just catch a taxi to a part of town with ones easier to break into and hotwire. And then…where would he go? If he showed up at his house, he might be arriving in the middle of a seize-and-arrest operation, or worse, and he’d have no way of learning.
Not to mention he had a feeling that that would do more than offend Lancelot and Guinevere. They seemed very insistent on helping him, and Guinevere in particular didn’t take any kind of refusal well.
On the other hand, their desire to keep him safe was making him itch with the lack of anything to do. Somewhere out there, Cerdic was facing his last gasp, and Arthur wasn’t there to see for himself that the man didn’t turn cornered bear, didn’t rampage through to shadow another six years of Arthur’s life.
“But I’m a civilian,” Arthur reminded himself. It was in the hands of the authorities, and he should leave it to them. He’d given them all the information they’d need, and he should trust in them to use it wisely and well.
The window shut, Arthur leaned on the sill for another few seconds. Outside, the moon could be seen only by its reflection in the tall, mirror-glass skyscraper across the road. Thin clouds occasionally straggled across it, but it always burned through them to stand out round and brilliant. It was very like the night everything had gone to hell.
But it wasn’t the same. So Arthur made himself step away from the window, and once away, he didn’t kneel by the sofa to find the guns he suspected were hidden there. Instead, he picked up his bag and went into the bathroom.
Two pages into his third paper, someone tried the doorknob. When they discovered it was locked from the inside, they dropped two curt knocks on the door.
“I’m grading,” Arthur called. It was a spacious room, but the bathtub still wasn’t big enough to accommodate his legs, so he was forced to awkwardly curl. He scooted up his knee and repositioned the paper he was reading on it, then scribbled a comment in the margin.
“Arthur, dinner’s ready. I thought you said you were hungry,” Guinevere wheedled. She knocked again. “Come on. It’s getting cold and I spent forever on it.”
Faint snort-like sound. “Great, guilt him out of there,” came Lancelot’s disgruntled mutter. “That’s going to really cut the legs out from under his bad habits.”
Then he yelped and the door rattled as if someone had just stumbled into it. “Shut up, you jackass git. You shouldn’t have shoved him out of the kitchen like that. Only an idiot wouldn’t realize something was wrong from the way you’ve been acting,” Guinevere snapped.
Arthur looked at the comment that he’d just had to rewrite three times, due to being distracted by eavesdropping on their bickering. Then he looked at the thick stack of papers to be graded, which were all nestled in his briefcase. With a sigh, he put away his things and got out of the bathtub.
“Go fuck yourself, Guin.” Lancelot raised his voice to make his non-insulting words heard. “Arthur? Please open the door—I promise to behave better. And really, isn’t it cramped and boring in there? You can’t possibly find it nicer inside than out.”
“You know, I can’t tell whether you’re a better slut or a better bitch,” Guinevere told him, acidic tone capable of etching designs into metal.
Now sitting on the edge of the tub, Arthur had to wonder whether it was really worth it to open the door. Worries about workload and old enemies aside, he wasn’t sure whether his patience had rebuilt enough to tolerate their sniping. It was a wonder they managed to get anything done. Actually, it was a wonder they had the energy to keep doing it after the…incident in the kitchen, since Arthur certainly didn’t.
“All right, now he’s sulking.” Rap. Tap rap rap. Alternating between knuckles and fingers, Lancelot tapped out the beat to a current pop song. Then he…was he scratching at the door? “Arthur, for God’s sake. At least say something so we know you’re not trying to drown yourself in the toilet.”
Guinevere’s tone wanted to reach out and roll Lancelot’s eyes. “Yes, insult him. Wonderful plan.”
On the other hand, if he stayed in here, they probably would go on indefinitely. Or they might kill—jump each other. Arthur fought down a flush and opened the door. “If you’re not going to tell me anything, I might as well—mmph!”
He seemed to make that sound a lot since he’d met them. At least he remembered to grab for the doorframe, so when Lancelot suddenly hung all his weight from Arthur’s mouth and shoulders, Arthur didn’t fall over. Saved his back and some of his dignity.
“Hey, you’re catching on.” Lancelot nuzzled his way up Arthur’s neck to thread his tongue into Arthur’s ear. Then his shoulders hunched and he stiffened, having been abruptly jostled against Arthur. “Guin, you cunt.”
“If you’re going to put your bloody arse there, you should expect that. Now get off the poor man so he can eat.” She administered another smack to said body part; this time, Lancelot defiantly purred and attempted to swing Arthur backwards onto the floor.
Since that would’ve cracked his head on the toilet, Arthur hastily stumbled back to stay upright. Then he force-marched himself and Lancelot out of the bathroom to where he had enough room to peel off the other man. “She has a point.”
“I had a better one.” What with the mussed hair and pouting lip, Lancelot looked—and acted—about ten years younger than his actual age.
Arthur started to reply, then decided against it. Words didn’t seem to have any effect on either of these two. Actions were slightly better, but they still were likely to get trampled underfoot. Silence, on the other hand, got on everyone’s nerves. Even Tristan’s eerie soundlessness occasionally grated, and Arthur was so used to it that he judged the other man’s health by how much sound he made.
It seemed to work here, for after receiving no response, Lancelot subsided to watch Arthur eat in a mixture of concern and caution. Guinevere spent the first few minutes glowering at Lancelot, but she soon saw the pointlessness of that and instead switched to studying Arthur. The combination of their two intense stares was slightly more effective than Arthur had expected; he found himself curling his foot around the chair leg more than once.
“How is it?” Guinevere finally asked.
“Wonderful.” She was quite beautiful when nothing more than simple pleasure was lighting her eyes, Arthur thought. And the compliment was genuine, though he wished he could devote all his attention to appreciating it.
Lancelot had cleaned his plate in about a third of the time it took Arthur to eat half of his, and now he was toying with his fork. He darted a look at Arthur, trying to say something with just that, then shook his head as if laughing at himself. His gaze next flicked to Guinevere, who looked over just in time to meet it; they were certainly in-tune with each other, even if they didn’t really get along. At least, not in the commonly understood meaning of that phrase.
“The raid was a success,” Guinevere suddenly muttered, sounding far from happy.
“Cerdic got away,” Lancelot said at the same time. Then they both looked up to check Arthur’s reaction.
Which at first didn’t exist, because Arthur was busy stilling into ice. He needed a moment to thaw himself, and then everything revived at once so he still couldn’t have a reaction. There was too much for him to sort through and decide on.
His face nonetheless must have been a fascinating sight, since neither Lancelot nor Guinevere would stop looking at him. On the contrary, they were leaning closer, and Guinevere put her hand on his arm. “They’re tracking him. He was wounded; they say they should have him by morning.”
“I hope so,” Arthur said at last. He put down his knife and fork and pushed back from the table, then slumped. Fortunately, his chair was broad and sturdy, so he wasn’t abruptly deposited on the floor.
Though it did creak quite a bit when Guinevere suddenly straddled him. “Can I make up for my colleagues’ incompetence?” she suggested, eyebrow and body provocatively arched.
Then she answered her own question, and then Arthur wasn’t in a position to refute her.
* * *
If kissing in the dark was inconvenient, then sex in a backseat was just awkward, Gawain decided. Though the second one he wanted to do again despite the bruised knees and strained back. Tristan’s car was huge, so it wasn’t too bad. And it definitely wasn’t as creepy as the Attic had been. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” Tristan swiped wet hair out of his face, then flopped his hand up to grab onto the top of the seat. He used that hold to pull himself up and slide off Gawain, which made the both of them stifle moans. Then he slouched in the corner of the seat, arms lightly draped over Gawain’s shoulder, and flashed a curve of white. “I might have to stop climbing trees for a day.”
“I might have to spend all of tomorrow lying on a couch to grade,” Gawain mumbled, rubbing at his back. Other fingers shoved his aside, and then he was going boneless on Tristan again, mindlessly mouthing at the man’s collarbone. “Christ, that’s good…you sure no condom’s okay?”
Soft snort. Because it was a stupid question at this point, and Gawain would’ve been horribly embarrassed about it if he hadn’t been so busy sucking on Tristan’s neck. “Are you expecting anyone else to join in?”
The funny thing about how Tristan talked, Gawain figured, was how the man referred to present and past and future as if they were the same thing, or if they were happening concurrently. Like now—when he said ‘anyone else,’ he seemed to mean if Gawain was seeing anyone else, if Gawain planned to, and if Gawain had traces of anyone else in his health.
Or maybe Gawain’s mind had just permanently broken down, and he was just making all that up. Still, he didn’t think he’d made up the slight waver he’d heard in Tristan’s voice.
“No.” He heaved himself up to kiss Tristan as close to senseless as he could. “Galahad worries me sometimes that way. God, it’s such a pain to drag him to the hospital for a gunshot wound, let alone get him to a clinic. Jackass is lucky, but you wonder for how long.”
The hand massaging his back slowed, dragged fingertips so circles turned into flowing arabesques. “You almost sound like you’re brothers,” Tristan observed.
“Might as well be. He’s closer than—” Gawain stopped and cocked his head, then reached down to snag Tristan’s jeans. “Your pants are ringing.”
Tolerant humor was foremost in Tristan’s eyes as he dug out the shrilling object. He leaned back and let Gawain tuck into his shoulder, where they both could hear. “Arthur?”
*Tristan? Did—did you find the statuette?* Panting sounds. Clothes were being violently displaced, and at least one other person was near the phone on Arthur’s end of the line, since Gawain could hear soft wet noises. And Arthur was talking, so it wasn’t his mouth.
“Yes…” Tristan sat a little straighter, though Gawain couldn’t see any reason to be more alert. It sounded like Arthur was having fun, even if it was slightly against his will.
Somebody moaned and Arthur made an embarrassed exclamation. Quickly followed by a hitch in breath. *Oh, good. You aren’t near home or my office, are you? I just heard from Interpol—they’ve caught everyone except Cerdic.* Frantic whisper to someone to get their tongue out of there. *They say they’ll have him soon,* Arthur continued, voice much more hurried. *But still, till they do…*
“I’ll stay clear.” Somehow Tristan kept a straight face while he looked about; they were parked in the middle of a parking garage by the library, which was quite far from either of the two places Arthur had named. “Are you all right?” A wicked gleam came into Tristan’s eyes. “You sound short of breath.”
Arthur’s blush easily transmitted itself over the line. *I’m fine—fine! Perfectly fine. Have a good night, Tristan.*
“I was and keep planning to.” Tristan clicked off the cell, then looked at Gawain.
Damn. “But not in the way that means I get to see what makes you twitch, I take it.”
The other man shrugged, but it was plain he’d made up his mind and wasn’t going to change it. “A good night for me would also be seeing that Cerdic’s out of my life for good. And that Arthur stays all right. How many rifles do you have in the trunk?”
“I left those at home, but there are a few handguns. I’ll drive.” Gawain paused, then amended that. “Once I find my shoe. Did it go in the backseat, or the front?”
* * *
Arthur made a good pillow, even if Guin was taking up half his shoulder with her hand. Lancelot nudged it down with his chin and burrowed beneath the sheets till he was wrapped around Arthur’s back. Then he went to sleep.
According to the clock, only forty minutes had passed when Lancelot woke again, but a lot had changed. For one thing, he was cuddling Guin instead; he pried her nails out of his arm and sat up, looking around for Arthur.
For the second thing, there was a rather brisk draft, and Lancelot was almost positive all the windows had been shut. He quietly snagged his shirt from the floor and threw it on, though he didn’t bother to do up all the but—actually, it was Arthur’s shirt. When Lancelot eased out of bed, he found that the tails hung well down his thighs. And he was standing on a pair of pants that also turned out to be Arthur’s.
That meant Arthur still had to be around, since he wasn’t the type to go running about in his underwear. On the one hand, Lancelot was relieved because then he wouldn’t have to chase down the man and waste time smacking sense into him—which never seemed to stick in Arthur anyway.
On the other hand, the question then became where the fuck was Arthur? Because Lancelot was just about breaking his ears and he couldn’t hear a thing. Except for Guin sitting up behind him. He turned around and laid a finger against his lips, only to receive a glare for even thinking she needed a warning. She quickly slipped into a silk robe and got off the bed, gun in hand.
Oh, right. Lancelot reached beneath his pillow and behind the mattress…and found his gun gone.
Guin elbowed him so he’d look at her. ‘What?’ she mouthed.
‘He took mine,’ Lancelot mouthed back, thoroughly annoyed. It was one thing for Arthur to go wandering if he’d had a nightmare or something similar, but it was another to steal Lancelot’s semiautomatic. And not leave a note, so Arthur damn well better still be in the apartment.
Especially since Guin wasn’t bloody waiting for Lancelot to rustle up a spare, but instead was easing into the darkened living room. The corner of her robe softly whispered around the corner.
He gave up on the spare and followed her, planning on retrieving the one from the sofa. It being uptown New York, the room was neither fully quiet nor fully dark, but they were on a high enough floor so that the silence was still complete enough to get on Lancelot’s nerves. He squinted and peered around, looking for any unfamiliar silhouettes, but he didn’t see any. Good and bad—good because that meant he didn’t have to fight without trousers on, bad because then Arthur was walking around the building naked.
Lancelot flipped on the light and, ignoring Guin’s cursing, searched about till he found his pants. “You don’t think his mind snapped, did you?”
“What?” she growled, only now lowering her gun. Very funny, Guin.
“His clothes are still here. My gun’s missing, but…he has a very, very large briefcase,” Lancelot observed. He went over to it and poked about, then came up with a tie and a pair of socks. In addition to those, there was a laptop, several bulging files and enough space for a set of clothing, if it were rolled up tight and shoved down. “On second thought, maybe he doesn’t need his shirt.”
Guinevere didn’t seem to find that funny or helpful, to judge by the nasty Welsh she was muttering as she stomped over to the window. It was wide-open…Lancelot lunged and got his hands under the sill just as she slammed it down. He pushed back, barely kept his hands from being mashed, and for a long moment they were playing a confused game of opposites. Then Guin let go and stared at him while he jerked up the window. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’m checking something.” He stuck his head out the window and scrutinized the side of the wall, looking for traces. “Did Arthur take his shoes?”
No answer from her.
“Guin. Did he take his shoes?” Lancelot impatiently repeated.
No answer. Well, he did get a reply by way of a strangled growling, but that didn’t qualify as an answer. It did, however, make the hairs on the back of his neck prickle and so when he turned around, he did so very, very slowly.
No, Arthur hadn’t taken his shoes. Or rather, he had, but they were now bloodstained and scuffed and dangling from the hands of a huge barrel-chested man whose right shoulder was swathed in red-spotted bandages. Though that didn’t make the Uzi he was pointing at them shake in the least.
Guin was shaking. She hadn’t gotten up her gun fast enough, and the man was gesturing for her to lower it, but her hands were shaking so hard that she wasn’t going very fast. Not from fear—she wanted to rip the man to pieces and it showed.
The sill creaked loudly and that was when Lancelot realized exactly how hard he was gripping it, as if he was trying to tear it apart. He slowly leaned back against the window. “So who the hell are you?”
“You never read the whole damn file, did you?” Guin hissed. “That’s Cerdic.”
The man nodded in acknowledgment, a faint, deceptively tired smile now playing over his face. “So it’s you two. I wondered when Arthur was going to stand and fight. It took him a while to work up the nerve.”
Obviously, he was baiting them. Less obviously, it was working. Lancelot had to kick Guin in the ankle to stop her from delivering a doubtless scathing yet hasty reply. “I’m wondering that it took you so long to find him. So what’s the plan, Cerdic? Kill two Interpol agents and give law enforcement everywhere an even better reason to hunt you to the ground?”
Cerdic dropped the shoes. They thudded off-rhythm to the pounding of Lancelot’s pulse and came to rest on their sides, empty holes facing him.
“Who says I’m going to kill you?” Cerdic retorted, hefting the Uzi. His injured arm was beginning to fail him now and he had to brace the heavy weapon on his good one. “Arthur was known to be in here. And he’s done just as much as I have. You think six years of hiding have changed him any? Really?”
Guin started to tap the fingers of her left hand against the wall; Lancelot heard and prepared to dive in that direction.
“I’m glad to have seen your faces, though. I always wondered what he was looking for.” The Uzi rose.
And the door behind Cerdic slammed open.
* * *
Arthur was waiting on the front steps. Which was why Tristan had made Gawain park a block away and then had led them around the building, so they could knock out the two waiting in Cerdic’s car. He let Gawain take care of heaving the bodies in the trunk and went on ahead to deal with the more difficult part of the night.
“They were in the back, disguised as a cleaning truck.” Tristan slapped a gun in Arthur’s hand and jogged past him for the elevator. “What floor?”
“What—Cerdic’s here?” The other man whirled and was in the elevator two seconds before Tristan, punching at the buttons. He shoved the gun Tristan had given him into his trousers, then yanked it out plus one he’d already had tucked into his waistband. Arthur pulled up his sagging trousers, stare dark and hard and relentless on Tristan. “What are you doing here? Where’s Gawain and Galahad? Are they all right?”
He was wearing the spare shirt and pants Tristan had tossed into his bag. There were bite-marks of two sizes visible at the base of his neck, and the set of his shoulders was slowly shifting. When he stepped forward to grab Tristan’s shoulder, he didn’t make a sound.
“Galahad went home; he’s keeping the statuette. Gawain’s handling the drivers Cerdic picked up.” Tristan edged back so Arthur’s hand slid off. “You’ve already got a gun.”
Arthur blinked at him. Then the man looked down at both filled hands, as if he hadn’t even realized. He probably hadn’t. “Oh. It must be Lancelot’s or Guinevere’s…they keep theirs where I keep mine—what are you doing here?”
“If Cerdic got away, there was only one place he was going to go: where you were. You knew that, and that’s why you were down here to meet me. He ordered my mother’s death. If he’s finally being taken in, I want him to see my face and know why he’s going.” The numbers on the digital display were rapidly climbing, so Tristan spoke faster. He took his other hand out of his jacket so his gun hung loosely by his side, ready to be used if necessary. “What happened, happened. You can’t run from it. You can’t deny it. You face it and you use what you have to in order to end it.”
Air harshly hissed from Arthur’s mouth. He stared at Tristan for a long moment, two men eying each other…and then his lashes fluttered and when they went up again, he was himself. Both of himselves. “You’re quoting me again.”
“You think it’s pride to listen to yourself, so I don’t know how else you’d hear it.” When Arthur reached out this time, Tristan let the hand land on his shoulder. And he let it squeeze him, since unlike the first time, it was meant in gratitude and approval.
The elevator dinged and they both turned to raise their guns at the opening doors. Arthur spent the barest second like that before moving ahead. He was against the door of one apartment and listening intently, all while not having made a single sound.
For his part, Tristan took his time covering the rest of the hallway before he joined Arthur, and even then he let the other man take the lead. Yes, he did want Cerdic dead, but not in the way he’d had his mother’s actual killers. Whose faces he’d seen many times, because they’d babysat him and passed him candy and taught him the skills he was currently using. To him, they had been the more painful betrayers, because they’d known what they had been destroying. Cerdic, on the other hand, hadn’t worked closely with his mother and so when he’d given the order, he’d had no reason to care. So the grudge against him was mostly Arthur’s.
Suddenly Arthur’s face twisted around what he was hearing. He had had his right side pressed against the door, one hand on the knob; now he spun and rammed against the door with his left shoulder. The cracking of it flying open was explosive.
Shooting. Tristan automatically dropped to his belly. He was about to roll inside the apartment when a blurry mass flung out of it, and instead he scrambled backwards so he could get his gun up. By then, the mass had separated into Arthur and Cerdic, both panting hard and both with fresh bruises on their faces. Cerdic had a bandaged arm and the wraps had been mostly torn off, so Tristan could see a scabby, clotted dark red pit in the man’s shoulder. Arthur—was in the way. Cursing under his breath, Tristan lowered his gun.
Someone else came skidding out of the apartment, but they caught themselves on the doorframe—Lancelot. His face had no color in it and his eyes were brilliantly dark and huge, fixed squarely on Arthur. “You—the shoes were bloody—”
“He took them from my house.” Arthur didn’t bother looking over. He stepped forward and sideways; Cerdic did the same but in the opposite direction. Now Tristan could see that they had their guns trained on each other. “I should’ve done this a long time ago.”
“Same here.” Up and down the hall behind Cerdic, doors were opening. Scared faces would poke out and then quickly withdraw, while a low babble of phones and fear-pitched voices started up. Cerdic gave Arthur a brief smile. “Why were you waiting? Did you think you weren’t qualified to come after us?”
What appeared on Arthur’s face had the form of a smile, but none of its substance. It was more like a predator baring its teeth than anything else, and Tristan could see it making Lancelot take a step back in surprise. Beside him showed Guin’s profile, but she was watching Cerdic. With the occasional glance to Arthur, Tristan amended.
“Mostly,” was Arthur’s surprising admission. Even Cerdic showed shock—and Arthur took swift advantage of that by taking a long stride forward, guns raising to aim at the center of Cerdic’s forehead. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to keep it from changing me. But I have changed, so it’s a moot point. There’s no way out, Cerdic. Drop the gun.”
“Because of only you?” Though he remained calm, Cerdic’s eyes were twitching sideways. He was searching his peripheral vision.
Tristan thought it was about time to stand up, so he did. To make it easier for Cerdic, he lifted his gun as well. “Not quite.”
It took a moment for Cerdic to recognize him, and when that light did go on in his eyes, he took it with startling good grace. A shrug and a nod, and a good look at Tristan, as if there was a future where Cerdic would be able to use that memory. “I nearly killed them when I found out they didn’t get the son. Thought he’d cause problems.”
“Cerdic, either you’re walking out in handcuffs or you’re being carried out on a stretcher.” Arthur’s hands tightened on his guns. His face was deadly, but…controlled. If Tristan squinted, he could see the thoughts flying through Arthur’s mind, calculations and judgments for every change that the new second brought.
Guin was slowly walking out, also covering Cerdic. She wasn’t precisely blocking Tristan’s shot, but one step and she would be, so he moved across the hall to cover Arthur’s other side. In that position, he had a perfect view of the door right beside Cerdic opening.
“What’s going—oh, my God!” some woman shrieked.
And the tableau snapped, collapsed like so many beads of dew falling from a broken spiderweb. Cerdic lunged for the woman and Arthur was shooting before the man’s weight even finished shifting into a dive. Arthur threw himself sideways and slammed into Tristan because Cerdic was firing back, spraying the hallway with gunfire, and Tristan’s shot went awry into the ceiling. But he couldn’t be angry about that because Arthur had grunted, low and pained, and suddenly Tristan had his hands full heaving the other man around the corner.
Guin had fired as well. Once, before Lancelot had snatched her back from Cerdic’s shooting. They’d been falling into the apartment and were probably all right.
“Let go,” Arthur snarled, elbowing out of Tristan’s hold. He shoved off with a foot and rolled back, snapping off bullets.
Cerdic was still firing and for a moment Tristan nearly screamed at Arthur’s stupidity, but that wouldn’t have done anything so he didn’t. He picked up his gun and skidded back around the corner just in time for something to burn past his right side. Hand clapped to it, he let his sliding feet carry him into a fall against the opposite wall and prepared to shoot—
--except Cerdic’s eyes were rolling back to the whites, and the thin trickle of blood from his mouth was dwarfed by the flood from his ruined neck. He was slumped halfway across the hallway, while inside the apartment nearest him, the woman kept screaming.
Tristan lowered his gun and looked at the palm he’d slapped against his side—trace blood, so probably a graze. Then he turned towards Arthur.
Or where Arthur should’ve been, if he hadn’t been limping over to check Cerdic for any remaining signs of life. He had red splotches spreading in one sleeve and down the side of one leg, but he wasn’t paling so he didn’t have any serious injuries. “Damn. I wish I hadn’t had to…”
“I’m bloody fucking glad you did,” Lancelot harshly told him. The other man was by Arthur’s side and patting him down for injuries before Arthur had even finished standing. Then he hid his face in Arthur’s chest while his hands went around Arthur to clutch in his shirt.
After a moment, Arthur lifted his hand and briefly stroked Lancelot’s hair. Guin stepped out, phone to ear to receive her rapidfire orders. She looked as if she wanted to collapse, too, but she made a visible effort to keep herself up.
Arthur let go of Lancelot and eased back to look down the hallway. “Anyone hurt?” he called.
“You, if you ever pull that again.” Both Guinevere and Lancelot glared at him. Then Lancelot stalked down the hall, doing his best to charm the others into calming down, while Guinevere hung back to lean against Arthur’s side.
“That was rude, too. Leaving without even writing a note.” She paused in her stream of orders to lay her forehead on Arthur’s shoulder. Then she snorted at herself. Looked up at Arthur with a tired, strained, but definitely teasing smile. “Maybe you’ve changed, but I think it’s for the better. It certainly looks good.”
For some reason, Arthur suddenly was terrified and trying to slide away from Guinevere. “You are not going to—to--pounce--not here!” he hissed.
“No, first we get you stitches,” she placidly replied. After juggling the cell for a moment, she trapped it between ear and shoulder so she could rip up Arthur’s sleeve and bandage his arm. That made her robe gap open, which prompted Arthur to hastily pull her closer in order to block view of her breasts. “And get rid of the body. And buy you some more clothes, since all yours keep getting ruined.”
Arthur blushed and stuttered. Guinevere just looked coyly amused.
Tristan decided he’d better get back to Gawain and take care of those bodies. Everything seemed to be well in hand here.
* * *
“Can you believe it? A few dozen bulletholes, a minor police investigation that didn’t even take very long since the circumstances were so clear-cut, and we’re kicked out. Lease terminated.” Guinevere plopped the sack of vegetables besides her feet, then opened Arthur’s fridge.
Space. Lots of space. Some milk, a row of neatly regimented condiments that included a broad spectrum of ethnic cuisines, and in the drawers, just enough meat and other food for about one day of good meals. Or three days of skimpy ones, she decided after adjusting for non-Lancelot appetite and only one person. It was amazing Arthur was as tall and well-built as he was, given what he appeared to live on.
She rummaged around, tossed a few expired cuts of beef to Lancelot—he yowled at the first one, but didn’t at the other two so she assumed he’d caught them—and then began filling up. The one detail of which she approved was the organization; when things were properly placed, more could be crammed into a given space.
“Anyway, the rents in Manhattan are hell to keep up with,” Lancelot added. He squeezed by her with an armful of bagged suits. “So you don’t mind, right? We figured you had less bulletholes than we did.”
“They’re all patched, actually…” Arthur sounded bemused. He was still standing in the frame of the backdoor, though it’d been five minutes since he’d let them in.
Then Lancelot knocked a painting on the wall and Arthur transformed into the essence of speed, zipping over and straightening it in the blink of an eye. Lancelot’s footsteps stopped and the plastic bags made even more crumpling noises, which didn’t quite mask the wet tongue-twining sounds. Someone’s shoulder hit the wall—Arthur’s, since a pained hiss followed and he was the one with half-healed injuries. Nothing but solicitous, Lancelot murmured little apologies in between more frantic mouth-mashing.
Guinevere finished with the vegetables and turned to get the meat, kicking out as she did. She thought Lancelot had a very attractive yelp, and it should be heard as often as possible.
“Bitch.” To Arthur, he was practically cooing. “So where’s the bedroom?”
“Upstairs and to the…that’s the guest bedroom. Ah. Did you—were you expecting—” And Arthur went from bemusement into unvarnished confusion.
Lancelot engineered one last, gratuitous mouth-smacking. “Never mind. Upstairs, and I’ll figure out the rest myself. Oh, and thank you.”
“You’re…welcome.” From the way Arthur said that, Guinevere had the impression he was standing in place, blinking owlishly at the world. She resisted the urge to turn around and pull him down; the meat would spoil before they got up again.
When she’d almost finished putting away the meat, Arthur finally shook himself out of it. He began to say something that sounded conversational, but another knock interrupted him. As he walked over to answer the door, Guinevere casually closed the fridge and stood up to take out the non-perishable goods from her last two bags. She did so as slow as possible, just in case the conversation dragged out.
At the door was a weathered, aged man with a full beard and a tall walking stick. He still cut a fine figure, and in his prime must have been the most impressive man in town. Curiously enough, Guinevere couldn’t immediately guess what profession he followed, when usually she needed no more than a glance.
“Merlin.” Arthur sounded surprised…and a bit cautious. He started to open the door, graciously waving in the other man, but was refused. Nodding, Arthur leaned against the frame; he seemed to have expected that reaction. Frequent visitor, then.
“Arthur. I see you’re not nearly as ill as the rumors have it. That’s good.” Merlin folded his hands around his stick and rested his head against it, watching Arthur with a detached, intense gaze. But a little fond as well, Guinevere thought.
On the other hand, Arthur seemed to be nothing but tension. His voice went a little lower and gained a trace of pleading. “I plan to be back to working full-time Monday. Once again, I’d like to apologize for all the trouble I’ve put you and the college through. I never intended to, and if I could’ve avoided it, I would have.”
“Of that I’m sure. You haven’t taken a vacation since you joined the faculty, so I have no problem with you taking half a week off.” Pause, and then Merlin went on, also in a lower tone. “The notice was late, but emergencies happen. What I am concerned about, however, is the circumstances of your particular emergency. Avalon College has always prided itself on the exclusion of violence from its grounds.”
Guinevere set down the can in her hand and forgot about reaching for the next one because she was watching Arthur so closely.
He absorbed the other man’s words in relative calm, and then he took his time formulating an answer. But when he did reply, he didn’t waver in the least on any point. “So have I. And I will always try to uproot violence wherever it begins to grow. But—some growths need more force to remove than others.” Arthur pushed off the frame and stood straight, blocking Guinevere’s view of Merlin. “My emergency was a one-in-a-lifetime matter, and I can assure you that its like won’t happen again. I can also tell you that I will do everything in my power to keep any future disturbances in my private life off-campus.”
As quietly as she could, Guinevere scooted over so she could see Merlin’s face. Her heel clattered once and she winced, but the other two didn’t seem to notice.
“I think,” Merlin slowly said, “That is all anyone can expect from anyone else. You are an excellent professor and an inspiring teacher, Arthur. I wish you the best of luck in protecting that.”
He raised his stick in some arcane salute, to which a startled Arthur hastily nodded, and then turned to trip quickly down the steps. Guinevere rounded the island and came up to Arthur’s side, wrapping his hand in hers. “Who was that?”
“The…the dean of the college.” Now that the potential threat was gone, Arthur was shakily coming down. It seemed as if he’d never quite learned how to deal with the absence of pressure, and so had to figure out anew how to relax every time. “I was almost certain he was going to fire me…”
“You really do like teaching.” She rubbed at his hand till the fingers curled to squeeze around hers.
After another moment of staring, Arthur backed up and closed the door. Then he leaned down to hesitantly peck at her temple. “Yes. You don’t find that boring, do you?”
“Honestly? I find it mostly irritating. But I don’t find you boring, so stop worrying.” She wrapped her arm around his neck and dragged him down for a proper kiss.