|A Winter’s Tale
Author: Guede Mazaka
The snow was falling thickly outside, which made Arthur doubly glad that he and Lancelot were on their way out. His last day at work for the semester had been today, so they could head straight home and wait out the impending storm. That was, if Lancelot stopped trying to back them into dusty corners.
“The elevator’s the other way,” Arthur sighed, pushing the other man away for the umpteenth time. He had long since begun to regret asking Lancelot to pick him up; at the very least, Arthur should’ve filed his class grades first and called the other man second.
Lancelot lazily righted himself and hooked his hands in his pockets. He sauntered down the hallway just far enough ahead of Arthur so that he knew Arthur could look at his arse without having to glance over his shoulder. “What’s the rush? The campus is practically empty and Guin’s probably still seeing her aunt off at the airport. We’ve almost got the whole place to ourselves.”
“Because the opportunity is there isn’t necessarily justification for taking it.” Merlin’s office came up on the right side, so Arthur took the chance to peek inside and see if the dean had gone home for the holidays yet. It was the twenty-third, after all.
Unsurprisingly, Merlin still was in the office, hunched over a last few pieces of paperwork. According to Vanora, the secretary pool once had worked out a relay schedule to see who stayed the longest before finally taking off for the winter holidays, Merlin or Arthur, and the result had been a draw.
Merlin didn’t move, but his eyes flicked up to skewer Arthur through the glass; Arthur repressed his startled jerk and hastily raised a hand. He mouthed a ‘Happy Holidays,’ and in return Merlin gave him a dignified nod. This year the dean was going to win, but from the look of it, he’d noticed that as much as Arthur had before Vanora had informed him about it.
“Come on, Arthur. Where’s your sense of daring?” Lancelot was saying, still walking obliviously down the hall. He’d pulled on his coat and now was fiddling about with his scarf, checking how its fringes hung in the windows of the offices they were passing. “Where’s your sense of equality?”
“Wondering how on earth that’s supposed to apply to this situation.” Arthur came up behind Lancelot, gave the scarf a deft tug, and kept going. “There. It’s even.”
Lancelot muttered and hurried to catch up with a pout on his face. He still couldn’t help pulling at the scarf, twisting the ends till one was about six inches lower than the other. “It is not. Guin still gloats about the evening you two had in the lecture hall. Maybe uneven scarf ends are fashionable, but I don’t think—”
“Really? Since when have you been a slave to fashion?” The elevator opened mere seconds after Arthur had thumbed the button, which let him step in before Lancelot could see the amusement on his face.
Not that that did much good, since the other man seemed to have a sixth sense as far as that was concerned. Lancelot stalked after Arthur with stiff shoulders and an abused expression on his face. The elevator could hold a good twelve people without straining, but somehow Lancelot couldn’t find anywhere to stand except directly in front of Arthur.
A hand slipped stealthily into Arthur’s front trouser-pocket, but not so stealthily that he couldn’t grab its wrist before it dug them into too deep a hole. “Lancelot.” Arthur nodded towards the corner of the ceiling. “Security camera.”
“Doesn’t have sound, does it?” As Lancelot smiled angelically, his hand twisted out of Arthur’s grip and got suspiciously tangled in Arthur’s scarf. He shuffled close enough for their noses to graze.
The only reason Arthur didn’t roll his eyes was because he was anxiously watching through the crack of the closing doors to make sure no one was there. “That hardly makes it better.”
Lancelot leaned forward, fingers stroking down Arthur’s scarf. “It depends on how you—what the hell?”
They both jumped as the elevator lurched. It immediately settled down, but before they could regain their balance, it rocked so hard that Arthur knocked into the wall. He took Lancelot with him since they were so…er, closely attached at that moment.
The elevator stilled a second time, but it was several moments before they trusted it enough to push off the railing. Arthur slid out from behind Lancelot and slowly walked around the elevator, listening to the way it creaked with the shifting weight. It was old, and had been suffering problems with increasing frequency to the point that everyone tended to use the stairs as their first choice. The stairs were what Arthur normally preferred whenever possible, but he’d been rather anxious to get Lancelot out of public areas…much to his misfortune, it seemed.
“I think we’re stuck between floors,” Arthur said.
Lancelot had been pushing at the buttons, but now he looked up and his expression said he was in complete agreement with Arthur. He sighed and took out his cellphone, then frowned. “I don’t have reception in here.”
“I do.” Arthur took out his own and flipped through his speed-dial till he got to Merlin’s number. He nodded at the elevator button for the emergency phone call. “Could you try that? Vanora said Bors was coming home late, so some of maintenance should still be in.”
“You have reception in here?” Lancelot said in a disbelieving tone. But he did punch the button as Arthur had asked.
Merlin’s phone had already rung three times, so Arthur hung up. The other man probably had just stepped out; Arthur could call him back and warn him about the situation in a few seconds. “Tristan.”
“Ah.” A voice crackled over the elevator speaker, preventing Lancelot from saying whatever he’d planned to. However, it only took a minute to describe their situation to the person on the other line, so the prevention really only was a delay. As soon as they were done, Lancelot turned around with a questioning look on his face.
Arthur composed his expression into one of mild curiosity. He already suspected where Lancelot’s thoughts might be heading.
“You know, in movies they pop out the ceiling, crawl on top and then pry open the doors,” Lancelot casually said.
“And in movies they either have special tools for that or they’re machines in bodybuilder suits. I’m a thirty-seven-year-old college professor and you were shot in the shoulder barely a month ago.” In real life, it was more or less the same case but with more dirt, Arthur thought as he looked around. He still probably could lever open elevator doors if he had to, but he’d be feeling it in his back and shoulders for a few days. Not to mention it’d be difficult to explain it afterward to the rest of the faculty. The action-oriented approach wasn’t generally considered academia’s forte, and certainly not that of the philosophy department.
Lancelot was suspiciously not disappointed. He’d put his hands back in his pockets and was poking his foot at the floor in a stagy way. His eyes flicked coyly up at Arthur. “So we’re stuck here for at least an hour, I’d guess.”
“And they’ll be monitoring this elevator especially closely, so no.” Arthur redialed Merlin’s number. “I’m going to call Guinevere and Tristan to let them know.”
All the demureness dropped from Lancelot like snow from a roughly-shaken tree branch. He rolled his eyes and swung around to lean against the wall, head up to stare irritably at the ceiling. “Whatever happened to your sense of adventure?”
“It’s right behind my desire not to become the gag-movie we show at this year’s faculty New Year’s Eve party. Merlin? Sorry to bother you…no, I’m still in the building. In the elevator, to be precise. Yes, there’s a rather funny story behind that…”
Lancelot snorted softly. “Why don’t you tell me a story?” he muttered.
* * *
Ten Years Ago
The house was deathly quiet in a way that set Arthur’s teeth on edge. It wasn’t danger or death that was doing it, because those he’d long since become accustomed to, but something far more insidious. The very air smelled tainted.
“Into the trenches again, yes?” Clayton hefted his duffel onto the sole piece of furniture in the room in which they were standing. The rustling of its polyester was too loud and harsh, making the other man’s shoulder’s jump. “Goddamn it. I hate these kinds of trips.”
“So what’s the story?” Arthur asked, slowly pacing around the room. It would have been the living room or the front parlor, perhaps, if there’d been a family living here. He could picture a crackling fire in the cold, dark fireplace that was the only break in the monotonous white walls.
A family might have been living here, possibly as late as a day ago. There were still small indentations in the carpet where chair legs might have been, and the curtains pulled tight over the windows were of better quality than London usually let their agents write off on expense reports. Careful not to let himself be seen, Arthur parted them just enough to get a look at the background. It was on the small side, but cozy and well-kept.
The clatter of metal on wood made him swing around, hand sliding beneath his arm. Clayton quickly lifted a hand and smiled a wan apology. He flicked his fingers at the silver instruments he’d been laying out on the table. “My hand’s a bit shaky. I suppose I’m tired. Late night yesterday.”
In Arthur’s opinion, it had less to do with late nights and more to do with deeper stresses, but he hardly was one to lecture on those. He came back to the table and silently began to help Clayton arrange the surgical kit.
“What did they tell you?” Clayton quietly asked.
A loud bang startled them both. Arthur automatically clutched tight at the scalpel he was holding so his thumb suddenly throbbed and he had to turn his hand quick to make the blood drip into his palm instead of on the table, while Clayton dropped a pair of forceps. He hastily picked them up and examined their tips for damage.
Arthur wiped off the scalpel with the edge of a cotton wrap. “Sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I need to boil them all anyway.” Clayton put the forceps back down and walked into the next room, which was the kitchen. His hands were clumsy, but he still moved like someone with training. “That came from the basement.”
“I was on my way back from Prague, but the weather made my plane set down at the airport here. I showed up at the visitor’s center—” euphemism for the local safehouse “—and they said while I was around, I might as well help out with this. That’s all.” Arthur followed the other man just in time to see Clayton filling up a pot with water. “I’m surprised to see you. I thought you were still in Moscow.”
A half-smile flickered over Clayton’s face. He turned off the water with his elbow and swung around to the sink. He hadn’t taken off his gloves and neither had Arthur. “No, Moscow’s double-O territory for the next month. They got out everyone just in case it blew up into a mess.”
“Like it usually does?” After carefully peeling off his glove, Arthur bandaged his thumb with the same scrap of cotton he’d used to wipe off the scalpel. He stuffed the glove into his bag, which was still slung over his shoulder, and dug around till he’d found a new one. Getting it over his wrapped thumb was a tight fit, but he managed it.
The soft laugh Clayton let out was devoid of humor. “The snotty bastard picked up someone for questioning a day ago. I’m here to keep them breathing through that and you’re here because you know Arabic and no one else on this team does.”
As if on cue, stairs creaked nearby as someone came up from below. Arthur tensed up, but didn’t reach for any weapon; the only people that would be around would only walk audibly if they were being polite, and if they meant him injury, they weren’t going to be genteel about it. That peculiarity of the British people had long since fallen over the horizon.
A few minutes later, a sandy-haired young man eased himself into the room. “Are you two ready?” he asked in a curt tone.
“Not quite. I need to make tea.” The innocuous words belied the stiffness of Clayton’s voice as he gestured towards the scalpels and other instruments laid out on the table in the next room. He was generally a mild-mannered man—an odd personality in this field—but on occasion he could put something in his eyes that had stopped braver and older men than this youth in their tracks. It was like desperation, but had a degree of control that said it was more dangerous than commonplace wild fear.
The young man hesitated, then nodded and withdrew.
* * *
Lancelot and Arthur had soon moved to sitting on the floor, which was far more comfortable than standing around waiting. Arthur stopped and coughed a few times into his hands, trying to clear up his tight throat. He wished he had a bottle of water with him. “I suppose the snow’s keeping them. I don’t even hear anyone working yet.”
“Well, they did say it was coming down hard,” Lancelot said. He’d crossed his arms over the tops of his knees and hadn’t stopped staring at Arthur since Arthur had started the story. “I have a question. Is there any reason why you’re telling me this now instead of waiting till you can tell both Guin and me? And while we’re in a public elevator?”
“I or Tristan do regular checks on the buildings we frequent. He did this elevator this morning—and I need to remember to ask him later whether he saw anything wrong with the gears, come to think of it. As for the other…I said I’d tell you, but I’ve been putting it off. I’m sorry about that, by the way.” Arthur put his hands on the floor and pushed up, stretching out his back. He’d just let his weight back down when something rattled above them. “I thought I might as well now, since we’ve the time. I’ll tell Guinevere tonight.”
They glanced up, then at the speaker, which was crackling. *Dr. Pendragon? Sorry for the delay, but the mechanics are there now.*
Somebody thumped on the elevator top, making the whole thing move a bit. “Hey, Arthur,” Bors yelled. “It’s kind of a mess up here, but we’ll get you out in time for Christmas, never you fear. Just going to take a while.”
“Thank you, Bors. I do appreciate it, especially since I know I’m keeping you from going home,” Arthur called back.
“Thanks,” Lancelot echoed. His hand curled around Arthur’s arm and he turned to rest his chin on Arthur’s shoulder. “Because you know, you’re going to finish the story right here. Otherwise God knows what the universe will lock us into next.”
He was joking, but the joke didn’t have a long life in the silence that followed. Looking more sober, Lancelot stared down at Arthur’s tie. After a moment, he started flipping it around.
“You don’t actually believe in karma and stuff like cosmic payback, do you? I mean, they’re nice philosophical concepts, but…” Lancelot’s voice trailed off. His fiddling with Arthur’s tie picked up.
Arthur knocked away the other man’s hand and stared at the other side of the elevator. “Life makes you wonder. Often that’s a good thing, but sometimes not.”
* * *
Ten Years Ago
“I didn’t know you smoked,” Clayton commented, coming up from behind Arthur.
He didn’t provoke any kind of sudden reaction from Arthur because the smell of blood and ozone had long since preceded him. Even the smoke of the cigarette in Arthur’s hand couldn’t drown it out.
“I don’t,” Arthur tersely answered. And it was true: he didn’t and even now, he’d only been holding it in his hand. It hadn’t touched his lips. During his spell downstairs as a translator, he hadn’t touched anything either, but he still felt as if he had filthy, permanently stained hands.
A match scratched and soon a second stream of smoke issued out towards the window in front of Arthur. Clayton was actually smoking his cigarette, the long cylinder twitching nervously between his fingers so instead of picking up one dark red stripe from his gloves, it was imprinted with several. He noticed Arthur sniffing and offered a melancholy smile. “Russian brand. Strongest damned thing I could find over there. Smells like hell, but then, that’s the point, isn’t it? Like herbs during the plague years.”
“There’s more than one thing in this house that resembles the plague years.” Arthur let his head tip briefly towards the basement stairs, where some men were talking in low but distinctly jocular voices.
“Well, every bank needs a few rabid dogs. If only because everyone else has one and the only thing that can safely touch a rabid dog is another one.” As Clayton spoke, he lighted up another cigarette from the old butt. Once the new tip was glowing, he pinched out the old one and dropped it in a plastic baggie that also contained the used match-head.
The cigarette Arthur was holding had burned nearly down to his fingers. He felt the heat creeping nearer and glanced down to watch the thin, jagged band of red-orange slide closer and closer to his skin. “You don’t actually think that, do you?”
“I think, Arthur, that we’re in the wrong field. We lack the blind conviction that quells the stirrings of an uneasy gut,” Clayton sighed. A lock of hair had fallen over his forehead and he lifted his hand towards it, but at the last second he remembered about the blood. Grimacing, he dropped his hand and curled it into a fist so the coagulating stuff oozed thickly from between his gloved fingers. “But we’re also professionals—can’t leave a job undone, can we? And there’s always the chance that the muck we rake will turn up a land mine before it goes off.”
“Yes. There’s that.” Arthur spoke flatly; it’d been a while since he could trick himself into deep sleep using that line of reasoning.
Clayton glanced worriedly at him, then shrugged. “You don’t think the young man down there knows anything.”
“He’s a boy, not a young man. The closest he’s probably come to the real movers and shakers of his organization is catching a pound or two for emptying out their ash-trays.” The skin of Arthur’s knuckles had just started to blister when he finally ground out the cigarette butt. He stuck the butt in the same bag that had his bloody gloves in them, then tossed it into a black garbage can they’d set up in the corner of the room.
“You think Foster’s fucked up this one and is grabbing at straws, and that that boy down there is suffering for it,” Clayton quietly said.
Better him than Arthur, who was growing increasingly fed up with some of his colleagues. Perhaps the ends justified the means, but for agents like Foster, there were no ends to begin with. They simply liked the violence, and they cared barely enough about self-preservation to find ways to legitimately pursue such a lifestyle.
“Clayton, Arthur.” The man in question came up the stairs with a smile of nasty relief on his face. He peremptorily jerked his head towards the basement. “Bastard’s awake again. Clayton, try and keep him awake long enough to give us a damned answer this time, would you?”
Instead of throwing Foster down the stairs like he dearly wished to, Arthur gritted his teeth and pulled on a fresh pair of gloves. Because Clayton was right: this was the middle of a mission, and there were innocent lives riding on its outcome. Personal likes and dislikes shouldn’t be of any consequence.
The walls and floors of the basement room where they were keeping the boy were now gory with blood and bits of flesh. The place smelled so strongly of urine and burnt tissue that even breathing through his mouth, Arthur felt nauseous.
He took up his position at the far end of the room so Clayton and Foster’s men would have room to…do their duties. The boy was lying on his back, stretched out by manacles that went to exposed pipes in the walls. Two men squatted on his left, preparing a crude electroshock device that had been rigged up out of a portable electric generator and heavy wire. Clayton started to take his place besides them, but was held back by Foster.
“I want this little prick cracked open and squealing,” Foster muttered, taking over the electrodes. “I’ve spent enough time in this goddamned hellhole.”
Awake wasn’t the correct term for the boy. Just conscious enough to be fearful was marginally better; he was too weak to move anything but his eyeballs, which rolled around and around. Their red-laced whites were the brightest things in the room.
“I’m sure he’d agree with you,” Clayton said, nodding towards the boy. He spoke mildly, but mad for blood as Foster was, the man wasn’t entirely a fool.
“Losing your stomach, are you?” Foster hawked and spat disgustedly at the corner so his spittle rang off a pipe. He lightly touched the electrodes together, jerking them apart as soon as they’d sparked. Apparently the discharge wasn’t strong enough for him, so he twisted about to fiddle with the dials on the generator.
Clayton had his head down so his expression wasn’t visible. He gingerly prodded about the boy’s mashed wrists till he found the pulse. “Much longer and you’ll be lucky if you don’t lose him. Which idiot smashed him in the mouth? I thought you wanted him talking--”
“You watch where you’re going with that, doctor,” Foster snapped. On the heels of his words came a scream; he’d brought the electrodes down somewhere in the vicinity of the boy’s groin.
The boy arched and writhed as the sizzling of flesh filled the air; Clayton cursed as his grip slipped off and lunged to pin the boy down so he wouldn’t knock himself out against the floor. A stream of broken words flowed from the boy’s mouth, providing some distraction for Arthur. But piecing together their slurred and mangled syllables in his head didn’t completely wipe out the image before.
“That’s more like it. Yell all you want, you little piece of shite. You’re not going anywhere till you tell me what I want.” Foster rocked back on his heels and casually scraped burnt flakes of skin and muscle off the electrodes onto the floor. He tipped his head at Arthur. “So?”
“Nothing useful,” Arthur said after a moment’s hesitation. He’d had an irrational impulse to lie to the contrary and it’d been shockingly strong.
Snorting, Foster moved around so he could reach further between the boy’s legs. He absently wiped his bloody hand over his forehead, which was already crusted with older smears. “This isn’t exactly polite company, Arthur. If he told me to go fuck my dear old marm, you can go ahead and say so.”
“He said he hoped you’ll burn in a thousand hells while demons raped your children before your eyes,” Arthur slowly replied.
Foster had just applied the electrodes to a fresh area, so he didn’t seem to have noticed Arthur’s tone, but Clayton did. He looked steadily at Arthur, then sighed and got up higher on his knees so he had better leverage for holding down the boy’s shoulders. “Arthur? Can you go get an adrenaline shot out of my bag? I believe we’re going to need it soon.”
Cowardly as it was, Arthur was glad to have an excuse to look away. Clayton’s bag was near the bottom of the staircase, so Arthur swung around and out of the room. It wasn’t so far that he had to strain to hear any of the boy’s pained groans.
He found a syringe and the right bottle, but Arthur kept on digging in the bar. He refused to think very closely about why, but he rummaged around till he found a bottle of poison, and that was what he loaded into the syringe. Then he slowly walked back to the room. He had the strangest craving for a cigarette, even though he’d never had one in his life.
* * *
Lancelot had gone very quiet and still besides Arthur, even giving up on trying to tease off Arthur’s tie. Above them, banging noises and the occasional florid curse by Bors provided some slight grounding. It was all very mundane and…harmless.
“Arthur? I’m thinking you two can just stay in there, if you don’t mind. Looks like we can get it started up again and that way you won’t mess up your suits.” Bors laughed, a deep rich happy sound. “But if you’re in a hurry…”
“No. No, I don’t mind waiting a few more minutes,” Arthur replied.
Before he could ask Lancelot if the other man did, Lancelot stretched up to look at the ceiling. “Take your time,” he called. “This is the longest I’ve seen Arthur in a week.”
Another bellow of laughter came rumbling down, echoed by the other man Bors had helping him. “Finals time, when the professors sleep less than the students! Well, maybe ten more minutes and we’ll have you out of there so Arthur can finally go home.”
Lancelot had sounded quite cheerful, but his face had been anything but. He settled back on the ground and looked expectantly at Arthur. His arm was still draped over Arthur’s knee, which Arthur took as a good sign. But then, they hadn’t yet gotten to the worst of it yet.
* * *
Ten Years Ago
Thoroughly disgusted, Foster flopped into the lone folding chair in the room and flapped his hand at the limp body on the floor. “What the hell are you here for, Clayton? You’re supposed to keep him breathing.”
“He is breathing,” Clayton muttered, a touch of acid in his voice. His hands were cradling the boy’s head, turning it side-to-side as he studied the boy’s eyes. “Barely. Arthur, did you find a spare syringe?”
Arthur had come forward to squat down on the other side of the boy’s head in order to hear what the boy was saying. By now the boy’s voice had been reduced to little more than a raspy whisper and it was difficult to make out one word in three. It was difficult for Arthur to breathe, but he repeatedly told himself that that was nothing in comparison.
He juggled the filled syringe, silent till Clayton repeated his question. Foster had started to lean forward, a quizzical look on his face, so Arthur quickly handed over the syringe. “There.”
Clayton glanced down at it once and started to lift the boy’s arm. Then he paused, head slightly tipped to the side, and glanced at the syringe a second time. His eyes flicked up to Arthur, who was still trying to argue it out in his mind. Arthur looked away, then back just in time to see Clayton’s hand and the syringe drop.
What if the boy did know?
“I—” Arthur started, belatedly reaching for Clayton. But the other man had already lifted the syringe, apparently done.
“That should make you better,” Clayton said, gazing down at the boy.
Sour gorge rose in Arthur’s throat and stuck there no matter how many times he swallowed. He squeezed his eyes shut, opened them to feel a slight stinging at their corners. //That was poison,// he translated.
At first he wasn’t sure whether the boy understood, but then a wreck of a smile cracked the boy’s shattered face. His shoulders started to shake and he made a gurgling noise that after a moment, Arthur realized was supposed to be laughter.
//About time you gave up…don’t know shit…// The boy added a meaningless spate of French before his head lolled to the side.
Arthur frowned, then jerked up and around; Foster came to attention and started to ask what the boy had said, but Arthur cut him off. “Marseilles. That last thing he said—”
“It was French, but nonsense—”
“It’s slang,” Arthur snapped, glaring till Foster sat back down. “Dockyard gangs. I’ve heard them using it down there…so there’s a connection. This boy’s not old enough to be anything but a runner, but if they’re working together…”
Foster was already on his feet and half-out the door, roaring for his men. Arthur exhaled sharply and turned back to the boy…and to Clayton, who was quietly injecting something into the boy’s arm. For a moment, Arthur was speechless.
In that moment, Clayton glanced up and made a helpless shrug. “I dug my thumbnail into his arm. He’s so far gone he didn’t know the difference.”
“But you knew. You knew I would—” Arthur broke off and turned his head this way and that, trying to loosen the suddenly tight muscles in his neck. His breath hissed through his teeth. “You tricked the boy, when you and I both know he didn’t know anything.”
“You’re a good man, Arthur. And you’re one that stands his ground. But unfortunately, not all of us can do that. I might have known, but I couldn’t have lived with the uncertainty. That little sliver of doubt that he might’ve known something…” Clayton muttered. He roughly jerked the needle free of the boy’s arm, then set the syringe to the side so he could hold the boy’s head with both arms. After a moment, he rocked forward so his and the boy’s noses were almost touching. “He’s dead. At least he provided us with a clue.”
Arthur swallowed so hard that he almost thought his tongue had reversed direction. He got to his feet, struggling to hold in his vomit. “That is the only reason I’m not touching you, Clayton.”
“Oh, leave the sanctimony out of this room. You almost tried to stop me. You had a little doubt, too,” Clayton snapped.
His words made Arthur stop where he was. Then Arthur put a hand against the door-frame and hunched over, eyes closed and breathing shallow till he knew he wouldn’t throw up if he went any further.
“We’re in the wrong field,” Clayton said after a long moment. He sounded tired. “Care to join me for a smoke? It doesn’t help you sleep, but at least it gets the smell out of your nose.”
Arthur slowly pushed himself off the door-frame. He looked over his shoulder, back into that room, and thought that nothing could be brought in there except the very worst. It was as true for him as it was for Clayton, and so trying to pretend there was a moral high ground was pointless. “No. No, thank you. I’ll…see you back in London.”
Clayton simply exhaled, long and low and exhausted. When Arthur left him, he was working on bagging the body.
* * *
“I ended up staying an extra day to help follow up the lead. We stopped it barely in time, and I still think the whole situation was badly handled. By all involved parties.” Arthur switched his gaze from the far wall to his knee, at which his fingers had been picking with increasing force for the last few minutes. His expression…
As it turned out, it was probably a good thing they were stuck in an enclosed space. If they’d been outside, Lancelot wasn’t entirely sure that Arthur wouldn’t suddenly have had an urge to toss himself into traffic.
“I always meant to apologize to Clayton for some of what came out, but that actually was the last time we ever saw each other till recently,” Arthur said. He stopped picking at the nonexistent lint on his knee and simply dug in with his nails.
Lancelot reached over and tugged till he finally pried Arthur’s hand away from there. Then he shoved Arthur’s knees forward so he could swing up and over, firmly seating himself in Arthur’s lap. He kissed the other man before Arthur’s open mouth could say anything stupid, and while Arthur was still in shock from that, Lancelot got in first. “Arthur. You are a good man. You can be that and still have done terrible things in the past. People aren’t static—that didn’t come out right. They are—you are, because I can’t imagine you being much different back then—but you’re not only the sum of your bad deeds. You’re…damn it, this is not coming out like it’s supposed to.”
Arthur was still blinking rapidly but it looked like he was recovering. A couple mental slaps to Lancelot’s brain organized his thoughts a little better, but not fast enough; he just had the feeling that if he didn’t say something now and say it forcefully enough, Arthur was going to slip away.
“I wouldn’t sleep with the kind of man you obviously think you are. Were. Whichever. I wouldn’t touch him. But I’m—” Well, they always said actions proved louder than words. So Lancelot put his hands on either side of Arthur’s face and leaned in till their lips slowly slid together.
At first Arthur was motionless, but he gradually warmed up to it, mouth parting so Lancelot could nip lightly at Arthur’s upper lip. His hands wandered up Lancelot’s back and caressed Lancelot’s shoulders before going slightly stiff; the damned man had remembered about the gunshot wound from Thanksgiving. Lancelot wriggled himself down farther in a pointed attempt to distract Arthur. Which was working, but then so was the elevator. It settled down just as Arthur’s tongue was getting into it, doors chiming open.
“Finally! I’ve been waiting for—oh, for God’s sake, Lancelot.” Guin stood on the lobby-side of the doors, arms akimbo and foot tapping. Behind her was Tristan, who had just turned to stare nonchalantly at a painting on the wall, and Merlin, who was struggling to stuff his obvious amusement beneath his usual gruff Dean-of-the-College face.
Arthur flushed to his ears. Lancelot bit back a disappointed sigh and reluctantly climbed off the other man. At least it seemed like Arthur had been coming around before they’d been interrupted. They were over the hump, so Lancelot just had to remember to keep dragging Arthur away from the cliff-side.
Serious thoughts for Christmas. It must have showed because when they were walking out, Guin pulled him aside. “What happened in there? And don’t say nothing, or that it might’ve been something if the doors hadn’t opened. That’s not what I’m seeing in Arthur.”
“No, you’re seeing his polite nothing-is-wrong face,” Lancelot muttered. Ahead of them, Arthur was discussing some last-minute change of plan for next semester with Merlin as if the whole talk in the elevator hadn’t happened. Except Arthur was a little too considerate, too careful about being inoffensive. “Every time I think I’ve got all his little guilt-triggers sorted out, he goes and comes up with a new one. And they’re always worse than the last one.”
Guin badly wanted to ask for specifics, but they were in too public a place. She arched an eyebrow instead, which meant she was going to lock them in the bathroom later till she had every minute scrap of information committed to memory. Though in this case, that might be a good thing—Lancelot liked working alone, but he had to admit that Arthur wasn’t a one-person job. A bloody college might not even be enough.
“You know, I’m incredibly patient with him. I really am. I’d never put up with this from anyone else.” And Lancelot wasn’t just being arrogant, no matter what Guin obviously thought. Bloody Arthur and his bloody issues stuffed all over the place like booby-traps and his bloody…whatever that wouldn’t let go of Lancelot.
“You’re stubborn,” Guin said. She adjusted her scarf and quickened her pace a bit; the snow wasn’t coming down nearly as hard as it had been, but it was wet and heavy and her curls were already sagging beneath clumps of flakes. “Though that might actually be an advantage here.”
Lancelot snorted. “Why, thank you, Guin. But as long as we’re talking strategy, could we turn our attention to Arthur and a warm bath at home?” He glanced at her, then sped up himself. “Trust me. He needs it.”
“And your interest is purely altruistic?” She was starting to trot. The snow and her high heels, however, were hampering her movements quite a bit so it was easy for Lancelot to get past her. Guin let out an irritated noise and chased after him till they were flat-out racing down the sidewalk.
Arthur turned around, a puzzled look on his face. Tristan and Merlin were smarter and stepped off to the side; Tristan even managed to move to the one spot where he wouldn’t be sprayed by all the snow that ended up in the air when Arthur, Guin and Lancelot inevitably collided.
Well, it was the holidays. Time enough for darkness later.