amari_z: (haunted)
[personal profile] amari_z


Continued from here.


"And then, there at the table, he scratched himself, like a, a—"

"I'm sorry it didn't work out," Sarah Jane said again with as much patience as she could muster while Evelyn sputtered, seemingly at loss for an apt comparison. She balanced the phone on her shoulder and made herself a cup of tea. She had been listening to Evelyn's complaints for the last fifteen minutes, and while she had been expecting the call, she had not, perhaps, been braced for this level of shrillness. Bors, at least by Evelyn's account, had behaved even worse than Sarah Jane could have imagined.

"And how someone as lovely as your Gareth could have a brother like—"

"Hold on a minute, please. Just let me just check to see who's calling on the other line." She cut off Evelyn's sniff of offense and clicked over.

"Hello?" She found herself smiling at the sound of Gareth's voice. She had hardly seen him since the dreadful day Lancelot had been shot, but tonight he had promised to take her to dinner, now that Lancelot was on the mend.

Her smile died at the apologetic, strained tone his voice took.

"You can't go," she said, preempting his stammering explanation before it got going.

"I'm sorry, but Lancelot—"

"Has he taken a bad turn?"

"No, nothing like that." Gareth hesitated. She was not the type to press for details not willingly shared, so she merely waited. There was a lot of noise in the background. "He's . . . left the hospital."

"But that's wonderful! Of course, you're needed if he's just come home—"

"That's not it." Gareth cleared his throat. "He just up and left on his own. The doctors weren't ready to let him go for a week at least. We— we don't know where he's gone, not exactly. Not yet, anyway." Then, muffled, with some sharpness, "Quiet, will you! I'll be done in a minute."

She blinked at the change of his tone. The whole thing sounded dubious, but she merely asked, "Is there anything I can do?"

"It's likely nothing to worry about. He probably just got impatient with it all. He's like that." His tone was as unconvincing as the little laugh that followed that statement. She had learned quickly that Gareth was not good at even the smallest deceptions, which was one of the reasons that she was content not to know much about his unlikely family and their even more unlikely involvement with the politician Castus. Besides, it was not really her business unless Gareth chose to make it so.

"You'll let me know when you find him?" she asked.

"Yes, of course. I really am sorry." The voices in the background were growing louder.

"No need to apologize. It seems you need to go."

"Yes," he sounded distracted. "What did you say? Well bloody well tell him—" His voice was muffled as he spoke to someone there with him. "Sorry," he said, speaking into the telephone. "I'll call you." He was already talking to someone else again as he rang off.

She looked thoughtfully down at her teacup. She had always left it up to Gareth to tell her as much as he chose about his family. She had met about two-dozen young men that Gareth introduced as his "brothers," although he had admitted the lack of a strictly biological relationship, and she was sure he had mentioned still others by name. Where all these young men had come from, how they were connected, and why (and how) they were involved with a rising politician, she had no idea. Gareth had an almost total ignorance of political issues.

She hoped Lancelot was alright. She did not really know him (the few times he had spoken to her he had flirted outrageously, but from Gareth's reaction, she had realized it was not to be taken seriously), yet, from how Gareth spoke of him—as the wayward but precocious younger brother—and his way with the horses, she had felt a perhaps unjustified fondness for him. She had wanted to visit him in hospital once he had woken from the coma, but Gareth had discouraged her, saying that Lancelot was not a good patient and would not appreciate being seen when he was laid up. Gareth had then spent the rest of that brief conversation regaling her with tales of Lancelot's belligerence with the hospital staff. She was fairly sure he had been exaggerating. She had sent a fruit basket in the end. She had felt ridiculous, but it was better than sending him flowers. At least he could throw the apples at his doctors if he did not want to eat them.

She sighed and was surprised when a voice emerged from the handset she still had tucked against her shoulder. "Hello? Hello? SJ?" She had completely forgotten about Evelyn. "How rude," Evelyn was murmuring. Sarah Jane rubbed at her forehead. She had thought it a good trade at the time, getting Bors to stop pestering her in exchange for Evelyn's complaining, but she was wondering now. "I'm here," she said, sighing silently. Her tea had gotten cold without her taking a sip. "Yes, you did mention that you had ripped your new Prada skirt when you were climbing out the window."

~


Arthur took his seat in the back of the car with a feeling of relief. The speech had gone well, despite one loud, likely foul, but thankfully Sarmatian, exclamation from Dagonet as he had been talking into his mobile. Of course, it had been just as Arthur had paused for effect in his speech, and had nearly the whole audience turning in their seats. But no real damage done.

Overall, Arthur was pleased. He had not even been much annoyed by the questions about "Mr. Banson's" health, so tinged had they been with what looked like genuine concern. The media had delighted in the story of how Lancelot had nearly died saving Arthur from an assassin's bullet, and Lancelot had become the public's darling—all the more so, no doubt, because no one had any access to him since the shooting. Something was going to have to be done soon or the media would take to following Lancelot around after he was released. That would no doubt end in bloodshed. Still, as potentially disastrous as the attention could be—on a number of different levels—it might be all to the good. After this, no one would bother to question why Lancelot was about or what exactly he did on Arthur's campaign.

Arthur had not quite decided whether it was more likely Lancelot would react to the adulation by insufferably accepting it as his due or with contemptuous sneering. Probably both. Whichever way it went, Arthur was not looking forward to the prep sessions that would have to precede Lancelot’s reintroduction to the public. The initial ones, when they had not had to worry about Lancelot being in anyone’s spotlight, had been appalling enough.

It was still worse to realize that preparing Lancelot to deal with the media was hardly his most pressing problem in dealing with Lancelot.

He sighed and shut his eyes, ignoring the way that Dagonet and Geriant were muttering to each other, and the backward glances they cast at him. Given that it had ruffled Dagonet's calm, whatever mischief the knights were now up to must be quite impressive, but Arthur could not be bothered to be much concerned. He would have been more worried if he did not know that Lancelot was safely under medical supervision; now it was just a sign that things were returning to something more normal after the somber, sober behavior of the last weeks. Whatever trouble the knights had created could not be much worse than the green dye in the wading pool incident or the Great Bathroom Flood. They probably had not burned the house down. Or at least not too much of it.

Arthur was tired. He leaned his head against the back of the seat. It felt like weeks since he had been able to sleep properly. He had been having trouble sleeping since the night Lancelot had stormed out, leaving Arthur in sole possession of the room and the bed, and then there had been the days and nights spent at the hospital. But in the last few days he had also begun to be plagued by dreams and old memories. The reasons for his insomnia were obvious, but why his dreams were dwelling on the early days of his command of the knights, he had no idea. He had not thought that he even remembered those times so vividly; he barely ever thought of them. Then, Lancelot had been a hostile stranger, a state that Arthur could not really even imagine anymore.

Yet, Arthur’s first interactions with Lancelot had been less than a success. Arthur had been a junior officer newly assigned to lead the Sarmatian troop of auxiliary cavalry, and his men had been little more than a ragged, snarling pack of wolves in the guise of adolescent boys. Lancelot had drawn Arthur's eye from the beginning. Arthur had thought he had understood his initial reaction, believing it was his instinct for command that recognized something in Lancelot. For although the older knights such as Gareth, Kay and even Bors seemed to be the leaders and keepers of what passed for order, and although Lancelot seemed to watch everything from the background with a sneer he did not bother to conceal, it was to him the rest looked, whether they realized it or not.

They listened to him when he chose to speak, they watched him for his reactions, but, most of all, they would follow him. And his actions, so often insubordinate and always seemingly driven by mere unthinking fury, in battle had to them a flare of brilliance that Arthur could not deny. Lancelot always appeared at the right moment, to close a break in the ranks, to charge forward with a stunning recklessness that would be the push that broke the enemy line. Arthur had remembered that Uther had told him of such men once, men who combined skill, instinct and fortune to seem invincible. Arthur had been young enough at the time to ask Uther if he meant men favored by God. Uther had laughed, that great, gruff laugh of his, ruffled Arthur's hair, but not explained.

Arthur had desperately wanted to win Lancelot over. He had wanted to win them all over. He had wanted to be the kind of officer his father had been. And he had known that he needed Lancelot if he were ever truly to lead these men. It made it easy to fail to admit that his interest in Lancelot went beyond that of a commander for his most brilliant, if recalcitrant, soldier. Besides, Lancelot was an unlikely candidate for friendship. With his angular build, wild hair, burning eyes, acid tongue, talent for stirring chaos and unfettered hatred for all things Roman, he had been more like a devil loosed from hell than a potential second in command.

Like most of the momentous moments in Arthur's life, things had come to head in a way that Arthur had not expected. His carefully planned efforts to win Lancelot over through civilized conversation and fair dealings had gotten him less than nowhere. And some five months after he had taken command of the cavalry, he had been given orders to patrol north of the wall, despite the onset of winter, the futility of such a patrol and the inadvisability of riding blind into enemy-infested territory. Arthur remembered thinking that he could feel the force of Lancelot's murderous glare on his back as they had ridden out.

They were ambushed, of course, in terrain chosen by the enemy, where the close growth of trees had rendered their horses no advantage. In the ugly chaos that followed, Arthur had lost two knights and nearly his own life.

Arthur pulled his sword free of his opponent, but then spun around in a sudden, heart-stopping realization. He saw the axe that should have cleaved him deep drop to the ground. The enemy who had been charging at Arthur's back was now sprawled on the ground, his detached head rolling to a stop some distance away. Arthur’s knees almost buckled in relief. Shocked, he met Lancelot's gaze over the fallen body. Lancelot, under the fresh blood splattered across his face, looked equally startled. Arthur would have sworn before that moment that Lancelot would have gleefully spat upon his new dug grave.

But before he could say anything, Lancelot stumbled as if struck himself and his head jerked around. Arthur followed his gaze, and saw one of his knights go down before a trio of enemy fighters. Before Arthur could move, Lancelot was already there, killing as he screamed words Arthur could not understand.

Afterward, they made a grueling ride back to the fort. Arthur ordered no more than short rest stops, wanting to get his men to safety as quickly as possible. On their return, Arthur made his report, and, burning with anger, he listened as he was berated for turning back after the attack. Never had it been clearer to Arthur that he had lost his men for no reason beyond his superiors' whims.

It was deep into night before Arthur had time to seek out his savior. He found most of his men in the barracks, where some had drunk themselves into exhausted oblivion and those still conscious were simultaneously slurring out a variety of Sarmatian songs. At least Arthur assumed they were songs.

Lancelot was not among either group. Forcing on his weary body, Arthur checked the stables, and his unease grew as he repeated to himself the formal words he had settled upon. A Castus always acknowledged his debts. Still, he had nearly given up for the night, when he was drawn by a commotion.

It was a brawl, and Arthur could not say he was surprised to find, despite the grueling battle and ride back to the fort, Lancelot in the midst of it. Lancelot's chief amusement, after coming up with new ways to bait Arthur, seemed to be provoking the Legionaries. By the time Arthur arrived, Lancelot was knocking down the last of his three opponents with a viciousness that made even Arthur wince—until he saw the torchlight glint off the object that dropped from the Legionarie’s hand

Exhaustion forgotten, frightened and furious, he barked out Lancelot's name in his best "I-am-the-Commander" voice, but rather than coming to attention as a soldier should, Lancelot turned on him a gaze so mad with fury that Arthur barely managed to control the instinct to take a step back. There was a snarl on Lancelot’s lips and blood on his teeth. His eyes narrowed as he stared at Arthur.

Arthur did not dare to break that gaze long enough to check on the state of the fallen men. As if facing a wild animal, he forced himself not to tense, even as his own ire rose. He opened his mouth to speak, but Lancelot's eyes darted off to the side a moment before Arthur heard the sound of approaching footsteps.

It was one of the centurions, a panting solider at his heels. Lancelot's eyes fixed on the centurion, and then to Arthur's shock, they darted down to the ground by his last opponent's limp hand.

Arthur took a few quick steps forward to put himself between Lancelot and the approaching Roman, ignoring that this left his back to Lancelot and the resulting twitchy feeling that shivered over his skin.

Luckily, the centurion seemed more interested in his fallen men than Lancelot. "This lot again?" he sounded disgusted. He cast only a brief glance at Lancelot, no doubt recognizing him, but viewing him as Arthur's problem.

"One of your men drew a knife." Arthur nodded toward ground.

Longinus spat out some crude oaths. Soldiers brawling was one thing, but drawing weapons on one another was quite another matter.

"Get a couple men up here," he barked at the solider who had fetched him, "and lock them up. I'll deal with this in the morning." He glanced at Arthur. "Castus."

Arthur nodded back. He turned and recklessly seized hold of Lancelot's shoulder. He was afraid Lancelot would balk, or worse, strike out at him in front of the centurion, but, after stiffening, Lancelot allowed himself to be pulled along.

Arthur did not look at him until, after seizing a torch, he shoved him into the first storage room they came across.

His own anger broke free as he slammed the door shut and thrust the torch into a wall bracket. The last days had been an unending nightmare and now Lancelot had been on the verge of attacking a centurion, an offense for which he would be executed. "Knight!" he growled, "explain yourself!"

It was the wrong tack to take with Lancelot. Arthur knew it as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but he was too furious to care. Lancelot did not answer. In the torchlight, his face was like stone, exquisitely carved, but cold, although his eyes seemed to gleam. Then his lips twisted into a smile.

Incensed, Arthur slammed him against the wall, hand bunched in Lancelot's shirt. Lancelot did not resist, but his expression did not change. Arthur shook him. Out of his armor, Lancelot was surprisingly light. It was all too easy to forget that he was not yet fully grown. "What's the matter with you?" Arthur snarled. He could barely hear himself over the roaring of his blood in his ears. "Hasn't there been enough fighting for you?" The guilt that hit him made him even more angry as he thought of the newly dug graves. Galehaut and Lovel, both dead. Senselessly dead, as Lancelot might have been tonight. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"You're the one who should be dead." It was not said in the tone of one reminding another of a favor owed, or even of threat. Despite the mad light in his eyes, Lancelot's voice was so flat that Arthur did not know what to make of the words. Too furious to think, he ignored them.

Arthur shoved Lancelot harder against the wall, looming over him. He was still in control; it was nothing to what Arthur truly wanted to do. He could feel the heat Lancelot’s body radiated through his wool shirt and leather trousers. He smelled of blood.

Arthur leaned closer, and Lancelot struck out. Arthur staggered back, hitting the ground as Lancelot sprang at him.

Momentarily windless, he found Lancelot crouched over him. Arthur snapped then. Everything coalesced into red, unthinking fury. Lancelot was speed, skill and unpredictability. He was neither heavy nor physically strong. Arthur had him on his back in an instant.

Lancelot’s head struck the stone floor with a force that might have had Arthur worried if he had not been so lost in anger. He managed to pin Lancelot’s wrists before Lancelot recovered. Arthur’s weight kept Lancelot restrained as he snarled, twisted and bucked.

Arthur ground down on the body beneath his, Lancelot’s scent filling his senses. He felt no discomfort when he realized that the proximity had him aroused. Being close to Lancelot had always done something to Arthur’s gut. He shoved his hips down, reveling in the pleasure and the power.

Lancelot finally stilled beneath him, chest heaving, his eyes glittering. “You’re not man enough, Roman,” he taunted.


Arthur had proven himself man enough, something that had forever after filled him with both shame and triumph. It had not been rape. But Lancelot had scarcely been rational, bent it seemed on goading Arthur into violence. There had been darkening marks on both their skin afterward, blood on Lancelot’s thighs, and Lancelot had left him there on the cold storeroom floor without a word.

Arthur had felt sick about it when the madness had faded. Ashamed and confused, he had tried to avoid Lancelot as best he could, but on the second night, he had run into Lancelot in the stables, and ended up pinning him down in one of the stalls. It had been as rough and brutal as the first time. As the weeks passed, Arthur had come, if not to grow accustomed to the violence of their couplings, at least to accept it. He had desired Lancelot desperately, and if he had wanted something more from Lancelot, Lancelot was not willing to give it. It would be months before Lancelot’s attitude toward Arthur softened.

Arthur opened his eyes and stared sightlessly at the buildings they drove past. It was hard to believe that those days were real.

The memories had left his stomach churning and his throat tasting of bile, but halfway aroused as well. He leaned forward, “Dagonet, I want to stop at the hospital.”

Geriant gave him an uneasy look, but Dagonet responded. “Arthur, we need to get back to the house.”

“No. I want to see Lancelot first.”

“That’s the problem Arthur—“

~


Tor was relieved when they finally got back to the house. Usually, this was the part he dreaded. He would be flinching at every shadow, expecting it to be Gaheris catching them red-handed with shopping bags, but right now, he would have welcomed the sight of Gaheris's scowling face. And it was not as if they had any bags to hide this time.

Galahad had abandoned stealth, so for once they were approaching the house from the tree-lined front drive rather than creeping through the grounds. Tor's relief at being back, however, was soured as he caught sight of a figure sitting under one of the trees. It was Percival, that pig. Had he been waiting out here, plotting to catch them and get them in trouble so Gareth would not let Tor go on the next provisioning trip?

Everything else forgotten, he sprinted up to the tree. "What are you doing out here?" he demanded, kicking at an outstretched foot and already contemplating possible reprisals for this underhanded attempt at spying. They still had some of that stuff they had used on Lavaine's head . . . .

Percival looked up from his stupid sketchpad. "It's like a demon’s broken loose in there," he jerked his pencil in the direction of the house. To Tor's annoyance, he directed his words at Galahad, who had come up behind Tor. "Lancelot made his escape from the hospital, and they're in an uproar. Dunno what they expected, though. He'll turn up when he wants to. I think in the meantime Kay is planning to make vellum out of Dinaden's hide, but they don't know where he is either."

"So why're you out here?" Tor asked, aiming another kick at Percival’s leg. Stupid Percival. Lurking about and drawing pictures when stuff was going on.

Percival jerked his leg out of range and stood up. "Why should I go bumbling into the middle of things I don't know anything about? I'm not an idiot that way like some people."

It might have been that last comment, it might have been the provocation of the stance Percival took, it might have just been the tensions of the day, or it might just have been the large number of Lion bar wrappers that tumbled from Pericval's lap when he stood (they had to be from the stash that Tor had under his bed!), but whatever the reason, Tor let out a screech and leaped. It was Percival after all. Tor never needed a reason beyond that one.

The sketchpad went flying, Percival hit on the ground with a satisfying thump, and they were rolling around on the grass in no time, kicking, pummeling, and scratching. Tor would have won too, except Percival did something sneaky—the cheating bastard—and Tor found himself unable to get free from under Percival's piggish weight, despite the hunk of hair Tor was yanking at. As the air was being choked out of him and he was wondering why Galahad was not helping, a sharp voice demanded, "Who is this?"

Something in the tone made them both pause in their efforts. Galahad was standing nearby, holding the stupid sketchpad. Percival’s grip had loosened and Tor shoved him off and sat up. He looked at the picture Galahad had turned toward them. It looked like Arthur. He grinned and was about to ask Percival if he liked Arthur (gross) and gloat over how Lancelot would kick Percival’s arse and then hang him out of a window by his little toe and leave him there to starve, but he was still trying to catch his breath and Percival spoke first.

"Him? I don't know. Gawain and Bors gave me a description. That's the rough sketch—they took the final one. They told me to start with Arthur's features, but then told me how to change them, so it can't be Arthur. It was a secret, I wasn't suppose to tell—" Percival shut his mouth abruptly.

The two former combatants both stood, unconsciously moving shoulder to shoulder. Galahad was staring at the picture, the bones of his face so sharp they looked to Tor like they might burst through his skin. He looked like that for a long time, but neither Tor nor Percival dared to say anything, or to move. Tor was trying not even to breath, which was hard, because he really, really needed to.

At last, Galahad stirred. He spun and began to stalk toward the house. Tor let out a relieved gasp, but then Galahad, not looking back, demanded, "What are you two waiting for?" Tor exchanged a look with Percival, and, for once allied, they both reluctantly scurried after him.

Somehow they managed to get upstairs without running into anyone. Tor was pretty sure it was because the coldness radiating from Galahad was repelling anyone from stepping within a fifty-meter radius. As he and Percival scrambled up the stairs in Galahad's wake, Tor could hear loud voices from somewhere in the house. He did not catch the words, but the preciseness of Kay's tone made Tor shudder. And that sounded like Lavaine yelling back. Had Lavaine gone mad? Well, if they were angry about Lancelot giving them the slip, at least there was no way Tor could get in trouble for it. He was pretty sure.

On the way upstairs, Tor’s eyes caught the gaze of the sour-faced old man in the picture above the stairs. The man seemed to be sneering smugly down at him, gloating, so Tor stuck his tongue out in reply. It did not make him feel any better.

Prompted by Galahad’s curt command to “talk,” Percival was nervously chattering on. “I dunno who it is in the picture, but Gawain, he told me not to tell anyone. But what would I be telling? I don’t know anything. When I asked who it was, they all just kept their mouths shut—Gawain, Bors, Kay, Dag and Gaheris—you’d think it was some kind of big secret deal.” He snorted, apparently contemptuous of the idea that any of the knights could keep a secret from any of the others. “Anyway, I wasn’t supposed to say anything to anyone, but especially to you and Lancelot, oh, and Tristan, but who the heck tells him anything? Doesn’t he just read minds or the wind, or something?”

Galahad had come to a stop and Percival, the stupid, babbling bugger, nearly ran into him. “Gawain said not to tell me?” Galahad asked, not turning around.

“Yes,” Percival said, belatedly sounding cautious.

Without another word, Galahad continued up the stairs, and, mercifully, Percival, the stupid git, was quiet. To Tor's surprise, Galahad continued without stopping up to the third floor and then all the way down one of the deserted corridors to the room tucked away in one of the structures that passed for turrets. It was here that Owein and Yvain had been banished for reasons that became increasingly obvious with each step they took.

Galahad did not bother knocking, which probably would have been futile anyway. When he opened the door, the cacophony raging out of the room became an outright assault. Tor's brain was melting, and he could only blink in bewilderment at what he was seeing.

Seemingly unaffected by either sound or sight, Galahad walked straight into the room. Yvain, who was leaping off the bed, nearly crashed into him, but at the last second jerked aside and ended up in a heap on the floor. Owein continued on, oblivious, his hair flying around as he kept nodding his head vigorously.

Galahad hit a button on the stereo, and the abrupt silence was a shock. Tor put a hand to his head, wondering if his ears could be bleeding. A surreptitious glance at Percival revealed that he was rubbing his ears, but no sign of blood.

"Hey!" Owein said, finally noticing them. Was that a tennis swatter thingy he was holding? Tor had tried playing tennis once, when Galahad had won passes to some fancy club after buying something sticky, smelly, expensive and not edible in a bottle, but Tor had kept losing his grip on the swatter when he swung. He would have gotten the hang of it eventually, but he and Galahad had gotten thrown out of the club before he could. The uptight people running the place had overreacted, to Tor’s mind. His flying racket had only actually hit someone once, and the guy had not even bled or anything.

Tor was about to ask what exactly Owein and Yvain were doing when Galahad, apparently not interested in what other purposes tennis accessories could serve, demanded, "I need you to look something up on the computer."

"Man, we showed you how to buy stuff from those websites already," Owein protested, pushing his hair out of his face.

The duo had a highly profitable business helping the knights with all the computer activities that they did not want Bedivere to know about. There were rather a lot of those. They included everything from responding to e-mails from Nigerian princes who claimed to be related to Lucan (an obvious error, but who was going to correct a soft-in-the-head prince when he was offering you his fortune?); to someone's interest in, er, enhancing creams (Tor had put money on Agravaine); to e-mails that promised to do things like drop pianos on your head if you did not pass it on to eight other people (this had resulted in Bors threatening to drop people on their own heads, if he got "one more of those buggering, sent-by-pansies" e-mails and Lamorak walking around for days with his shoulders hunched). This time, though, Galahad was not trying to bid on the limited edition Murakami Louis Vuitton purse (for men, according to Galahad) on eBay.

"I need you to find someone's location." Galahad did not sound as if he were asking. He sounded like Gareth or Kay or someone else who expected to be obeyed.

"Just type the name into the search engine," Yvain said with the flatness of having had explained the same idea so many times that even his ability to be annoyed had been worn out. He was studying his racket, bent during his fall, with a mournful face. Perhaps the "music" really did melt your brain, because neither Yvain nor Owein seemed to notice that Galahad was acting . . . not like Galahad. “But not on our computers. I’m still trying to get rid of all the spyware and other stupid crap you downloaded last time. I don’t even know how you two berks managed to get past the security software to begin with.” He muttered something to himself about a genius for idiocy.

"No, we can do it for you, in exchange for—" Owein had a mercenary gleam in his eye when he looked over at Yvain who kept track of their dealings.

Yvain stopped muttering and shook his head. "Stupid, boring and not even worth opening the browser. And our chores are covered for the next two years, four months and five days, and you two," he nodded at Galahad and Tor, "are responsible for about a quarter of that." Tor opened his mouth, outraged, he had never agreed . . . he cast a look at Galahad and shut his mouth. "Just type his name into the search engine," Yvain went on blithely, "I've showed you how to Google like a hundred times now."

"I don't know his name. I just know what he looks like and that he was on a news broadcast"—Galahad checked his watch—"three and a half hours ago. I need you to find him."

Yvain and Owein looked mildly interested at that. “Okay,” Owein said after exchanging a look with Yvain. “But you two don’t even think about touching the computer.”


~


He shifted, repressing a shiver at the sudden warmth as Galehaut crawled into the small field tent and settled next to him. Lancelot was still stewing with fury, and he noted with some petty satisfaction that although all the knights had sensibly paired up to sleep (even Agravaine was grudgingly sharing blankets with Meligaunt), Arthur was as alone as always. He hoped the insufferable Roman froze. Lancelot doubted that “duty” and “honor” would be enough to keep him warm, even if they were powerful enough to make him order the knights out on this fool’s errand into enemy territory in the midst of winter.

Galehaut pressed up against Lancelot’s back, arms wrapping around him. Lancelot caught Galehaut’s chilled hands and tucked them between his own thighs to warm them. “Stop brooding and sleep,” Galehaut whispered. His breath was hot against Lancelot’s neck, and now Lancelot did shiver. “You can plan his murder tomorrow, if we don’t end up dead ourselves first.”

Lancelot made a sound of disgust. He was about to let out a tirade of abuse against the stupidity of this whole enterprise, but something in Galehaut’s voice made him pause. Even though it displaced some of the warmth their body heat had created, he turned over so he could try to catch a glimpse of Galehaut’s expression.

After a moment, he settled back down, this time pressing his cold face into Galehaut’s neck. Galehaut quivered, but did not protest. His arm and leg settled across Lancelot, pulling him closer.

“I won’t let anything happen to you, you know.” In the dark, Lancelot could say such things, but still it was half-disguised as bravado.

Galehaut actually chuckled. “I know,” he said, as though placating him. Lancelot was younger, but he was by far the better fighter. Galehaut, although skilled enough, was simply too kind hearted to be a truly good killer. At least, that was what Lancelot thought. They watched each other’s backs, and Lancelot viewed it as his responsibility to bring Galehaut safely through each fight, even as Galehaut saw it as his to keep Lancelot from being utterly reckless.

Lancelot burrowed closer, momentarily content despite the cold, despite the foolish callousness of this mission, despite the Britons who were no doubt lurking in the woods around them, waiting to spring. “It’ll be alright,” he said, meaning, You’ll be alright, I’ll make sure of it. Despite everything he had seen and done in the last three years, he was still young and foolish enough to make such a promise, because he was not yet strong enough to let his mind encompass the alternative.


Lancelot woke, startled, to pain. But worse than the fire and ice that seemed to radiate through his head and body, was the realization that he had let himself forget the worst lie he had ever told.

Then he realized that someone was watching him.

~


Sarah Jane put on her coat and headed out to the stables. She had employees who took care of her horses, but after having to listen to all of Eve’s complaining, she was feeling the need for some sympathetic and silent companionship.

She walked briskly. Winter was at last settling in. She wondered again about whether she could afford to buy the land adjacent to her own. It was part of her grandfather’s original farm, but she had been forced to sell it when she had inherited the place. Now, the new owner was selling, and she wanted to buy it back rather desperately. She was just not sure she could afford it.

She was grateful for the warmth of the stables, and she rubbed her hands together as a few wickers greeted her entrance. She paused by each outstretched head to bestow a pat and a few words, but then her eyes came to rest on the stall at the far side of the barn. She should have been seeing her newest acquisition, not stretching his neck out for attention like the others, but with his head lifted, poised and wary. Murmuring an apology, she walked quickly forward. She let out a relieved breath as she saw that Sebastian was there, apparently preoccupied with something in the corner of his stall. She had to lean over the door before she caught of sight of what had the animal’s attention.

Her gasp was loud enough to wake him, and for a moment she caught a glimpse of him unguarded. Then, his head came up just the way Sebastian’s usually did. He blinked, and whatever that look in his eyes had been, it was gone. Not knowing what else to say, she said, “Hello, Lancelot.”

~


Guinevere was feeling better when she reached her flat. She was spending more time here than at her place in London, but there was no help for that right now. She had rented this flat when she had been named head of the D’Augbiny Group’s charitable foundation (the Group’s headquarters were here rather than London—a result, she was convinced, of her great-grandfather’s niggardly nature, rather than having anything to do with the location of the factories he had built). She pulled out her mobile and checked her messages.

“Ginny, it’s mummy—“ She pushed 3 to skip.

“Gi, darling? It’s JuJu. I really must speak to you, it’s life or death—“ She pushed 9 to delete.

“It’s your uncle.” A nervous clearing of throat. “Uncle Leighton. I was wondering if you’d had a chance to look over the file Amberleigh sent over about his proposal for the guide dog program for blind dogs? I wouldn’t bother you, my dear, except he keeps asking me about it—“ She pushed 3.

“Gigi, It’s Emo. How are you, darling? We’re hideous. Just horrible. I desperately need to speak to you—“ She pushed 9.

“Guinevere?” She started at the voice. “Call me back, you bloody woman.” She stared at her mobile, outraged, but with just a little tinge of worry.

~


“I took you up on your invitation to visit any time.” There was a hint of his usual easy charm in it, but it was a thin veneer and he barely looked at her.

“I can see that,” Sarah Jane said, still leaning over the stall door. She didn’t want to open it, since he was leaning against it. He looked . . . young. Ill and brittle. Huddled in a badly-fitting coat, knitted cap covering what she realized must be a bandaged head, skin nearly translucent, stretched over bones both sharp and fragile. She wondered if he would even be able to stand up, although he had apparently made it here under his own power. “I’m going to have to call Gareth,” she said, almost apologetic.

He seemed to have expected that and just continued to rub between Sebastian’s eyes. Sebastian was ignoring her and nuzzling at him.

She stepped away and pulled out her mobile. Just when she thought it was going to go to voicemail, Gareth answered, “I’m sorry Sarah Jane, but I can’t—“

“Shut up and listen. Lancelot. He’s here.”

What?! ” Some muffled yelling, and she could hear Gareth explaining to someone with him. “Okay, listen, don’t let him leave.”

“I seriously don’t think he’s going anywhere.”

“That’s just when he’s got you fooled. And don’t let him convince you into doing anything, no matter how innocuous it seems. We’re on our way.”

Feeling a little annoyed, she hung up and moved back to the stall. “They’re coming to get you.”

“Hmm.” He did not look away from the horse.

“Do you want to come into the house? It’s warmer here.”

“No.” He shifted a little, and though he did not grimace, the skin over his bones seemed to tighten, or maybe it was just that his face whitened. She wondered again if he could stand up.

She leaned up against the stall door and thought about what to say. Although Gareth was being ridiculous, she did not want to risk upsetting him. From what she could see herself, he was far from well. She tried for casual. “It was dull in hospital, then?”

“Not exactly dull.” He did not elaborate, although he finally looked at her. Meeting his eyes, she reassessed her opinion on his condition. But then he looked away, and the impression vanished.

She was not good at small talk, but she felt she had to persist. “Sebastian missed you. Got a bit irritable and started biting again.” She wondered if she should fetch one of the horse blankets. It was warm in the barn, but . . . .

“Who?”

She nodded at the horse. “You named him Sebastian?” He started muttering to himself. She could not catch the words, but he sounded disgusted.

“What’s wrong with it? He likes it. Look. Sebastian!” The horse deigned to flicker its ears at her before returning its attention to the apparently far more interesting man sitting in his stall. “See?”

Lancelot looked seriously at the horse for a long moment and the horse seemed to look right back. “Well, I suppose there’s no help for it. There are worse names, maybe.” He rubbed between Sebastian’s eyes. “Venerable, indeed. Maybe someday.”

“What? I named him after the character in Brideshead Revisted.” He seemed skeptical. “You’re one to complain,” she said, feeling a little defensive. “You lot and your names. I suppose you would want to name him Arondight or something.”

“What?”

“I mean Gareth is well enough, but then with brothers named ‘Lancelot’, ‘Galahad’, ‘Gawain’, ‘Gaheris,’ and, for God’s sake, ‘Agravaine’? Who names their child Agravaine? You must have had some odd parents. At least there’s no Mordred. That I’ve met yet, anyway.”

“They’re not my brothers.” The words were flat.

She had meant it all as a joke, but hearing his tone she found herself wishing she had not spoken. “No, I know. But Gareth said you were all raised together.” She was afraid that she had sounded unkind, and she had never asked Gareth for an explanation, so it seemed wrong to do so with Lancelot, but really. Those names invited it.

His mouth had tightened, and she did not think it was in pain. “Raised might be a bit of an overstatement.” Sebastian had to nudge him for attention. His hands had stilled.

Anything she asked now would be like she pushing him for information. So instead she offered, “I think I know what you mean. My mum was like that. At least after my father died.” She did not usually speak about this. “She found religion. She was Catholic, but she then went rather . . . obsessive with it. The whole bit. The praying, the fasting, the poverty, the righteousness. She only paid attention to me to preach to me. Told me I was full of sin.” She did not mind telling the story, it was hardly a secret, but she was surprised by her turn into loquaciousness. “I got married young, just to get out of the house.”

She was not even sure if he was listening until he asked, “What happened to her?”

“She joined a nunnery.” She took the sound he made to be surprise. She gave a wry smile. “Yes, they do still have those.”

“And your husband?” His eyes had closed, his head against the stall wall. No wonder they had wanted to keep him in hospital.

“Not my husband anymore.” He had been an older man, and she had felt a sense of security with him that she had perhaps mistaken for love. Her mother had thought he was a minion of the devil, which had no doubt been part of attraction. She had married him with some absurd vision of a perfect domestic life, and had tried to be the perfect little wife. Like playing house. Her mouth quirked. It no longer hurt; she barely recognized the person she had been. It had been nearly fifteen years, after all.

“I was a little ninny. Three years in, I caught him with his secretary. This farm was my father’s father’s. He had died shortly after I was married. I had nowhere else to go, so I came here.” The place had been falling apart, but then so had she. She sighed. “Now I’m grateful for it all. I don’t think I would have ever become, let’s say, fully adult or independent, otherwise. I wanted desperately for someone to take care of me. The key, though, is not to need anyone.”

“No?” She had thought he might have fallen asleep.

She shrugged, a little embarrassed. “I’m content on my own. If there are people who enrich my life, I’m glad for it, but I don’t depend on them for my well being.” She chuckled. “I’m a hard headedly rational about things these days, some of my girl friends complain. But look who I’m saying such things to! Lancelot!” She laughed at the absurdity of it.

He opened his eyes. “I don’t follow.”

“You know, Lancelot. I’m nattering on about rationality, and if ever there was a symbol for the power of romantic love, in all its beauty and devastation—”

“I’m afraid,” he said, his eyes closing again, “you’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

~


Gawain went with Gareth and Kay to fetch back Lancelot. He still could not find Galahad anywhere (nor Tor, which was actually reassuring to Gawain’s fraying nerves). He had left Gaheris with instructions to track him down.

“I can’t believe we didn’t think to look at Sarah Jane’s,” Gawain said for what he realized was probably the third time, but he could not help it. “We must be losing our minds.”

Kay, who had been implacable in taking up position in the driver’s seat and was driving with none of his customary cautious restraint, only said, “He had better still be there when we get there.” And not the least reason for that was that Arthur would be back in less than an hour, and after that first call Gareth had gotten from him, they did not want to have to face him without having recovered Lancelot.

The drive continued on in silence after that. Gawain almost felt lulled by it. He almost wished it would just go on forever. It was Gareth who broke into the quiet just as they approached the turn off to the farm. “How bad is this, really?”

Gawain shook his head. “Arthur’s been lying to him. About his wife being about. What do you think?”

Kay, still with the façade of cool practicality, although the question itself was grasping after wisps in the wind, asked, “We’re sure it was her?”

Gawain resisted the urge to spit out the ugly words on his tongue. For a moment he wanted to throttle Kay. “Dagonet, and especially Bors, would not have been mistaken.” Bors had nearly been rendered silent with surprise. Gawain could not remember the last time he had seen such a reaction from the man.

“And there’s no way that Arthur has already told Lancelot about her?”

We didn’t know.”

They pulled up in front of Sarah Jane’s barn. Sarah Jane met them at the entrance. “He’s in the stall in the back,” was all she said. “Don’t disturb my horses.”

The dark horse that Lancelot had befriended raised his head, ears cocked toward them as they approached. Gawain had a strange feeling of having done this before. How many other times had he gone looking for Lancelot, who had so often preferred his horse’s company to that of any human?

As they approached, a white hand appeared on the top of the stall door, and, with a twisting pull that had to be agony, Lancelot rose to his feet from behind the stall door. The horse seemed to almost to hover nearby as if offering his support yet being careful not to nudge and overbalance the man. Lancelot rested a hand on his neck. It was not obvious whether the hand was to steady himself or the horse.

Gawain had no idea what to say, and he hoped one of the others would speak first. Lancelot’s face, gaunt and strained, was as closed off as Gawain had ever seen it.

Kay merely opened the stall door and said, “Come.”

To Gawain’s surprise, Lancelot offered no objection. Gawain hurried forward to offer hishelp, but one dark, flaring look from Lancelot’s eyes had him jerking his hand back. He automatically knocked the horse’s head away, startled only after the fact that the horse had tried to bite him.

Lancelot reached the car on his own, with none of them daring to insist on helping. He did not speak, and, once inside, he leaned his head against the window and ignored them all. They had turned onto the main road when Gareth hesitantly said, “We should take you back to the hospital, Lancelot—“

Lancelot did not even open his eyes. “You will take me back to the house or I will open this door and get out. I don’t care how fast Kay is driving.” His tone was entirely devoid of anger.

The three of them reached a silent consensus. The house it was. Lancelot did not seem in danger of bleeding to death, and Arthur would be back shortly. Let him deal with getting Lancelot back to the hospital. Arthur had made this mess, after all.

Gawain sat in silence, in the back beside Lancelot, although the suddenly gaping length of the seat separated them. He watched what he could see of Lancelot’s face and the long, thin hands, tense on his legs. At last he could not bear it anymore. “We didn’t know—about Guinevere.” It had burst out of him, but it ended up sounding feeble in his own ears, perhaps because it was colored by the guilt that they had been keeping something from Lancelot, if not that.

“Didn’t you?” Lancelot did not move. He did not sound as if he cared.

“No!” he caught a warning look from Kay in the rear view mirror, but continued on. He had to make sure Lancelot understood. “She came by the hospital the night before to, talk, to Arthur. We had no idea before that—“

Lancelot’s eyes finally opened and when he turned them on Gawain. Gawain fell silent.

Continued here.

Date: 2009-03-01 01:25 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] graiae.livejournal.com
Fantastic! I can't wait to see the next bit.

Date: 2009-03-01 07:23 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amari-z.livejournal.com
Thanks! The last part will probably be up later today.

Date: 2009-03-01 03:11 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] evil-jacquie.livejournal.com
Wonderful and frustrating! I must be one twisted puppy, because I'm absolutely terrified about what is going to happen next, but I can't wait to find out. Excellent addition to a fantastic story - quit your job, forget about your family, and write more. (Okay, you can keep your job and your family but really you do need to write more soon.)

Date: 2009-03-01 07:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amari-z.livejournal.com
Unfortunately, the job and the family are indeed the main commitments, so if I don't give them up, my free time is unlikely to increase. ;) Of course, if someone would offer to pay me for writing crack, and provide medical and dental . . . .

Thanks for reading, and I'm glad you're enjoying it (and if that makes you twisted, I wonder what that makes me?). The rest will probably be up later today.

Date: 2009-03-01 04:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] toujours-nigel.livejournal.com
Read and it's brilliant, but, erm... you've got, 'in an instance', instead of 'in an instant' in Arthur/Lancelot's first encounter. And Agravaine when Sarah Jane's talking to Lancelot.

Thanks for sharing. I missed crack-verse.

Date: 2009-03-01 07:28 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amari-z.livejournal.com
Thanks so much for pointing those out!

The rest will probably be up by tonight.

Date: 2009-03-02 11:12 pm (UTC)
ext_48196: (Default)
From: [identity profile] d-violetta.livejournal.com
I feel it is very realistic to find lance had decided to go sleep with the horses to find comfort.

I would really like to see what the other knights are up to and where the mystery man figures in all of this.

As ever you keep me on the edge of my seat waiting for more.

Date: 2009-03-03 05:21 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amari-z.livejournal.com
Thanks! Horses are the one thing that Lancelot has always felt sure of.

In case you didn't see it, the last part of the chapter is up. It's linked at the end of this entry and is currently the latest entry in my journal. You will get a look at more of what the knights are up to there. :)


Date: 2009-03-18 10:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cat-o-wen.livejournal.com
Of course Lancelot would go to a stable for some time to think and for comfort. Makes perfect sense!! And Arthur's memories of their early times together are vivid and brutal. I ache for them both.

Well done. Very well done.

Date: 2009-03-26 06:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amari-z.livejournal.com
Lancelot's lucky that Gareth met Sarah Jane. :)

I struggled a lot with the flashback scene. Vivid and brutal were part of what I was trying for, so I'm glad that you found it so.

Date: 2009-04-03 06:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] ladybugkay.livejournal.com
I think my favourite thing about this installment, so far, are the flashbacks of a young Lancelot. It's a fascinating look into the past of such a complex, volatile character; and seeing who he used to be and why he changed is rather addictive.

Date: 2009-04-19 05:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] amari-z.livejournal.com
Glad to hear that you liked the Lancelot flashbacks. There are so many backstories in this that I occasionally shake my fist at Vonnegut's start your story as close to the end as possible rule, but then I remember that it's not like I actually planned any of this. So I only have myself to blame.

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