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The Honor of Your Presence

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I. HAVE

(Elliott Todd, Table 42, +1 [ he alleges her name is either Emily or Emilia ])

 

 

It’s been . . .  oh God, it’s been a minute. Like, an actual, whole minute. Not like ‘it’s been a minute’ like some time has passed, or like, there’s been a pause. It’s been an actual sixty seconds. Seventy seconds. Seventy-two--

 

You know what? It’s fine. It’s totally, probably fine. Eighty-five seconds of dead silence isn’t a big deal, really. It just feels long when it’s in your conversation. Or, you know. In a conversation that’s happening in what’s more or less your living room while you sink ever more deeply into the couch cushions.

 

One of the first years-- Elliott (oh no, that is too confusing, even in his own internal monologue), ah, Todd doesn’t remember her name, not because he doesn’t care, but because there are two Emilies and an Emilia in the new class and he hasn’t quite sorted them out yet. Maybe he should ask them about their middle names?-- makes it halfway down the stairs, before coming to a dead stop at the sight of the PKC’s friendly neighborhood post-grad locked in a silent stare-off with a six-foot-something R-rated Disney prince in head-to-toe-- Todd’s pretty sure it’s brocade? It’s very shiny and kind of between mint and seafoam. Definitely a nice color, against pale skin and dark hair. Which Todd knows from dressing himself , not because he spends that much of his time thinking about-- Not that there’s anything wrong with--

 

Ha. Ha ha. What? Not the point.

 

Todd shakes his head frantically at Emily, Emily, or Emilia, and she gets the message, turning back up the stairs and retreating to the safety of her room. Todd wishes he could go with her. Not, like, with her , specifically; he’s more into Emily (other Emily? Or maybe she’s Emilia?), honestly. But, you know, away . Would be good.

 

Neither Eliot nor Quentin seem to notice she was ever there.

 

Eliot has been staring at Quentin for one minute and forty-five seconds, Todd’s face going more ashen with each moment that slips away, when the former (still?) king finally says, “I’m sorry. What ?”

 

And if it were Todd facing down Eliot like that (not that it would be; why would he be dating Eliot? Crazy.), he would have basically just, become one with the carpet, because that only sounds like a question. It is very clearly, obviously a trap. But Quentin-- man . Quentin has always been, just, super brave. Way braver than you would probably expect from someone who’s all, sort of, pocket-sized and, um, no judgment but, not really all that good? At magic? Like, not bad-- definitely not bad! Just. Kind of normal and-- soft? If that makes sense? He just sort of always looks like he needs a hug. Which is maybe why Eliot basically always has at least one arm wrapped around him.

 

Not now, though. Now, Eliot has both arms down at his sides, hands dangerously still, while Quentin crosses his own over his chest and sets his jaw.

 

“You heard me,” he says. And sort of shrugs one shoulder a little, like, ‘what are you gonna do about it?’

 

And even though Quentin’s voice maybe wavers just a tiny bit, Todd is, like, deeply impressed. Or. He would be. If he wasn’t so stressed .

 

This whole thing started ten minutes ago. Or, maybe it started that morning, when Todd sent the bunny that Eliot insisted remain in residence at the Physical Kids Cottage off to Fillory. Oh God, it was Todd’s fault. He sent the bunny. He sent a false-alarm bunny.

 

(Oh, right-- the bunny. When Quentin had announced after the latest round of kind-of really-scary shit he and his crew always seemed to get into that he was coming back to Brakebills for a year-- not to finish his coursework, because Dean Fogg had graduated Quentin’s whole class so that none of them would ever set foot on campus again (he’d totally meant that as a joke, totally, Todd was sure of it), but to do basically like a master’s thesis-- Eliot had cornered Todd, who had technically graduated but was still Dean Fogg’s assistant and authorized biographer, and made him swear that he would send a bunny if three days ever passed without proof of Quentin getting out of bed or eating. Which, Todd knew Eliot was coming from a place of concern, and there wasn’t really anyone else on campus (or even on the planet, mostly) that Quentin really knew , who would keep an eye out for signs of, like, a depressive episode, what with Eliot and Margo and Josh back on Fillory, and Alice and Kady in the Neitherlands, and Quentin’s friend Julia-- um, somewhere? But, still. Todd had sort of squawked out whether Quentin knew about Eliot’s request, and then muttered about invasion-of-privacy-question-mark, but ultimately cowered and nodded when Eliot gave him that look . And for the first few weeks of the semester, he’d kept it cool, but then eventually Quentin started to get suspicious of all the heads of iceberg lettuce Todd kept sneaking up to his room, and then eventually he cornered Todd and rolled his eyes a lot and muttered about knowing my own limits when Todd eventually told him everything, but then he looked at Todd carefully and said ‘two days but knock first, and if I don’t get up to answer, then yeah, send the bunny .’ After that, Quentin had taken the bunny himself and sent it on what was probably a really exhausting number of back-and-forths between realms, muttering a lot of tense, four-word-missives about actually talking to me and longer than you and with my therapist , and receiving a lot of equally terse but still obviously really apologetic messages back, until finally, the bunny had zapped into the common room saying “PROMISE I’LL DO BETTER” and Quentin had answered “I KNOW,” and then the poor little guy must have broken or something, because it came back just repeating “PEACHES PLUMS” over and over, and Quentin had pulled it into his lap and pet its dark twitchy ears.)

 

So, anyway. There is a bunny system (hah-- bunny system), and Todd is the station master. And he hadn’t had to actually dispatch to Fillory all semester, but it was getting on to crunch time, and, well, it had been a few days and Quentin hadn’t answered Todd’s knock that morning. But it turned out that was because Todd had knocked while Quentin was in the shower. Whoops. Eliot had hitched the nearest Penny train back to Brakebills before Todd could correct the misunderstanding. But it wasn’t all a loss, not at first, because Quentin had been putting in kind of a lot of library hours recently, and also staring mopily at Eliot’s favorite martini shaker in a way that he seemed to think was subtle, and the two of them ended up getting to spend the day together, doing probably a lot of things that Todd didn’t need to hear about (even though he, like, heard them anyway, because they’re both weirdly bad at muffling spells). Then they went out somewhere, probably for dinner or maybe a movie. (Or whatever you could do instead of dinner-and-a-movie when one of you was wearing jeans and the other was wearing a three-piece aqua-brocade suit.) And when they came back, Quentin had been talking in the mile-a-minute the way he did when he was extra jazzed about something.

 

“So, it’s basically a whole discipline that’s just been-- totally lost,” he was saying, as he pushed through the door of the Cottage. Eliot had had to dart forward and catch the door to keep it from slamming in his face, because Quentin was talking to Eliot, but not really paying that much attention to where Eliot was . Todd had definitely seen Eliot murder people with his eyes for less, but he just smiled fondly as Quentin kept talking.

 

“I mean, I get why sex magic is so much more popular, among a general audience, anyway--”

 

“Mmm.” Eliot had hummed and nuzzled his way inside the collar of Quentin’s button-down shirt-- which probably should have been Todd’s cue to leave. But honestly? It had become sort of like background music, by now: Quentin having full, if one-sided, conversations with Eliot in common areas, all the while Eliot worked a hand under his shirt, or gave him a shoulder rub that migrated way, way south, or, like, did the thing where he wrapped Quentin’s hand into a loose fist and then sort of, um, fucked it with his index and middle fingers, while Quentin babbled on and on?

 

Like, right then. Quentin had blinked his eyes shut slowly-- Todd kind of wanted to say ‘languidly,’ but that felt like a weird way to describe something happening between his two best friends-- when Eliot’s mouth touched skin. But then he turned abruptly, ignoring Eliot’s whine, and continued, “--but it started out as just one branch of a larger field of love magic, most of which wasn’t predicated on performing any sexual act, at all. Which was obviously a lot more accommodating for, like, people who experience love but not sexual attraction. Because there’s a whole world of spells that, like, asexual people just can’t perform without doing something that goes against who they are, which seems really unfair--”

 

Quentin’s post-grad research was all about increasing the accessibility of magic (he called it minor mendings of the whole fucking field , which Todd personally thought was awesome ). One of the things he and Eliot didn’t talk about, at least not anywhere Todd could hear, was how his interest in that particular area had developed shortly after one of their now-more-distant horrifying adventures, when Eliot had come back from being-- possessed, maybe?-- with little to no use of his right side, and thus little to no ability to cast. Eliot had healed, mostly, luckily, but Quentin had gotten hooked, especially once he learned that a lot of the methods for calculating circumstances that take into account particular characteristics of the caster use assumptions about the caster’s brain chemistry that don’t necessarily hold true for neuroatypical magicians. (As the two resident not-students in the PKC, Todd and Quentin have actually spent a fair number of nights drinking in the common room and talking about their research. Quentin’s is more socially valuable, obviously, but Todd has way more scandalous stories about Dean Fogg, so it’s an even-ish trade. So, yeah, Todd has heard a lot about how brain chemistry can affect spells.)

 

Eliot had nodded sympathetically at the consequences of elevating sex magic over other forms of love magic, even as he actively unbuttoned the top two buttons of Quentin’s shirt. Quentin, for his part, continued to take Eliot’s near-constant manhandling in stride.

 

“Did you know,” he’d said-- and it had seemed so innocent, how could Todd have guessed what would come next?-- “that most of the first recorded marital-binding spells were actually based on pure love magic? With no sex component at all?”

 

And Eliot’s mouth had quirked up at the corner, and he’d tucked Quentin’s long hair behind his ear, and he’d said, like he wasn’t even thinking about it, “Well, with all respect to the varieties of sexual identity, I think that we should definitely go with the sex kind at our own marital binding .”

 

And, for the first time since walking through the door, Quentin had. Shut up. He made a face that was a mix of confused and gleeful and, well, oh wow, Todd would maybe call it, bitch-I’ve-got-you-now (which, seriously, anyone who would dare , to Eliot Waugh , is a such a badass, as far as Todd is concerned).

 

Eliot seemed to notice his mistake at that point, and began pulling away. But Quentin took a step closer. “Is that-- something you’d want?” he asked.

 

“Sex magic?” Eliot had asked weakly-- so weakly that it was clear that he knew what Quentin knew what Todd on the sofa across the room knew, which was that that was not what Quentin had meant.

 

“No. The other part,” Quentin had said. And then, one minute, forty-five seconds of dead silence, and I’m sorry, what?, and you heard me. And now, here they are.

 

Eliot giggles, a little, airy and ever-so-slightly nervous, and Quentin doesn’t uncross his arms, but he does tilt his head. “ El ,” he says-- not quite like a warning, but like your favorite teacher in elementary school saying that he’s not mad, just disappointed.

 

Eliot shuts his mouth, but his arms stay unnaturally still at his sides. “My darling Q,” he says, and even Todd recognizes that’s a deflection tactic, yikes, “as you know, I’m already married. And given that only High Kings are allowed the matching set, and I am no longer High King--”

 

“Actually, you’re not. Married.”

 

Eliot and Quentin both turn abruptly to stare at Todd. Oh, God. That had been him . He ’d been the one who spoke, just then.

 

Explain ,” Eliot says, and his voice is ice but also fire, and Todd cannot say no to it.

 

“Um, you’re-- well. The Fillorian marriage rite that was used when you married High King Fen--”

 

“She wasn’t High King, at the time,” Eliot interrupts.

 

“Right.” Todd is nodding, why is he always nodding when Eliot speaks? “Right. I just-- thought I should use her title? Am I, like, allowed to refer to her by her first name? Because we went to an Arby’s together once, but also, like, I know in England--”

 

Todd .”

 

“Right, right, sorry.” Todd neither jumps out of his seat, nor wets himself, and he is willing to declare that a victory. “So, under the Fillorian rite, the bond dissolves upon death. But, um, ‘death’ is legally defined not as, you know, factually dying. But, um, being officially recognized as dead? Which, under the cross-referenced Fillorian funeral rites is when the ceremonial bleats of despair occur.”

 

“Todd, for the love of well-tailored outerwear , what the fuck are you saying ?”

 

Todd opens his mouth-- kind of like a fish, if he’s being honest, which he usually tries to be, about himself, at least. But Quentin saves him from having to explain further.

 

“El,” he says, quietly, slipping a hand into Eliot’s. Eliot takes it and laces their fingers together, without looking down. “Why do you think we’ve been able to-- you know, be together , all this time, since the monster, without your fidelity clause going haywire?”

 

Eliot blinks. “I figured it was because we had Fen’s blessing?”

 

Quentin just shakes his head gently. “Way back when the monster had you, you know that he-- it told us that--,” he stops and sighs, and Eliot uses their joined hands to tug him a little closer. “We all thought you were dead,” he finishes with a shrug-- not a ‘what are you gonna do about it’ shrug, this time, but like, an ‘I’ll fall apart if I do anything but shrug’ shrug.

 

Eliot wraps his hand around the back of Quentin’s skull, and pulls him in for a quick kiss on the temple that really warms Todd’s heart, okay? When Eliot pulls back, his hand still cupping Quentin’s head, he peers down into Quentin’s eyes and says, “I know that. But, I wasn’t dead.”

 

Quentin nods vigorously. “I know, I know. But-- we all thought you were. And, well, Fen had them do all the rituals. So. Legally . . .”

 

The realization hits Eliot in an instant, and his eyes go wide. “Sorry,” he starts, then stops. Which is odd, for him. “Are you saying that I’ve been-- like, the legal Walking Dead in Fillory for the past-- oh my God, three years ?”

 

“Closer to four.”

 

Eliot and Quentin’s eyes both dart over again, and shoot, shoot, shoot. That was Todd who spoke, again. Why ?

 

“Uhhh,” he explains, “the um, the legally relevant date is whenever the bleating of the sheep happens, and that was, like, three years and eight months ago, according to Councillor Pickwick’s daily ledger? There was-- oh boy, it was a little ambiguous, actually? Because the sheep were silenced at the time of the ritual, so the bleating never actually, you know, happened. Audibly. Oh! But I found a precedent involving the ninth High Queen, whose husband was killed shortly after an outbreak of wasting disease that destroyed almost all ungulates outside the Outer Islands, and she ordered a necromancer to spectrally reanimate some wasted sheep for the ritual so that she could marry her, um, lover, without waiting for the Outer Islands sheep to arrive. So there was no actual bleating there, either, but it still totally counted, legally, and your case is a lot clearer, given that there were actual, live sheep, and at least a few witness accounts show that the sheep were moving their mouths, even though no sound came out--”

 

Todd notices, too late, that Eliot and Quentin are staring at him with matching blank looks. Right. Time to wrap up. “So, you’re dead. Officially,” he says, but that sounds kind of harsh, so he adds, brightly, “And single! Officially.”

 

Quentin pinches the bridge of his nose-- which is kind of hypocritical, actually, because Todd has heard him give way ramblier speeches than that. But Eliot just stares at him, silent-- oh no, not this again -- but only for about fifteen seconds, before he throws up one elegant hand (totally normal way to think about your friend’s hand, totally normal), and says, “And how precisely do you know so fucking much about it?”

 

Quentin looks up sharply and gives Todd a warning look, but it’s no good. Because Eliot, like Margo, is just so scary and so hot (not like, hot in the way that Margo is hot, just like, hot in a that’s-aesthetically-okay way), and Todd is a weak Jello parfait of a man in the face of it.

 

“Quentinaskedmetolookintoit,” he says, all in a rush.

 

Quentin sighs with pretty much his whole body, at that, and his hands go up and his eyes roll to the ceiling, but Todd can’t even be hurt by it, because he’s just so, so, so relieved. Because Eliot, once again, does not give a single crap about him anymore. Instead, he pivots, one hand on each hip, to stare at Quentin.

 

Quentin finishes up his eyeroll and sort of, like, reels his arms back in? He looks like he wants to cross them again, but-- no offense-- he just, like, doesn’t have the juice for it, so they just kind of-- again, no offense-- flop around, semi-in-front-of-him. And, honestly, that’s a lot closer to how Todd would expect a mere mortal to look in the face of Eliot’s scrutinizing gaze.

 

Eliot takes a step closer, and Quentin takes a step back, in perfect sync, and part of Todd wants to laugh, but most of him just wants to be really quiet. He actually thinks about putting one of the throw pillows in front of his mouth so that he doesn’t accidentally interject again, but it’s not worth the risk that it will draw attention. He likes to watch Animal Planet videos while he’s waiting for the Dean to finish up calls, and so he knows all about the stuff that will get a gazelle mercilessly gobbled. Never create extraneous motion when the predator’s gaze is directed elsewhere. Classic watering hole mistake. Plus, like, there’s no guarantee that a pillow in front of his face would actually stop him from talking. His ex-girlfriend used to complain about that a lot, actually.

 

“So you’ve had Todd looking into my marital status,” Eliot says, and-- hey guys, kind of rude. They don’t always have to say his name like that, you know? But, luckily, before Todd can blurt that out, Quentin looks away guiltily, and Eliot decides to press his advantage. “What happened to respecting boundaries and actually talking to each other ?” he asks, sounding kind of maniacally gleeful.

 

Quentin does make his arms all the way cross then, and his eyebrows draw in annoyed and sort of dangerous, in, like, an angry-teddy-bear way. “This isn’t even almost the same.”

 

Eliot smiles and shrugs, but he doesn’t fight the point. Instead, he reaches out and takes Quentin’s cheeks in his hands--Quentin full-body sighs, again-- and says, “It’s just so adorable --”

 

“Oh, fuck you,” Quentin grumbles, eyes rolling.

 

“--how terrible you are at this.” He is grinning so hard it’s actually kind of scary. Oh, whoa. It is actually kind of scary. Because it’s just how the arctic fox looked in that one video, when he knew he had the the little rabbit/weasel thing cornered in its burrow.

 

But Quentin might not realize that he’s the, uhh, rabbit/weasel in this scenario. Because he tries to shake off Eliot’s grip (Eliot doesn’t actually allow it), and even though his cheeks are red, he manages to break eye contact and mutter, “Well, was I just supposed to wait around for you to do it?”

 

The delivery is-- not great, like, as far as epic insults go. It’s kind of mostly directed to the far wall. But, somehow, it’s a direct hit. Eliot drops his hands and takes a half-step back, looking-- wow, did Todd totally misread this? It’s kind of always a possibility, honestly. Because now Eliot -- um, ha ha, wow, it makes Todd nervous even to think it-- but suddenly Eliot kind of looks like the weasel/rat, here.

 

“I didn’t--” he starts to say, but then Quentin, looking really sorry all of a sudden, is reaching out for him, grabbing onto his biceps.

 

“Hey, hey,” he interrupts, soft, “I didn’t mean it like that, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

 

“I just thought-- because I’m still-- or, I thought I was still--” Eliot says, eyes still a little too wide.

 

“I know,” Quentin says, still in that soft way.

 

“I’m not-- I wasn’t trying to run away from this--”

 

“I know ,” Quentin repeats.

 

“I should have thought about it, though, whether there was any way around . . . I mean, obviously, we’ve been fucking for years now, I should have realized-- I think I was afraid of looking too closely--” Eliot says, quietly. “ Shit , Q. I’m sorry. I’m still fucking this up.”

 

Hey .” Quentin sounds stern now. He traces his hands softly over Eliot’s shoulders-- Todd can tell, even from here, that he’s doing it softly-- and lets them rest on either side of the notched collar of Eliot’s high-necked jacket. “You’re not. You’re doing so good. We’re doing so good. We’re all like-- figuring out interdimensional long-distance like it’s nothing. We’re kicking ass , El.”

 

Eliot laughs a little at that, and gives Quentin one of those looks that he gives sometimes where his eyes look like an actual Powerpuff Girl. (Don’t judge-- Blossom is basically, like, Todd’s perfect woman. Assuming she was a woman. And not a little girl. Or, you know, a drawing. You know what? Nevermind.)

 

“We’re not, like, interdimensionally long distance forever, though, right? You’re still going to--?” Eliot shakes his right wrist out a little as he asks it. Quentin doesn’t say anything right away, and Eliot immediately starts backtracking. “I mean, take all the time you need. I know you really like what you’re studying, and I know Fillory’s--”

 

But Quentin rolls his eyes one more time, softer this time, and cuts Eliot off with a kiss. “Shut up,” he says when he pulls away. And, okay, it’s not the way Todd would have played that moment (not that he’d ever be in a moment where he was kissing Eliot, obviously ), but Eliot smiles, so, you know, it takes all types, as his Granny used to say. Todd still ships it.

 

“Now I need you to leave me the fuck alone for two hours so that I can actually finish the chapter I was supposed to write today,” Quentin says, with another lingering kiss, that Eliot maybe chases a little bit, but Todd thinks it’ll be better for his longevity if he pretends he didn’t see that.

 

Eliot nods and Quentin makes his way over to the steps.

 

“‘Cause the sooner I finish this,” Quentin says, dawdling on the second step, and playing with the hem of his shirt a little, “the sooner I can go back. Home. To Fillory. With you. And maybe, um. Take advantage of your legal death? If you wanted?”

 

That’s-- a little morbid for Todd’s taste, honestly. But Quentin exhales, like he got something important off his chest, and Eliot stands stock-still for a moment before crossing the space between them, and grabbing Quentin’s wrist and pulling him (almost toppling him, actually) into a hungry kiss. With Quentin on the steps and Eliot on the floor, they’re almost at the same height, for a change-- Quentin’s a little taller, actually, and when they eventually pull apart (after what is starting to become an uncomfortably long time for Todd), Quentin strokes Eliot’s hair back from his forehead.

 

“Okay,” Eliot says after a moment, as he gazes adoringly up at Quentin.

 

Quentin’s mouth twitches, and his eyebrows furrow a little. He nervously reaches up to tuck hair behind his ear that’s already there, because Eliot is constantly smoothing it back for him, when they kiss. “Okay?” he repeats, sounding unsure.

 

Eliot nods, and Quentin smiles then, and it’s like the sun coming out after a rainstorm, seriously. And, okay, that’s kind of a melodramatic way to put it, but it’s just really, really beautiful, okay? Like, Quentin isn’t Todd’s type (because Todd’s not into guys, and even if he was, he’d be more into-- nope ), but Todd would give anything for someone to look at him like that.

 

Eliot reaches for Quentin and leans in again, desperate, which Todd honestly gets, but suddenly Quentin is four steps away.

 

“Two hours,” Quentin says-- hand out, like he’s warning Eliot off. “I mean it.”

 

“Are you seriously--?” Eliot starts.

 

“Well, we’ve got forever, right?” Quentin says, over his shoulder, already leaving a sputtering Eliot on the landing.

 

Terrible. At. This,” Eliot repeats, incredulous, with his why must I deal with these people? face. “Fine, go. But I’m coming up in there an hour and forty-five minutes, and your pants better already be around your ankles, Coldwater, I mean it!”

 

Todd can’t see Quentin anymore, but he can hear his snorting laughter drifting down the stairs.

 

“And don’t you dare start getting any ideas in your head about those fucking true love magic rituals,” Eliot continues to call out, leaning on the banister as Emily, Emily, or Emilia presses herself into the wall and makes her way downstairs, having chosen this moment to make her second attempt at a break for it. “You make zero planning decisions, do you hear me? I will not have this kind of amateur-hour performance repeated in front of a crowd of thousands.”

 

Eliot looks appropriately disgusted by the time he finishes his rant, the way he does pretty much any time he sees Todd or Todd’s clothes or Todd mixing a drink. But he can’t quite keep his mouth in a straight line, even as he makes his way to the drink cart, muttering about about no sense of occasion and timing of a Lorian step-dancer and wearing sneakers, dear God , and two hours, my flawless cock , even as he produces a bottle of champagne from somewhere, along with two glass flutes. He pops the cork with ease (Todd still usually ends up shooting it into the stemware, more often than not), and fills both glasses. Then--

 

Wait.

 

What ?

 

Then he makes his way over to the couch.

 

And.

 

Holds one of the glasses out--

 

--to Todd .

 

“Um?” Todd says. “What’s this-- for?”

 

Eliot just raises an eyebrow. “There’s no one else here, Todd,” he says, which is-- true. But not like, the nicest way to put it. The champagne’s really good, though. “I refuse to celebrate alone.”

 

“What, um, what are we celebrating?” Todd asks, around another mouthful. Ooh, it’s really bubbly. He likes when it’s extra bubbly.

 

Eliot looks at Todd like he’s just put on one of Eliot’s suits and rolled around in dogshit. So, you know, the way he usually looks at Todd. But maybe a little extra? “My engagement , Todd,” he says.

 

Todd spits champagne everywhere.

 

Eliot looks down at his seagreen ensemble, aghast, then at his own champagne flute, which-- oh, oopsies-- was definitely in the splash zone, even more aghast. He slams the flute down on the side table. “Well, you’re definitely keeping up with the tone that Q set, I’ll give you that much,” he says, wearily.

 

“Sorry,” Todd is sputtering, still kind of choking, a bit. “Really, really sorry. It’s just-- um. Are you sure. That’s what happened?”

 

Eliot’s face is blank. “Am I sure what happened?”

 

“The, um. Getting engaged?”

 

Eliot tilts his head to one side, and-- oh no. That’s the face the cheetah makes. Right before the pounce. Todd’s gazelle life was only just starting! “What do you think happened here?” Eliot asks with a smile that is just so deeply unsettling.

 

“I thought--” Todd says. Or, he tries to say. It comes out as kind of a squeak, and it sort of reminds him of his boys’ choir days, honestly. Shout out to Cardinal Harrington’s All-Regional treble II section! But he clears his throat and tries again. “I thought that, well, Quentin told you you were legally dead-- and single!” he quickly adds. “And then you yelled at him for not respecting your privacy, and then you said he was terrible, and then you kind of cuddled for a while? And made out for a while. And then he sort of did the opposite of sexiling you so that he can write about alternatives to sex magic, and then you called him terrible. Again.”

 

Todd braces himself for the pounce (and definitely feels not even any excitement at all about the prospect. Again, why would he? That would be so. Weird .). But when he eventually cracks one eye open, Eliot is just smiling softly.

 

“Yeah,” he says, reaching out to-- oh my God -- pat Todd on the shoulder. “That sounds about right.”

 

Todd just sits there on that couch trying to make sense of the world and anything in it, as Eliot smiles at him like they’re old pals sharing a secret. When Eliot swiftly stands, Todd nearly jumps out of his skin.

 

“It’s been an hour and a half, right?” Eliot asks, unconcerned, already swanning out of the room and over to the steps.

 

“It’s been six minutes?” Todd tries to say. It sounds like more of a question. He’s really got to work on that.

 

“Close enough,” Eliot sings back, as he ascends the steps. “I’m sure my lovely fiance misses me.”

 

And Todd is still just-- really, really not sure that Eliot has read this right. But there’s no yelling or door-slamming drifting down from the second floor, and when Todd finally finishes off his champagne and makes his way up to his own bedroom for the night, the sounds that he does hear coming from Quentin’s room are of the whatever-it-is-it-works-for-them variety.

 

Todd helps them out with a muffling spell as he passes by the door. It’s weird how they never seem to get it right. Quentin’s just-- well, not good at them, really. Never has been. But Eliot never seemed to have a problem with them before Quentin. And now the ones he does on Quentin’s room are so sloppy sometimes Todd almost thinks they’re purposely messed up. How crazy would that be?

 

He finishes the final tut, and silence descends over Eliot’s groans of “ --wanna be yours, be yours forever,” and Quentin’s increasingly hysterical panting. And Todd thinks to himself, maybe Eliot was onto something, after all. The thought makes him smile.

 

The thought is pleasant enough, and persistent enough, too, that when the bunny materializes on the kitchen island a few weeks later-- not the mostly-black bunny that lives in the hutch in Todd’s room, but a chubby white one with a tawny patch over one eye-- Todd calmly scrapes into the trash the remnants of the microwave burrito he dropped when the rabbit appeared, picks the bunny up, and carries it to Quentin’s room.

 

He knocks on the door, and Quentin’s not in the shower this time, so he opens right away. His hair’s a mess and he has a pen behind each ear, and Todd can see that he’s about to say that now’s not a good time, so Todd just holds the rabbit out with both hands and lets it croak out its message.

 

Quentin beams and reaches for the rabbit, tucking it against his chest, and chucking it under its soft little chin.

 

“Congratulations, by the way,” Todd says, feeling as genuinely happy as he can remember being in a while. Like, maybe since The Voice season finale.

 

Quentin’s bright smile grows even wider. “Thanks,” he says, at the same time the rabbit again repeats, “NEED RING SIZE ASSHOLE.” He hefts the bunny up a little higher and makes his way back into the room. But before he does, he stops, and calls out to Todd, who’s part-way down the hall already.

 

“Oh, um, you’re invited! To the wedding!” he says, still grinning, before ducking and awkwardly shuffling back into his room.

 

Todd manages to play it cool until Quentin has shut the door behind him. But not even The Voice can compare to the way he feels right now.

 

 

 

 

II. HOLD

(Rafe, Table 7, +Her Slowness Abigail the Horrifying [ no chair needed, but for the love of all that is holy, do not forget her place setting ])

 

 

The silence in the throne room is-- nearly a relief, actually, Rafe thinks. Formerly High King Eliot is truly a brave man and a good one, but-- or, rather, and . And he is also the height of-- conscientiousness. As any king should be, of course. Even one that is now perhaps more in the manner of a ceremonial king than a king regnant. Unlike High King Fen, long may she reign. Or No-longer-High King but still King Margo, long may she also reign, along with and officially slightly below (but in a somewhat-- appropriately-- imperious way) High King Fen. But, well, a bit closer to a king regnant than King Quentin who is-- who is-- who is beloved of Fillory’s other three kings. And has lots of-- innovative ideas, for improving life for the people of Fillory. And who-- does-- occasionally-- appear in court.

 

(Yes, Fillory has four kings now, and not a sitting queen in sight. It is-- different but High King Fen says that different is progress, and King Margo says that you can fuck right off with your gendered titles , and King Eliot just smiles and says you heard Bambi , and King Quentin-- has not ventured an opinion. Yet. As translator to Her Slowness, Rafe wouldn’t presume to share his own opinion, but privately, he thinks that progress is a good thing, indeed, for Fillory. Councillor Pickwick is-- more measured, in his assessment of the changes brought in by this new era, particularly the loss of some of the older ways of doing things. Abigail likes to snicker at him-- more loudly than Rafe wishes she would-- that there is no shortage of queens in the current monarchy, if Tick knew what he was looking for. Abigail is-- from an earlier era. They are working on her vocabulary. And in the meantime, Rafe is translating selectively.)

 

All of that to say, Formerly High King Eliot is fastidious in the extreme regarding the details of his upcoming wedding to King Quentin. He had been-- fittingly detail-oriented regarding his once-anticipated nuptials to Former King Idri of Loria, but this-- well. This doesn’t really compare. So this moment of blessed silence, without three-to-four simultaneous and sometimes seemingly (to Rafe’s untrained ear) contradictory directions about the color scheme, feels-- peaceful.

 

But.

 

It has been going on for some time now.

 

Tick, who asked the question that struck Formerly High King Eliot’s royal tongue-- temporarily-- dumb, looks over to Rafe with panicky eyes. Technically, Rafe has no official role in planning the royal wedding, as Abigail abdicated her advisory role with a grand, if leisurely-paced, rolling of her lovely dark eyes, somewhere around the time that Formerly High King Eliot began a third revision of the temperature-control spells for the new section of the royal gardens that he has commandeered to provide the flowers that he represents are crucial and required for the ceremony. But, Tick and Formerly High King Eliot have always had an-- eventful relationship, whereas Rafe has always found Formerly High King Eliot to be good of heart and easy enough to understand, if one pays more attention to his eyes than his words. (It is a lesson Rafe has learned well from living and working so long with Abigail.) So, Rafe has been attending the official planning meetings, here at the long table that Formerly High King Eliot has declared Wedding Planning Central Command, to-- ease the experience for all parties.

 

Rafe is about to suggest to Tick, via a small shake of the head, to resist what Rafe knows is his native instinct to fill the silence, and to let Formerly High King Eliot instead say what he is thinking when he is ready. But Formerly High King Eliot evidently finds himself ready before Rafe can even make the gesture.

 

“Just-- to clarify,” King Eliot drawls, dragging one finger across the table top, even as his eyes continue to bore-- regally-- into Tick’s, “you’re saying that-- King Quentin has asked Queen Alice to give the reading at the service. Is that right?”

 

“Former Queen Alice the Wise,” Tick responds immediately. “Yes.”

 

King Eliot nods. “Uh huh.”

 

Tick’s eyes go even wider, and he is speaking again before Rafe can delicately propose that he instead let the moment settle. “Is that-- I assumed that-- Your highness knew , of course?”

 

It starts as a declaration and ends as a question, as so many of the things that Tick says to the former High King. Tick shoots another-- beseeching look at Rafe. But there’s nothing to be done, because the answer to Tick’s question is obvious, and anyway King Eliot is already saying, “His highness did not know.”

 

“The invitation can be revoked!” Tick nearly yells.

 

Rafe has worked on the council, and with Tick, for many years at this point. So he does not drop his head. Or sigh. No matter how much he may wish to.

 

King Eliot narrows his eyes. “Tick. Are you suggesting that we overturn King Quentin’s explicit request that one of his closest friends deliver a reading at his own wedding ?”

 

Tick shakes his head ‘no,’ even as he says, or perhaps more accurately, asks , “Yes?”

 

King Eliot’s eyes flash-- Rafe is inclined to say dangerously. Abigail would scoff; she thinks well enough of King Eliot, much more so than most people she encounters, but always found him too soft-hearted to be a High King. But, as Rafe has told Abigail many times, there can be danger in a soft heart, especially when a threat is perceived to someone close to that heart’s center.

 

“King Quentin has risked his life --” King Eliot’s voice falters a little, but he pushes onward-- “again and again for Fillory, and for all of us. He is, as we speak, working himself into the ground to bring magic to Fillory’s people--”

 

Tick opens his mouth to interject, but King Eliot silences him with a slicing motion of his hand. It is probably for the best, Rafe thinks; little good could come from Tick airing his continuing-- concerns regarding King Quentin’s ongoing project of building a school to teach the practice of magic to Fillorians. The idea is-- far more novel than retiring the “Queen” honorific, and some of the old guard have expressed-- reservations regarding the project’s ramifications. Tick counts himself among the skeptics. But High King Fen is among the project’s greatest supporters, and has insisted that she will sit in on the first classes offered, as her royal duties allow. Abigail, for her part, neither supports nor opposes, but considers the entire ordeal a moot point, as Fillory has never bred strong native magicians. Rafe, while he has not announced as much, has been impressed with King Quentin’s-- detailed explanations of how the discipline may be made accessible to those not of Earth, although he cannot help but think that some of the controversy of the project could have been avoided if King Quentin had sought buy-in from native Fillorians before returning from his graduate studies and announcing his intent to build a school for their betterment. But so it tends to be with these children of Earth, and King Quentin’s heart is purer than most. In all events, it is fiercely guarded by King Eliot. Which is why:

 

“-- so if King Quentin wants a goddamned pony to do the reading, he’ll have it! Am. I. Clear ?!”

 

“Oh God, you’re not actually going to have ponies at the wedding, are you?”

 

King Quentin walked into the throne room toward the end of King Eliot’s-- announcement. He is wearing his usual melange of Fillorian and Earth styles, with soft, loose-fitting trousers ( peasant clothes , Abigail dismisses them) paired with what Rafe believes the children of Earth call a T-shirt. He is, for reasons of his own that no doubt make sense to him, barefoot on the marble floors. As he makes his way toward the assembly of wedding planners, he polishes off one of the small, bright-green apples for which the royal orchards are famous. (Most humans, Rafe included, find them too sour to be palatable; the first time that King Quentin bit into one, and immediately reached for a second, was one of the few moments that Abigail looked on Fillory’s most-- idealistic king, with true approbation.)

 

When King Quentin reaches Central Command, he places his free hand on King Eliot’s silken shoulder. The moment it lands, King Eliot whirls to face him.

 

You.

 

Rafe is-- not certain whether a king can properly be said to snarl . But if so, then that is what King Eliot, the man who declared not ten seconds past that King Quentin was a hero whose wishes were to be treated as law, does.

 

King Quentin gulps down his bite of apple. “Uh, me?”

 

“Over my dead body is Alice Quinn giving the reading at our wedding.”

 

Rafe places a restraining hand on Tick’s arm, and the councillor swallows the point of clarification he had no doubt been about to seek, just as King Quentin grins and sets himself down on the arm of King Eliot’s chair.

 

“Oh. So you heard about that.”

 

King Eliot crosses his arms over his chest. “ Yes , I heard about that . Did you plan on telling me at some point?”

 

King Quentin merely grins and leans further against the back of King Eliot’s chair, causing King Eliot to wriggle away, and wedge himself against the chair’s unoccupied arm. “You did say that I could pick whoever I wanted for the reading.”

 

King Eliot’s face betrays no hint of amusement. “I said that to placate you, because I thought there was no way you could fuck that one task up, and then I could look magnanimous by honoring one of your wishes while ignoring your frankly offensive views on place settings, wardrobe, and music!”

 

“I still say that we can teach the llamas to play The Smiths--”

 

Not. The point.” King Eliot’s tone continues to most closely resemble-- seething. For the first time in the conversation, King Quentin looks at him with concern.

 

“El,” he says-- and, as Rafe has observed in the past, the shortened name is enough to convince King Eliot not to shake King Quentin’s hand from his shoulder, despite the relatively high emotions of the moment. “Who did you think I would pick?”

 

King Eliot looks up at King Quentin sheepishly. “I assumed you’d pick Julia.”

 

“Julia’s already my best woman,” King Quentin said gently.

 

“Then, I don’t know-- Penny?” King Eliot has barely made the suggestion before both men snigger. For a moment, it appears that the tension may have broken, and King Quentin even ventures to slide the hand on King Eliot’s shoulder up to the side of his neck. But King Eliot grows irritable again. “Then, what about Josh? Or Kady? Or fucking-- Humbledrum ? Or, I don’t know, anyone but your ex-girlfriend ?”

 

King Quentin sighs heavily and brings his hands back to his own lap. “Should I even bother pointing out that your ex- wife is presiding over the whole fucking service?”

 

“Oh, please ,” King Eliot spits out, before Tick can point out that the codes of the court dictate that the appropriate styling is Her Royal Majesty Your Very Regal Ex-Wife. King Eliot knows the etiquette code. He wrote the etiquette code. And King Quentin-- tries.

 

“What?” King Quentin asks.

 

“You know very well what,” King Eliot says. But King Quentin is folding his arms over his chest in a manner that is-- well, on another, Rafe might call it stubborn, but on a king it is perhaps-- correctly resolute.

 

“Why don’t you enlighten me?” King Quentin says. The diametric opposite of Tick, King Quentin very frequently speaks to King Eliot in a way that starts out like a sentence, but soon becomes a bald-faced statement.

 

“It’s not remotely the same and you know it,” King Eliot answers immediately.

 

“Why not--”

 

“Because I was never writing-- fucking sonnets to Fen’s tits , Q!”

 

It is-- not a kingly statement. But jealousy can get the best of even the most devoted lover. Rafe himself is not proud of his own actions during the harvest festival, not so many years ago, when the strapping young leader of the lemur delegation paid more than passing courtesies to Abigail. For that reason, and because his instinct is always to smooth the tensions in any room, Rafe immediately slaps a hand over Tick’s mouth, to smother Tick’s inevitable declaration of shock at the insult to the royal bosom. His muffled moan of outrage lands heavily in the silence that follows King Eliot’s exclamation, all the same.

 

King Quentin’s eyes narrow, and he is silent for a long moment. When he finally speaks, he is serious and deliberate. “Do you want to try that again, with slightly less hostility to the fact that I’m attracted to women?”

 

King Eliot holds his stare for a moment, then brings his hands over his face and emits a frustrated groan. King Quentin’s mouth remains unyielding, but his eyes pull in, concerned. “What’s really going on?” he asks. “Are you stressed out about the talks with West Loria?”

 

King Eliot shakes his head without looking up. Rafe can confirm that preparations for the upcoming negotiations regarding drought-year water reserves on the northern border are proceeding apace. As chief ambassador to all neighboring political entities, King Eliot has carried the laboring oar, but by all appearances is handling his responsibilities with his usual aplomb. They, candidly, take up far less of his day than the continuing ordeal of wedding planning.

 

“Then what?” King Quentin asks again. “ Eliot . Use your fucking words, okay?”

 

“I don’t want to,” King Eliot grits out. King Quentin rolls his eyes to the ceiling, then looks over to Rafe and Tick, as if seeking support. Tick, whom Rafe continues to muzzle, shakes his head. Rafe offers what he hopes is a neutral but encouraging smile.

 

By the time King Quentin turns back to King Eliot, the latter has scrubbed his hands over his face and let out another annoyed groan. “ Fuck ,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m being a dick--”

 

“Well, yeah ,” King Quentin interrupts, but then closes his mouth at King Eliot’s withering look.

 

“I just-- look, part of me will always feel like that dumbass grad student who couldn’t pry your attention away from Alice Quinn with a crowbar, okay?” King Eliot continues, speaking quickly. “But that’s no excuse for being an asshole,” he adds even more quickly, as if he can draw attention from the admission that came before. “She’s our friend. She’s helping you with the school. Of course she should do the reading.”

 

King Quentin tilts his head to one side. “ Honey ,” he says, his voice sounding like exactly that.

 

But King Eliot bristles and pulls himself upright in his chair. “ Enough ,” he says, waving his hand. “I was an ass. The discussion is over.” He casts his regal gaze sharply to Tick and Rafe, and Rafe can’t help but start, jerking himself to attention.

 

“We were discussing the reading, yes?” King Eliot says briskly. “Well, lay it on me. What are our options? And remember--” he adds, casting his gaze ever-so-briefly toward his intended, “it will be read by one of the two distinguished co-heads of the New Order of the Library of the Neitherlands and a former queen of Fillory, so whatever we pick . . .” He exhales a sigh and insists with deepest gravity, “It should be worthy of Alice the Wise.”

 

King Quentin reaches down and gently fingers one of the raven curls at King Eliot’s temple. King Eliot doesn’t look over, but he does lean into King Quentin’s touch, just for a moment, before sniffing grandly and pushing at his fiance’s-- posterior , where it perches on the arm of his chair.

 

“If you have something you’d like to attempt to contribute,” he says, “then pull up your own chair. Since you didn’t deign to wear shoes , it’s the least you can do to try to maintain the decorum of our palace .”

 

King Quentin rolls his eyes, but slides into the chair closest to King Eliot’s, letting its legs scrape loudly against the smooth floor as he scoots over to be closer to his fiance. King Eliot lets his eyes shut briefly, in the pained way he always does when King Quentin leaves scuff marks on the marble. When he opens them again, he notices that King Quentin is still clutching the core of his sour apple in his non-dominant fist, and he clucks his disapproval, pulling a handkerchief from a hidden pocket with a flourish. As Tick begins to list the reading options, King Eliot wraps the apple core in a corner of the handkerchief, then uses the other edge to scour the sticky juice from King Quentin’s palm with a frown of concentration, while the man himself smiles tenderly at the rough handling. Rafe finds he feels the urge to smile himself.

 

“In honor of your highnesses’ Earthly heritage ,” Tick is saying, “I have cultivated a number of appropriate options from popular wedding texts from your-- original planet.”

 

The two kings share a look, then turn to Tick, with matching ill-hidden smiles. King Quentin coughs and attempts to school his face into something more serious. “How, uh-- how did you go about finding, um, Earthly wedding readings?” he asks.

 

“I consulted with Master Chef Hoberman,” Tick supplies readily, to which King Quentin widens his eyes and King Eliot nods exaggeratedly.

 

“Mm hm. Mm hm. And what, pray tell, did Master Chef Hoberman suggest?” King Eliot prompts.

 

“Well.” Tick takes a moment to lay several scrolls out on the table with an air of great importance. “ First , he noted that many couples in your-- home country select readings from a-- spiritual book series of some variety known as the Books of Bible?”

 

King Quentin snorts, and King Eliot shoots him a quelling look, although he has evident difficulty keeping his own mouth shut. Tick eyes them both warily, and continues, “--but he suggested that you would be-- disinclined toward using that series.”

 

“Safe to say,” King Eliot intones, “although I would love to see the look on my old pastor’s face if he knew that First Corinthians was being trotted out for my alien-planet wedding to a bisexual nerd obsessed with the devil’s books.”

 

Love is patient, love is kind ,” King Quentin says, reciting the opening lines to one of the readings that Tick had showed Rafe-- which, Rafe must admit, he found rather touching.

 

Clearly Saint Paul never had to deal with your problem-child ass,” King Eliot mutters, but it only makes King Quentin grin wider. “What else have you got for me, Tick?”

 

Tick is already sweeping scrolls aside to make room for the next candidates. “Master Chef Hoberman’s next suggestion was a popular writer from what I gather is a neighboring country on your planet, known as Mr. William Shakespeare. If I may be so bold ,” he continues, picking up and unrolling the scroll nearest him, before clearing his throat and reading in his most insinuating tone, “ Let me not to the marriage of true minds Admit impediments. Love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds--

 

“You’ve gotta be shitting me with that one, Pickwick.”

 

The unmistakable growl of Formerly High King Margo echoes through the room, a moment before the clacking of her majestically heeled shoes echoes on the marble. At her elbow is High King Fen, and a few paces behind is the Captain of the High King’s Personal Guard. King Margo peels off from the High King, who gives an-- enthusiastic and admirably accessible wave, before continuing in the direction of the Stairwell from Whence No Noises Carry with her Captain, who is the only person in the palace with the distinct honor of being permitted to sharpen the royal blades that Her Majesty keeps holstered to the royal thighs. High King Fen speaks very highly of his-- thoroughness in this area, which is no doubt why he continues to be allowed the privilege of handling the royal-- knives.

 

“That horny bitch,” King Margo says lowly as the High King marches off, with a tone of unmistakable pride.

 

Tick, whose left eye has begun to twitch perceptibly, forces his mouth into the widest of smiles. “Formerly High King Margo,” he begins, “what an unexpected delight to have your input on a wedding service to which you are neither a party nor an officiant.”

 

King Margo perches on the same arm of King Eliot’s chair on which King Quentin-- flopped , but regally , earlier. King Margo crosses one leg over the other in a way that makes full use of the impressive slit in her burgundy gown. “Haven’t you heard?” she asks, tilting her cheek to accept a fond kiss from King Eliot, “I’m best man, bitches!”

 

“A fact for which we are all deeply grateful,” Tick continues, through the same unmoving smile. “May I inquire as to whether your highness has a-- particular criticism of Mr. Shakespeare’s poem? Of is your highness simply being-- your words, not mine-- a ‘raging bitch’ again?”

 

King Eliot makes a noise like the air being let out of a balloon, but King Margo simply raises an eyebrow. “I’m gonna let that one go, Tick,” she says, “because I could hear the scare quotes. But seriously, let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments ?” She throws the arm not resting on the back of King Eliot’s chair out, so that she can gesture to both of halves of the betrothed pair at once. “Have you seriously ever met anyone more impeded than these two assholes?”

 

“Bambi makes a fair point,” King Eliot notes philosophically, as King Quentin rolls his eyes with theatrical flair.

 

Tick’s eyes, meanwhile, are both twitching now, so Rafe takes the opportunity to delicately move the remaining scrolls aside. “Perhaps,” he ventures, “we might table the discussion of readings pending further consultation with Master Chef Hoberman, and move on, for now, to vows?”

 

Tick picks up the cue gratefully. “A most excellent suggestion. Again, relying on Master Chef Hoberman’s expertise, I have compiled a list of traditional Earth marital-binding texts. One of the more popular forms from your home country, according to my research, involves the parties pledging to love, honor, and obey --”

 

King Eliot and King Margo let out matching gasps.

 

Next !” King Eliot declares.

 

Tick’s jaw drops, and Rafe is amazed to see that he actually looks flustered as he consults his notes. But as he searches for his next suggestion, King Quentin speaks up.

 

“Hold on. That one’s not-- it’s not that far off, is it?”

 

At the twin betrayed glares he receives from his royal compatriots, he holds up both hands. “I mean, obviously, we maybe skip the whole ‘obey,’ part--”

 

“Oh, sweetie,” King Margo says, extending one bare leg to pat King Quentin’s knee with the deadly tip of her shiny shoe, “nice try. But everyone in this room knows that you practically beg El to tie you up and let you prove what a good boy you can be.”

 

Rafe will neither confirm nor deny that he, a person in this room, is aware of that fact. But he would note that, while the Stairwell from Whence No Noises Carry is true to its name, the alcove at the base of that stairwell is not . Nor is the Fairy-less Hallway, King Eliot’s throne, the floor in front of King Quentin’s throne, or-- rather memorably, for the castle’s naiad population-- the enspelled fountain just beside the Old Spire. (It was an equally memorable occasion for the palace’s laundry staff, who had never previously seen King Eliot smile over ruined silk.)

 

King Quentin sputters, and King Eliot reaches past King Margo, to rub the back of his neck. “There, there, sweetie. There’s no shame in the world knowing exactly how much you like to sit the throne.”

 

King Margo cackles at that. King Quentin gives King Eliot a look that Rafe is sure Abigail could recognize all too well, the one that says we’ll be discussing this at home , and King Eliot swallows. Audibly.

 

Fine ,” King Quentin says. “Forget the whole ‘obey’ thing. What about just love and honor ? That’s-- unobjectionable, right?”

 

King Eliot doesn’t answer immediately, and because he is wearing one of his looser tunics today, without the high-collared jackets he prefers, Rafe can see that the pulse in his throat begins to pound at a pace not unlike the palace’s fleet of messenger bunnies.

 

Seriously ,” King Quentin sighs.

 

“It’s not that it’s objectionable , per se,” King Eliot says, his voice a note higher than normal. Rafe might say it was verging on the hysterical, were that a word that could be fairly applied to a king. “Isn’t it just-- a bit gauche to come out and say it? What happened to preserving the mystery?”

 

(King Eliot had not , Rafe might have noted, if it were his place, cared inordinately about preserving mystery when he grappled King Quentin’s shirt off in the middle of the gardens and then pinned him to the granite column at the center of the enspelled fountain, tying his wet hair in a knot to lap at the perpetually warm and fizzy water crashing again and again over King Quentin’s exposed throat, while King Quentin held on to King Eliot’s transparent shirt for dear life.)

 

Eliot ,” King Quentin tries again, “you do realize that part of any wedding ceremony is going to mean you admitting, out loud, to a room full of people that you love me. Right?”

 

King Eliot’s pulse kicks up another notch. He says nothing.

 

El ,” King Quentin repeats.

 

“What about--” King Eliot pauses to clear his throat. “Uh, what about if we ix-nay on the verbal declarations of-- affection , and focus on the tangible, instead. There’s always sex magic.”

 

King Quentin is unmoved.

 

Fine , what about. What about-- the one that the royal weddings in England use? The bit about with my body, I thee worship ?” The eyes King Eliot is flashing at King Quentin now border on the desperate. If Rafe were to translate, and he is a translator, he would say they are screaming please understand me . “That’s-- I think that feels like-- I think I could-- do okay, at that.”

 

King Quentin stares at him blankly for a long moment, before his face softens into a smile. “Yeah,” he agrees, gently, nodding his head. “Yeah, you’re really good at that.”

 

King Eliot calms visibly, and King Margo purses her lips, making the face that Rafe has learned means these two assholes (her word) won’t make me cry today.

 

Anyway ,” King Quentin says, patting the arms of his chair, “I should get back to work on the school. Alice had some good ideas yesterday about trying to compensate for background opium levels in Fillorian casters’ bloodstream . . .”

 

He continues speaking, mostly to himself, as he crosses behind King Eliot’s chair, where he pauses first to kiss the top of King Margo’s head, then King Eliot’s. He turns to give a little wave to Rafe and Tick, which some might call jerky, but which Rafe would describe as an open-hearted gesture emblematic of their most open-hearted king.

 

Just as King Quentin turns back around to leave, King Eliot snares the sleeve of his T-shirt between two fingers.

 

“Um, don’t work too hard, okay?” King Eliot says. “I know you’ve been-- frustrated with progress lately, and, hm. I’d hate for you to get-- burned out. Or, you know. Tired. Of dealing with this place. And all of its bullshit.”

 

King Quentin just stares at King Eliot, letting out a breath that takes the hunch from his shoulders. “Is that what all this has been about?” he asks, placing his hands on his hips.

 

“All of what?” King Eliot responds-- it must be said, not convincingly.

 

Eliot ,” King Quentin says again. King Quentin’s voice is gentle and kind, at all times. But never more so than when he says his beloved’s name. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says, before leaning over the back of King Eliot’s chair to kiss him, slowly but chastely.

 

Love is patient , Rafe thinks. Love is kind .

 

When King Quentin pulls away, King Eliot keeps his eyes closed for another moment. When he opens them, he reaches up to tuck a strand of King Quentin’s hair behind his ear, which fell out of what King Margo calls his man-bun as he leaned down for the kiss. “What do you want, for our vows?”

 

King Quentin smiles. “Whatever you pick is fine. Just, you know, tell me sometime before I’m standing under the arch, okay?”

 

“No, but--” King Eliot frowns, “what would you pick? What would make you happy?”

 

King Quentin shrugs. “I dunno. I sort of like the idea of, like-- writing our own? But, I’m not going to ask you to do that. I know that talking about your feelings in front of a roomful of people is, like, literally your nightmare--”

 

“That’s not my nightmare,” King Eliot says, grabbing King Quentin’s hand and pressing his lips to the back three times. No one in the room (save perhaps Tick) needs to think terribly hard over the various near-misses of the past few years, to know what King Eliot’s true nightmare looks like.

 

“We’ll do that,” King Eliot says, decisively. “We’ll write our own vows.”

 

“Seriously?” King Quentin may sound dubious, but the crinkles around his eyes tell a different story.

 

“Mm hm,” King Eliot nods. Then, with the natural-born swagger which was responsible for his becoming Fillorian royalty in the first place, he adds, “I for one can’t wait to see what kind of sweepingly romantic vows the man who proposed by having Todd ramble at me about sheep and death will write.”

 

“Go fuck yourself,” King Quentin answers cheerfully, padding out of the room on his still-bare feet once again.

 

“That’s what I have you for,” King Eliot calls after him. “Now, put some damn shoes on. This isn’t a barn , Coldwater.”

 

“Bite me!”

 

“Only if you can convince me that you’re a good boy!”

 

Love can be patient and kind, Rafe amends. Then he thinks of his Abigail’s acerbic wit and mostly silent esteem, and observes the besotted smile on King Eliot’s face as he watches King Quentin’s middle-fingered salute retreat from the room. But love can also, perhaps, be all manner of other things.


 

 

III. KEEP

(Marina, Table 23, +1 [ response card said only Wifey ])

 

 

“Totally hypothetical question,” Marina purrs into the perfect little seashell pink ear beside her. She gets a heavy sigh for her troubles, but it’s token resistance; Marina knows she can push a little further without ending up on the couch tonight, especially in this backless, halter number, which is working for her at all levels.

 

She cuts her eyes-- perfectly flicked out, natch; it goes without saying-- toward the front of the packed hall, at the figure who is-- yup-- still 115% slack-jawed under an arch made of a truly obscene number of tiny star-shaped flowers.

 

“How many minutes does a groom have to stand there like a deer in the fucking highlights before we can all collectively agree to mercy-kill the whole holy matrimony plan and just make for the open bar instead? Slash, we are thinking that the open bar stays an open bar in that scenario, correct? Because that toaster is going straight back to Williams Sonoma if Mama doesn’t get a cocktail for her troubles.”

 

In the row in front of Marina, a woman wearing what had to be an entire ostrich in the not-distant past turns around to shoot her a dirty look. The actual, shit-you-not talking ostrich sitting next to her seems less offended by the fashion statement than could be expected, but whatevs. Marina’s going to hold onto that for ammo if there are any talking alligators around here that decide to take offense at her own literally killer heels.

 

Shh !” ostrich-lady (to be clear: ostrich- wearing lady; this planet is a fucking trip ) says.

 

Marina raises her eyebrows and tosses out one hand, a classic bitch, what ? This is an A-and-B conversation, and the A is Marina and the B is Wifey’s super-biteable little earlobe, so girlfriend and her flightless-bird-chic can see themselves out of it.

 

To her credit, the woman picks up on Marina’s superior bitch energy, huffs, and turns to face front without a word. Although Marina has no goddamned clue what she’s expecting to happen up front that she’s so afraid she’s gonna miss, ‘cause homeboy is not pulling his shit together any time soon.

 

“Seriously, though,” she continues, “I get that this whole place is, like, some kind of hallucinogenic Disney fever dream, but are we fully confident that there’s not a drag-queen octopus running around with Eliot’s voice in a shell right now, because--”

 

Marina ! Shh!”

 

Wifey pinches Marina’s bare shoulder blade, and Marina shuts up, but not without a grin. Because that’s right, kitten, you can scratch a little. Marina can take it.

 

“He’s just emotional,” Wifey adds-- a little moister around the edges than Marina all together needs her to be about King Codpiece, who even Marina can admit is looking all kinds of dreamy in a midnight purple suit that really shows off the fact that those legs just do not stop. “It’s sweet.”

 

Marina raises an eyebrow and focuses front again, where Eliot continues to grip at his tiny fiance’s shoulders with visibly shaking hands, like Coldwater is the only thing holding him up.

 

Okay. It’s not not sweet.

 

Actually, everything about the day, up to this point, has been equal-parts sweet, batshit, and so over-the-goddamn-top that Marina has no choice but to grudgingly respect it. It had started when she and twenty-five strangers had arrived at their appointed pick-up time at the Brakebills quad-- and it was a testament to Wifey’s influence (slash presence) that Marina had refrained from lighting the place on fucking fire while she had the chance, although she did leave her cigarette butt in the grass without toeing it out, so who knows? Maybe the shithole will burn to the ground while she and Wifey nibble canapes and Marina “accidentally” lets her hands wander while they dance. She’d only had a couple minutes to fantasize about Henry’s office as a smoldering husk while shutting down attempted pleasantries from the other assembled randos about how they knew the happy couple (turns out helped hunt down Coldwater’s evil ass in an alternate timeline is a real conversation-ender), when her fellow Timeline 23 refugee Penny showed up to play chauffeur, looking only mildly resentful-- which Marina considered a true testament to the actually divine power of Julia Wicker’s ladyparts. After a two-sentence hands-inside-the-cabin-at-all-times briefer, he popped the whole group into a literal fairytale castle, albeit one with more human-on-sloth (and human-on-literal-bear and human-on-bearded-lizard and, huh, okay then, human-on- hummingbird ) action than Marina remembered from the very brief window of her life that she’d actually fantasized about princesses. (Well, fantasized about being a princess, anyway.)

 

The casual bestiality, and the fact that the hallway where Penny dropped them was heavy on the damp stone and big-ass wooden doors, gave Marina some hope, at first, that the night would be more sex-dungeon and less dancing-teacups. But that hope was put out of its misery as soon as said big-ass doors swung open of their own accord. At that point, it became crystal clear that Eliot Waugh-- because let’s face it, when not one with the Beast, Coldwater has no aesthetic to speak of and thus clearly had no role in planning any of this-- is the kind of groomzilla that would specifically cultivate the drabbest possible entryway to achieve maximum-gasp-factor when his little Dorothies get pushed over the threshold into full technicolor Oz.

 

And gasp the people did. Well, most of the people, anyway. Marina kept it to a smirk, and that mostly at the thought of how inadequate she was going to make some self-professed Pinterest diva feel when the pictures of this bad boy hit her insta. She did snap a few pictures just for her, though, and she was secure enough in her own badassery to admit that the whole scene wasn’t un romantic-- the way the pale blossoms floated to the floor in thick curtains from literally every effing rafter in this Nick, Jr. version of the Red Keep-- especially when Wifey stared up at them with that kid-on-Christmas sparkle in her big blue eyes.

 

(“I think they might be cherry blossoms? Oh, they remind me of when my fifth-grade class went to see the ones in D.C.!” she’d said, reaching out to stroke a miniature petal painted with the same rosy blush as her cheeks. And if the ensuing picture was now the background on Marina’s phone, well. That was no one’s fucking business but her own.)

 

From there, it was all see-and-be-seen until the ceremony started. There were enough of her old hedge contacts in attendance that Marina had been able to threaten their way toward the front rows, Wifey only pretending she wasn’t hella turned on every time Marina threw her weight around. (Don’t front, baby.) (Actually, do front, baby; it’s adorable.) They got far enough up to rub elbows with Hoberman, who in this timeline was Margo Hanson’s main dick. That would never not be a travesty, as far as Marina was concerned, but he did hook her up with a joint that he described as a ‘curated space-time experience.’ And while Marina’s pretty much over the whole space-time scene at this point, Wifey stoned is always a thing to behold, so Marina slipped it into her clutch, then promptly checked to make sure that she hadn’t smoked it without her knowledge when a choir of llamas suddenly appeared in the wings and began a not-awful rendition of-- pretty sure it was “This Charming Man.”

 

“That’s their cue!” Hoberman had said, turning toward the entryway and clasping his hands over his chest like someone’s grandma.

 

The doors swung open and there was Margo, in a gown with literal spikes on the shoulders and a slit that made Marina want to weep . She had Eliot on her arm-- and it was super clear that it was in fact Eliot on her arm, and not the other way around-- looking hot enough in the aforementioned crushed-velvet trouser-and-tails ensemble that Marina actually noticed him, even next to the concentrated fierceness of King Margo, long may she reign. The pair of them were clearly in their element, striding up the aisle like they owned the place-- which maybe they did? Marina’s honestly still fuzzy on exactly how the whole grad-students-slash-colonizers thing is working out. Eliot in particular took in each detail of the room like an artist surveying his brush strokes, registering approval but not surprise at each impeccable detail.

 

It was only when the two of them reached the arch at the front of the room, and Margo cupped Eliot’s cheeks to press a long, easy kiss to his mouth, that Marina began to suspect what they were in for. Because there was no hiding the telltale shimmer in Eliot’s eyes as Margo pulled back and pretended to wipe her black-red lipstick from his lower lip (as if Margo Hanson would fuck around with anything but smudge-proof). Marina’s row was close enough to the action that she could hear Margo’s “now go get him, baby, and don’t you fuck it up,” as she walked away, followed by the little hum that Eliot didn’t suppress quickly enough.

 

Without Margo at his side, Eliot’s breaths seemed to come a little quicker, his fingers fluttered a little more noticeably against the black piping on his snuggest-of-snug pants. He was keeping it together, though, until the llamas transitioned to “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want” and the doors flew open again.

 

Marina thought three things, in quick succession, when she saw Coldwater. The first was how weird it was to know that that fidgety little nerd, in another life, was the evil bastard that pulled the metaphorical wings off of everyone she ever knew like they were just so many of his pet moths. And how it was even weirder that that Quentin, and his whole timeline-- her whole timeline-- felt more and more like the bizarre dream sequence with every passing year.

 

The second was that there was no way in hell Coldwater had dressed himself.

 

The third hit right around the time Marina noticed that someone (almost certainly Julia, standing beside him and holding his hand, fully worshipable in sky blue) had tucked a couple of the ubiquitous flowers into his low bun. And that third thought was this: buckle up . Because while Marina knew for a fact from the handful of regrettable team-ups they’d been forced to endure in this timeline that Coldwater could be a mouthy, morose little bitch with a bad case of the savior-complex, there was suddenly no denying, as his fingertips brushed the flowers behind his ear, making sure he still looked pretty for Eliot, that he was also, apparently a whole-ass cinnamon roll. And Marina? Well, Marina knows a thing or two about what happens when an ice-bitch who wields eyeliner like a weapon falls hard for a cinnamon roll.

 

Unlike his main squeeze, Quentin clearly hadn’t had a vision board telling him what to expect when he walked into OTP Central, and his eyebrows went up at the same time his jaw dropped, as he took in the literal floating canopy of flowers above him. For a hot second, he was every single dude-bro, unable to appear anything but overwhelmed in the face of a goddamn look , but then his eyes narrowed, like the jumble of letters was magically shaping itself into words right in front of him. Whatever he read in them made his eyes go soft and one corner of his mouth sneak up into something sweetly dumbstruck that might have become a smile if he had a brain cell to spare for the effort. Instead, the couple he did have were both fully occupied with seeking out Eliot, at the front of the room, who was staring, helpless, the way it always goes down when, again, an ice-bitch who wields eyeliner like a weapon falls hard for a cinnamon roll. Quentin shook his head in disbelief, letting his eyes take in the indoor orchard covering the ceiling one more time, before settling back on Eliot, who only shrugged.

 

The two of them probably would have stayed there for the rest of the llamas’ set and then some, Eliot biting down on the softest of smiles and Quentin a thousand shades of oh, you . But always trust a bitch to get shit done, and luckily Julia was there to tug Quentin’s hand and prompt him forward down the aisle with a laughing smile of her own. Quentin’s puppy-dog eyes didn’t stray from Eliot’s the whole walk, and by the time Julia left him at the arch with one more squeeze of his hand and a mock-salute, he was all rosy cheeks and melted eyes and hands reaching instinctively for Eliot’s own. Between the little sigh that escaped his lips when Eliot’s hands gripped his tight and the flowers half falling out of his somehow already-messy hair, Marina felt like she was getting a pretty decent primer on Eliot Waugh’s deep kink. And if it was frankly a little disappointing to learn that Eliot-- who Marina would have pegged as one of the more sexually interesting people in this vanilla-ass timeline, what with the careful interlayering of Oscar-Wilde-fanboy and Daddy-Will-Tell-You-When-You-Can-Come-- went in for something as basic-bitch as a milkmaid fantasy, Wifey’s happy little sigh was a good reminder that Marina was in something of a glass house on that particular preference.

 

There was a bunch of dearly beloved blah-blah-blah after that, which Marina paid even less attention to than Eliot did, single-minded as he was on playing with the just-open-enough collar of Coldwater’s linen-y tunic and the seams of his sunrise-colored jacket-- which, not for nothing, had clearly been cut to order by someone who knew Coldwater’s measurements well enough to spoon the curve of those surprisingly buff shoulders, but still chose to leave the folded cuffs long enough to fall over his fingers.

 

“Uhh, King Eliot?”

 

The High King slash officiant-- who’s a snack , by the way-- is cutting panicky eyes toward Margo, who’s standing just to the side of the arch next to Julia (and Marina will gladly light a candle in honor of whoever decided on that configuration; she’d light a whole lot more than that if that same someone would convince High King Snack to stand between them, and for Margo and Julia to maybe each tug down one of the flimsy straps on her Midsummer Night’s Sex Dream get-up.)

 

“Oh, Christ , he’s choking already,” Margo stage-mutters-- and Marina half wants to tap Dowager Countess Ostrich Feather on the shoulder because see ; that’s exactly what Marina said, back when this bajillion-hour pause started.

 

El ?” Coldwater asks quietly, bringing his right hand up to cover the fingers clawed into his left shoulder. The ‘El’ in question, who’s been leaning farther forward into the airspace over Coldwater’s head since Quentin had answered High King Snack’s do you each affirm your intention to come here today to be wed? with a cheeky “why the fuck not?” that had made Eliot’s knees practically buckle and apparently robbed him of the ability to grit out a simple “yes ma’am.” (Which Marina would happily tell High King Snack, were she a single woman. Or were Wifey down-- definitely touch base on that once the champagne’s a-flowin’.)

 

“Sorry,” Eliot says, straightening up. He surreptitiously wipes one eye then the other with the side of his index finger-- Marina rolls her own eyes, because, sweetie, you are fooling no one , but at least he had the good sense to go with waterproof liner. The hand cradled between Quentin’s shoulder and palm stays put. Eliot clears his throat once, with about as much drama as you’d expect from a man who felt that this much enspelled floral bunting was appropriate.

 

“Right,” he says, setting his shoulders like he’s suddenly remembering that he’s a seven-foot drink of water. “ Yes ,” he says, directly to Quentin, like he’s proving a point. Then, with a sheepish smile for High King Snack, “yes.”

 

“Oh, phew!” Her Snackness all-but-sighs-- oh, the things Marina would do -- before clearing her own throat and nodding resolutely. “I mean, excellent. Then the Royal Wedding shall proceed . . . apace. As it has been! Proceeding. We’re all just . . . proceeding right along. It’s all great. True love! Right?”

 

Call. Up. Alice .” Margo’s command is little more than a whisper, but Snack jumps to attention, and Marina is finally feeling like she gets how exactly this kingdom runs. And also how the slash fiction she’s now composing in her head for those two plays out.

 

“Yes, of course,” says High King. “At this time, Kings Quentin and Eliot invite former Queen Alice Quinn, Co-Head of the New Order of the Library of the Neitherlands forward to give a reading selected by King Eliot.”

 

Alice stands up from her seat in the front row, looking more ready for a funeral than a wedding, in the highest-necked gown she or anyone else could ever find, paired with an honest-to-God cardigan. Her face, from what Marina can see in profile as she makes her way to the dais, isn’t so much unhappy as filled with her usual flinty skepticism-- at least until she catches Marina’s little smirk-and-wave and then scowls properly. (You threaten to infiltrate one little repository of all magical knowledge enough times that an ice-queen control-freak agrees to score you two invites to her ex’s royal wedding in exchange for your promise to keep your chaotic-neutral ass away from her precious reformed world order, and some people take it so personally .)

 

When Alice takes her place under the arch beside Snack, she actually smiles, closed-mouth but genuinely happy, at Quentin, then more nervously at Eliot, before setting her features, opening the little black bag around her wrist, and twisting her fingers lightning-fast through a spell even Marina can’t follow. When she’s done, a book is sitting open in her hands.

 

“A reading from the Book of Eliot Waugh,” she says, in the precise, teacher’s-pet voice that never fails to make Marina wonder, idly, what’ll happen the day she finally figures out that what she really wants is to have a whip in that clever little hand and someone willing to let her crack it. “Volume 1.”

 

File this little book-club pick as another vision-board entry that Coldwater wasn’t privy to, going by the way his eyebrows immediately pull together.

 

“To take back control from the monster that had possessed him and prove to his friends that he was alive, Eliot had to locate his most painfully repressed memory,” Alice narrates, not noticing or maybe (probably) ignoring her ex’s surprise. “He searched high and low through his many regrets and failures to find it, starting with--”

 

“You can skip ahead,” Eliot sniffs, with a haughtiness that Marina would maybe buy if he wasn’t avoiding eye contact with Quentin like the imaginary remains of his dignity depended on it.

 

Alice raises a gratifying eyebrow at his interruption, but turns the page--pointedly-- all the same. “At the reminder of Memory-Quentin’s devotedness, Eliot knew where he had to go: the day that he and Quentin had regained their memories of a lifetime spent at each other’s side. He stepped into the familiar throne room at Whitespire and saw his younger self and Quentin, sitting there beneath the flowered arch where a wedding had been.”

 

Alice pauses there to look up at the flowers above all their heads-- and okay, this whole thing is deeply trippy and Marina has officially no idea what’s going on, but she can tell when there’s some poetic symmetry afoot, okay? And it is afoot .

 

“Eliot made himself stand and watch as his younger self rejected Quentin, too scared to tell Quentin the truth--”

 

Coldwater has given up any pretense of watching Alice by this point, and is trying desperately to meet his fiance’s eyes. But Eliot’s not budging, staring hard at the book in Alice’s hands, going increasingly glassy, even as his thumbs trace absent circles on the hands that once again grab his own.

 

“--the truth, that he loved Quentin, had always loved Quentin, would always choose Quentin, but couldn’t believe that someone as good and true as Quentin Coldwater would ever choose him in return.”

 

Alice’s little frown as as she reads is kind of heartbreaking, honestly. So’s the fact that Eliot finally chooses that moment to meet Quentin’s searching gaze. But that second part’s heartbreaking in a way that’s a little realer than Marina is comfortable dealing with right now. Which is why she holds so hard onto Wifey’s hand when it comes silently to squeeze Marina’s knee.

 

“At the sight of Quentin’s hastily-hidden tears, Eliot could take it no longer. He scolded his past self for being a coward and then came to kneel before Quentin. ‘I was afraid, and when I’m afraid, I run away,’ he explained, before kissing the memory tenderly.”

 

Just as Marina’s about to accept that either the grooms or Wifey or Marina herself or all of the above are walking away from this reading with broken fingers, Alice clears her throat and looks out on at the crowd for the first time in her whole recitation, coming to the punchline, at last.

 

“And then Eliot made a promise to the real Quentin, even though the real Quentin wasn’t there to hear it,” she says. And father fucker , if Eliot doesn’t mouth the final words along with her: “‘If I ever get out of here, Q, know that when I’m braver, it’s because I learned it from you.’”

 

Alice stops then, and makes a small ‘um,’ before whispering a word that makes the book disappear as quickly as it had shown up. Without any further purpose to propel her, her grumpy-cat aesthetic comes back in force, and she puts her head down and begins to shuffle back to her seat. Coldwater’s so dazed that he barely even notices her go, still staring at Eliot  like he’s got the answers to the universe carved into his stupid-long eyelashes. But Eliot himself untangles his hands from Quentin’s just in time to grab Alice’s elbow before she’s out of reach. She looks at his hand first, then his eyes, then nods, once-- grim (because she doesn’t have another setting) but also kind of “we’re cool,” with a side of “take care of him.”  Eliot accepts it with a half-bow, before Alice stalks off to take her seat.

 

“Oh gosh,” High King Snack says, wiping away a tear-- and fuck these sad snowflakes and their heartbreaking requited-unrequited bullshit for sapping Marina’s internal monologue of the saltiness for a single quip about Mommy kissing it and making it all better-- Oh, nevermind, there it is. The bitch is back. Thank fuck .

 

“Oh wow,” Snack is repeating. “Okay. Well. Thank you, Former Queen Alice. That was so--” her little voice breaks, and Wifey’s hands press against her heart in sympathy, which Marina is filing as an encouraging sign for later-- “just so beautiful. Um. Phew. Sorry-- sorry! Okay. Okay!”

 

The royal snack is still sniffling but she’s shaking her fists at her side, too, like she’s trying to pump herself up. It’s ridiculously cute. “Okay. Okay . Um, at this time, King Eliot and King Quentin have chosen to recite vows representing their own--”

 

But whatever she was going to say next is a washout, as another crying jag hits, and she bends at the waist-- which is honestly not a terrible view, from where Marina’s sitting.

 

Shit ,” Margo drawls, with a roll of her eyes, like her waterproof mascara wasn’t getting a workout of its own a few seconds ago. She puts a hand on one hip anyway, and barks out to the crowd, “They wrote their own fucking vows, okay? So listen up.”

 

Once she’s spoken, Julia turns to her with a fair-enough shrug. “Efficient.”

 

“Well, some one around here has to pussy up,” she answers, then thrusts her chin out when Marina rewards the statement with the wolf whistle it deserves. She turns back to High King Snack then. “You think you can take care it from here without cocking out on me again?”

 

Snack nods vigorously. “Of course, King Margo. Thank you, King Margo.” Marina thinks, yum , just as Snack brings her hands together and actually claps. “Okay! At this time, King Eliot and King Quentin will proceed with the exchanging of vows.”

 

She turns and smiles her sweet encouragement at Eliot first. “King Eliot, you may begin.”

 

Eliot returns her smile with equal sweetness, then turns slowly back to Coldwater, whose eyes haven’t left Eliot since Alice’s reading. Eliot frowns slightly at the wrinkle in Quentin’s forehead, the way his eyes pull down just a little at the corners. His thumb strokes gently over one of Quentin’s furrowed eyebrows, and it relaxes, instantly. Coldwater’s eyes still look sad, though.

 

Eliot lets his hands drop back down to Quentin’s shoulders-- which are his safety blanket, apparently-- and takes a deep breath in, then out.

 

Q ,” he says, like it means birds singing and flowers opening and stars falling, and the force of all that closes his throat-- again. His eyes are wet and devastating and it is humiliating how much Marina is actually pulling for him not to screw this up. But he seems weirdly calm, like knows he’s got this, and he’s gonna do it, and he just has to wait for his body to get on his level and let it happen.

 

His mouth pulls into a little smile, and he shuts his eyes, the movement causing a single tear to shake loose from his eyelashes and travel down his cheek-- and Marina doesn’t even realize that she’s got a renegade of her own fucking off down the same path until Wifey gently catches it with her index finger. Marina crosses her arms in protest, and Wifey just smiles her lopsided smile, while up at the front, Eliot lets out one more long exhale.

 

“Q,” he says one more time, and he’s about to open his eyes, and it’s going to happen , when Quentin leans in, suddenly, both hands coming to Eliot’s hips, and presses his lips to Eliot’s in an excruciatingly soft kiss.

 

“Oh, um, I don’t think we’re at that part yet,” High King Snack mutters, at the same time that Eliot’s eyes fly open.

 

He pulls back just slightly, searching Coldwater’s eyes for a hint at what’s happening now. “Q?” he repeats, a question this time.

 

Shut up ,” Coldwater whispers, before pressing up for another aching kiss, which Eliot-- smart boy-- doesn’t fight.

 

This time when they pull apart, Eliot is silent, and Quentin turns sheepishly to Snack. “Um, thank you, Fen-- uh, I mean, High King Fen. But I’ve got it from here.”

 

High King Snack raises her eyebrows, but takes a step back, smiling, eyes dangerously bright again.

 

“Q, what’s going on?” Eliot is asking, confusion setting in now that his brain is back online after Coldwater’s apparently stupid-making lips temporarily shut it down.

 

Quentin just grins, like he’s enjoying seeing Eliot suddenly the one without a vision board to go on. “Do you trust me?” he asks.

 

“Of course,” Eliot answers, like he doesn’t even realize how easy that answer came-- and how hard it is, for people like him, like Marina, to ever get to the point where it is that easy. “But, you don’t have to-- I’ve got this, Q. I can do it. For you. For us.”

 

Quentin tips his head to the side and brings Eliot’s right hand to his lips, pressing a hard kiss into the knuckles. “I know you can. But-- you don’t have to prove it to me anymore, El. We’re good.” He reaches out then and runs a finger, whisper soft but deliberate, over the cluster of those same pink flowers looped through the top buttonhole of Eliot’s dark coat. “We’re so good.”

 

Eliot beams at that, and brings his own hand up to brush, equally soft, at the flowers that Julia tucked in Quentin’s long hair. “Yeah?” he says. Then, “okay.”

 

And then Quentin is smirking and lifting both hands to chest-level and saying, “Do you think you can follow along?”

 

That’s enough to make the penny drop for Eliot, apparently, even if no one else has any damn idea what’s going on. Eliot drops his own hands to his hips and says, “I explicitly told you--,” but Quentin just laughs and says, “Yeah, but you’ll let me get away with it, anyway,” and Eliot must agree, because he brings his hands up to his own chest, mirroring Quentin’s, and says, not without a challenge, “Show me what you've got, then, Coldwater.”

 

Quentin starts moving his hands through a sequence, then, and he’s an inelegant caster on a good day, frankly, but something about the slow, intentional way his hands move must make it easy for Eliot to repeat the steps, his own style so much more fluent that he and Quentin almost seem to finish each tut at the same time, even though Quentin starts each one a stutter-step earlier. It’s-- the movements are familiar, some of them at least, but Marina’s never seen magic like this before, and she’s not alone, if the way that Margo’s frowning, and Julia’s tilting her head, and Alice is leaning forward in her seat is any indication. There’s something about the-- sequence? Maybe? That almost reminds Marina of sex magic-- minus the sex, obviously. They’re not the same thing, but it’s like if a person spoke in Italian to someone else who answered in French, and they might not be able to understand a fucking word they say to each other, but they could still tell that what they’re doing came from the same place, once upon a time. Then Quentin finishes, both fists stacked one on top of the other, tight against the center of his chest, and he holds in place until Eliot mirrors the gesture, with his fists against his own chest, and a pulse of something so overwhelming floods the room, so that even the muggles are looking around, trying to figure out what just happened.

 

“Was that--” Marina starts, not even sure what she’s about to ask.

 

Love magic,” Hoberman-- who she honestly forgot was on her other side-- finishes for her. “Yeah,” he says, smiling, “I think it was.”

 

It should be trite as hell-- it is trite as hell-- but the after-effect of the spell still feels like it’s flapping its wings in Marina’s chest, and Wifey is leaning in that much closer, and up at the front, Quentin and Eliot are staring at each other like-- well, like they have been all damn day, each one nursing the idea of a smile as they drink the other in.

 

High King Snack steps forward then, her natural lovemuffin energy obviously juiced by all the true fucking love in the air, and announces, with more confidence than she’s shown all day, “King Quentin and King Eliot, you have stated-- er, you have demonstrated your intent to be bound to each other in the company of these gathered witnesses. In the name of Fillory, I charge you once more: do you swear to choose each other, all the days you are given?”

 

Eliot’s got no words, again, but doesn’t seem all together worried about finding them this time. He just nods, taking a step closer to Quentin. Quentin, for his part, opens his mouth to answer the High King, but this time he’s choking up, too, and mirrors Eliot, the way Eliot mirrored him just a few moments before.

 

There are rings exchanged after that, and more eye-fucking, and then the High King is beaming, and says, “By your words-- I mean, um, gestures-- or, um-- magic ! By magic, you have declared yourselves for each other. With the  power vested in me as High King of Fillory, I declare you officially married, from this day forward, from now until the bleats of despair”-- which, bit   weird as far as landings go, but not as weird as the fact that some fucker in a vest at the far end of the row has to literally honk into a hanky at the reference, whatever it may be.

 

Eliot and Quentin are immune to the weirdness, as they’re immune to pretty much everything but each other, coming together like a thunderclap, Eliot’s hands clutching the back of Quentin’s neck, sending a couple petals drifting to the floor when his fingers catch in the hair there, just as Quentin wraps his arms around Eliot’s waist, between jacket and under layers. The force of Eliot’s kiss pushes Quentin back against the side of the arch. He takes the hit without complaint, uses the arms snaked around Eliot to pull the other man flush against him, tipping his head back so that Eliot can keep drinking his kisses like water.

 

“Oh, my!” Her Snackness exclaims, stepping out of the blast range, and-- thank you, Lord-- closer to Margo and Julia. The three of them watch in varying shades of interest (Margo), humor (Julia), and delight (Snack), as the lovers continue necking in front of a live studio audience. At last, Eliot pulls back to breathe, then uses the break to unwind Quentin’s arms from around him, grab his hand-- pausing for a moment to marvel quietly at the ring there-- and pull him down the aisle, where they can no doubt continue the party in private.

 

The public version of the after-party pretty much lives up to everything Marina was hoping for, from a planet with literal opium in the air-- with the notable exception that Fillorian champagne apparently tastes like ass . The mini-crabcakes make up for it, though, even if it burns her balls to learn that the basically orgasmic remoulade sauce is a Josh Hoberman original. For the first time, though, Marina’s got a semi-plausible reason for why Margo keeps him around, other than the frankly off-putting possibility that this timeline’s Hoberman has a sixteen-inch dick.

 

There’s music then-- these llamas are getting to be Marina’s jam , for realsies-- and toasts. Julia’s makes Wifey cry when she gets to the part about how Quentin has struggled so hard and how she’s so happy that he has someone who’ll never leave him to struggle alone. Margo’s is so NC-17 that Marina almost does a spit-take at one point (she’ll blame the atrocious champagne) and unexpectedly ends with the king herself bursting into tears, Eliot gathering her up in his arms and rocking her like a baby, until she’s calm enough to be handed off to Josh. And at one point, Henry grabs the mic and, for the first time in any timeline, makes Marina actually glad not to have dusted him yet, when he begins by saying I originally prepared these remarks to deliver approximately 39 timeloops ago, because it seemed this was the direction we were headed. But since that time you and your cohorts have, in between dying in inventively gruesome ways, played the romantic and sexual equivalent of musical chairs. I suppose some might consider it romantic that we’ve come back around to this permutation, at last .

 

Once Josh’s dessert course comes out and the party really gets kicking, Marina takes a moment to do a lap of the room. The men of the hour are location unknown (she was guessing broom closet, but after a story from a very screamy naiad-- who nearly lost her shit when Wifey did her good-girl thing and alternated a glass of water after a very purple cocktail that tasted simultaneously like pineapples and a burnt marshmallow-- has updated her pick to ‘fucking in a fountain’). Wifey’s out on the dancefloor, between Kady, in a black blazer and library-red lipstick, and Julia-- which is an image Marina will be holding on to, thanks so much. High King Snack has snuck off with her super-buff guard, which is a bummer, but not before Marina squeezed by close enough to confirm that there are not one but two thigh holsters under that innocent-wood-nymph skirt. So, #worth it.

 

After another loop around the perimeter, Marina loads a few more of the crabcakes on her plate and then slips out of the great hall to-- case the joint sounds so basic, but, yeah, case the joint. Because, look. Marina doesn’t have the time to be in the hedge game these days, not when you bet your perky ass that Marina’s gonna have dinner on the table and slippers at the ready when Wifey gets in from working hard for the money with all those Wall Street fuckboys. It’s nice to keep a hand in the game, though, and Marina is 90% sure that there’s shit that no one in this castle would even know was gone that could get Marina and Wifey an upgrade on the Santorini trip they’re planning next month if Marina slipped it to the right people on the magical black market.

 

She saunters down this hallway and that, giving any guards she passes enough stink-eye to prove that she’s still got it, until she reaches a stairwell that’s weirdly silent-- like, deep-space silent-- until she steps onto the landing and then it’s really, really not. And damn , she totally should have put ‘ensorcelled staircase’ on her newlywed fuckathon bingo card. Because if you’d asked Marina five minutes ago whether she knew what Quentin Coldwater-- from any timeline-- sounded like when his boy-- excuse her, his husband -- had him pinned against a stone wall, she would have answered with a polite hell no . But now that she’s heard it, there’s no mistaking it for anything else.

 

They’re on a high enough floor that Marina can’t actually see them, and they definitely can’t see her (probably they wouldn’t see her even if she walked up and said ‘howdy’), so she shrugs and sits down on the lowest step.

 

( What ? These heels require the occasional break and also what the hell ? Coldwater moaning is doing it for in a way she wouldn’t have thought but isn’t going to question.)

 

“You know I had a speech planned.”

 

And that ’s Eliot, because of course his dirty talk is 30% picking a fight, 70% low-key inviting Quentin to ask him to passionately declaim his tender feelings where no one else can hear.

 

“It was-- fuck , it was a good fucking speech.”

 

“Uh huh.” And honestly, Marina’s about five seconds away from popping some lady-wood, that’s how impressed she is that Coldwater can sound that simultaneously unimpressed and indulgent when she knows damn well that he’s taking all that Waugh goodness right about now. “Tell me later.”

 

The smack and the squeak are enough to show that Eliot’s reaction isn’t that far off from Marina’s. “I could tell you now.”

 

“Yeah, I’ve got other plans for your mouth right now.” And damn , Coldwater-- you may be a cinnamon roll with twitchy hands and flowers in your hair, but you are managing King Eliot the Walking Control Issue.

 

“Mm,” King Eliot sasses back, “maybe you should go first. So I can follow along. Again.”

 

Marina can almost hear Quentin’s grin when he answers back, breathing hard, “Sure you wouldn’t rather I give you my speech?”

 

“Fuck off , Coldwater.” Eliot’s laughing now, and Marina respects it. People don’t laugh enough during sex, as far as she’s concerned. “You’re right; communication’s overrated.”

 

Talking ’s overrated,” Coldwater corrects, serious again, and then there’s the unmistakable sound of more of their impressively old Hollywood kissing.

 

After that, Coldwater must relent, because the next thing Marina hears is Eliot’s “oh fuck , Q. Baby , yes. Oh, honey --”

 

And it gets soppier from there, soppy enough that Marina’s content to take her three remaining crab cakes and make her way back in to the party.

 

Wifey’s still on the dance floor with Kady and Julia, and even Alice has joined them now, cardigan forgotten, jumping and singing along in delight as the llamas do their best A-ha-- which ain’t half-bad.

 

Marina sidles over to a high-top table with a good view, where weird hanky-guy from the wedding is planted, next to a sunny blonde with a fire-engine red streak in her hair. Hanky-guy (Todd, apparently) offers unprompted that her name is Emily Louise. “Just Emily is fine, actually,” she replies, but she seems legitimately into the little creeper. She’s going to break him in half, no question-- but he seems down with that fate, which Marina can respect.

 

Marina lets the two of them awkwardly flirt and turns to her left, where a cute Sgt. Pepper wannabe is talking softly to a sloth draped around his neck. Marina gives a nod to the sloth first, because game recognizes game and that sloth is a bad bitch if Marina has ever seen one, before giving a “sup” to the boytoy.

 

By that point, Quentin and Eliot are making their way back into the hall, to general cheers. And honestly, Marina’s going to have to upgrade her take on this Disney shitshow of a kingdom, because not a creature in the place bats an eye at the fact that Quentin is jacketless, sporting serious sexhair, and Eliot’s neck looks mauled and there is unambiguous man-gravy on the velvet of his suit. The newlyweds look at each other and grin, and Eliot gently brushes a crumpled flower petal from Quentin’s shoulder, causing the shorter man to kiss his cheek before running over to Julia, who’s making grabby hands at him.

 

“Okay, is someone gonna tell me what’s the deal with these fucking flowers?” Marina asks, to no one in particular.

 

The sloth’s boytoy just smiles before announcing knowledgeably that the pinker ones with the yellow pollen on the pistils are peach blossoms, while the paler ones with dark red pollen are plum blossoms-- which means fuck-all to Marina, but it was apparently important enough to Eliot that he’s been growing the trees out of season in a top-secret part of the royal gardens under a literal cloaking spell.

 

“He hasn’t allowed King Quentin to step foot in the western garden for months,” boytoy says, like he’s imparting a secret.

 

Marina’s eyebrows draw together. “I thought you said the trees were cloaked?”

 

He smiles. “They are. But King Eliot says that King Quentin has always seen through him, and he wasn’t willing to take the risk.”

 

Todd, who’s tuned in by this point, sighs. And Marina has to admit it’s a line pretty much guaranteed to score. All the more so because Eliot probably meant every word. 

 

The three of them (plus the sloth and Emily/Emily Louise) look out to the dance floor, where Eliot has come up behind Quentin and is speaking into his ear. Whatever he’s saying is for Quentin only, and it’s making Quentin smile so hard his eyes are crinkling.

 

And Marina--

 

Well, Marina is thinking of the Beast, suddenly. His emptiness and his sadism. And she’s thinking about how harried and beat-down this Coldwater looked, during those months that some big bad superfreak had colonized Eliot’s body and then Marina’s penthouse. And about Eliot’s pure panic, when it was looking touch-and-go that one shitty time (and the one after that, and the other one after that), and no one had eyes on Quentin.

 

And--well, she thinks of Wifey. Other Wifey. The first one that she knew, who got understandably fed up with Marina’s bullshit and who may have survived their hellhole timeline and found some other sass-monster to keep in line, and who may be lying cold and dead in the ground of another world-- Marina will never know.

 

And Marina thinks that every world can be hard, and shitty. And no one makes it out alive anyway. And maybe it’s sappy as hell, but she’s just-- so glad that these two emotionally constipated disasters have found each other, and can fuck up at actually talking to each other and make each other happy anyway for as long as they can, until the next trashfire comes for them all. It’s nice . They deserve it.

 

And if Quentin chooses that moment to spin around in Eliot’s arms and kiss him senseless again, the hand with his shiny new ring snaking its way toward Eliot’s velvet pants, while Eliot’s ring glints from between the tangles of Quentin’s hair, well. What’s the point of a fairytale wedding without a happy ending, anyway?

 

God knows they could all use a few more.