Actions

Work Header

an ode to all our wasted time

Work Text:

Matthew misses his chance.

He thinks it, one morning, trapped inside a melancholy that’s hard to shake. He’s been sober for a few years now, which means that he’s not always floating through a dazed fog. It also means there’s no numbing protection when the sadness unexpectedly descends. There’s just the pang, and the sudden stranglehold, and the knowledge that if he breathes through it, it’ll eventually ease.

So there’s this: He wakes up after a comfortable night stretched out on the couch, because patrols went late, and James invited him, and he offered a polite thank-you refusal. And Cordelia told him that if he fell asleep on his feet and got eaten by a Shax demon then she’d personally reach into the monster’s gullet, pull out his half-digested limbs, piece them back together, perform a necromantic ritual, and kill him twice.

Which was a tirade delivered with such flawless poetic phrasing that Matthew couldn’t very well refuse again, could he?

He wakes up under the comfortable knitted blanket in the comfortable living room in this comfortable home that James and Cordelia have carved for themselves. It’s a space where he’s always welcome. Some of his things are even here. But it’s not his, really.

He’s not thinking about that, though. He’s happy to be allowed to exist in this place, and he’s happy about how happy James and Cordelia are together, and he’s happy that their futures are all intertwined. Matthew doesn’t waste a lot of time marinating in the melodramatic. He tries not to, at least.

He wakes up, and he wanders into the kitchen because his stomach is grumbling accusatorily, and he must raid the food stores before he starves to death. He’s still dressed in his rumpled clothes from last night, layers of outerwear shed to make sleeping bearable. It’s scandalous, maybe, but not with them. They've seen everything he is and then some.

He’s in the process of making a stack of toast with an unholy amount of butter when Cordelia wanders into the room. She’s blinking sleep from her eyes, her nightgown leaving more skin visible than any decent outfit, and her hair is a pinned halo that’s slid into mild ferality during the night.

“I want half,” she says, plopping down in one of the seats at the table.

The squeaky floorboard on the stairs creaks, which only happens when James is too sleepy and apathetic to skip it. He makes his grand entrance with the same stretching, yawning countenance as his wife. Really, it’s astonishing how much alike they look.

“I want the other half,” James says. He leans over the back of Cordelia’s chair and presses his face into her hair.

“I am dying,” Matthew informs them solemnly. “I am, as we speak, wasting into a shell of my former self. My organs are taking on new shapes. I am a sad baby bird in a nest, and you are snatching sustenance out of my beak. You are callously chewing your breakfast while watching me succumb to starvation on the floor.”

“That sounds correct,” Cordelia says, nodding.

“You could always eat some raw vegetables,” James says, as though Matthew would ever do such a thing. “We have raw vegetables. We’re going to cook them sometime.”

“Don’t eat the raw vegetables,” Cordelia says. “I think we bought them last year.”

For all his complaining, Matthew is already dividing up the toast into two equal stacks. He slides one plate onto the table in front of Cordelia and places the other across from her. James, because he likes the occasional quiet menace displays, rolls across the table to get to the chair instead of walking around like a normal human being. He’s beaming when he sits down.

Matthew’s heart seizes.

He thinks, I missed my chance.

Then he thinks, What?

What does that even mean? Chance for what?

He didn’t miss anything. Everything happened exactly as it was meant to. All things considered, his relationship decisions should be commended. When Cordelia and James were sorting out their messy feelings for each other, Matthew was busy drowning himself so deep in a bottle that he couldn’t see the daylight. He was not a person who could sustain a healthy romantic relationship. He could barely sustain his parabatai relationship.

And what the hell kind of romantic prospect does he think he’s entertaining? He’s very good at avoiding his thoughts, but it’s easier with alcohol, and Matthew’s committed to avoiding that path. So when he asks the question, he can’t unask it. Romance with James? He and James are soul bonded, parabatai. Any romantic connection between them would be insanely dangerous and illegal and complicated.

Romance with Cordelia? Well. He's thought about her for years. But his feelings don’t have the same desperate yearning they used to. He doesn’t ache like an open wound. The aching, he knows now, was more due to the demons inside him than the strength of his passion.

He thinks about it for a moment. He thinks about a world where the house and the furnishings and the books and the trinkets and the tablecloth belong to him and Cordelia. He thinks about James shut out of the environment. He thinks about the fact that if he was with Cordelia, James wouldn’t be with Cordelia.

The thought makes him nauseous.

“Matthew?” James looks up, tawny eyes dark with concern, mirth fading from his expression. He’s reading something in Matthew’s face, or his body language, or his soul-channeled emotions.

It’s a lot harder to hide things from James when Matthew’s sober.

“You do look a bit peaked, actually,” Cordelia says. She smacks a piece of buttered toast against Matthew’s palm, which is the messiest possible way to offer him food.

Matthew, relieved by the distraction, shoves the entire piece of bread in his mouth and makes a big show of licking the butter and grease off his skin.

Cordelia observes with a mixture of fascination and mild horror, as if she didn’t start this.

James still has a little furrow between his brows, but he sits back in his chair.

It’s fine. It’s fine. Everything’s fine. Matthew just can’t think about it ever again.

-

The parabatai bond has been different over the past few years. James should be used to it, but he still finds himself startled. In an ideal world, he and Matthew would have learned to recognize and navigate these feelings in their adolescence.

In their world, James’s emotions were obfuscated by dark magic and Matthew’s by consistent drunkenness until well into their late teens. So they’re learning each other, now, and some pieces have settled into familiarity, and some are still strange.

It’s very strange that James is aware of more subtle shifts in Matthew’s emotional balances. In the fugue of alcoholism, everything was a thick blanket of misery or euphoria. This is a crystal painting with heartstopping detail, but the subject is unfamiliar. He can describe each brush stroke making up the canvas. He can’t explain what the painting is of.

He’s used to taking care of Matthew, sharp detail or no. He knows how to orient himself to become what Matthew needs, whether they’re in battle, patrolling, navigating a social function, or sitting at the breakfast table watching the sun creep over the outside gardens.

But there’s sometimes… He doesn’t know how to describe it. It’s a pang like loneliness under the ribs, a clog in the throat, a need to look away from something precious. It’s a feeling that mirrors between them, amplifying until he’s not sure who is feeling what. When that happens, he doesn’t know how to resolve it, because physical touch and gentle calm just make the roiling worse. The only tactic that works is to separate himself from Matthew entirely.

Which feels like abandonment.

He does make an attempt. James doesn’t mind the occasional cooldown separation, provided it’s temporary and truly the best option. But he gets anxious when anything interferes with his physical connection to Matthew. He’s had his thoughts and autonomy taken away too many times. He cannot bear the thought of anything spoiling what he’s built.

So he follows the thread to find Matthew sitting on the sunny porch, head tipped back to bask in the rays, eyes closed. He looks peaceful. James thinks it might be a - a violation, to be aware of Matthew’s unhappiness. But they both signed up for this with the parabatai ceremony.

James just didn’t expect it to be this intense.

He sits beside Matthew on the porch swing. Matthew grunts a half-greeting but doesn’t open his eyes. James wraps an arm around Matthew’s shoulders, squeezing him gently.

Matthew’s breath hitches.

James keeps his arm where it is, leaning so his head can rest against Matthew’s shoulder. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“You say that as though I ever have thoughts,” Matthew says, wry.

“If you wanted to talk, you could have sought me out,” James says, “so I assume you don’t want to talk. Is it all right for me to sit?”

“You’re already sitting,” Matthew points out. “It would be rude to exile you now.”

That’s an assent as far as Matthew-language is concerned. James closes his eyes, head still tilted against the other’s shoulder, letting the warmth of the sunshine and the trilling of the birds and the gentle sway of the swing lull him. Matthew’s not happier, exactly, but sometimes James can calm him just by being calm himself.

“You must think I’m a bloody prat,” Matthew murmurs after a few minutes, voice so soft that there’s no sting in the words. “Everything perfect, nobody dying who isn’t already dead, families starting, and I spend the entire time whining.”

“Unfortunately,” James says, “there are a few things wrong with your theory.”

Matthew heaves a great sigh, but he indulges. “Oh?”

“First, humans sometimes get melancholy about long-dead people. It’s one of the most annoying things about being human. Second, everything is not perfect. At least not all the time. Just yesterday I tore a hole in my favorite pair of socks and wanted to lay on the ground for an hour. Third, you’re not whining. In fact, quietly going off on your own to avoid burdening people is the arguable opposite of whining.”

“You have no proof I’m trying not to burden people. That’s all conjecture. It'll never hold up in court.”

James huffs, exasperated, and squeezes Matthew’s arm. He doesn’t know how to convey his sincerity through speech, so he runs his palm up and down Matthew’s shirt sleeve like he’s trying to generate warmth in a frigid winter. “I just wish you would let me know when you don’t feel well. We don’t need to talk about it every time. I’d like to help when I can.”

“There appears to be no need to tell you,” Matthew says, his voice too light, “when you know either way.”

James's gut clenches powerfully enough that it’s probably bond transferred. “I’m sorry,” he says, pulling his arm back and shifting to stand. “I didn’t intend to overstep.”

“No, wait.” Matthew catches his wrist before he can bolt. When James scrutinizes his face, there’s such earnestness and concern that his tense stomach relaxes. “I’m sorry. I’m a bastard. Stay.”

James opens his mouth to tell Matthew that he does not want to continue creating a situation that makes Matthew uncomfortable. But he can already see the end result: a useless back-and-forth, increasingly frantic politeness, stupidly awkward exchanges.

He sits down.

“I’m sorry,” Matthew repeats. He’s the one to wrap his arm around James, now, letting James settle against his chest. “I’m sorry.”

There’s something in Matthew’s voice, or his breathing, or his emotions. James can’t pinpoint the location or the cause. His own breath leaves him in a little rasp. Matthew’s shoulders are wiry and muscular, not at all comfortable pillows, but leaning into him is like sinking into a warm bath or a feather bed.

“I don’t think I’m the biggest mess, here,” Matthew says. Now his tone is easy to pinpoint - wondering. “Excuse me while I bask in a circumstance that only occurs when the planets line up once every eighty thousand years.”

That, at least, feels normal. James isn’t sure how Matthew ended up the one comforting him, but he can’t deny the warm taffy feeling. It’s a little easier to breathe, now. He thinks he might have been more wound up than he realized.

“I truly don’t think I am a mess,” James says.

“You are so hypervigilantly anxious that I end up with phantom pains in my shoulders.”

“Everyone’s shoulders hurt.”

“Moreso when they’re hypervigilantly anxious.”

James doubts this is an argument he’ll win, so he sets it aside. The stretched-tight unhappiness inside him - whether it was his or Matthew’s or a combination - is easing in small increments the longer he stays in Matthew’s arms. It’s good. It’s safe. It’s right.

They’ve been silently intertwined for long enough that Matthew’s next words rouse James from a light doze. “Does it pain you?”

When no clarification is forthcoming, James says, “I can’t read your mind, Matthew. I still need you to tell me what you’re on about.”

Matthew huffs a laugh. “When I’m unhappy. Does it pain you?”

Somewhere along the line, both of Matthew’s arms have gotten wrapped around James, James himself half-angled into his parabatai’s lap. James lays his fingers over the backs of Matthew’s palms, petting them idly, which sets off a spasm inside him so distinct that it can’t possibly be Matthew’s.

“No more than a light bruise, and that’s at the very worst,” he says. “It’s more - an awareness, rather than a pain. An itch. A nagging feeling like you’ve forgotten something.”

Matthew says, “Was it better when I was drinking?”

James stops breathing.

“Ah.” Matthew's tone is foreign. One syllable has never sounded sadder. The resignation weights James down, dragging him to the bottom of the ocean. “That answers that.”

“No,” James says - snarls, really, curling his fingers around Matthew’s hands and gripping them tight like a lifeline. “No, it wasn’t better. It wasn’t. No aspect of my life has ever been better with you drunk than with you sober. But the fact that you asked me that scares the hell out of me.”

“I’m - not going to do anything stupid,” Matthew says, startled and retreating back into a polite shell, a place where James can’t reach him. “I apologize. I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

“Why would you ever think something like that?”

“I find that my sober mind has an inconvenient amount of energy, and it chooses to put this capacity toward maddening introspection rather than, say, finding cures for diseases. I’m sorry, James. Sometimes a thought snares me and won’t let go. I didn’t mean to scare you.”

James wants to tell Matthew about exactly how much better things are, how much healthier and happier everyone is, how easy it is to sleep through the night when he’s not lying awake afraid his parabatai is dying in a gutter. But guilt eats Matthew alive. James doesn’t know how to tell Matthew how incredible he is now without mentioning all the pain from years past.

Instead he exhales fully, concentrating on emptying his lungs of air. Inhales slow and sharp. Exhales again. It’s one of many breathing exercises from the training rooms, and it returns him to equilibrium.

“I’m not going to do anything stupid,” Matthew repeats, soft, like a prayer or a confession.

James tries for levity, but his voice is a little too flat. “That,” he says, squeezing Matthew’s hands tighter, “is almost never true.”

-

James is three-quarters asleep following an uneventful late-night patrol when Cordelia asks, “Do you ever think about kissing other people?”

He is very, very tired, and the question seems like any other three AM pondering, so he doesn’t even open his eyes. There’s no shock of awareness, electrifying jolt of sensation. “Sure,” he mumbles into the pillow. “Go to sleep.”

“Who do you think about kissing?”

They’re alone in their bedroom, each sprawled on their respective side of the mattress, Cordelia threatening to warm her cold feet on his calves while James tugs the blankets progressively further over his body. It’s one of the safest spaces that James has, all comfort and warmth and the scent of Cordelia’s hair.

James cracks one eye open. Cordelia is prone to starting insomniac conversations, but she lets the unimportant ones lie when it’s clear he’s too tired to participate. Apparently his answer matters enough that it can’t wait until morning.

“Why are you thinking about kissing?” he asks. “I’ll kiss you.”

Cordelia’s sitting up, face shadowed in the glow of the bedside lamp. She twists her fingers anxiously together.

James frowns and snares an arm around her, coaxing her to lay back down. She does, snuggling up under his chin without any hesitation. He hugs her close, petting her pinned-up hair in a way that’s not conducive to keeping it in place.

“It’s just,” she says, muffled into his collarbone, “a lot of people equate it to infidelity. For a married person to think about kissing someone else, I mean. Even if they’d never act on it. Even if they love their spouse more than anything. Which I think is - silly, since thoughts have no impact on the material world. It’s actions that cause harm.”

James hums. The drowsiness pulls at him, begging him to table the talk, at least until Cordelia sticks her frozen toes on his leg. He yelps.

“Pay attention to me.”

“My God, the demands I have to put up with.” He kisses the top of her head. “I’m extrapolating from that rant that this is not a secret test to gauge my likelihood of committing infidelity.”

Cordelia tips her head back just so he can be pierced by the full weight of her Judgment Stare. She doesn’t need actual words, here, since the Judgment Stare does the work. It says, I should not have needed to clarify. You know I hate mind games and tests, and you know that if you upset me I’m not subtle in telling you, and you know that if I thought you’d betrayed me then I would kill you and make it look like you were mauled by a bear in the park.

“All right, all right,” James says. “Kissing, sure. Sometimes there’s a beautiful person in a soap ad or a gorgeous actress in the pictures and I look at their lips. I think that’s a normal human experience. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to kiss you.”

Cordelia exhales, a sharp little breath that could be either surprise or relief. She tucks her head back underneath James’s chin, but he doesn’t know whether she’s hiding or just getting comfortable.

He waits for a follow-up query. When sixty seconds pass without one, he says, gently, “It won’t make me upset if you think about kissing other people.”

“Even if they’re people we know? Instead of soap ad models?”

The lack of hesitation means that she’s had the question bursting in her lungs since before he spoke. He’s about to respond yes, even if they’re my sister, although please don’t kiss my parents, but he pauses. Honesty is the most important facet of his relationship with Cordelia. He doesn’t think he’s upset by the idea, but he wants to examine it before he blurts an accidental lie.

Cordelia’s hands rest against his chest. There’s a fine tremor running through her, now - and that startles him, his fearless and striking and heroic wife laid low by fear in their safest place. He hugs her tighter.

“Even if they’re people we know,” he affirms. “You can think about kissing them. Please keep me up-to-date should you decide to pursue any of the thoughts, though.”

He doesn’t need to see her face to know there’s the little brow furrow and pursed-mouth annoyance when she says, “Don’t be flippant.”

“I’m not. I just don’t understand what we’re talking about. Clearly there’s some specific person or situation on your mind. You don’t have to wade into the shallow end to test whether I’ll be angry, Daisy. I promise I won’t get upset. I want to know what has you so worked up.”

He gives her space to respond, a full five minutes, but there’s just the rasp of her breath against his skin. He’s not sure whether she’s trying to formulate an answer or has decided to ignore him.

“All right,” he tries, “how about this. Who’s one person I know that you’ve thought about kissing?”

Cordelia goes tense all over again, any relaxation from the past few soothing minutes wiped away. James hates it. He’s not even anxious about the topic of conversation. He’s anxious about the fact that his wife, his sun and stars, the woman who he’s shared more of himself with than anyone save Matthew, is afraid to speak to him. In the best universe, she’s just afraid of hurting him. In the worst, he’s done something to make her feel like her thoughts are dangerous to voice.

He’s about to apologize, back off, affirm that she doesn’t need to share anything she’s uncomfortable with. But then she says, “Anna.”

James sort of laughs.

“Sort of” means that he shapes a startled laugh, emits half the sound, realizes that’s an excellent way to be exiled to the couch, and tries to choke it back. The result is a kind of wheezing, deflating noise.

“Oh, it’s funny, is it?” Cordelia’s voice immediately tips into dangerous irritation. Normally this tone is a sign that James should start running, but it relieves him now. An angry Cordelia is a far more understandable creature than a fearful one. “It’s funny because it wouldn’t count, is that it? How people feel about Paris, women kiss in public all the time, doesn’t mean a thing-”

“No, no, it’s not that,” James says. In the universe where he gets upset at Cordelia’s idle kissing fantasies, his macho self is desperately jealous of Anna Lightwood. And any other women Cordelia might want to kiss. In this one, though -

“It’s just,” he says, “I think I already knew that.”

Cordelia makes a sound of wanton frustration. “You couldn’t know that. I’ve never said it out loud before.”

“You’re transfixed whenever she walks into a room, love,” James says. “It stands to reason that when you’ve pondered the fact that she kisses women, you’ve thought about what kissing her would be like. This is not a staggering revelation.”

This explanation, unfortunately, just seems to agitate her further. “Stop being so - so logical about things. You don’t need to justify it or excuse it or - or tell yourself that it’s natural just so that you don’t feel-”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” James very rarely cuts her off in the middle of a sentence, but this particular one feels like a train veering off the tracks. “I’m not justifying anything. I’m not trying to start any fights. Please know I am speaking with all the love in the world when I say that I think you may be projecting.”

The sound she makes is fairly close to that of an angry cat hacking up a hairball. But then she breathes out, using the same exercises they’ve both learned in training. She inhales, exhales. Inhales, sighs.

“Okay,” she says. “I might be projecting.”

“Okay,” James says. “So what is this actually about?”

Her whisper is barely louder than the beat of their hearts. But James hears it like a rune-amplified shout across a battlefield.

“Matthew.”

James’s chest does something funny. He cannot tell whether it’s good or bad.

“Oh,” he says.

-

Falling in love with Matthew Fairchild is an accident. Cordelia doesn’t mean for it to happen. By the time she recognizes her own feelings, they’ve swallowed her whole, like the old parable of a frog boiling in slowly-heated water.

It’s possible that if she’d recognized the warning signs, she could have guarded her heart. It’s possible that there is a timeline in which she does not have to cope with her chest holding more love and care than it’s supposed to.

The problem is that it’s different from falling in love with James. With James, Cordelia managed to fuel an entire adolescence of passion and fantasy based on a few intimate encounters. Half of her fascination with James was with the idea of him, and then she peeled back the layers to find the three-dimensional person underneath, and she was even more in love with him than the fiction.

That’s her frame of reference. A deep-seated yearning, a desperate ache for physical touch, a frantic coming-together of bodies, a foundation built sustainably enough to continue when the initial passion wears off. Cordelia has never experienced these kinds of flame-kindled scorching needs with anyone else. Physical attraction, sure, and fascination, and a love of company. But James is the only person who’s ever blackened the ashes of her soul.

It’s not like that with Matthew. Matthew becomes one of her closest friends first, a confidant, a shoulder to lean on, a source of entertainment on sad days. She sees Matthew through his detox from the alcohol, through his horrible sobriety mood swings, through nights spent sobbing in alcoves most people don’t notice. And she doesn’t fall in love. It’s not like the jolting intimacy and pleasure of connecting with James during his illness. It’s just the fact that he needs her, and he needs James, and he needs Thomas and Christopher and his parents and all the other support they can muster.

She loves him. It’s a true love, a bond built on choice rather than fleeting feeling. It’s the same kind of foundation she’s made with James. But she’s not in love with him.

And then she is married, and she has a future, and she’s happy. God help her, but she’s so happy. It’s the happiest she’s ever been. She dances through each day, adventures with her friends, lays down beside her husband at night and thrills to the touch of his fingertips. Matthew is family, here, intertwined in her life as immutably as James and Lucie. It’s not just that Matthew belongs to James - he belongs to her too, a piece of her heart.

And if she should want him to stay in their home and their lives and always be present with a wry quip and a smile, that’s the most natural thing in the world. Parabatai are just as important as spouses. Matthew is as vital to James’s health and happiness as she is. There’s nothing strange about it, save the occasional gossip of older people muttering about how Matthew hasn’t found a wife yet.

So Cordelia doesn’t know that her feelings are changing. Because she loves James as much as she always has - more than she always has. She loves him more fiercely every day. In all the whispered gossip and novels about affairs, there’s always a problem with the marriage. The woman falls in love with another man because her husband isn’t meeting her needs. And Cordelia has no needs that feel unmet.

She would have noticed a dimming in her love for James, or an absence in their connection. But she loves James, and then one day she wakes up, and Matthew is asleep like a mischievous angel on the couch, and she loves him too.

She wants to run her fingers through his hair, press her mouth against his. As soon as the image forms, her traitor brain undams a waterfall. She wants to unbutton his shirt and trace the curve of his stomach and kiss his neck and watch his face go bright-eyed and hazy. She wants to lay with him and let his careful hands run across her skin.

She wants - God, her knees buckle with the force of the want - she wants to wake up with her husband’s warm arms wrapped around her while her face nestles into Matthew’s chest. She wants both of them, aching and desperate, and the hollow under her ribs will only expand for every day she pretends that the ache doesn’t exist.

Cordelia has lived a life scored by sins and mistakes. Plenty of unpleasant things keep her awake at night. But nothing has ever made her feel as despicable as this selfish wish.

When the wanting doesn’t go away, she confesses to James.

“Matthew,” she whispers, and then she tells him everything.

She isn’t afraid that James will leave her: James has been unshakably loyal for years, and they’ve weathered far worse than this. But she is afraid of hurting him. The worst thing imaginable would be for James to believe himself unloved, as though her newfound feelings suffocate her familiar ones. It’s not that he isn’t giving her everything he always has - she repeats this over and over, as though he won’t understand the first time. He’s perfect, incredible, divine. He makes her so unbelievably happy. But now she wants new things, too.

She tries to make it a recitation of facts, all cold logic and calm. But somewhere along the line - maybe one of the dozen times she tells James how much she loves him - she finds herself crying. Which just makes her furious. Now her husband is obligated to comfort her, and why? Because she’s lost all of the carefully-cultivated control she’s learned over her body.

When she’s communicated everything coherent, she’s shaking worse than ever. James shifts so he can draw the heavy quilt over both of them. Not once does he flinch away or let go. As she trails off, he’s murmuring, “Daisy, Daisy, Daisy, my Daisy, my Cordelia, my love.”

The comfort makes her cry harder. James retains the kindness to soothe her through it, as though she’s grieving a family death instead of collapsing underneath her own guilt.

The tears do run out, eventually, though how long it takes Cordelia couldn’t say. She feels much better after she’s cried. All the pressure and crowded anxiety in her body recedes, and she’s left with a brain that actually works.

She wipes her face on James’s shirt. “I’m all right now,” she says. “You can be angry at me if you need to be.”

“I am not angry. I’m thinking.”

Cordelia leans back so she can meet her husband’s gaze, her own eyes red-rimmed and swollen. “What are your thoughts?”

James cups her cheek, brushing away the salt and rubbing his thumb over her bottom lip. She flicks her tongue out to touch his skin, wrinkling her nose. The corner of his mouth quirks.

“I'm considering how to proceed if Matthew does not share these feelings,” he says. He’s speaking slowly, carefully, pre-weighting his words. “I do not want you to feel like you’ve been deprived of something you want this much. But I would not ask him to weather discomfort for your sake, and I know you wouldn’t ask that of him either. So I am thinking about how to make things less awful, inasmuch as I can, should the need arise.”

There are many, many thoughts that she expects James to have. This one was not on the list.

“‘If Matthew does not share these feelings,’” she echoes. “You mean to find out if he does?”

“That seems the only logical step, doesn’t it?” James frowns at her. “Without knowing, your unhappiness is indefinite. If you know, then you can act on the information. He's either open to being with you or he isn't.”

He’s skipped so many steps ahead of her that she’s having trouble parsing the sentences. “What if he does return the feelings?”

“Then the three of us will mutually discuss what we want.” James says this like it's the most obvious thing in the world.

Cordelia wants to be the whip-smart, focused girl who keeps up in conversation. But she also feels like she’s been shipwrecked. She doesn’t think that James is befuddling her on purpose, and he’s never condescending, so she swallows her pride and says, “I don’t understand.”

“Is that not what you want? It doesn’t need to be.” He tucks an escaped curl of hair behind her ear. “Nothing needs to change if you don’t want that. I only thought change was what you were looking for.”

Cordelia doesn’t know what she wants. She hasn’t considered the potential outcomes of the situation. She’s been stuck on the disloyalty, and the selfishness, and the unfairness, and the impossibility of it all. And instead of saying any of the horrible or comforting things she’s imagined, James has apparently decided that this is a logistical issue to approach like battle strategy.

“I would like to know what you’re feeling,” she says.

The Mask has been gone for years, and there’s no remoteness in his face. His eyes are all concern and love and gentleness. But she doesn’t like the idea that he might be swallowing an unpleasant reaction for her sake.

“I love you,” James says. “I love you as fiercely as I always have. I want - I want to take the pain away. I want you to be happy. I want Matthew to be happy. I want this to stop being a situation that hurts anyone, no matter how we resolve it.”

Cordelia tries out the words, carefully. “And your ideal resolution… if the feelings are requited… involves both of you.”

“Yes.”

“But-” It’s an idiotic thing to say; she winces and finishes, “You’re my husband.”

“And?”

“You aren’t upset that - that you wouldn’t be the only one to touch me?”

“Daisy. Oh, Daisy.” He’s smiling, but not quite humorous and not like he’s laughing at her. “I'm not certain my upbringing has gifted me with… the popular social perspective.”

“I was brought up a Shadowhunter, too.”

“No, my individual upbringing. Mine and Lucie’s.” He kisses the furrowed spot between her brows. “You know I’m named after Jem. You know what an important part of my life he is. It’s no secret that he was my father's parabatai and engaged to my mother. My mother and father make no secret of the fact that they love him still, exactly as they once did. If he were not part of the Silent Brotherhood, I expect their arrangement would be very similar to this one.”

Cordelia considers this. She’s not privy to all the history and intimacy that James has witnessed throughout the years, but she knows how much Will and Tessa and Jem matter to each other. The thought calms her more effectively than any rationalizing. She does not think that Will and Tessa and Jem have ruined each other, or that they’ve engaged in selfish behaviors.

“Oh,” she murmurs.

James lays his hand against her cheek again. “Lucie is your parabatai. She’s as important to you as I am. Maybe more. Your relationship with each of us is different. Matthew is just as important to me as you are. I - I do not believe it is always true that only one person is meant for each individual.”

“Well, when you say it like that, it nearly sounds easy.”

“These things are only as difficult as we make them, I think.”

“If you're not careful, I might start to believe you're wise.”

“Oh, heaven forbid.” The old mischief steals into his gaze, the tension between them dissipating. “I stole all the wisdom from my parents. They did the angsty thinking so I wouldn’t have to.”

-

Matthew knows a serious conversation is about to happen. He can tell by the way James and Cordelia invited him over, by the meaningful glances between them, by the alternate cheer and anxiety. Rather than calling a formal meeting in the dining room, the three of them find cushion space on the various chairs and sofas throughout the living room.

Matthew is certain they’re announcing a baby.

Cordelia leads with, “You know how important you are to this family,” and Matthew thinks, They’re asking me to be the godfather.

She continues, “And nothing will ever change that,” and an icy swoop of terror unbalances him, and he thinks, They’re going to send me away during the pregnancy because I-

“Matthew,” James says sharply.

Matthew meets his eyes.

“It’s not a bad thing,” James says. “At the very worst, it’s a minor life complication.”

Matthew waits.

Cordelia says, “I think I’m in love with you.”

There are a few long moments in which Matthew’s mind refuses to process this information. He watches Cordelia, his head tilted slightly, a little frown on his face. All that permeates the surprise is the thought that it’s not the news he was expecting.

Then the implications start to filter through.

“Well, don’t say it like that,” James says. “As though you aren’t certain. You seem fairly certain to me.”

Matthew doesn’t know how to navigate these treacherous waters. “I was under the impression that you are in love with James,” he says, careful. "Madly in love. Stupidly in love, one might say."

“I am.”

“Then-”

“I am also in love with you.”

Matthew’s fingers curl tightly around the arms of his chair. His knuckles are white.

“Math,” James says softly. “It’s not a trick.”

“I need some air,” Matthew says.

He’s not conscious, really, of the journey from the living room to the porch. All he knows is that he’s leaning on the railing, watching the play of early evening shadows across the garden, and he can’t quite pull enough air into his lungs.

He doesn’t know how much time passes before Cordelia joins him. She’s a quiet presence at his side. He can’t look at her, because if he does, he’ll start thinking about how beautiful she is and how expressive her face is and how kind she is and he’ll be ruined.

“I don’t want this to be upsetting,” Cordelia says. She leans against the railing, too, and he steals just one glance at the way her arms rest against the wood. They’re bare, without a long-sleeved dress or heavy gear, a warm brown and beautiful in stupid ways he can’t stand.

Matthew searches inside himself. He doesn’t find any anger, just bleak unhappiness. “Telling me this is cruel,” he replies. “I don’t know what you think you will accomplish.”

“Matthew.” The pain in her voice sears to bone marrow. “Nothing needs to change. If it hurts you that much - I would not - I would rather we pretend I didn’t say a word.”

“Why would you tell me this now,” he says, “when everything is settled?”

“I don’t understand what you mean.”

“When it’s too late. When everything is too late. You’re married. I was a drunken idiot for the entire time it mattered, and now - I don’t know why you would tell me this now.”

Cordelia hesitates. Then she leans against him, arm pressed to his, her body a warm comfort that he can’t ignore. He wants to bury his face in her hair. He wants to set something on fire.

“Why does it need to be too late?” she asks.

He snorts. It’s bitter and derisive and not at all the person he wants to be. “James.”

She’s quiet for so long that he finally looks at her face. Her eyes are turned toward the garden, but her gaze is distant, unfocused. Wherever she is, it’s not on the porch beside him. She’s drifting through emotions or thoughts or calculations deep inside herself.

The muscles at the corners of her mouth ripple, like she’s fighting a frown or a smile or the urge to speak. She presses her lips together. Then she says, “James and I both love you as another piece of our hearts. If soulmates are made by casting the same soul into different bodies, ours was torn in thirds, not halves.”

Matthew’s shaking his head before she’s even finished. “No,” he says, and it bursts out of him, “no, it wasn't. You’re mistaken. Both of you - you think - you look at me and think I’m good enough for either of you? You’re insane. If you knew me at all-”

“You think James doesn’t know you? Your heart twined with his, you think he doesn’t know?” Cordelia turns to him, grabs his chin with her free hand, all ferocity and fury. “Me, seeing you through the shakes and the hallucinations and the begging for another bottle, you think I don’t know? You can hate yourself all you want, Matthew. That doesn’t mean we are wrong to love you. I love every stupid, selfish, imperfect, brittle piece of you. Don’t you dare tell me that I don’t. I won’t be insulted in my home.”

Matthew closes his eyes against the pain. What he says, though, is, “We’re technically not in your home.”

“We’re under my roof. Matthew Fairchild.” Cordelia drops his chin and laces her fingers through his instead. The gesture doesn’t feel romantic; she squeezes his hand like a lifeline, like she’s reminding him that she’s there. “I don’t care how you feel about yourself or what you think you do or don’t deserve. I am asking you whether you return the shape of my feelings. If the answer is yes, then I want to do something about it. James pointed out, rightfully, that it’s foolish to deprive ourselves of good things because they aren’t proper. I don’t think any one of the three of us is much for propriety.”

Matthew swallows. He lets the speech wash over him, bury roots in his heart. “It’s just-” he starts, and stops. Gathers his words into something sensible rather than something reactive and childish. “I have been content to watch you both. I am content to watch you both. To watch you raise a family and to be part of your lives, even if it isn’t - I don’t need - Your happiness is my happiness. I would…”

He finds that he can’t quite finish the sentence, though, his fingers tightening painfully around hers without his conscious volition. His breath hitches. There’s a dangerous clog in his throat, and his eyes squeeze further shut, even though he’s desperate to sound unaffected.

Cordelia murmurs, “You would what?”

“I would do anything-” He can’t say it, but he has to. “I would do anything not to ruin that happiness.”

“Why are you so certain you’ll ruin it?”

“Because the way I feel for you, the way I feel for James-” That’s by far the most scandalous part of this confession, but Cordelia doesn’t flinch. “That feeling could burn cities.”

“Matthew,” she says, open and gentle and kinder than he's ever deserved, “come inside.”

So he does.

-

James’s wife and his parabatai reenter the house with their hands intertwined, but from the roil of foreign emotion inside James and the way their fingers clasp, he thinks that has more to do with need than romance.

“Matthew’s in love with both of us.” Cordelia announces it with the kind of brazen recklessness that she exhibited years ago, telling a crowd of scandalized Shadowhunters that she’d slept with James. “So that’s the starting point.”

James realizes that he’s staring, mouth parted slightly with shock. He hopes that Matthew can tell his reaction isn’t negative. He doesn’t actually know what his reaction is, but he knows that it isn’t negative.

“You just robbed me of the opportunity to confess through epic poetry,” Matthew says, but the light annoyance is a falsehood. James sees the anxiety etched into his face, into his heart.

James reaches a hand toward both of them. “Come here.”

He suspects that Matthew’s wondering whether he’s included in the invitation, whether James is reaching for his wife alone. So he’s pleased when Cordelia keeps her fingers clamped around Matthew’s and bodily drags him over. She settles beside James on the couch. There’s not a lot of room for all three of them, but she yanks Matthew down as well, squishing him between the two of them.

“Oh,” Matthew says.

James wraps an arm around him. “I am very good-looking.”

“We’re all very good-looking,” Matthew points out. “It’s our curse.”

“You’re in love with me?”

“What a humiliating way to stroke your ego.” Matthew’s relaxing, a little, now that he's avoided the stinging slap of rejection. He’s still tense, but he’s leaning back against the couch, surrendering to the ordeal of being trapped between James and Cordelia. “All the pretty girls are in love with you, and now it turns out all the pretty boys are, too.”

“Is it love or attraction?” James presses. “Because obviously you’d be attracted to me. Anybody attracted to men is attracted to me. Look at me.”

“Boys,” Cordelia says.

“I suspect it’s a disease,” Matthew says, dry. “Some vestigial unpleasantness that’s attached itself to both of you. I’m annoyed by its existence. I try not to acknowledge it unless under duress.”

“Are you under duress now?” Cordelia teases.

“Absolutely. Like being kidnapped by the fey, this is.” He considers. “I suppose there are worse things than being kidnapped by the fey.”

“There really are not,” James says, “but sure, let’s pretend your simile is a good one.”

It feels so - normal. That’s the thing. It should feel different, but it doesn’t. His parabatai and his wife, the most important parts of his heart, where they’ve always been and where he prays they’ll always be.

“You’re not angry with me?”

“Of course not.” James grasps Matthew’s free hand. “Of course not, Math. Never.”

Matthew’s smile is rueful, tinged with regret. “I’ve wasted so much time.”

“We have our entire lives.”

Matthew’s breath does something funny. “We do.”

“So,” Cordelia says, light and a little mischievous, “I think you should kiss me.”

Matthew gives her a look like she’s suggested stabbing him in the kidney and he finds it more appealing than he should.

James laughs. “I think that’s an excellent idea.”

“You’re trying to kill me,” Matthew says.

“I think after you kiss her,” James offers, “you should kiss me. I am not - certain what I feel for you or how to define the shape of it. But I would like to find out.”

“Murderers, both of you.”

But he unwraps his fingers from Cordelia’s and tilts her chin up to oblige, and she giggles against his mouth, and James curls both arms around Matthew’s waist and lays his forehead against his parabatai’s shoulder.

And it’s good. It’s good. It’s so good.

The three of them haven’t missed anything, really. They have all the time in the world.