A/N: A little bit longer than the last few, and with a couple of swears, just for Darryl.
It was exactly three minutes before Caution said anything. She knew this because the faint ticking of her watch, deep in the recesses of her purse, was the only sound in the room. It had just reached its one hundred and eightieth tick when she opened her mouth.
Creep took a step toward her. “Caution, I—”
Caution put her hand up to silence him. “Creep,” she said gently. “I don’t know where to start.”
“You could start by saying you won’t marry him,” Creep offered, with a hint of humour buried so deep that anyone other than Caution would have missed it.
“No,” she said, shaking her head sadly, “I can’t.”
“But you do not love—”
“And I suppose every time a Prince proposes to a total stranger, it’s because he loves her?”
“You are only providing me with further reasons the two of you shouldn’t wed,” Creep said flatly.
“Creep, the thing is, back on Earth—god that sounds stupid. Back home, I was rich and famous and all of that, but I wasn’t really going anywhere, you know? People wanted to know what I was wearing or who I was dating, but no one cared what my opinions were or what I believed or thought about.”
“And it didn’t really get to me—at least, not too much—’cause that’s the way I’d been brought up: with no one caring, and no one really seeing me.”
“I saw you.”
“Creep, please don’t make this harder. The thing is, now I have a chance to actually do something with my life. I’ll be able to make a difference. Please don’t ask me to give that up.”
“Caution,” Creep said, taking another step closer.
She put her hand on his shoulder. “Creep, I’ve made my decision. I’m sorry, but I’m going to marry him.”
Creep said nothing. He simply nodded, then turned and left the room. Caution waited until she heard the outer chamber door close, then burst into tears.
When the maids went back in, Caution was on her third cigarette, and had a look on her face that would have made lesser women turn tail and run. Her cheeks were red and tear-stained and her hair had certainly seen better days.
“There, there,” the Grandma maid said, patting her on the back. “It’s just nerves, Dear, just nerves.”
“Yeah,” Caution said, forcing a smile. “It is. How long until…”
“Didn’t he say?”
“The Chonti, Mistress. Didn’t he tell you when? I thought that’s why he’d come.” She turned to another maid, who was doing something with ribbons. “Go find out, would you? That thing isn’t acting right, you ask me. He’s as like to wander over the hills as he is to make sense of anything.” She turned back to Caution with a warm grandma-like smile… or at least a smile that Caution imagined a warm grandmother would wear; her own grandmother didn’t smile very much, because she said it wore out the botox faster.
The younger maid scampered off.
Caution tried to return the Grandma maid’s smile and fell short.
“Won’t be long now, my dear. As soon as word gets back that the preparations are made, it will be time to go.”
“Someone will come and tell us, then?” Caution asked.
“That girl I just sent. We’re only waiting on that Chonti now, my dear. And those beasts may be a lot of things, but they’re reliable, to be sure.”
A less anxious Caution might have asked how the Grandma maid could go from saying Creep might wander off to saying he was reliable in the span of two seconds—or she might have called the maid out on her use of the word beasts. Instead, she blurted the only thing that came to mind. “Why are we waiting for Creep?”
“Need him ready, is all, dear. Don’t want him performing the wedding all willy-nilly. Things need to be just right. The thing I—”
Caution grabbed the maid’s arm hard enough to shut her up. “Did you say performing the wedding? Creep is performing the wedding?”
“Of course.” The Grandma maid gently pried her arm from Caution’s grasp. “I suppose you expected a human, dear. I’m sorry, honey, but this is war-time. We have to make do with what we’ve got, I’m afraid. The Chonti is the only one with the license to marry you.”
“But he can’t,” Caution cried. “It isn’t fair.”
“My dear, some things are unavoidable. I was married by a Chonti myself and—”
“Shut up! Just shut the hell up! You think I care that he’s a Chonti? You think I give a rat’s ass that some moron on a throne somewhere decided hundreds of years ago that he’s worth less than you or me? That is so not the issue.”
The maid backed up.
Caution was about to apologize, when the younger maid came into the room.
The maid bowed slightly, then said, “I’m told that whenever the Mistress is ready, we may proceed.”
The maids all began fussing. Caution was placed in a chair, and her hair immediately started being done. To her surprise, the maids decided that some make up would be forgivable in her current situation, just to cover up the fact that she’d been sobbing. The makeover probably took about fifteen minutes, which seemed to be both the longest fifteen minutes of Caution’s life, and be over far too soon.
“Well, Mistress,” said the Grandma maid, “it is time. Are you ready?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Caution said.
The maid smiled at what she thought was a declaration of Caution’s eagerness to get married. “Well, then, come along, my dear. No time to waste.”
Caution followed swarm of maids down the hallway, toward—wherever they were going. More than once, she looked at the empty hallway behind her, and thought about quietly disappearing down it.
Then they were there. It looked like a chapel, minus the crosses, which, essentially, is what it was. It had a centre isle, and Caution wondered if Earth and M’leo were really that different. The bench seating was taken up mostly by Andy’s advisers, but there was the occasional complete stranger in the mix.
The maids discretely vanished, leaving Caution standing at one end of the isle, looking hopelessly between Andy and Mr. Creep.
“Caution Kenwood,” Creep said, so suddenly that Caution jumped. “Step forward.”
Caution approached him slowly, part of her wishing for a bridal march. Nobody stood up, either. Caution thought there was something distinctly wrong with walking through a crowd of men who didn’t know her, or particularly like her, toward two men who didn’t like each other and both (it would seem) wanted her for himself.
Andy wasn’t smiling, which was more of a shock to Caution than the lack of music. Creep looked positively miserable. Well, actually he looked exactly the same as he usually did, but there was definitely the hint of misery there. Or anger. Something unpleasant, anyway.
Caution reminded herself that she should be the one who was angry with him. He was the one, after all, who brought her here in the first place. He was the one who went on and on and on about the prophecy, like it was the only thing that mattered. He was the one made everyone she ever cared about believe she was dead. And then, as if all that wasn’t bad enough, he waited until the last possible moment—way beyond the time when it was even remotely appropriate—to tell her how he felt. Who the hell did he think he was, scowling like that?
Caution realized around the time that she reached the alter, that she was smiling. It was what her mother had called her red carpet smile when she was little, and what Caution herself thought of as cheesecake. She’d done it without even thinking, because it’s what she’d always done, when surrounded by a bunch of people who were there to see her. In the back of her head, she wondered if she’d been smiling like that at the soldiers in the courtyard, or when she’d first met with Andy’s advisers. Or—
“Gathered People,” Creep began.
Caution looked up at him, and all at once, her smile vanished.
“We are here to join together in the binding forces of matrimony, two people who are—”
“You’re speaking M’leoian, aren’t you?” Caution interrupted. It was something Caution hadn’t noticed before; every word spoken to her since she’d gotten the necklace seemed somehow artificial, like they were being said by someone other than whoever was speaking. Andy’s conversations with her, she realized, had always felt scripted, even when they were fighting. But Creep had stayed Creep… until now, at least.
“It feels weird. You’ve been speaking English to me this whole time—even after you gave me the necklace?”
“I have,” Creep said flatly.
“See,” Caution said, pointing. “That was English, right there. It’s different.”
“I hate to interrupt,” Andy said in a voice that meant: I hate that you’re uncivil enough that I need to interrupt. “But do you suppose we could be married before you start ignoring me?”
This got a small chuckle from the crowd. Caution shut up.
“Destined to rule this great land.” Creep continued, without batting an eye. “M’leo will only grow in strength with the addition of a new queen, who will work tirelessly to make a difference in this, our great land.”
Caution almost expected a cheer, but Creep’s little speech barely got general nodding agreement.
“Antaetharon.” Creep said his name with a surprising lack of bitterness. “Do you swear to take this woman, make her beholden only to you?”
“Wait, what?” Caution asked. No one seemed to hear her.
“I so swear,” Antaetharon said, without pause.
“And do you so swear to have her as your queen, to rule in your stead when you are unable?”
“I so swear.”
“Very well. Caution Kenwood?”
Creep looked mildly bothered at having been interrupted. “Do you swear to honour this man as your husband, making yourself beholden only to him—”
“Wait a sec.”
“And do you swear to rule in his stead, when he is unable?”
It was a pointed question, and it really only had one answer.
Caution drew herself up. “I so swear.”
“Then it is done.” Creep deadpanned. “ You are now man and wife. Many blessings on your day of j—”
There was a boom, and the ground shook. Seconds later, a young member of the imperial guard with white ribbons tied on his helmet and scabbard stumbled through the door at the end of the chapel. He bowed his head quickly at Andy, then shouted, “The castle is under attack!”
Everyone got up. Advisers started babbling, soldiers came in and formed a wall around Andy and Caution. Andy, Creep and the guards moved as one toward the exit and Caution ran to keep up with them.
“What the hell is going on?” she demanded, as she fought to pull her skirt away from her feet. “I thought the bad guys were on the other bloody side of the mountains. I mean, shouldn’t we have seen them coming? Would somebody please tell me what the hell is going on?”
Andy ignored her. He turned to Creep. “Take my bride to the bridal chambers,” he commanded. “Keep her safe until I return.”
Creep nodded silently, grabbed hold of Caution’s wrist and dragged her out of that throng and into another.
“Creep,” Caution said, as soon as they were out of Andy’s earshot. “Seriously. What’s going on?”
“You should ask your husband when he returns.”
“I’m asking you.”
“I do not know. Now come along.”
Caution followed helplessly, not really wanting to be near Creep, but definitely not wanting to be left alone. The whole castle was in a state of panic; people were running and shouting, and asking questions they didn’t have time to wait for the answers to. These people weren’t just panicked. They were terrified. She wiggled her hand until it was secure in Creep’s. Then she took a deep breath, and broke into a jog, to keep up with his speed-walking.
There was a zzzt and everything went quiet.
Caution blinked. “Where are we?”
“We are down the hall from the bridal chambers. You will be safe here. I will escort you to the chambers.”
“And then what?”
“You will wait for Antaetharon.”
Caution looked up and down the hallway. It was totally deserted, and looked a lot more like how she thought a castle should look; stone archways and wooden doors and all that.
“Are you coming?” Creep asked, tugging slightly on her hand.
“Do we have to go right now? I mean, won’t Andy be a while?”
“I do not know.”
“Well, I mean, if he was going to get here right away, he would have come with us, right? He wouldn’t have sent me with you.”
“I suppose not.”
“Well, then you can stay for a bit, right?”
Creep worked his hand uneasily from Caution’s grasp. “No.”
“Creep, there’s a war going on, I just got married, which is sort of a big deal, the castle’s shaking and, newsflash, I’m scared out of my fucking mind. Can you please just stay with me for a little longer?”
“You will have your husband soon, to console you,” the hint of anger in Creep’s voice had become a full-on edge.
“Don’t say it like that,” Caution barked back, with a new edge in her own voice.
“No. I mean, you know why I did it. You can’t be pissed at me. I mean, okay, a little, maybe, but overall—”
Creep’s voice softened. “Yes. You did what you had to. It is commendable. You made a good choice for yourself, and I do recognize—”
“For myself? Myself? Jesus, you can be thick!”
“I do not understand.”
“Damn it, Creep,” Caution paused long enough to keep her tears in check. “I mean, do you ever listen to me when I talk? Or to yourself, for that matte? I don’t love Andy. Hell, I don’t even like Andy—and I have no interest in getting knocked up by him so I can bring some poor helpless baby into this entirely messed up and ridiculous world. I mean, why? What possible reason could I have for wanting to rule over a bunch of people who already hate me and—”
“You said—” Creep interrupted himself. “Then why don’t you tell me?”
“Because of you. I did it for you. Because I thought of that village at the bottom of the mountains, and I thought: what if Creep was in that village? What if the bad guys make it to the castle, and he has to fight?–But you couldn’t fight. You’d have to die. Just stand there and let yourself die. My whole life you’ve protected me. Even when I didn’t know you were there.” Caution sniffled and laughed slightly. “Hell, even when I wanted you to go away. You were always there, looking out for me.”
Creep tried to speak, but he choked on whatever he was about to say.
“I’m Queen now, Creep. I rule in his stead.”
“You’re free,” Caution said simply. “You’re all free. Get the word out; the Chonti are no longer sub-human. We’re equals.”
Creep took Caution’s hand back. “You can be thick,” he said in a voice approaching tender. “There is no separation here. You are wed until death.”
“I figured as much,” Caution said, taking Creep’s other hand.
“Your whole life, Caution.”
“For me? Why?”
“Because,” Caution sighed. “Because I don’t want to live in a world where a man like you is worth less than someone like Andy.”
Creep took a step closer. Caution almost took a step back, not because she was uncomfortable, but because she was a little bit… too comfortable.
“Maybe for tonight,” she whispered. She paused to ask herself if she was really about to say what she was about to say. “Maybe we could pretend I’m not married, okay?”
“I do not under—”
“Because,” she said, drawing Creep closer. “I don’t want to live in a world where a man like you doesn’t get the girl.”
Then she kissed him.
Caution had been expecting a reaction. She hadn’t been expecting that. All at once, Creep grabbed hold of her shoulders and slammed her forcefully into the stone wall. He was more than eager; his kisses were bordering on violent. And he tasted like spices.
It was Creep who pulled away first, gasping for breath. “We should… not…” he panted. “We should not… be doing this.”
Caution tried look sober and understanding, but it was rather difficult with the ear-to ear grin she was wearing. “No,” she said, pulling him back toward her, “we really shouldn’t.”
Creep rolled to face Caution and propped himself up by his elbow. “That was… unexpected.”
“Yep,” Caution agreed, smiling. “Although not entirely unpleasant.”
“Entirely the opposite,” Creep said, smiling back. “You have hay in your hair.”
Somewhere between Creep finding the clasps at the back of Caution’s dress and his subsequent abandonment of them in favour of brute strength, the two of them had fallen through one of the wooden doors, down a short staircase and into some hay. Caution couldn’t imagine why there would be a room with hay in it in a castle, but right then, the hay didn’t matter, except as a point of mild amusement.
“You have hay in your not-hair,” she said, snuggling closer to Creep.
Creep sat up and rubbed his hands over his head, before flopping back down next to his—next to Caution.
“Can we stay here forever,” Caution asked, suddenly. “Only… without the hay, I think. Or with better hay. It itches.”
“As long as you wish,” Creep told her. “We shall send out for new hay in the morning.”
Caution sat up. “You made another joke,” she beamed.
“I did not,” he said indignantly.
“Oh, you did too.”
“Nuh-uh,” Caution laughed, punching him affectionately in the arm. “You did it and now you’re going to have to live with the consequences.”
“No, Caution,” Creep said, his voice suddenly very low and urgent. “Be quiet.”
There was someone in the hallway. Someones. It sounded like Andy, talking with two or more people.
“Quickly, get dressed,” Creep commanded.
Caution stumbled to her feet. She looked at the remains of her dress. “Can’t,” she whispered. She picked up Creep’s burlap robe and threw it at him. “Shit. Shit! What the hell am I going to do?”
Despite her intense feeling of impending doom, Caution had to smile at the image of Creep hopping on one foot, trying to get his pants and shoes on at the same time.
“Creep,” she whispered at him when he was mostly dressed. “What am I going to do?”
Creep looked her up and down, grinned ever-so-slightly and said, “Stand very still.”
There was another zzzt noise, and Caution was wearing her nightdress.
Five feet or less from the room they were in, Andy bid goodbye to whoever he was talking to. Caution had hoped she could just hide, but Creep led her to the door, then with a quick kiss on the cheek, shoved her through.
“Caution?” Andy asked, as his wife stumbled in front of him, with Creep not far behind her. “What are you—what were you doing in there? And why have you got hay in your hair?”
“I… uh… Well—”
“The room is solid, your highness,” Creep said, stepping into the middle of the hallway. “I thought it would be safest if there was another attack.”
“Ah,” Andy said, with a look of general approval. “Well, I will take care of my wife now,” he said with a knowing grin. “It is my wedding night, after all. Come along, Caution.” He took her by the elbow and started to lead her away.
“Wait,” she said suddenly.
“What is it?”
“There’s something… I need to ask Creep.”
“Oh, I see. Very well, you ask him. I will be waiting.” Andy grinned at Creep in the knowing way that grandmothers grin when their granddaughters say they’re just friends with a boy.
“What was your question?” Creep asked, when Andy had gone. All the urgency had gone out of him. He looked completely dejected.
“I don’t have one.”
“You should go.”
“I will. I mean, I pretty much have to.”
“But I have tell you something. It’s important and you have to swear you’re always going to remember it.”
“What is it?”
“Swear,” Caution said.
“Very well. I swear.”
Caution grabbed Creep by the back of the neck, and brought him toward her, so their foreheads were touching. “This was it, Creep,” she said quietly. “No matter what happens, it was you. This was my wedding night.”