“Look,” Elliot said, “I’ve checked - as best as I can when the nearest library is two hundred miles away - and I don’t think any of this is actually legally binding? So just kneel, say the things, and we can all be on our way.”
Luke looked miserable, which meant that his face just seized up into handsome rigidity, like a stone statue of a hero. Elliot had been proud of learning that this meant “miserable.”
“I can’t,” he said.
Their exploratory party was trying to get through a forest inhabited by a race of talking, human-sized squirrels, which had been bizarre enough before the squirrels had surrounded them and taken them to be presented to an even bigger squirrel who was apparently their chief, where they were told that they could pass through the squirrels’ territory only if their leader swore an approved form of oath to King Squirrel.
“It is unfair of them to ask it of you,” Serene agreed, patting Luke’s back consolingly. “Such solemn promises are too heavy a weight for a delicate masculine sensibility to bear. Perhaps I should...”
“They know I’m the commander,” Luke interrupted. “And I swore an oath to you.”
Serene’s face fell. “That is very true. Forgive me my prejudices; of course you’re more than capable of carrying this burden.”
So now everyone was unhappy, it was getting late, and a light but persistent and chilly rain was starting to fall. The squirrels were still watching them expectantly. They were furry. They could, apparently, wait all night.
“Right,” Elliot said, took Luke by the shoulders and pushed him back into the trees surrounding the clearing, so that when he lowered his voice it was almost like they were alone. Luke’s wings came up as they always did, shielding the two of them from the rain. “You can’t actually be taking this seriously?” He lowered his voice still further, just in case, because he was learned in the art of diplomacy. “They’re giant squirrels.”
Luke stared at him, damp and noble. “It’s an oath. Of course I’m taking it seriously.”
Elliot sighed and half-consciously brushed a lock of blond hair, which wasn’t even frizzy, out of his stupid face. “Of course you are. So what about it is the problem?” He went back mentally over the very strict phrasing the squirrels had communicated to them. “‘I most solemnly swear my fealty to Chief’ – whatever it is – ‘that he shall be my liege lord, my sword arm shall never be upraised against him or his people, that of all I gather against the winter shall be paid a tithe to him’ – ooh, cultural detail – ‘that he shall be as the sole lode-star of my heart and my faith shall be pledged to his service and protection above all others, and that I shall follow him so long as we both shall live.’”
He finished a little more solemnly than he’d intended, the phrasing catching hold. Luke was shivering under his hands, and it was maybe not with the chill. “Okay,” Elliot went on, recovering, “it’s a bit flowery, and hey, I guess the squirrels must know about astronomy and/or navigation, but can’t you just promise all that, pro forma? That means…”
“I know what it means,” Luke said, like always, even though Elliot suspected that actually he didn’t. “And I can’t do it. It wouldn’t be true.”
“What, because your service is already pledged to defending the Border? They know about that; I’m sure they don’t mean that part literally.”
“No,” Luke said, and then he didn’t say anything else, in a way that Elliot would be an idiot not to see as entirely telling by now.
“Oh my God,” he said after a moment. Luke hung his head, and would have covered his face with his hands if Elliot hadn’t still been holding on to his shoulders. “Oh my God,” Elliot said. “I’m the lode-star of your heart.”
“Shut up,” Luke said, which wasn’t a no.
“Your faith is pledged to my service and protection above all others! You do realise that wreaks havoc on what our chain of command is supposed to be? And when did you actually swear this? Was it while I was asleep? Did you trace the lines of my innocently resting face and whisper promises by moonlight?”
Luke had gone stiff and scarlet, and it slowly dawned on Elliot that he had, in fact, been made whispered promises of fealty by moonlight, and his response to this was mockery, because he was an asshole.
“Hey,” he said, more softly, leaning his face down with Luke’s so he could bump their foreheads together under the sheltering wings. “You’re the lode-star of my heart too?”
Luke shook his head against his. “You’re the worst. Look, you – I know you don’t, you don’t see things that way, and that’s…”
“I’m following you, aren’t I?” Elliot said, because it was true. “I’m following you, in spite of my obvious issues with authority, because I think you’re worth following. Because I know you’ll always protect me, and I – with my admittedly very different skillset – will always protect you. Above all others.”
“Oh,” Luke said quietly, like he didn’t know, so Elliot had to tip his chin up and kiss him, slowly and thoroughly, just as though they didn’t have a clearing-full of their friends and expectant squirrels behind them. He thought he knew how he was going to get around the squirrels now. He’d figure out a lot more than that, for Luke.
“And for the record,” he said against Luke’s mouth, when they separated, “you can totally have all my nuts this winter,” and then Luke shook the rainwater off his wings onto Elliot’s head, which was probably about fair.