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You Could Be the King, but Watch the Queen Conquer

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At the age of thirty-two, Tahani Al-Jamil has to admit that she needs to get married.

It’s not that she has trouble finding someone to enjoy time with, or that she’s unattractive, or even that her economic prospects are low without the inheritance she was looking forward to. None of these are problems.

It’s just… well.

Kamilah just got engaged, and all eyes are on Tahani, now.

Kamilah got engaged to a star just as popular as she is, almost as well-received by the critics, a man their parents likely would have approved of.

Tahani’s the older sister, and she hasn’t even had a relationship last longer than a year and a half, and people are starting to talk.

She can’t afford that kind of negative attention.

o.o.o.o.o

“And I certainly can’t do it too soon, or people will know that I’m only doing it because of Kamilah,” Tahani says to her assistant, flipping through some fabric swatches for a Doctors without Borders fundraiser in three weeks. “And it can’t be too close to her wedding, or the news will be swallowed up. Too late and they’ll only increase the amount of scrutiny on my age. Here, take this one. It’ll be perfect for the curtains.”

Eleanor grabs the swatch and slips it into the binder, making a note on the stiff backing of what Tahani decided. “Sure it won’t just blow over on its own?”

“Compared to other news, of course, but compared to other news about me?” Tahani almost shudders at the thought. “Absolutely not. It’ll only grow. The things Kamilah causes always do.”

“Okay, so, what kind of guy do you need?” Eleanor asks, propping a hand on her hip and raising an eyebrow. “C’mon, hot stuff, there must be plenty of guys lining up to get a date with you. Or girls! You’d probably catch attention if you married a girl, since I know that matters.”

Tahani briefly entertains her old fantasies regarding Eleanor herself, and then brushes them aside. As distracted as Tahani had been with Eleanor’s boyish outfits and rugged mannerisms, Eleanor had never taken the idea seriously. Flirted, sometimes, complimented, certainly.

But Tahani had met Eleanor through Eleanor’s husband, and that particular marriage had only ever been a little shaky. Even that much, they had a habit of working out.

“It would be less scandal and more news if it were a man,” Tahani says. “Slightly older, but not by too much, well-educated, and independently wealthy at a level comparable to my own. Preferably of a blue-blooded background, but those often tend to marry others of their background.”

Eleanor frowns in obvious confusion.

“I’m British, Eleanor, but I’m not white,” Tahani reminds her, gently, and sees the understanding.

“Well, then they’re missing out,” Eleanor declares, pointedly looking Tahani up and down with a grin. “So, you’re looking for late-thirties, rich as you, no big scandals, and with a degree or two behind him.”

Tahani considers the list, and nods.

“I’m pretty sure most of Chidi’s friends are professors, but they aren’t really as famous or as rich as you are,” Eleanor muses. “I know a few people that are, but the only one that’s unmarried is too old. You’d probably get accused of gold-digging, honestly. Oh, and Mindy, but she’s had a lot of coke scandals and she’s a woman and she’s also a little older, so, eh, probably not what you’re hoping for.”

Tahani offers Eleanor an uncomfortable smile. “I’m sure I’ll work something out.”

o.o.o.o.o

Nothing works out.

Everyone is already in a relationship, is prone to moving too slow, is interested in someone else, is interested in someone smaller and paler and less… Tahani.

She did almost get married, once, a few years ago. It had been a whirlwind romance to a DJ in Florida, and had ended in something of a trainwreck. They were still friends, but Tahani acknowledged that she’d dodged a bullet by getting out; she’d never have been able to continue with such clashing lifestyles indefinitely, and Jason had found something elsewhere. Tahani still wasn’t sure how he and Janet had gotten together, or how they’d met, or anything, really.

“Wait, you know Janet?” Eleanor asks, during a conversation that mostly has Tahani getting progressively more intoxicated and verbally sloppy as she complains. No, not complains… as she lays out her problems in an attempt to find a solution by verbalizing them.

“A friend of yours?” Tahani asks, morose and melancholy and mercurial and probably other words that start with m, which she’d remember if that bottle of wine hadn’t spent the entire night looking so attractive to her glass.

“Yeah, she works for Michael,” Eleanor says. “You know, over at Medium Place, that company that branched off of TBP a few years ago?”

Tahani remembers it, if vaguely. There had been a massive scandal regarding TBP over massive human rights violations. “He was the whistleblower, yes?”

“Yeah,” Eleanor says, passing over a glass of water with a look that says, ‘drink, bench.’

(It’s an inside joke of some sort, and Tahani can’t quite remember how it started.)

Tahani does as suggested and drinks the water, mostly because Eleanor keeps reminding her that Tahani’s got nowhere near as much experience getting drunk and buckwild, and that Tahani should probably listen to her advice on the subject.

“He was actually the one I was talking about a few months ago,” Eleanor says. “The one who kind of fit what you needed, but was too old.”

“How old?” Tahani asks, feeling desperate and grumpy and kind of like she’d fall over if she stood up.

“Almost seventy,” Eleanor says, smoothing a hand over Tahani’s head. “Okay, let’s get you to bed. We can talk about this tomorrow, hot stuff.”

“You know, Eleanor,” Tahani manages to say as she’s helped to her feet, unsteady even though she’s barefoot instead of in her usual heels. “I really like you.”

“I know.”

“No, like… really like you.”

Eleanor gives her a smile that looks a lot like pity, and pats her head. “I know. Now let’s get you to bed.”

“That’s not in your job description.”

“So you’ll get me a nice Christmas present or something,” Eleanor dismisses the concern. “Besides, I’m trying to be a good person, and we’re friends, so that’s that.”

Tahani doesn’t remember anything past that.

o.o.o.o.o

Tahani doesn’t remember much the next morning.

She remembers talking to Eleanor, probably making an utter fool of herself, but there wasn’t any yelling or snide comments, so Eleanor’s probably not upset.

When Tahani enters her dining room to find Eleanor waiting with a breakfast that was probably brought up only minutes ago by the staff, going by the steam, she amends her thoughts. Eleanor’s smile makes it clear there are no hard feelings from whatever Tahani may have said the night before.

“So we’ve got some nice articles on last night’s fundraiser,” Eleanor says, passing over a tablet. “You good to read?”

“Maybe not for a few minutes yet,” Tahani admits. The breakfast in front of her looks incredibly greasy, and there’s an inviting pitcher of water in the middle of the table. Eleanor, for her part, looks untouched.

“Fair enough,” Eleanor says, and starts rattling off a few summaries of the responses, a few business emails that have come in since the night before, and suggests a few charities they could focus on next.

“What’s Trees for the Future?” Tahani asks. “You sound rather excited about that one. Tell me about… why.”

“Oh, uh, I was part of an environmentalist group before I met Chidi,” Eleanor says. “I kinda screwed them over a little before I left, when I was slipping back into some bad habits… anyway, it’s not a related group, but I always feel better about what I did to them when I focus on charities that are about the environment. Trees for the Future does reforestation and sustainable development in degraded land. It’s in a lot of places, but does a lot of work in Africa, and one of the examples on their site is about the work they’ve done in Senegal in particular.”

Tahani’s head is clear enough to read without a migraine at that point, and she scrolls through the links Eleanor’s handed her. Most of the charities look sound, and Tahani’s got a few preliminary plans in mind already. She’ll need to focus smaller, since most of them aren’t well-known charities that will draw the biggest names in her contact list, but she can make anything work.

“Your eggs are getting cold,” Eleanor tells her, and Tahani remembers her breakfast.

Over the course of the next few bites, her mind wanders back to the night before. “Tell me about Medium Place.”

Eleanor blinks at her. “Not really a charity.”

Tahani shakes her head. “You mentioned it last night. I just… want to know more.”

“They’re a rehabilitation program for convicted felons,” Eleanor says. “Helps them learn a trade that’ll make it easier for them to find above-board work after they’re out of prison. Mostly government-funded, some donations. They do technically charge for classes, but people don’t need to pay them back until after they have a job, and then they can pay in installments with minimal interest.”

“TBP was a private prison complex, yes?” Tahani asks.

Eleanor nods, her mouth full of sausage.

“Janet works there as…”

“She says she’s just an administrator, but she’s basically the VP,” Eleanor says. “She got Jason there doing music therapy or something. I don’t know, and I’m a little afraid to ask.”

“Probably a good call,” Tahani laughs, and then leans forward and digs the heels of her palms into her eyes with a groan. It takes a minute for her to work up the effort to say anything else. “Your friend, Michael. What’s he like?”

“Fun,” Eleanor says, before anything. “Dry humor, lots of smiles, needs Janet to reel him in on ethics sometimes. He’s actually had Chidi in as a consultant before on some stuff, since he’s… not too good at the whole ethics thing. Janet usually catches the problems in his ideas before they get too far. I think he was a bartender when he was younger, because he’s pretty good at making drinks and talking to people about their problems. He helped me out back before I met Chidi.”

Tahani’s known Eleanor for a while now, but she never met “old Eleanor.” She never met the woman who gladly participated in ponzi schemes and sold fake medicine to the elderly, who was rude without caring and even better at lying than she was at sales.

And Eleanor is good at sales, and organization, and marketing, and talking to people on the phone, and generally just at the things Tahani needs in an assistant.

Tahani’s never met the old Eleanor, but she’s heard the stories. Still, Eleanor is a good person now, someone who offered to help Tahani after they met each other during a fundraiser held at St. John’s College, University of Sydney. They were introduced by Chidi, who’d been one of Tahani’s touchstones at the school during planning.

(Chidi, for the record, is terrible at planning, and freely admits that. He’d let his then-fiancée help him through almost everything. Apparently, Eleanor had provided the motivation and soundboard he needed to make any decisions at all.)

Eleanor is a good person now, and a good judge of character.

And Tahani?

Tahani is a little desperate, given how the rumors are starting to grow stronger.

(She can’t afford them. Not now. Not ever.)

“I think I’d like to meet this ‘Michael.’”

Eleanor eyes her. “Because you’re interested in Medium Place, or because of the marriage thing?”

Tahani takes a sip of her water and doesn’t meet Eleanor’s eyes.

“…I’ll give him a call and see what I can do.”

o.o.o.o.o

“Hi, I’m Michael. You must be Tahani. Welcome to Medium Place,” Michael introduces, shaking her hand with a strong grip before he sits back down behind the oak desk. He’s got a charming smile and is downright spritely for a man his age, just going by how he’d moved around the room when she’d gotten there. “Ah, Janet? We’re fine.”

“Alright! Call me if you need me. Mindy said she needed my input over in Legal, so I’ll be there,” Janet says, and leaves so quickly that Tahani could swear she’d teleported.

Janet acts more like a secretary than anything, from what Tahani’s seen, but she’s inclined to trust Eleanor’s words about how much of the show Janet actually runs.

“So, Eleanor said some really interesting stuff about why you wanted to meet me,” Michael says, with a strange little gesture, and then claps his hands together. “But! I’d like to hear it in your own words.”

It’s embarrassing to say, really, so Tahani tries to edge around the subject. “My sister, Kamilah, announced her engagement several months ago. The press has a tendency to compare the two of us, and have taken to speculating as to why I haven’t also gotten married, or at least been in a serious relationship. After a previous incident in Cleveland, my reputation can’t take another hit, even one that seems as slight as this, and several years after the fact.”

Michael raises both eyebrows and tilts his head invitingly, fingers laced together.

“Eleanor speaks highly of you,” Tahani says, and then flounders a little. “And… I was wondering as to your openness to the idea of a marriage of convenience.”

Michael nods slowly, and then claps, leaning back. He spreads his hands. “You barely know me. Didn’t at all, until today.”

“I trust Eleanor,” Tahani says.

(She doesn’t have many friends. She clings to the one she has as well as she can.)

“I’m very old,” Michael says.

Tahani shrugs, though it’s definitely a point. “Stranger things have happened.”

“We’d need to meet frequently and publicly to sell the idea that it’s for real.”

Tahani shrugs, and lifts her chin, and says, “A sacrifice I am willing to make.”

He chuckles, which Tahani counts as a win. “Alright, let’s say I agree. What do I get out of it?”

Tahani’s had trouble coming up with the answer to that. There are a few things, but she’s not sure how well they’ll go over. “By its very nature, your program garners some divisive opinions. My personal reputation is complicated, but I am known for endorsing only the best charities, so my professional relationship has fared better. Association with me, especially so closely, would reflect well on Medium Place, likely bringing more attention, donations, and support.”

Michael nods slowly. “Anything else?”

“I’m not entirely willing to commit to providing an heir, if you were interested in that,” Tahani says, because really, she isn’t. “Or necessarily sharing a house, considering our works keeps us in different parts of the world.”

“No interest in the money an old man’s going to be leaving in his will?” Michael asks.

“I am perfectly capable of managing those assets, but I don’t have an interest in them,” Tahani sniffs. It even has the benefit of being true. “Inheritance or not, I invested my money well, and am a well-regarded event planner. I am fully capable of supporting my own lifestyle without preying on someone else’s fortune.”

She hasn’t gotten as many jobs since Cleveland, or as high-class ones, but business hasn’t dried up, either. Not all of the events she plans are non-profit, and they never have been. She has dividends, and events, and even does celebrity endorsements. The fact that she has less disposable income does not mean she’s without income to dispose of.

Tahani’s fully capable of supporting herself, and it may be a sore spot when people suggest that she isn’t.

“And you don’t think people are going to talk,” Michael says, leaning forward and putting his weight on his elbows, “When you marry a man forty years older than you?”

Tahani blinks, slowly. “I can work that in my favor, especially given the number of friends we have in common. I can spin this.”

Michael eyes her for a long, long moment, and then smiles. “Well, a friend of Eleanor’s is a friend of mine. I’ll give it a trial run. A few dates, that sort of thing.”

He gets up and holds out a hand for Tahani to shake, and laughs. “I’m not interested in an heir anyway, since you mentioned it. The process of making a human being is just so… messy. I’d rather not touch it, myself.”

Tahani lets out a startled laugh, and something in her loosens.

Maybe this is going to work.

o.o.o.o.o

They start out simple, just meeting for coffee, talking about nothing in particular. Tahani did her research ahead of time, knows that their politics match up in all the ways that matter to her, and he’s well-read enough that they have things to talk about.

“You do notice how often you name-drop, right?” Michael asks, at one point.

Tahani’s mouth drops open a little, and she feels her cheeks color in a little as she snaps it back shut.

“Ah,” Michael says, watching her. “That was the wrong thing to say, wasn’t it?”

Tahani blinks, and then nods sharply.

(“He’s not too good at catching himself before he’s rude,” Eleanor warned her. “I did it on purpose, but he usually doesn’t see the problem with being honest about something. Tell him he did something wrong, though, and he’ll probably take it to heart and do better.”)

She doesn’t say anything, mind scrambling for how to move past the sudden drop in the conversation.

He takes her glass, and the pitcher of lime water, and fills it up. He pushes it towards her, and tilts his head. “Mind if I ask why?”

The way he’s treating her is different, all of a sudden. Not as personal, but still personalized.

Tahani remembers what Eleanor said about bartending, and thinks this might be it.

She hesitates, of course. Stalls, a little.

“Why I name drop, or why it was the wrong thing to say?”

The edge of Michael’s mouth ticks up. “Whichever you feel like answering.”

It’s really not a fair answer, because it pinpoints that he’s trying to be nice, despite the utter blow from just a minute earlier.

“…people have been comparing me to my sister my entire life,” Tahani finally says. “At a certain point, she began casually mentioning the many famous people she’d met through either connections or her own skills. I thought that, perhaps, if I mentioned enough well-known people myself, my parents would notice that I was networking as well.”

She pauses, staring at her glass of water, and laughs humorlessly. “They didn’t, of course. Not when Kamilah had three names for each of mine.”

“And now?”

Tahani purses her lips, looks to the side, and tries not to accept the truth of it. She says it anyway, because this man is trying, and if she’s going to so much as consider marrying him, she needs to give a little. “People are still comparing me to Kamilah.”

“And you’re still trying to win.”

“I’m just trying to get out from her shadow,” Tahani says, closing her eyes and trying not to clench her hand too tightly. “People look at me, and only see her and everything she’s accomplished that I haven’t. When I drop a name, I’m still defining myself by someone else, but at least that someone else isn’t Kamilah.

Michael leans forward and puts his hand over Tahani’s, catches her eye, and grins. “I have no idea who Kamilah is.”

Tahani laughs for a full thirty seconds after that, because…

Well, honestly?

She’s not even surprised.

o.o.o.o.o

London Socialite to Invest in American Felon Rehabilitation Program?

Tahani Al-Jamil, socialite and older sister of famed multidisciplinary artist Kamilah, has been seen in conversation with Michael Danson, on several occasions. Rumors have begun circulating that the activist has taken on Danson’s “Medium Place” as her newest fundraising project. Al-Jamil has previously spoken out about her distaste for the state of the American prison system, calling it unjust and criticizing the racial demographics of the prisoners, the harsh conditions of the prisons themselves, and the lack of societal support that leads to such high prison populations in the first place.

Al-Jamil and Danson have not yet spoken publicly about the nature of their meetings. Al-Jamil will be appearing at an event held for the Red Cross in a weeks’ time, and is expected to comment at that time.

o.o.o.o.o

Tahani manages to drum up interest by dodging questions as best she can. She emphasizes that Michael is an acquaintance, one that she met due to several mutual friends, and that she greatly enjoys his company. She doesn’t mention how recently that first meeting was, and steers the conversation in the direction of the Red Cross, her hopes that the event will motivate people the world over to donate to the organization, and her outfit.

There’s several questions about the unveiling of Kamilah’s most recent art gallery, which Tahani duly ignores.

o.o.o.o.o

She invites Michael to be her plus-one to the next event she attends, rather than organizes.

“The Met Gala?” He asks, watching Tahani pour over designs.

“I am very lucky to still be on the guest list,” Tahani tells him. “With the scandal at Cleveland, it’s a wonder that I haven’t been disinvited for good.”

“That’s a thing?”

“Very much so,” Tahani tells him. She keeps frowning down at the designs. “I’ve got plenty of friends in the fashion industry, and I’ve been invited as the guest of a designer, so I’m obviously wearing one of their designs. You… I doubt people will be quite as interested in what you wear, so I should be able to find something much more easily for you.”

“Sure you won’t be embarrassed to have someone my age as your date?” Michael asks, but the grin on his face is teasing. Tahani’s had time to get used to it by now; she seen the mean grins, though they’ve never been pointed at her.

“You’re a handsome man, especially for your age,” Tahani dismisses. “It’ll start rumors, but only the ones we want in the first place.”

Michael comes to look over her shoulder at the papers on the desk. “And your sister’s wedding?”

‘Your sister’ is… it’s something different, coming from him. People tend to say her name after that, almost wonderingly. ‘Your sister, Kamilah,’ like Tahani doesn’t know her own sister’s name. They say it like they need to emphasize this phenomenal woman whose simple presence has ruined Tahani’s life.

(No, no, that’s… that’s too far. Eleanor would chastise her for that, and Chidi would probably try to talk to her about the ethical ramifications of blaming someone else for her problems, and also suggest she see a therapist.)

(He was… maybe right.)

Michael says ‘your sister’ the way he might have said it for anyone else. Tahani isn’t defined as being the lesser sister; Kamilah is defined by being Tahani’s sister in general, as far as Michael is concerned.

It’s something that Tahani appreciates, because the rest of her friends, the ones she’s made since Cleveland, are the same way. Kamilah doesn’t enter the conversation unless Tahani herself brings her up, or if it’s genuinely pertinent to the conversation. Kamilah is defined, to them, by her relationship to Tahani, because Tahani is the one that they’ve met, despite Kamilah’s fame.

It means so much.

“It’s not for another six weeks,” Tahani says. “Why?”

“I’m going to be your date for that, too, right?” Michael asks, stepping away. He spreads his arms with a smile. “What do you think of a white suit jacket? Too much?”

“A white suit?” Tahani asks, wrinkling her nose.

(Tahani’s even more surprised that she’s being invited to Kamilah’s wedding than that she’s being invited to the Met Gala, honestly. The Met is always full of celebrities with scandals behind them, and the chairwoman doesn’t know Kamilah personally. It’s probably meant to be a power move that Kamilah is inviting Tahani at all, but she’s going to manage it.)

“I look good in white,” Michael tells her, rather like she’s missing an inside joke. “Or pale blue, maybe?”

“You prefer colorful suits?” Tahani asks, and then shakes her head. “Of course you do. I doubt I’ve ever seen you without, at minimum, a patterned bowtie.”

“They’re cool.”

Tahani’s head whips around to stare at him, wide-eyed, before she can control herself. “You did not.”

Michael grins.

o.o.o.o.o

His suit for the Met Gala is a pearly white with dark green accents, and Tahani is astounded by how well he pulls it off.

o.o.o.o.o

“Didn’t get much attention, did we?”

“It was the Met Gala,” Tahani says, nonetheless scrolling through twitter feeds and news sites in case her own name pops up. “There were bigger names there.”

“Including—”

“Yes,” Tahani says, before he can finish the sentence. “Including my sister.”

Michael takes a careful seat next to her, and Tahani shifts minutely. They’re both still figuring out what they’re comfortable with, physically. The fact that Michael isn’t interested in sexual activities makes things a lot easier on both of them, but it still leaves the issue of how close is too close, when alone in private and not just playing it up for the cameras.

They’re friends by now, definitely, but Tahani’s still feeling out the edges of what that means, in their situation.

A knock sounds from the doorway, and Tahani looks up to see Eleanor poking her head in with a nervous grin. “Hey guys, mind if I come in?”

Tahani doesn’t like the expression on her face, but she nods, and Eleanor walks over and gives her an envelope.

It doesn’t take much effort to guess what the golden, reflective envelope and matte black typefont are about, and when Tahani opens it, it’s exactly what she expected.

 

TOGETHER WITH THEIR FAMILIES

KAMILAH AL-JAMIL
and
DAVID JAKOBSSON

Request the pleasure of your company
as they exchange marriage vows

SATURDAY THE NINETEENTH OF MAY

Two thousand and eighteen
at three o’clock in the afternoon

Borgholm Castle, Sweden

 

“What a bench, am I right?” Eleanor says, already having noticed the problem.

“With their families?” Tahani reads out, shaking a little. “With what family? I’m all she has left!

“Should I…?” Michael asks, pointing at the door and turning a little.

“And it’s not like I would have been useless, either, my entire reputation is built on the ability to plan events, including weddings!” Tahani protests, putting the invitation down to stare at Eleanor. “She knows that!”

“Pretty sure she’s just doing it to be a bitch,” Eleanor says, dropping the joke this time. “You need a hug?”

Tahani looks down at the invitation again, open-mouthed, and then back up at Eleanor. She closes her mouth and feels her face twist into a grimace, and nods.

Eleanor moves to sit next to Tahani, wraps her arms around her boss, and then makes a gesture that Tahani can’t recognize from this angle.

“C’mon, old guy, you too.”

Another set of arms joins Eleanor’s, and Tahani lets the angry tears run. Part of her mind is running through how Kamilah could do something so petty and mean (it might be deserved revenge for Cleveland, though Tahani’s time in the hospital should have counted for something), but part of her mind is running through how to turn this in her favor somehow instead.

No need to ruin Kamilah’s reputation, just to boost her own.

Her dress can’t outshine the bride’s, or she’ll be called petty, or stand out too much from the rest of the crowd, or they’ll catch on. She has to look sophisticated, and controlled, and… she needs a copy of the guest list, as soon as possible. General information, at least. She can likely get contact information on the husband’s family, if nothing else, and then work from there to see what the dress code is going to be. It wouldn’t surprise her if Kamilah told everyone but Tahani to dress a certain way, given this precision strike of a wedding invitation.

Tahani has to figure out the timing of her own nonsense, as well. She and Michael went into this knowing that marriage was the most likely outcome, and that hasn’t changed. It will seem whirlwind to everyone else, but it’s being carefully planned. She still has… two and a half months until Kamilah’s wedding. If Tahani’s own marriage takes place before that, she’ll be completely overshadowed by her sister, but the engagement…

If Kamilah announces the date in the next few days, or at least that she’s set one, then the news will be flitting about for a few days afterward. If Tahani gets engaged on the same day, or even the day or two afterwards, it will look… bad. Like she’s trying to piggyback off of her sister’s fame, and she’ll then get overshadowed nonetheless.

“…Eleanor,” Tahani says, mind still racing. “We have that gala for St. Jude Children’s Hospital in two and a half weeks.”

“Uh…” Eleanor pulls away and grabs her tablet, flipping through windows until she finds the calendar. “Yeah, in New York.”

“Michael, would you be amenable to staging the engagement for then?” Tahani asks. “It’s a small enough element that we can easily call it off if something large enough happens in the days leading up to it that it would be a bad idea.”

“You’re planning the proposal?” Eleanor asks, and then immediately shakes her head. “What am I saying, of course you are. This entire thing is planned.”

Tahani shoots her a small smile. “Yes. It is. And we are going to make it perfect. The only drama is the kind that benefits us. No more scandals.”

“And it’s a good idea to propose at a fundraiser?” Michael asks.

“I’ll make a comment about how the news will hopefully bring more attention to the organization and boost donations,” Tahani says. “That’s easy enough to manage. In the meantime… we’ll need to begin preparing a wedding as well.”

“How big?” Eleanor asks immediately, already pulling the tablet to herself. “And is Michael going to need help picking out a ring?”

“Several hundred,” Tahani says, mind already running down the list. She’d lost surprisingly few people after Cleveland, most likely because of the injuries she’d suffered from the incident. It was mostly pity, but it was something. “I’ll finalize a guest list later. Start looking into venues. No castles, so we don’t look like we’re trying to copy Kamilah, or beat her at her own game. Classy, of course. Michael, do you have any suggestions?”

“Would an estate in a remote forest be reasonable?” He asks. “I’m a fan of… trees.”

Tahani blinks, and then turns to Eleanor. “Fairytale theme, gauzy white decorations, temperate forest in the summer. We can make it work.”

“Europe or America?”

Tahani shoots Michael another look. She’s not used to someone else’s opinions having an equal weight to her own, rather than one person clearly being higher in the decision-making process, but she’s willing to bend.

“Not France,” Michael says, because he’s got a thing about France, much like he has things about sex and sweating and certain foods. “Belgium is good, though.”

Belgium would be good.

“What about Pakistan?” Eleanor asks, and Tahani actually pauses for a moment. Eleanor continues. “You could play it up as connecting with your roots. People like that sort of thing, right?”

Tahani considers it. “Do some research and see if there’s anything that would fit the plan and the forests. I remember mountains and forests from visiting as a child, but I don’t know if any of them would suit the theme we’re aiming for.”

“On it,” Eleanor says.

“You plan events the way someone would plan a battle,” Michael says, and there’s a smile on his face that has Tahani’s chest warming.

It’s strange, to feel pride in herself because friends, real friends, are complimenting her skills without an ulterior motivation.

o.o.o.o.o

The proposal goes off without a hitch, and Tahani’s amused to find that the news is suddenly everywhere. It’s the unavoidable scandal part of it; she’s getting married to someone so much older than her that people are going to gossip and rumormonger no matter what. It gets the information out, though, and when Tahani gets asked why she’s marrying him, she has answers ready.

“He’s a very kind and intelligent man,” Tahani says, chin held high. “We get along quite well, and we have a number of friends in common. I met him some time ago through those friends, and we grew closer once we found that we enjoyed each other’s company.”

“Having rejected your inheritance, is there a financial motivation to your marriage?” a journalist asks.

Tahani’s face twists. She’d expected the question. “I am a highly successful event planner, and my fortunes outweigh Michael’s. I am going into this with my eyes open, as is he. We are both more than comfortable with our financial states, and don’t require this marriage to grow either.”

The next question is about how they met, and who the friends were, and that is much easier to answer.

(There’s a little fibbing, of course, but not by much. Tahani just backdates a little, and emphasizes that she’d been considering Medium Place as a potential project to fundraise for.)

o.o.o.o.o

“I hate when you wear heels,” Eleanor says, watching as Tahani parses through florist galleries to find someone she deems competent enough for an environmental fundraiser. It’s small, and being done with a hefty discount at Eleanor’s request.

“You do?” Tahani asks, looking up with what she can feel is a pout.

“Yeah, I always end up with my face at your boob level,” Eleanor says, with a wry grin that sets Tahani’s heart aflutter.

“I can’t help that!”

Eleanor’s grin widens into a smile, and she looks back down at her work as she tries to stifle it. “I know.”

She’s teasing. Tahani knows she’s teasing. It’s absolutely unfair.

She mentions it to Michael, later. They’re trying to make date nights more of a thing, as eyes turn towards them. They need to really sell the relationship, and that means making a show of it. The fact that their homes and work are on different continents is a good excuse, but they still need to put in effort.

It’s a private dinner, but Tahani’s already spotted at least three paparazzi outside. She angles herself a little closer to Michael every time, monitors her own expression to make sure they can’t claim any fighting or dissatisfaction, and keeps the conversation going.

“Was she mean about it?” Michael asks, like he does so often.

“No, but it’s…” Tahani doesn’t know how to put it into words. She doesn’t want to, especially not when she’s going to be marrying this man. It’s all kinds of awkward and she’s uncomfortable with it.

“It’s…” Michael prompts.

Tahani makes her decision, and gets up. She takes a seat next to Michael, her back to the window. “It’s complicated.”

“People use that word for a lot of things, and I can’t really say I approve,” Michael says, because of course he does. “It’s usually just a smokescreen for romantic—ooooooooooh.”

Tahani feels her face heat up. “Don’t.”

“Am I right?”  Michael asks, incredibly earnest and more disbelieving than anything.

“I… may have more than solely platonic feelings for Eleanor,” Tahani says, telling herself that she’s hedging, even though the words make it clear what she’s getting at.

“How strong?” Michael asks, tipping his head down to look at her over the tops of his glasses.

“I…” Tahani says, and then tips her head back, looking away, as she tries to figure out what to—“am most likely in love with her.”

Or that, that works too.

“No,” Michael says, his voice as full of drama as Tahani’s ever heard it. He leans back in his chair, clapping his hands over his mouth and letting out a squeezing noise unlike anything Tahani’s heard from a man his age.

She stares at the table.

He leans back forward, and when she meets his eyes, they’re practically sparkling. “Does she know?”

“She does not, and I’m not going to tell her,” Tahani says, feeling herself pouting. “She’s a happily married woman; she does not need her boss just… lusting after her like an uncontrollable Hollywood director!”

Michael doesn’t lean back at the outburst, just looks at her with the kind of unfathomable gaze he sometimes gets, like he’s not just older than her, but older than the world. He’s a strange man with strange habits, and that expression is one of them.

He moves his chair next to hers and pulls her against his side. “I think it might be for the best if you tell her.”

“Then she’ll leave,” Tahani says, and her heart squeezes at the thought. No. No, she doesn’t want that.

“I think you’d probably be surprised,” Michael says, and the hand on her shoulder cups her closer.

She doesn’t answer, and a few minutes later, he manages to wordlessly convince her over the couch.

It’s strange, Tahani thinks, to find that she’s perfectly content to cuddle with this man.

(There aren’t any tabloids with her face on them the next morning, but a few news sites do post the pictures. It’s not a scandal, so it isn’t clickbait, but celebrity gossip is celebrity gossip.)

o.o.o.o.o

Tahani almost decides on Joot, before she takes a closer look at the travel details. The Fairy Meadows are beautiful, and it would be a truly Tahani move to have her wedding at the base camp of Nanga Parbat, but the trip from the nearest airport takes a minimum of eleven hours, including numerous police checkpoints, and a hike that can be done in ninety minutes, but is said to take three to five hours on the average.

She isn’t willing to make that trip, and she feels that many of her guests wouldn’t be, either. Besides, she’d have to drink tap water.

It’s a shame, but she compensates by finding the largest, fanciest hotel in Pakistan and planning from there. The Islamabad Serena hotel is pretty much exactly what Tahani wants, and when she makes a few calls herself, she gets the information she needs on how to plan a wedding for one of the parks in the city. She’s doing a lot of the planning for this herself, if only because things tend to go much more smoothly when people hear her name and think, “Ah, one of ours.”

She counts herself lucky that they don’t hear her name and think of Cleveland.

Tahani splits her time between planning the wedding, and running events, and preparing for her sister’s wedding. It’s a lot of time that just slips away, and before she realizes it, she’s on a plane to Sweden, with Michael as her plus one and a perfectly-designed dress in her luggage.

o.o.o.o.o

Kamilah’s wedding is disgustingly perfect.

Kamilah’s wedding dress is western, but nowhere near traditional, with a slanted hem and a jaunty veil and dramatic makeup. Her bridesmaid’s dresses are in various pastels with reflective black patches like massive globs of paint down the fabric, and the groom is wearing heels and a patchwork suit.

Tahani is fairly certain that Kamilah designed it all herself.

The ceremony is held by a Swedish official of some sort, a man who’s legally allowed to officiate a wedding, but has no religious affiliation, which is probably for the best, for this particular wedding.

Everything, down to the last detail, is what Tahani expected. Everything gets a small twist from the standard until it’s recognizable as a wedding, but one out of an acid dream. Tahani is seated a few rows back from the front, a snub against her role as the bride’s sister, but not so much for Kamilah to be seen as petty. The food is good, but not great, the caterers having been given inadequate preparation and timing. The cake is tall, and pretty, but tasteless and with decorations that unbalance it visually.

It’s exactly what Tahani expected, and while she wears a smile at the reception, she does not speak with Kamilah, or say anything but the best for the wedding planner, the happy couple, or anything else.

It helps, she thinks, that she still towers over her sister, and the heels only add to it. Her floral sundress is long-sleeved to handle the spring chill of Scandinavia, and her hat is wide-brimmed. She is eye-catching in a way that doesn’t impede on the bride’s day, and there’s something very, very satisfying about how many eyes turn her way when she passes, gazes that drip with astonishment instead of disdain.

It helps, she thinks, that she has Michael on her arm throughout. He’s older than people expect for her, and a curious kind of man, but he’s good at looking and acting self-controlled when he needs to be.

He looks distinguished, and she looks beautiful, and the only splashes they make in this pond are good ones.

(Tahani meets Kamilah’s eyes, once, and then they look away.)

(They still haven’t made up.)

o.o.o.o.o

Tahani waits until a few weeks after the furor from Kamilah’s wedding dies down, and sends out her own invitations. The plans are slotting together more and more quickly, and Tahani’s starting to get bogged down in the details.

“You’ve got a lot of knots,” Eleanor says, fingers working into the muscles of her shoulders.

Tahani’s breath catches every few moments from how close Eleanor is, and she can’t bring herself to pull away. “This isn’t in your job description.”

“Dude, you were my friend before you were my boss,” Eleanor reminds her, fingers squeezing for a quick moment before she goes back to the massage. “I’m happy to do this, hot stuff.”

Tahani swallows. “The paparazzi—”

“Aren’t gonna get anything from this angle, remember?” Eleanor says. “You got that security system installed in case of competitor espionage last year. The study is one of the only rooms with a window that they can’t see into.”

“I’m still not comfortable with doing this here,” Tahani says.

Eleanor pulls away, and Tahani wants to cry.

“The spa room,” Tahani blurts out before she can stop herself. “Downstairs. It’s right next to the pool, and… doesn’t have any windows?”

Eleanor isn’t in Tahani’s field of vision, but there’s a smile in her voice when she talks. “Yeah, let’s do that.”

They talk on the way down, Tahani’s heart beating out of her chest. Eleanor has her own room in Tahani’s mansion, with a queen-sized bed for when Chidi visits. The two of them somehow keep the long-distance relationship running with ease, and Chidi comes up for longer holidays, though Eleanor does the weekend trips. Australia isn’t exactly opposite the world from the UK, but Tahani has looked it up, once, and it’s… close.

(She gives Eleanor a generous travel stipend in addition to the already hefty salary for a reason.)

But Chidi’s coming up for a few days while his students prepare for their final examinations, and he’ll be arriving tonight.

Eleanor’s good at the massage, too, and Tahani lets herself pretend that it’s more while she lies facedown and feels the tension in her shoulders being pushed and prodded away.

It ends all too soon, and then it’s time to work, and contact dress designers, and plan the menu, and then it’s already time for dinner.

“Hello, Chidi!” Tahani says, stepping forward to hug him after he and Eleanor have kissed and made their own hellos.

He hugs back, readjusting his glasses when he steps away. “Hey, Tahani. Eleanor’s been keeping me updated on the wedding plans. Looking forward to it! Please don’t ask me to make a speech.”

Eleanor snorts out a laugh, and Tahani covers her grin with one hand. She waves them both towards the dining room. “Let’s go eat. I’m sure you’re hungry after such a long flight.”

“Oh, yeah, I’m starving,” Chidi says. “What are we having?”

“Fried shrimp and some Caesar’s salad, I believe,” Tahani says. “Eleanor’s been trying to convince me to eat some more ‘standard’ food, but I did argue for the French Onion soup.”

“Uhhhhhhhhh, I’m looking forward to it!” Chidi says, though he’s rubbing his palms against his pants, and then clapping them together in a way that’s eminently nervous. “Um, just, shrimp harvesting is really bad for the environment, and so is farming them, so—”

“Babe,” Eleanor cuts him off, putting a hand on his shoulder, and it’s enough for him to turn and look at her. “Remember what we’ve been practicing?”

“Uhhhh…”

“If something makes you a bad person…” Eleanor prompts.

“It’s not going to be the almond milk?” Chidi finishes.

Eleanor smiles and claps him on the shoulder. “A night of shrimp isn’t going to utterly ruin you ethically. Indulge for a night, and then go argue for, like, a human rights issue or something tomorrow. You have platforms, and you know your way around that sort of thing.”

“Still working on the anxiety?” Tahani asks, eminently sympathetic.

“I-I’ve been seeing a therapist,” Chidi admits, as if he hadn’t already told her. “It’s been helping, maybe?”

“We’re working on it,” Eleanor says, hugging Chidi with one arm and quirking one corner of her mouth. “Now, let’s go eat.”

And they do, and they talk, and then they all go to their rooms.

Tahani’s bed is very cold, in her own opinion, especially when she thinks of what’s going on downstairs.

Her phone rings.

“Eleanor?” Tahani asks, when she picks up. “What’s wrong?”

“Hey, you’re not asleep yet, right?”

“No, I was just looking through some dress designs,” Tahani says, which is mostly true. She’d definitely been looking at them. Seeing, maybe not, but her eyes had definitely been pointed at the pages.

“Cool, can you come down to my room real quick? Something came up.”

Tahani’s stomach twists as she pulls on her bathrobe and heads for Eleanor’s room. It’s rather out of the way, and much smaller than Tahani’s own, but it’s respectably sized in its own right.

“What’s wrong?” Tahani asks as she steps into the room. Chidi and Eleanor are leaning close to each other in conversation, and they stop talking when Tahani comes in. Nothing seems to be a problem…

“Okay, first thing’s first,” Eleanor says, and holds up a phone. It’s on speaker, and Tahani hears Michael’s voice coming out.

“Tahani, Eleanor came to me about this before anything. I didn’t tell her what you told me, but that’s mostly because I didn’t really need to. She’s good at noticing things. Anyway, I don’t want what you two want, so that means you can do that, and I don’t have to, and you should have fun. I’m completely on board with Eleanor’s plan and you shouldn’t worry about me getting weird about it.”

“Thanks, Michael,” Eleanor says into the phone. Her eyes haven’t left Tahani’s since this all started.

“No problem!” Michael says back, and then cuts the call short.

Eleanor’s hand goes down, and she pats the part of the bed between her and Chidi in a clear gesture for Tahani to sit.

She does just that, mind sprinting.

“Okay, so, don’t feel pressured, but…” Eleanor hesitates, head tipping back and forth a bit as she makes the face she usually has on before saying something she’s not sure the other person wants to hear. “What do you know about poly relationships?”

Tahani feels her eyes widen, and words would be catching in her throat if her mind wasn’t so empty of things to say right now.

“What I’m trying to say…” Eleanor trails off, eyes darting past Tahani to Chidi for a moment, and then meeting Tahani’s again. “I know you like me. And I’m pretty sure you have for a while, but you’re probably holding back because you’re my boss, and I’m married. Am I right?”

Tahani nods wordlessly.

“Okay. Chidi and I have been talking,” Eleanor says, still talking slowly, monitoring Tahani’s face for whatever she needs. “And we’re willing to try this if you are. I live in your house anyway, so less chance of people getting curious about stuff. I don’t know how you feel about Chidi being involved, so…”

“If you just want Eleanor playing the hinge, I’m actually alright with that,” Chidi says, and there’s a strange surety in his voice that Tahani can’t remember hearing more than a few times. “I live on the other side of the world anyway. Nooooot a lot of chances to come up for a threesome.”

Tahani squeaks at the word. It makes everything feel a lot more… real.

“You okay?” Eleanor asks, gauging her expression. There’s worry on her face. That’s nice. “Or am I about to get fired?”

“You’re serious about this?” Tahani asks, turning to look at Chidi and then back at Eleanor. “Really?”

“Absolutely,” Eleanor said.

“I’ve had a few weeks to think about it,” Chidi says, which fits everything Tahani knows about him and oh god this is really happening.

She turns to face Eleanor again when fingers coax her chin in that direction.

“Can I kiss you?” Eleanor asks.

Tahani nods, wide-eyed.

“Can Chidi?” Eleanor asks, a note of doubt in her voice.

Tahani considers it for a moment, and then nods again. “Both of you. As much as… I’ll tell you if I’d like you to stop.”

She turns to look at the windows, suddenly panicked that someone is watching, but there’s nothing.

This really is scandal material. An engaged woman, taking part in a threesome with her married assistant and the assistant’s husband? In her own house?

The media would have a field day, regardless of the fact that every person personally involved is consenting, up to and including Michael

Tahani gets the feeling he may have outright been matchmaking.

She stops thinking, then, though. There are lips on hers, and warm hands wrapping around her waist from behind as a hot mouth presses to the skin of her neck, and it’s all very, very distracting.

o.o.o.o.o

Tahani wishes she could say that the wedding sneaks up on her, but it’s far from the truth. She spends every spare moment checking on the dress, the catering, the guest list, the photographer, the music, everything.

She hides loving bruises under her clothes, thankful that Eleanor listens to her requests to avoid hickies in places people might see. She pauses in her work, now and again, and brings a hand to her mouth and smiles because it’s real and it’s happening.

It’s a strange though to be having just days before her wedding, but none of this was ever going to be normal.

So when she wakes up in her hotel room the morning of the wedding, it’s to a head full of stress and thoughts about how she wishes she’d had the option of going to Eleanor and Chidi to help take the edge off. She couldn’t, not here, too high a risk of getting caught, but it didn’t stop her from wishing.

She has a personal makeup artist, and women who help her get into the traditional red and gold wedding dress. The service as a whole is going to be a mix of traditions, but Tahani had always loved the patterns of home. The dress looks wonderful on her, and she closes her eyes and waits for the artists to do their work.

She can’t say that the wedding goes off without a hitch, but almost all of it is minor. The guests made it, and aren’t having trouble with the food. Kamilah’s keeping away from Tahani, talking more about her new album than about the service, and posing for pictures every now and again. Eleanor looks resplendent in her maid of honor dress, and if their hugs linger a little longer than necessary, it’s not something people are going to notice. The park is studded with stars, both in the decorations and in the attendees.

There are hiccups, of course. Janet has to be asked to pull Jason away from the DJ stand more than once. Chidi freezes up and starts talking about ethics after some of Tahani’s friends, professional cricket players, ask him about his favorite sports and teams. One child complains about how she wants McDonald’s instead of “this weird stuff.”

But it’s small. It’s something she can brush off. It’s not a scandal.

Tahani stays on Michael’s arm and listens to Janet give a speech, as Michael’s closest friend, and thinks that her life is somehow turning out for the best.

o.o.o.o.o

Michael wants geese for the massive pond in Tahani’s front yard. They’re vicious, vicious birds, but Tahani thinks they’re not refined enough for her house.

They compromise and get swans instead.

o.o.o.o.o

They visit each other, of course. Michael comes to London whenever he can, and Tahani stops by Medium Place every time she passes through the United States. They have dinners, see movies, and even share a bed. The last one is amusing; they don’t have sex, but they do crosswords sometimes, or play Scrabble.

They’re having breakfast at Tahani’s place one day when the news breaks. Eleanor rushes into the room, hair still half wet, and says, “You have to see this,” as she turns the television on.

It’s not just rumors, whispered and products of jealous hearts and a vindictive tongues. There’s evidence, videos and audio recordings and papers and—

A year after her wedding, Kamilah’s getting a divorce, and it’s ugly. There’s cheating, a child with another woman, leaked nude photos, screaming matches with possessive, abusive language, and Tahani feels her stomach turn.

“Where’s my phone,” she asks, unable to look away from the television screen. “Eleanor, please.”

“What do you need?” Eleanor asks.

“Call her.”

“What?”

“Kamilah’s number is still in my phone,” Tahani says, finally tearing her eyes away from the screen and immediately grabbing for the phone in Eleanor’s hands. “I need to call her.”

Why?” Michael asks, and the question is echoed in Eleanor’s face.

“She’s never had to deal with this before,” Tahani says, mind running across their lives. “She always succeeded. She got… she got awards, youngest graduate, platinum albums, everything. She doesn’t know how to handle something this… this awful.”

“And?” Eleanor asks. “She has other friends. She can—”

She’s my little sister!” Tahani cries out. “Maybe she won’t take my help, but that doesn’t—I can’t just sit here, not through this.”

Michael and Eleanor share a look, one of those exchanges that has Tahani wondering if they might be closer in mind than anyone else she’s ever met, and then Eleanor gives her the phone.

Kamilah picks up on the third ring. She sounds clogged up, angry and tired and very much like she’s been crying for hours. “What.”

“Come home,” Tahani says, and then winces. “You… I have a spare room.”

“I don’t need your help, Tahani.”

“I know you have other people,” Tahani says, and feels her jaw clench, because Kamilah has and always will be independent and willful and prideful beyond reason. “But if you need somewhere to go that they won’t look for you, come back to London.”

“Fuck off, Tahani.”

The line goes dead, and Tahani closes her eyes and struggles against the urge to cry.

o.o.o.o.o

It occurs to her, later, that she doesn’t think Kamilah would have done this for her. Kamilah was a philanthropist, but only ever out of a desire to prove she was the best at whatever she did. She’d gotten the charity awards, gotten bored, gotten into some new project. Even when she did still contribute, there was always an element of promotion for a new album or something.

Tahani knows she’s not much better; Eleanor and Michael sometimes talk about philosophy, especially when Chidi visits and the three of them are in the same room, and Tahani knows what moral desert and compromised motivations are. Tahani’s only ever wanted to prove herself to the world, but at least she stuck to philanthropy when she could. She’s been learning to care, and it’s been easier since she met Chidi and Eleanor, since she had her time with Jason, since her parents died, since she got the fork over herself after Cleveland, since she married Michael.

She doesn’t think Kamilah would have reached out, if she’d found herself in the same situation.

(She hadn’t visited the hospital in person after Cleveland, after all.)

o.o.o.o.o

Tahani’s having a dinner party when it happens.

It’s a little much to call it a dinner party. Three married couples getting together for dinner, some of which is fancy salmon and some of which is jalapeño poppers, and then taking turns putting on shows they like, isn’t quite a dinner party. It’s fun, though, and it’s been ages since Tahani’s laughed as hard as she does when Jason and Janet tag-team a story about a sparklers mishap on the Fourth of July.

The doorbell rings, and Tahani’s face is still cramping from how wide her smile is when she opens the door.

Her arms are then full of Kamilah.

It takes a few seconds to process.

“Don’t say anything,” Kamilah hisses, raw and broken and still so, so angry.

Tahani jerks her head silently at the people around her to get the door, and heads for the living room. It’s raining outside, and Kamilah’s soaking wet.

“Janet, can you make some tea?” Tahani asks. “Eleanor, towels. Chidi, you know where the blankets are. Michael, grab some of the leftovers from dinner. Jason…”

“Yeah?” Jason asks, face lighting up with the fact that she’s so much as addressing him.

He does that with almost everyone, though.

“Tell us one of your… inane stories,” Tahani suggests. It’ll be enough to get their minds off of everything, and then Eleanor gets there with the towels. Tahani tries to help Kamilah towel off, but the material is yanked from her hands.

Eleanor gives her a look behind Kamilah’s back, laying out more towels on the couch so there isn’t water damage.

“Oh, I have lots of insane stories. Like, this one time, I was riding my bike next to the swamp, and I saw an alligator trying to swallow an entire dog!”

Tahani catches the look on Kamilah’s face, and bites her lip. It’s the same confusion and mild horror she’d felt herself, the first time she’d heard a Jason story.

“Yeah, and then the cops showed up, ‘cause I stole the bike and they’d been chasing me.”

Kamilah keeps staring, even as Tahani’s plan and people come together around them.

o.o.o.o.o

Kamilah’s wearing borrowed clothes when she comes to Tahani’s kitchen the next morning. It’s separate from the chef’s kitchen, only really used for cozy nights and breakfasts. The pajama bottoms are Eleanor’s, and don’t quite reach Kamilah’s ankles, but Tahani’s would have outright dragged along the floor.

She looks a mess.

She doesn’t talk any more than she did the night before, doesn’t say thank you, or explain the change in heart, or even ask who any of the people here are, or why Tahani’s spending time with them.

A story on Kamilah’s ongoing divorce and sudden disappearance comes on.

Tahani turns off the television.

“I wanted to see that,” Kamilah says, the first words she’s said all morning.

“You’re torturing yourself by watching,” Tahani says, refusing to meet her eyes.

“I want to see it.”

“Believe me, it will only make things worse,” Tahani tells her.

“Oh, what would you know?” Kamilah demands.

Tahani looks up and meets her eyes. “Cleveland, Kamilah.”

“Hardly the same thing.”

“You’re right; that was one incident and a recovery,” Tahani says. “It was not months of a steadily devolving relationship, emotional abuse, and divorce proceedings watched by the entire world. I know how it works, and your situation is worse in many ways. Watching will only make it worse. Don’t try.”

Janet and Michael come in, talking about something that seems to involve Mindy St. Claire and a contract with a construction company a few towns away from Medium Place headquarters, and Janet immediately heads for the kettle. She claims that she likes to help, and needs something to do with her hands, and Tahani believes her. Michael just sits down next to Tahani and grabs some of the toast and butter.

(Tahani would like to claim that she made the food, but it’s an illusion. She tried, and then failed, and then asked the chef for help with a promise of a bonus on the week’s paycheck.)

Eleanor comes in just behind them, eyes on her phone. She’s clearly been listening, though. “Is Mindy still doing rehab meetings with a therapist or is that over?”

“I’m not actually supposed to know that, I think,” Michael says, looking over at Janet. “Janet?”

“She is,” Janet tells them cheerfully. “It’s court-ordered. She’s not allowed to back out.”

“Fair enough,” Eleanor says, taking a seat on Tahani’s other side. She plants a kiss on Tahani’s cheek. “Hey babe. Just toast and eggs?”

“There’s tomatoes in the fridge,” Tahani says, and before she’s even finished talking, Janet is speaking.

“I’ll get it!”

Tahani turns back to Kamilah, and pauses at the look in her face. “What?”

“Your husband is right there,” Kamilah hisses, shooting a furtive look at Eleanor.

Tahani’s saved from having to answer by Eleanor.

“Hell yeah, he is.”

Kamilah looks from Tahani to Eleanor to Michael, and then her eyes flick up to look at whoever’s bringing the sound of footsteps in behind Tahani’s back.

“Well, this looks… awkward,” Chidi says. He shifts in place for a moment. “What’s going on?”

“Couldya come over here for a second?” Eleanor asks, waving him closer. She smirks at Tahani, and then kisses Chidi as soon as he’s close enough. Tahani catches on a second later and adds a kiss of her own, and then turns back to her breakfast with palpably flaming cheeks.

“Uh, isn’t she—”

“She already saw me kiss Tahani,” Eleanor says, which is enough for Chidi to get into the chair next to Eleanor and grab some breakfast of his own.

“Is Jason sleeping in?” Michael asks.

“Yes, apparently he is very weak to jet lag,” Janet says.

“Human bodies are so… inconvenient,” Michael says, frowning down at his food.

“I don’t understand,” Kamilah says. Her eyes are still flicking between the people across from her.

“Well, polyamory is a thing, and the ethical ramifications are pretty much null when everyone involved is aware of what’s going on and okay with it,” Eleanor says, dabbing some jam onto a piece of toast, and then adding a healthy topping of tabasco sauce.

“I don’t do the whole sex thing,” Michael says. “It’s very gross. Tahani likes it, though, so she should have fun if she wants to.”

“You’re almost seventy,” Kamilah says, like it’s an argument that he should have stopped seeing sex as gross a long time ago. She shakes her head. “You’re married.

“I know, it’s very strange to be in this position. I never actually expected to get married,” Michael says.

“And you’re married,” Kamilah says, gesturing between Chidi and Eleanor.

“Hell yeah, we are,” Eleanor says, holding up her hand to Chidi for a high five.

“And you three are…”

Eleanor leans back and reaches out with both hands to wrap her arms around Tahani and Chidi’s shoulders. “We are, bench.”

“Michael was actually the one to suggest it,” Tahani says, and watches as Kamilah’s eyes bug out.

Eleanor’s hand lifts up, and Michael high-fives it, almost on instinct.

Kamilah still seems confused.

“I love all of them,” Tahani says. “Just… in different ways. We all talked and made sure it was okay before we started. Just, please don’t tell anyone.”

Kamilah clenches her jaw shut and looks away.

o.o.o.o.o

When Kamilah’s ex shows up on the doorstep, looking for Kamilah for reasons Tahani doesn’t even want to guess at, the person he first sees is Eleanor.

This is important.

Tahani would have acted high and mighty, threatened to call the police. Janet and Jason and Michael would have all confused him. Chidi might have been pushed past with ease, or he might have just talked until the ex left in frustration.

Eleanor’s always had a mean streak a mile wide, though. She’s buried it, more than willing to try and be a good person, but it’s still there when she needs it.

So as soon as she finds out who the man at the door is, she tells him to leave, and when he says no, she repeats herself, just to ensure she has a legal reason to respond with escalation, and when he says no again, Eleanor dumps her smoothie on his head.

Then she yanks his shirt up and over his head, effectively blinding him.

Then she pantses him.

Then she pushes him into the pond, where all the angry, angry swans are.

And then, then, Eleanor takes out her phone and starts filming from just inside the house.

It lasts until he manages to see again, and starts running for her, at which point Eleanor closes the door, locks it, and calls the cops.

She then immediately posts the video on several sites, extensively tagged so everyone sees it, including the security camera feed (with audio, because Tahani’s security system is great) that shows him refusing to leave and making vague threats to Kamilah.

Tahani doesn’t find this all out until after the police are already there, but she feels her chest burn as soon as she hears. The second the police are gone, she pulls Eleanor into a deep kiss.

(Then, of course, she goes to see if Kamilah needs any comforting, and finally, finally, they talk.)

The divorce runs much, much more smoothly after David Jakobsson is arrested for the mess, though it’s tricky to keep Eleanor out of the line of fire, and trickier to keep Jason from suggesting they just Molotov the guy.

o.o.o.o.o

The dust settles.

Life moves on.

And Tahani, with her unconventional family and tentatively rebuilt ties and healing reputation?

She’s happy.