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If a village could be said to cower, Mare's Deep seemed to manage it. It cowered by day in the shadow of the mountain, and at this precise moment it cowered before the thumping hoofbeats of the band of armed raiders sweeping down the main street.

Under the fluttering banner of a horse's head, the totem of their village, the local militia stood bravely in their way, men and women sworn and determined to protect their people; but leather armour was pitted against metal, and spears and knives against swords and crossbows, and the resistance however hard fought could not, in the end, prevent them loading sacks with the fruits of their harvest, and breaking into the houses and dragging out boys and girls, screaming in terror.

At the head of the raiders rode one of the Princes of the mountain fortress, grinning with a triumphant victory.

"You see?" he called out to the shuttered windows. "You may refuse to send us tribute, that does not mean we won't still take it!"

Crouched beneath one such window, peering out through the cracks, a sixteen year old boy and his family watched in silent fear as the group rode past.

Suddenly the boy stiffened, seeing a small shape darting between the hooves of the warhorses.

"Dusty!"

He stared in horror as the rear warriors pointed and laughed, aiming lazy swipes of their sword points at the terrified cat.

"No!" He straightened up and yanked open the door, his mother grabbing for him and missing, yelling after him.

"Harry, no! What are you doing?"

He ran out into the street, not thinking about anything other than saving his cat. Weaving between the huge horses, he scooped it up into his arms, getting a claw slash down one cheek for his pains and staggered back, realising in fear he was now somehow encircled.

One horse, larger than the others, pushed to the front and his knees felt weak as he recognised the livery of Prince Louis himself.

Head mostly covered by an alarming helmet that hid his expression, the prince looked down at Harry and laughed.

"What have we here?"

Harry swallowed, and glared up at him defiantly. "Call yourself warriors when you'd hurt a defenceless cat?" He'd meant to shout it, but somehow the words came out low and shaking.

Dusty finally wriggled out of his arms and streaked between the horses to disappear in through the door of Harry's house. He realised to his horror that his mother was standing in the doorway, and shook his head minutely, silently pleading for her to go back inside, suddenly hoping the attention of the raiders would stay on him.

The prince cocked his head, studying Harry. "Brave. If stupid." He gathered up his reins and pulled his horse around, and Harry wondered for a heartstopping second if he was to be allowed to go free. Then the prince's next words were flung carelessly back over his departing shoulder.

"Bring him!"

Hands grabbed Harry roughly from above and he found himself being dragged, kicking, into the air. Somewhere, as if a long way off, he heard his mother screaming.

--

At the same time, a long way away in the small town of Greyglass on the far side of the mountains, a boy was washing himself.

He stood on smooth tiles and let the water diverted from the lake and warmed by the town's furnaces pour over him, a comforting pressure on his shoulders that meant he didn't have to think about what lay ahead of him. He'd been in here too long already, his mother would be getting impatient.

It was just - he knew that as soon as he came out, it would begin. To step out of the bathing room was to take the first step on a journey that would take him far from here, perhaps never to see the town, or his family, again.

So he stood under the falling water, and washed carefully, as he had, after all, been instructed to, and wasted time.

Eventually, the voice of his mother echoed through the room, closer than it should have been, and made him jump.

"Zayn? Zayn, hurry up, what are you doing in here all this time? You're going to be late, and that won't do, we can't keep them waiting!"

Zayn sighed, and pulled the trap down that shut off the water, and reached for a towel. Stepping round the corner he came face to face with his mother and jumped.

"Mum! You're not supposed to be in here, this is the men's bath!"

His mother snorted, and he sighed. She was right, no man with any sense was going to raise an objection to Madame Malik going anywhere she wanted to.

"Besides," he added, ducking out of reach as she tried to briskly towel him dry. "There's ages yet. We're not late."

A look of sadness passed over her face, too fast for him to see it. "We have to get you ready though," she said quietly. "You have to look - your best."

--

Harry felt sick. He'd been thrown over a horse and was dangling, head hanging down one side and legs the other, tied to the saddle. The constant drumming of the hooves as they raced up the steep mountain tracks was making his head ache, and the smell of hot horse and oiled leather made his stomach churn. The knees of the rider were pressed uncomfortably into his side, and if he tried to move, or even look up, a stern blow to the head made him go limp again.

He was too uncomfortable to be afraid, to think about what might lie ahead of him, all he wanted now was for the journey to end and this torture to stop. They were miles away from the village already, and he wondered miserably how he would ever find his way home.

--

Zayn was bored. They'd been at it for an hour now, his mother, his aunt and his sister, polishing his nails and painting his eyes and draping him in robe after robe and then clucking in disapproval and changing it for another one. He stared out of the window instead, down at the smooth calm surface of the lake that gave the town its name, and wondered if he would ever see it again.

As they produced yet another change of clothes, this time in peacock blue, he nearly snapped at them, words to the effect that they'd had seventeen years to prepare for this moment and why the hell hadn't they decided beforehand? Then he held his tongue. This was like him wasting time in the shower, he realised. The longer they fussed over him, the longer they had before they had to let him go.

--

The horses stopped and Harry nearly wept with relief. But when he could finally look up, they seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, had just stopped for a meal, he realised.

He was cut down from the horse and slung to the ground with other weeping children from the village, all younger than him. With his hands still tied in front of him, he tried to comfort them as best he could.

They were given bread and water, and Harry gave his ration away to the youngest kids. He wasn't hungry anyway, still felt sick. How far were they going?

He watched the warriors sitting a little way away, laughing and shouting and passing round a bottle of something obviously alcoholic. Maybe he'd have a chance - but no, there were others not drinking, keeping a careful eye on the captives. And he could hardly abandon the other children, what would they think of him if he arrived back alone?

He watched as the warriors fawned in front of their prince, who was leaning casually back against a tree and making them laugh. Harry glared at him. The sight of the man responsible for his abduction stirred both fear and hatred in him, and he fought down tears of frustration.

--

All goodbyes had been said. Zayn had managed not to cry as he hugged his family and climbed into the cart that would take him and the others to the fortress, but now they were nearly out of sight he found his eyes were blurring.

The wheels of the wagon jolted over ruts in the road as they turned off the main route and began climbing into the mountains. Zayn forced himself to look up and ahead, rather than back. There was no going back, now, and he had to accept that.

--

Hours passed. Harry jolted awake from something that was more unconsciousness than sleep as the thud of hooves on mud abruptly changed to the sharper clatter of hooves on stone. He twisted his head awkwardly to look up, wary of a cuffing, but it didn't come and he stared.

The walls of the fastness seemed to climb sheerly into the sky forever. He'd never seen such a massive building in his life, it appeared to grow out of the very rock itself. His view of the sky was abruptly cut off as the horses trotted into a dark tunnel, echoing around them as if ten horses had somehow become a hundred, and then they burst out into a courtyard and came to a halt.

Slung carelessly to the cobbled ground with the others, Harry landed bruised and winded, no way to save himself with his hands still bound. He lay where he fell, staring upwards. Far, far above was a square patch of blue sky, birds wheeling across the space, too high up to tell what they were. Around him were stone walls, broken on this internal side by windows and galleries, chimneys and guttering.

Hands dragged him roughly to his feet, and he was forced to march with the others through a huge oak door, studded with dark iron and solid with age. Inside, burning torches lit the way through what felt like miles of passages, past rooms without number. Harry was lost, and bewildered. He'd never imagined so many people could live in one place before, it was like a city in the rock, and as they penetrated deeper inside, his hopes of ever getting out again got fainter and fainter.

Finally they came to a room ringed with wide stone basins and benches in the middle. They sank gratefully down, legs aching and heads spinning.

There were others already in the room, some better dressed and more composed, others just as dishevelled and scared looking as Harry's group. As they sat there another door opened at the side, and five more were herded in, three boys and two girls, looking around them with wide eyes.

The man who had brought Harry's group in turned and addressed them all.

"Welcome to Stronghold. Tonight you will be presented at the annual autumn feast, so make yourselves look presentable. You have half an hour." He turned and marched out again, but Harry noticed there were armed guards on all the doors. More people were coming and going now, bearing towels and clothing for those who were in an overly tattered state.

He sat where he was, too sore to move for a moment, as around him there was a general rush towards the basins. Tried to muster his thoughts, what he knew about where he was. Since he was tiny he'd heard tales about Stronghold, the mountain fortress ruled by two warrior families, the sons of whom were the current ruling Princes. There were plenty of tales about them too, and their relationship with each other, although Harry had no idea if they were true or just scandalous rumour.

Some of the towns in the surrounding lands paid tribute to the princes, in form of goods and slaves. Others, such as Mare's Deep, held out against them, refusing to show fealty, and occasionally paying the price for such arrogance.

A man with a wicked looking cane gestured angrily to Harry, and he heaved himself up and walked to an empty space at the water troughs. Water was pouring in from a pipe in the wall, swirling into the closed basin.

He stared stupidly as the level rose dangerously close to the lip of the basin, then jumped as a hand darted in front of his eyes and thumped the trap into place. He looked up to find a boy with dark, kohl-rimmed eyes staring at him scornfully.

"Don't they have plumbing where you're from?"

Harry bristled. Just because he was used to bathing in well-water in a beaten-metal bath in front of the fire didn’t make him less worthy than this jumped up ponce.

"At least where I'm from we don't dress like whores," he shot back derisively.

"How would you know what a whore looks like? You look barely off your mother's tit."

"Lads! Lads. Play nicely, there we go." A blond boy of about their own age pushed in between them, setting down a tray with soaps and flannels and various pots of things Harry could only guess at.

He ignored him and continued staring at the other boy. "Who the fuck do you think you are, anyway?"

The boy flushed, whether from anger or embarrassment Harry couldn’t tell. "Zayn Malik, of Greyglass" he said with dignity.

Harry snorted in sudden disgust. "Oh."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Zayn demanded, stung by Harry's tone.

"You're tribute, aren't you?" Harry managed to make the word sound massively derogatory, and Zayn gaped at him.

"What's wrong with that?"

Harry stared, incredulous. "You mean you don't mind? That your people gave you away?"

Zayn shrugged uncomfortably. "I've always known that I would be. I've been prepared for this my whole life. Besides, you’re here too. Looks like holding out didn’t do you much good."

"It was a raid," Harry admitted, numbly. "They stole us away and took our stores."

One of the other children that had come in with him started crying at this, and he felt guilty. "Hey, we'll be alright. They'll just ransom us, that's all. We'll get home eventually."

"And what are they going to pay it with?" Zayn asked pointedly. "If the fortress has already taken the best of what you had, won’t your village need what's left just to survive the winter? You can look down on me if you want village boy, but at least I know my family's safe and well fed."

"Well at least mine are free and not cowards!" Harry shouted.

Zayn hit him, a fierce slap across the face that Harry didn’t see coming, hadn't expected from someone dressed as delicately as Zayn, and he launched himself at the other boy's face in a fury, fingers out like claws.

"Hey. Hey! Stop that!" The boy who'd brought their washing things in tried to separate them in vain as they rolled around on the floor scuffling with each other. "Please!" he begged frantically. "You can't go out there with marks on you, they'll blame me!"

This, at least, got through to them and they pulled apart, glaring at each other.

"Calm down," the other boy begged. "Fighting won’t do you any good. You're here to stay, both of you, trust me."

Harry looked at him, wiping dirt off his face. "What do you mean?"

"I came here when I was six. No-one that comes here really leaves. Their Lordships don't like letting go of what's theirs. You might as well get used to the idea."

"What's your name?" Harry asked, anything to distract him from thinking about the fact he might never get home.

"Niall. What's yours?"

"Harry. Have you really been here since you were six? That sounds awful."

Niall shrugged. "Nah. Not really. I don't really remember my family much any more, so it's okay. And it's not that bad here, I mean, they're not unkind or anything, as long as you don't make trouble."

Zayn snorted. "That's you stuffed then, Trouble."

Harry scowled. "What about you then Mr Perfect? Looking forward to a lifetime of fawning over people while you feed them grapes are you?"

Zayn huffed. "I'm going to get noticed. I'm not going to spend my life waiting on people." He glanced at Niall and had the good grace to look embarrassed. "No offence."

Niall smiled good-naturedly at him. "None taken. Rather you than me."

Harry looked from one to the other, frowning. "What are you talking about?"

"Zayn fancies his chances," Niall grinned.

"At what?" Harry persisted, feeling he was missing something and resenting it.

"They say that sometimes - one of the Princes will choose someone. To be like - favoured?" Zayn explained.

Light dawned, and Harry wrinkled his nose, laughing harshly. "You mean you're going to let one of them fuck you? I was right, you are a whore!" he crowed, and this time ducked out of the way as Zayn's fist swished past his nose.

"At least that way I'll have some influence," Zayn muttered, angry that he felt he had to justify himself. "Maybe even have permission to go and see my family one day. Better than an eternity peeling vegetables, which is likely all you're good for."

"Better to peel 'em than have 'em stuck up my arse," Harry shot back. "Besides," he added, looking round the rest of the room at the boys and girls who were taking the business of washing and preening seriously, studiously ignoring the arguing boys as clearly bad news. "Fat chance you'll have against this lot. Fucking ugly, you are."

Zayn looked like he was going to take another swing, and Niall interposed himself again, sighing. "Harry, shut up. Zayn, you're not ugly, you're gorgeous, and if you want my advice, which you probably don't, aim for Prince Liam's attention, he's nicer."

Zayn blinked. "You think I'm - really?"

"He's been here since he was six, it's not like the poor boy's got much to judge you against," Harry put in, and Niall sighed.

Stiffly, Harry and Zayn gave in to Niall's urging and turned to the business of washing away the dirt of the road.

Zayn stared into the polished mirrors that hung on the wall and gave a quietly despairing sigh. Harry shot him a glance, feeling guilty. He'd been glad of the argument as a distraction from his fear, but it wasn't like Zayn had asked to be here any more than he had, really.

"I didn’t mean it," he muttered. Zayn looked across at him, surprised, and Harry shrugged awkwardly. "You're not ugly as fuck. And I hope - I hope you get what you want."

Zayn nodded, slowly. "Thanks. I guess - I guess I didn’t mean it either. About the vegetables and stuff."

Harry grinned, suddenly. "No, seriously, I'm a demon with a peeler. Hey, that's a thought, maybe they'll let me work in the kitchen?"

After a second, Zayn held out his hand, and they shook, shyly.

The sound of a gong made them jump, and Niall was suddenly all scurrying action. "This is it you lot, that's the summons to the hall, you ready? You need to split into two groups, you'll be coming in from different sides, tribute from the east, bounty from the west, come on, hurry up!"

"Catch you later, Bounty-boy," Zayn whispered as they were jostled apart.

"Ah, go fuck a prince, Tribute," Harry retorted, grinning.

--

They were lead through another seemingly endless maze of passages, Harry and eleven others. He wasn't the oldest overall, but he was the oldest of the five from his village, and tried to keep his apprehension buried so as not to scare the younger ones.

Eventually they came out into the largest room Harry had ever see in his life. The hall stretched on for ages, filled with tables groaning with food and drink (looted, he thought, or blackmailed, and clutched the rising anger to him like a protective blanket that would keep away the fear). Burning torches, dripping candles, blazing fires, all lit the room with a smoky, shifting glow, and it was hot, uncomfortably so. Throngs of people were mingling, or serving, or taking seats and the clamour of voices was disorienting.

The children were herded to a low table near a clear space in the centre of the hall and sat down, fear making them obedient. In the distance, Harry saw Niall go past carrying a tray of carved meat, and thought he saw him wink in his direction. It made him feel a bit better, to think that maybe he had a friend here, and the thought made him look round for the other group that must surely be here somewhere too.

He spotted them quickly, for their table was almost opposite across the empty space. There were twelve of them, too, sitting around a table already laden with food, and Harry's stomach growled jealously, reminding him he hadn't eaten since breakfast, and it was now late in the evening.

At the end of the table, Zayn looked up and caught his eye, raised a goblet in a mocking toast. Harry made a rude gesture, and saw him laugh. That made him feel better too. He wasn't quite sure yet whether to count Zayn as a friend or an enemy, but at least the contact made him feel less alone.

Trumpets sounded, and he nearly jumped out of his skin. At the end of the hall, drapes were being pulled back and a group of richly dressed men and women were filing in to take their places along the tables at the head of the room. In the centre, the two princes, dripping jewels and furs, sat down on matching thrones and were immediately surrounded by beautifully decked young men and women offering them food and wine and sweets.

Harry stared. The value of the things they were wearing alone could have fed his village for a month. As he watched, the two young men leaned in close and murmured to each other, laughing slightly. He wondered what they were saying, whether they thought or cared at all about the families they had torn apart today.

He recognised Prince Louis, who had shaken his world so hard with just two simple words, and felt something squirm in his belly. Hate, perhaps. Fear, certainly. Maybe something else, something unaccountable. Harry bit his lip hard to stop it trembling, and tasted blood.

Next to him sat Prince Liam, the elder of the two, a little more serious of countenance. Harry remembered what Niall had said, and frowned. Was he really the nicer? He looked sterner than Prince Louis, and Harry shivered. It was an odd feeling, to know your fate was in the hands of two people that knew nothing about you and cared less.

Just as he had concluded that as effectively prisoners they were not to be fed, trays of supper arrived, meat and bread and fruit and jugs of juices and watered wine. Harry had at first resolved to touch nothing of their plundered goods, but he was getting faint with hunger and fell upon it ravenously. He reasoned that at least some of it belonged to his village by rights anyway, so he was only eating what was rightfully his.

The food was rich and greasy, and when he finally sat back, stuffed, Harry felt rather sick. He wiped his fingers on his shirt, and smirked as he imagined what Zayn's reaction to such an act would be. He sneaked a glance across at the other boy. Zayn was sitting staring towards the princes, looking pale beneath his dark complexion. He didn't seem to have eaten much, and Harry suddenly realised how nervous he must be.

Without warning, Zayn glanced round, right at him, then started as he realised Harry was looking at him. He looked away, quickly, embarrassed, then back. Harry gave him a little finger wave, and a thumbs-up of encouragement, and was rewarded with a bemused smile of gratitude.

Empty plates and serving trays were being cleared away, and a group of musicians struck up in the corner. Jugglers came on, and a couple of acrobats, and Harry stared, entranced, as the colourfully dressed troupe proceeded to play to the royal party at first, then gradually moving further out to entertain the crowd.

Dancing girls appeared, shimmering in gauzy veils that promised more than was actually possible to see through. Harry sat up in interest, although he noticed Prince Louis, at least, looked almost bored. He wondered what would interest someone like that. Bear-baiting, he supposed, or gladiator fights. Something nasty, anyway.

Gradually the space cleared again, and there was a pause. Activity sprang up round the opposite table, and Harry wondered what was going on. As the girl that had been sitting next to Zayn stepped forwards, he realised this was obviously their slot, their chance to impress.

She was wearing a simple white tunic and gold anklets, and her finger- and toenails were painted gold as well. A single fiddle began playing a slow tune, and she began to sing, nervously at first, then with more confidence. Harry watched the princes, and could tell she didn't have a chance.

They let her finish though, and applauded politely if desultorily, and she bowed and walked back to her seat, looking irritated. Next came a boy dressed in what appeared to be strips of leather, who performed a muscle-defying act of acrobatics and contortionism. He got a rather more sincere round of applause, and Prince Louis even leaned forward in his seat to watch from a closer angle.

Harry snuck another look at Zayn, who appeared despondent. He wondered what Zayn was planning, if he even had an act, or whether he'd been planning on dazzling them with his natural charm. Harry snorted to himself. Nah, he'd been planning for this for years, right? He'd have something up his sleeve. Not that he had sleeves, it was more of a toga thing. Harry realised his head was nodding, and jerked upright. He was exhausted, physically and mentally, and the wine had been stronger than he'd realised. Harry was glad that he didn’t have to perform anything, because right now he was pretty sure all he could manage was a spectacular display of sleeping on his feet.

Two more acts went up in turn and failed to elicit more than a cursory interest. Then Zayn stood up, and Harry unconsciously straightened on the bench, stomach clenching with nerves for him.

Harry watched as Zayn nodded to the musicians in the corner, realising belatedly that the group must have had a chance to discuss what they wanted earlier, before the princes had come in.

A single drum beat started, slow at first, and Zayn began to step with it, sandaled feet moving across the floor. It looked hesitant, and Harry frowned, but then the speed picked up, and a second drum came in, and he saw that with no discernable join Zayn had gone from walking to dancing. A fiddle came in, one high, swooping note, and dancing didn’t really cover what Zayn was doing, Harry thought, it was more like flowing.

Fingers outstretched, legs bending, turning, the flutter of his robe like wings, or leaves perhaps, on a windy day, Harry thought fancifully. The eyes of the princes, too, were riveted on him, and then part of Zayn's robe seemed to gust right off and drift to the ground. He was bare-chested now, loose trousers wrapped around his legs, thick gold bracelets on his arms. Still he spun and twisted, stepping with the beat of the drum that seemed to have become the heartbeat of everyone in the room.

Zayn moved closer, closer than the others had, and Harry realised with a jolt that he was unmistakeably dancing to Liam now, eyes lifted brazenly to the prince's face, offering up his arms in a shadow of supplication, before swaying again, moving back and forth like wind rippling over water.

Harry's gaze, restless, settled on Prince Louis and saw he was staring at Zayn with narrowed eyes, mouth a thin line of disapproval. Harry recognised with a shock of fear that Zayn was making him jealous by focussing on Liam, and prayed silently that he would notice, that he wouldn’t fuck up in this one respect when he'd got everything else so right.

To his weak relief, Zayn either noticed or had planned it this way all along, for in the next moment he switched his attentions, ducking and swaying to Louis now, like a plant moving with the sun. Louis sat back, smirk on his lips, and Harry let out the breath he hadn’t realised he'd been holding.

The dance was coming to a climax now, the speed of the drum making everyone breathless, and Harry's heart was in his mouth as Zayn spun to a finish, sprawled elegantly up the steps of the dais, arm outflung so that his fingertips were just touching the edge of Prince Liam's shoe.

There was a startled hush, then a single clap, unmistakeably mocking, from Prince Louis was taken up in earnest by Liam, and then by the rest of the hall, until a stamping, cheering roar of approval was echoing through the rafters.

Zayn got to his feet, head bowed modestly, and returned to his seat, throwing Harry a quick glance of red-faced exultation. Harry grinned at him, clapping harder, and Zayn gave a breathless laugh.

Across the hall, Harry noticed Prince Liam speak quietly to an attendant, who bowed and then threaded his way through the hall to Zayn, where he whispered something in his ear. Zayn went a deeper shade of red, and nodded respectfully. Harry wished he knew what had been said, but had to wait out the remaining tributes first, all of whom looked a little sour at having to follow what had clearly been the performance of the night.

Eventually everyone had had their turn, and with another fanfare of trumpets, the princes and their retinue withdrew from the room, signalling an immediate rise in the noise level as people started gossiping loudly. Zayn dashed across to Harry, face tight with excitement, needing to be able to tell someone his news.

"He wants to see me!" he blurted, crouching by the bench and steadying himself on Harry’s thigh. "The Prince wants me to give a private performance! In his chambers!"

Harry grinned; Zayn's enthusiasm was infectious even if he didn’t really approve of what the implications were.

"Well, you be careful not to get pregnant now," Harry admonished and Zayn gave a bark of laughter, slapping him on the leg.

"You're daft you are. Anyway, I just wanted to say - thanks. It was - easier, knowing someone was rooting for me. I mean, I guess, maybe you weren't, but - "

"I was," Harry interrupted, laying a hand over Zayn's. They looked at each other for a moment.

"Then, thanks," Zayn said again, and Harry nodded.

"Good luck."

Zayn bit his lip and laughed, hardly able to believe he'd got his chance. He got to his feet and set his shoulders, took a deep breath. "Well. Here goes nothing!"

He walked away, one of the attendants materialising at his side and guiding him out of the room.

Harry watched him go, and felt suddenly much more alone.

--

The hall had emptied of most of its people. Harry's table of mainly children remained, unsure what to do, feeling unpleasantly like they were waiting for something to happen without knowing what.

Harry was wondering how Zayn was getting on, when a ripple of excitement ran through the remaining crowd. He looked up, wondering what was happening, and saw to his shock that Prince Louis had re-entered the hall.

He'd shed his fur robes and the gold circlet he'd been wearing at dinner, was wearing skin tight leather trousers and a loose white shirt, the lacings at his throat hanging open. Soft boots came up to his calves, making barely a sound on the stone flags as he prowled the edge of the crowd.

Inevitably, his circuit brought him to Harry's group, where he stopped with a smirk, and Harry felt this was where he'd been heading all along. It was because of Louis they were all here, after all.

He kept his head down, hoping the prince's attention would pass over him, but he saw the boots stop in front of him, and slowly looked up.

"Well, well, if it isn't the boy with the pussy."

Unkind laugher rolled around him, people glad that Louis' spite was directed at someone that wasn't them.

Harry looked him in the eye, but said nothing.

"And how are you enjoying our hospitality?" Louis asked, with an exaggerated bow.

Harry shrugged. Found his voice. "I've had better."

There was a muted gasp from those around him, and Louis smile got sharper. "I'm sorry you feel that way. And that you seem to feel you're above us."

"I didn’t say that," Harry mumbled. And then, because he was clearly suicidal, added, "I just don't happen to think just 'cause you live in a castle, that you're above me, either."

There was a dangerous silence.

"It's funny." Louis leaned back against the table, arse resting a few inches from Harry's face. "Here you are, your life in my hands, and you seem to imagine it's a good idea to be rude to me. What's with that?"

Harry stood up, unwilling to be at such a disadvantage, and figuring if he was going to die it might as well be on his feet.

"You abducted me from my home and raided my village," he said quietly. "Why should you expect me to be polite?"

Expecting, any second, a knife to be raised to his throat, or guards to pull him away to a gloomy dungeon. But Louis was staring at him as if fascinated.

"Well," he drawled, as if thinking about it. "We've fed you. Entertained you. Some might say that was deserving of good manners."

"You call that entertainment?" Harry shot back, mentally apologising to Zayn but instinctively wanting to hit back. "Third rate tumblers and amateur singers?"

Louis almost smiled, and Harry realised he'd inadvertently hit on what Louis thought of most of the entertainment too.

"You seem terribly confident," purred Louis. "Perhaps you think you can top what we've seen tonight?" He waved his hand, inviting Harry to participate. Harry realised uncomfortably that everyone's eyes were on him, and felt a brief flutter of terror.

He looked round for inspiration, then grabbed three apples from the fruit dish and without thinking, started juggling them in a spinning circle. He'd learnt the trick years ago, knew it impressed, knew too that he could probably do it better than some of the ones they'd seen earlier.

For a fleeting second Louis looked surprised. Then the curtain of disdain came down again, and he grabbed another apple, waiting until he was sure Harry understood his intention, then tossing it into the loop. Harry didn’t let himself think, kept the clouding anger at bay, let his hands move on instinct. He knew Louis could have just thrown it at him, but that would have been an overt act of malice. He wanted Harry to fail, to look stupid.

He was aware of Louis picking up something else. An orange. Harry's heart sank, it was harder with objects of different sizes. But not impossible. He caught the expertly judged toss and incorporated it, changing the direction of the spinning loop as an added fuck you.

Louis smirked, quickly throwing him another apple, then a pear in quick succession. Harry managed to keep the items going round once, twice, then fumbled a catch and the whole lot tumbled to the floor. He stood, head bowed, fighting for breath, waiting for the derisive laughter.

"Not bad."

He looked up in surprise to find Louis staring at him assessingly. "Not bad at all. Maybe you'd like to show me what other tricks you've got? Somewhere a bit more - private?"

Harry stared at him in shock. Louis' implication was clear, and he felt sick.

"I'd rather fuck a goat," he said, the words coming out before he could stop them. He felt the people next to him edging carefully away.

Louis' expression didn't change. "That can be arranged," he murmured. "Pity. You seem rather good with your hands." He turned away and clapped his hands smartly, casting his eye over the rest of the group until it came to rest on a little boy of no more than six, standing with his thumb in his mouth. "You."

Harry's blood ran cold. The boy was called Jack, was from his village, he'd known him since the boy was born. "No," he croaked.

Louis raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"

"You can't. He's a child!"

"I think you'll find I can." Louis held out his hand, and the little boy took it, eyes wide.

Harry thought he was going to throw up. Niall's voice echoed in his head suddenly. "I came here when I was six," then "Rather you than me." What had happened to him, Harry wondered, suddenly furious. Whatever it had been, logically he knew it couldn't have been Louis, had to have been his father, or perhaps Liam's. But logic had no place in the unreasoning anger burning inside him.

"I said no." His voice was firm, and Louis stopped in his tracks, slowly turned to look back at him.

"Are you perhaps offering, then, to take his place?" Louis asked mildly. And Harry knew with a sinking heart that he'd been played.

--

Prince Liam was bored. He felt vaguely guilty about this, knowing himself to be one of the two most privileged people in the realm, and having the awkward suspicion that he should be enjoying himself more. But there it was.

Sometimes he wished he could be more like Louis, who seemed to find entertainment in anything he happened to be doing, but Liam had always suffered from too much awareness of their responsibilities.

When they had both turned eighteen, as the eldest children of the two noble houses, tradition dictated they take on the role of rulers. Being almost of an age, they had shared a double coronation, in a ceremony where the existing family heads - in this case Liam's father and Louis' mother - had stepped aside.

It was a tradition dating back centuries, originally evolved to prevent the fortress either ending up under the dubious control of aging and senile rulers, or, more often, assassinations by impatient children hungry for the throne.

This way, the elders could reap the benefit of wealth and status before they became too old to enjoy themselves, with the removal of their political influence meaning there would be no cause to remove them in any more terminal way.

It did mean however, that the onus of ruling fell on young shoulders, and Liam felt the weight of it like a millstone round his neck. There were courts to preside over, and people clamouring for his attention, and decisions to be made, and some days it all felt too much.

He was envious of Louis, who never appeared to let anything bother him at all, and who bounced about the place like he hadn't a care in the world.

At first, Louis had shouldered his half of the hard work willingly enough, until Liam had discovered the bizarre sentences he'd been giving out, just because it amused him. There'd been a case of a man arrested for undue cruelty to his animals, a valued resource in this rocky mountain waste. Louis had ordered that the man carry one of the donkeys he'd overburdened to the foot of the mountain, on his own back.

He'd thought it was funny, but, as Liam pointed out, the man had died, when the unfortunate creature kicked him in the head. Louis though, had just shrugged and declared that at least he wouldn't do it again.

So Liam quietly took over the lion's share of the jobs he considered needed a responsible attitude, and Louis let him, glad to have more time to spend with his horses, and in other less salubrious amusements.

Liam secretly wished too, that he had the balls to jaunt around the countryside like Louis did. As far as he was concerned, the outside world was full of barbarians and unsanitary plumbing, and he was far safer staying in the keep. But then there were days like today, when Louis would be absent for hours and come back flushed and grinning and smelling of the countryside, and Liam would wish he'd gone with him.

Whatever his burden, Liam was glad at least, that he had Louis to share it with. There was no-one else, after all, who could truly understand him, or the position they held. They had grown up together, been lovers for years, first innocently as children and then as teenagers exploring their developing bodies. Their families had encouraged it, considering that there could be no-one of more suitable status than the other prince-in-waiting for such an activity.

Lately though, they had been sleeping together less often. They still occasionally fucked if they were bored, or drunk, but lately Louis had developed a taste for inflicting pain that wasn't much to Liam's liking, and it was a rare night now when they lay together.

So the day had passed, and Liam's boredom had settled on him like a heavy and depressing drizzle. It wasn't until the evening, when Louis had returned in higher spirits than usual and there was a banquet to look forward to, that he perked up.

Later on, Liam decided that the day was looking up even further, as one of the latest lowland tribute boys performed a dance of such exquisite beauty that he couldn't resist asking for a repeat performance, hoping to study the young man in closer detail.

As they'd withdrawn from the hall after the feasting, Louis had teased him unmercifully when Liam mentioned in passing the boy's beautiful eyes, asking if it wasn't his arse Liam surely had more interest in.

Liam had flushed, and ignored the implication. It wasn't that he never took other lovers, but he didn't have Louis' confidence to demand attention from whoever he happened to fancy, whether they were willing to begin with or not.

Liam returned to his chambers, simply looking forward to watching the performance again. He'd invited Louis to join him, but Louis had just laughed, kissed him on the cheek and declined, saying he had other sport in mind.

--

After leaving the hall, Zayn was escorted to a room rather like the washing space he'd started from, only smaller and decorated much more richly. The mirrors were costly glass rather than beaten metal, and thick rugs covered the stone floor.

The bags he'd brought with him had been carried in, and he carefully selected another outfit, before washing again thoroughly and reapplying the kohl to his eyes, forcing his hand not to tremble. There were small pots of perfumes set out for his use, and Zayn dabbed drops of something enticingly warmly scented on his pulse points at the throat and wrists. Applying oils to his hair to keep it in place, he stared at himself in the mirror for a long time, working up the courage.

Eventually, nervous but determined, he signalled his readiness, and was lead out of the room and along the richly carpeted passages to Prince Liam's apartments.

--

Liam was reclining on a golden couch strewn with fat cushions, when the doors to his chamber were thrown back and the boy from the hall was lead in, eyes shyly downcast. He sat up attentively.

"Ah, good, you're here. Are you willing to dance for me again child?"

Zayn glanced up cautiously and smiled. "Of course my lord," he said in a low voice, and Prince Liam looked pleased.

"Excellent. I took the liberty of summoning the musicians, will you use the same melody as before?"

"If my lord wishes," Zayn murmured deferentially, bowing slightly. He used the motion to hide the sudden laugh that threatened to bubble up out of him. He was remembering Harry's earlier crack about a lifetime peeling grapes, because at the side of the prince sat a beautiful girl with corkscrewing curls, feeding him pieces of fruit. She wasn't actually peeling the grapes, but nerves made him want to laugh and that could prove fatal. Literally, he realised. He couldn't make the mistake of assuming that he was anything but property to this man.

Not yet.

Zayn nodded slightly to the musicians, and took a balancing breath. As the beat of the drum picked up, and the soaring strings of the fiddle wove around the pulse of it, he put Liam, and Harry, out of his mind and let the music take him.

Liam watched the dance unfold before him and gradually went from relaxed interest to captivated fixation. The boy was more of a young man Liam corrected himself, taking in the firmly muscled arms and legs beneath the gauzy costume now he had leisure to look properly.

With a twist of his upper body Zayn slid the sleeves away from his arms, exposing the gold bangles circling his arms. Another gyration, and the rest of his shirt came away, fluttering to the floor and leaving him bare chested once more. He let the music move him closer, letting himself look up now, gazing attentively up at the prince.

A flick of his wrist and Zayn's loose trousers floated away, leaving him in almost nothing, strips of linen covering his modesty. He stepped out of his sandals, leaving him practically naked, the dance slipping into a more overtly sexual grind now as he dipped and thrust with the beat of the music. He forced himself to forget the other people in the room, concentrating on Liam only, knew that as far as the prince was concerned for all intents and purposes they were alone, the attendants counting as so much furniture.

Slinking closer, swaying, stamping, he let the drum beat enter his pulse, summoning thoughts of heat and desire and lust, feeling himself getting hard, moving right up to the couch now, seeing Liam's eyes fastened on him. Spinning with the quickening rhythm, the last layers of his clothing slipped free and Zayn sank down to the carpet, sprawled across Liam's feet like an offering, completely naked but for his jewellery, and blatantly, shamelessly erect.

--

In the hall, Harry stared at Louis, a cold inevitability settling in his stomach. He looked from the prince to the little boy still clutching his hand trustingly, and nodded, once.

Louis released the child's hand and gave a self-satisfied smirk, as if at some private joke. Then, for the second time that day, uttered the words, "Bring him!"

Harry was taken first to a room where a group of attendants looked disparagingly at his tousled appearance. "Do you have something else to wear?" asked the matronly woman in charge, looking down her nose at Harry's rather tattered clothes.

"You know what, I really didn’t get time to pack before I was bundled over the horse," Harry snapped, and she sniffed. With a clap of the hands, his clothes were stripped from him, and he was briskly washed in embarrassingly intimate places.

Next, some waxy substance was smoothed over his legs, which felt nice at first, until the smiling handmaiden ripped it right off again, taking his leg hair with it. Harry's yowl of pained indignation echoed down the corridor, and the attendants smirked openly.

They brushed his hair and dabbed various things on him, then made him lie naked on a couch while he was massaged all over with oil. He'd initially thought this might be quite enjoyable, until the pretty blonde who'd tortured his legs had passed the jug over to a huge bald bloke with a nasty grin.

Harry shut his eyes and tried not to think about it as he was pummelled and the oil worked into his skin. By the end he felt as slippery as a river eel, and thought with grim amusement that if Louis tried to grab him like this he'd probably just shoot out of the window.

Finally they dressed him in a short white tunic, and when he realised that neither trousers nor underwear was to be forthcoming, he objected loudly and vehemently.

"It looks like I'm wearing a fucking dress!" he yelled, but to no avail and he was shoved out of the room into the care of two burly guards.

--

Harry was dragged along endless draughty passages and then up a knee-destroying number of steps, up and up, until he wondered if they were going to the top of the mountain itself.

Finally they came to a sturdy looking door, and one of the guards knocked smartly.

Louis himself flung it open, and smirked when he saw Harry.

"Do come in," he mocked, throwing the door wide, and nodding to the guards. "That'll be all."

Surprised, Harry watched as they marched off back down the steps. Louis slammed the door, and then locked it. Turned to Harry and grinned. "You weren’t planning on going anywhere else tonight I hope?"

"Depends," Harry muttered. "I might get bored." Wondering faintly why he was still needling Louis like this, why he didn’t just make nice. Zayn would be better at this, he sensed, would know what to say. But then, maybe Louis wouldn’t be interested in that. He certainly seemed more amused than angered by Harry’s insolence. How long that would last, remained to be seen.

Louis was lounging against a table laden with decanters of wine and bowls of candied fruits, throwing sweets into the air and catching them in his mouth.

Harry looked, really looked at him for the first time, and was slightly surprised to realise that this larger than life, hard riding, conquering warrior prince was in fact just a boy barely older than Harry was himself.

"What's your name?" Louis demanded suddenly.

"Harry," he admitted, grudgingly.

"Well, Harry. How do you like my chambers?"

Harry looked round. Louis' bed alone was nearly as big as his entire parlour at home. He said nothing, feeling small and useless. Louis laughed.

"No-one to help you Harry. You're mine now, to do with as I please." He came closer, tugged one of Harry's curls experimentally. "I can hurt you, if I want. Would you like that, Harry? I think maybe I'll cut you. Have you seen your own blood Harry, do you know how beautiful it can look?"

Abruptly, Louis spun away, threw himself down onto the bed, waved an arm invitingly. "Please. Join me."

Harry sat down awkwardly, trying to pull the ridiculously short tunic down to cover his knees. It wouldn't quite reach.

"Can we just get this over with?"

Louis raised his eyebrows. "What?"

Harry gave an impatient shrug. "I get it okay? You're going to rape me and murder me, do we really have to talk about it first?"

Louis put his head on one side. "Who said anything about killing you?"

Ignoring the implication by omission, Harry shrugged uncomfortably. "Kind’ve assumed it was inevitable really." Given how rude he'd been, he really hadn’t seen himself surviving the night.

But Louis was staring at him with what might have been a smirk. "Have you ever tried getting blood out of silk sheets? It's a bastard."

Harry snorted, couldn’t help himself. "Like you're the sort of person who does his own washing." Then, horribly curious, "You said you were going to cut me, anyway."

"Oh, that." Louis dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand. "I mostly said that to put the shits up you to be honest." He gave Harry a sideways look. "Unless you'd be up for it?"

"No!" Harry glared at him, and Louis grinned back.

"It's good to be adventurous!"

"Not if you're a psychopathic wanker," Harry retorted, before he could stop himself.

Louis sighed. "And we were getting on so well." He leaned in, and placed his hand deliberately on Harry's bare knee. He slid it further up, slowly, and Harry shivered as Louis' knuckles caught the hem of his tunic and slid underneath, inching up his thigh.

"Are you wearing anything under that?" Louis asked conversationally. "No, don’t tell, me, I want to find out." His hand inched higher, and Harry held his breath.

He felt ridiculously vulnerable in the stupid outfit, and any second now Louis' fingers were going to touch his privates and Harry didn’t think he could bear it, but neither could he move away, there was something about Louis that kept him sitting there, like he was trapped in front of a snake.

Louis' hand was almost at the top of Harry's thigh, watching him intently. Closer, closer, then - he pulled his hand away and jumped to his feet, grinning. "Would you like a drink?"

Harry felt like his strings had been cut, slumped weakly against a bolster. Louis was playing with him, drawing out the torment, but at least it was a reprieve.

He accepted the goblet of wine offered him numbly, and even before he'd taken a sip he could tell this was the real deal, not the watered down wine of the children’s table. Even the aroma made him dizzy, thick and full bodied. He took a mouthful. It tasted expensive. He took another, greedily, thinking he'd probably never get a chance to drink something like this in his life again.

Louis laughed. "Careful with that. It's stronger than it tastes. Don't want you to pass out before I've had some fun."

Harry immediately drained the goblet obstinately. Anything Louis said made him want to do the opposite, and then, too, maybe if he got drunk enough he wouldn't mind it so much.

Louis refilled Harry's goblet, amused to be waiting on him. Harry looked up at him curiously. "Why me?"

"Why you what?" Louis sipped delicately from his own wine, smiling faintly.

"You could have anyone you wanted. There was a whole group of people in that hall desperate to catch your eye. And even on my table there were those - not the little kids, I don't mean them, but there were some, who would have been willing enough. Why pick the only person in the place who's going to argue with you?"

Louis stared at him over the rim of his goblet, as if weighing up a flippant answer against the truth. The he got to his feet and held out his hand.

Bemused, Harry stood up, not taking it. Louis pushed him over to a huge mirror of silvered glass and precious stones and made him look. "What do you see?"

"A disgustingly expensive ornament?"

"In the reflection." Louis said, patiently.

"A bullying oppressor?"

"Flatterer. I meant you, you dick."

Harry looked at himself. They'd brushed his hair, and put some gunk on his eyelashes that made them look about twice the size, but otherwise he was just him. He shrugged.

"I don't know what you're getting at?" he said, wondering if this was just some mind game of Louis'.

Louis took him by the upper arms and spun him round to face him, staring into his eyes. "You really don’t, do you?" he said, bemused. Harry shook his head, and Louis laughed, incredulously.

"It pains me to say it, but you are, without doubt, the most beautiful creature in this whole place."

Harry blinked in astonishment, searching for the mockery in Louis' tone and not finding it. "Bar one, presumably," he muttered, assuming that Louis would surely count himself the best looking specimen within the walls. To his surprise, Louis gave a bark of laughter.

"Oh, I've no doubt I'm passable enough, but I wouldn’t claim any particular beauty." He topped up his wine, drank half in one swallow. "I don’t need to be. I've got power, and wealth. And do you know what you've got?" He drew Harry back down onto the bed with him.

Harry shook his head, hesitantly.

"Me." Louis leaned in and before Harry realised what was happening, Louis had kissed him. He started, but Louis' fingers were holding his arms tight and he couldn’t pull away. The taste of the wine was thick on Louis' tongue, moving in his mouth, Louis' lips were crushed against his, and Harry gave up fighting and went with it. He'd kissed enough girls to know what he was doing, and at least while Louis was kissing him he wasn't doing anything worse.

It had come as a surprise, certainly. He'd expected to be shamed, brutalised, violated. Not kissed.

Louis pulled back then, and ran a thumb over Harry's full lips. "I like beautiful things," he whispered. "I like to own them. And sometimes, I like to break them. Because I can."

--

Liam stared spellbound at the naked, aroused youth sprawled at his feet. Finally pulling himself together, he gestured to the other people in the room. "Leave us," he ordered.

They filed out quietly and he looked down again, realising the boy was still in the same position, presumably awaiting permission to move.

"It doesn’t look very comfortable down there," Liam said with a smile, and got a smile in return, one of genuine hope and relief that lit up the boy's whole face.

"It isn’t," Zayn admitted, regretfully.

"Perhaps you should come up here with me?" Liam suggested, patting the couch beside him. Gracefully, Zayn got to his feet and sat on the cushions, making no move to cover his nakedness or hide his arousal. Liam tried not to stare too openly.

"Is there anything - further - I can do for you, my lord?" Zayn asked.

"What did you have in mind?" Liam murmured hopefully, the sight of the erect cock sticking up between the boy's legs starting to make him stiffen in his trousers.

"There are ways I could - pleasure you. If you wished?"

Zayn winced mentally. Things that had been fine in his head were coming out sounding uncertain and nervous. And he wondered, too, if he'd be able to live up to his promises. He had been instructed in the theory of certain acts, but never put any of them into practice, it having been considered by his family a wiser decision to leave him untouched.

But Liam was looking flatteringly eager, and without another word took his hand and lead him through a set of draped curtains to his bedchamber.

Rich dark hangings and oil lamps suspended from the ceiling in decorated metal holders gave the space a cosy feel, and Zayn made sure to be immediately attentive.

He removed Liam's clothes slowly, carefully setting them aside. He laid kisses where he exposed bare skin, and when he unfastened Liam's trousers, found that his cock was hard and ready.

Zayn wondered if he should attempt to suck it or something, but Liam was clearly too eager for any messing about, and indicated he should lie on the bed.

Heart thumping, Zayn did as he was told, reminding himself how lucky he was. He could easily have been doing this with someone a lot older and considerably less attractive - in fact if he'd been sent just a year earlier, it would almost certainly have been Liam's father he was trying to seduce right now.

Instead, he was with this handsome young man, who had a confident strength in his long limbs and a smile on his lips.

Liam's body covered his, a warm weight pressing Zayn down into the bed, and then Liam's mouth was on his, hands exploring with enthusiasm. Zayn kissed back willingly, starting to enjoy it, and then the hard length of Liam's cock slid between his thighs and all of a sudden he tensed.

The reality of what he was about to do hit him all at once, and for a second Zayn couldn’t move, couldn't breathe. He was going to let a virtual stranger take his virginity, be inside him. Involuntarily Zayn tried to close his legs, fighting for breath and on the verge of panic.

Liam pulled back a little, frowning slightly. Zayn tried to stammer an apology, force himself to relax again, but the more he worried about the fact he was fucking it up, the tenser he got.

"Are you alright?" Liam murmured, studying him. Then understanding dawned. "Is this your first time?" he asked quietly.

Ashamed, Zayn managed a tight nod, waiting for Liam to either turn him out or perhaps carry on anyway, force him to go through with it. Instead Liam just rolled off to one side and took him into his arms, soothingly.

"It's okay - " Liam hesitated. "I'm afraid I don’t know your name?" he said apologetically.

"It's Zayn, my lord," Zayn breathed.

Liam smiled. "Hello Zayn."

" - hello."

They both laughed, quietly, their faces close on the pillow, lips almost touching.

"Why don't we start again?" Liam whispered, and Zayn nodded in grateful surprise. Liam brought their lips together and they kissed, softly, for a long time.

Zayn felt his anxiety melting gradually away, and when he felt Liam's hand on his cock, he experienced a throb of genuine arousal. Liam was stroking him admiringly, and Zayn couldn’t help pushing into the touch. He let his hands slide reverently down Liam's body, until his fingers too were wrapped around Liam's straining shaft, and they worked each other to a height of hard, aching need.

This time when Liam climbed on top of him Zayn didn't object, and Liam, too, was gentle with him, considerate. When Zayn felt Liam's cock push inside him for the first time he gasped without meaning to, making Liam laugh and pause to make sure he was alright.

Zayn clung to him, breathing shallowly, as Liam slid all the way in. It felt both amazing and terrible, this hot invading presence in his body, and his legs were all weak and shaky. Liam drew out a little and thrust back in, watching Zayn's reactions closely.

After a moment, Liam repeated the action, tentatively at first, then gradually building up a slow rhythm, loving the way Zayn's breathing hitched everytime he pushed into him.

As he got used to the feeling of Liam's cock moving inside him, Zayn belatedly remembered he should probably be doing something to help things along, but it was hard to think with the mess of sensations flooding through his body and clouding his mind. He found he was bucking into Liam's thrusts instinctively, explosions of pleasure going off inside him, and his single coherent thought was that he'd never known it might feel this good.

Some time later, when they were covered in sweat and breathing hard, Liam's hands suddenly gripped his shoulders painfully tight, and Zayn groaned as he was pounded rapidly and without warning, several long, deep thrusts before Liam went still and Zayn felt something spurting inside him, filling him fuller than he'd ever imagined there was room for.

Liam withdrew carefully, his cock glistening and sticky. He sat up and looked greedily at Zayn, lying there still hard. "Show me," he told him, hoarsely. "Make yourself come for me."

Obediently and with some relief, Zayn took his cock into his hand and started jerking himself off, hard and fast, wishing he could close his eyes but not quite daring. Liam watched him hungrily and it didn’t take long before Zayn's orgasm took hold of him, and he spilled over his fingers
with a stifled moan.

When he was sufficiently recovered to take notice of his surroundings again, Zayn realised to his surprise that Liam had poured wine for them both.

"To keep our strength up," Liam smiled. "For round two."

--

Harry's throat was tight with what felt like fear. He wanted to run, to hide, but his legs wouldn’t obey him and besides, where could he go that Louis wouldn’t find him? He'd never manage to make his way out of this maze unescorted.

So Harry watched as Louis stripped off his shirt, muscles rippling under the skin a threat and a promise. His chest was smooth, toned, and despite himself Harry's gaze wandered curiously over his body. Louis' tight trousers left little to the imagination, and Harry realised to his shock that he could see Louis was hard.

Very hard.

Louis crawled over the bed towards him, looking predatory. Harry flinched as he reached out, but it was only to unfasten the neck of his tunic, pulling it loose, and Louis leaned in, as if breathing in the scent of him.

Harry felt lips on his throat, and shuddered in something that wasn’t quite as much revulsion as it should have been.

Then lips became teeth, and Harry gasped as Louis bit him. It wasn’t hard, but startling all the same.

"Touch me," Louis ordered and Harry stared at him in dismay, misunderstanding.

Impatient, Louis seized one of Harry's wrists and placed his hand on his shoulder, and Harry realised with a flush of embarrassed relief that Louis hadn't meant somewhere more intimate.

He let his hands run over Louis' skin, mapping the bulge of muscles in his arms, the planes of his back, drawing his fingertips down Louis' chest, over his nipples, making him hiss with pleasure.

It seemed a small price to pay as an alternative to worse things, and if Louis was for some reason content with this, then Harry was happy to distract him in this way for as long as he could.

Louis had lowered his face back to the base of Harry's throat, kissing and biting, then flicking at the abused skin with his tongue. He was almost growling, and Harry found to his deep shock that he was getting hard himself.

So far, Louis' hands had been decorously confined to Harry’s upper body, sliding into his tunic and pinching his nipples with just too much force to be pleasurable. But it wasn’t long before Louis noticed the state Harry was in and he sat up and laughed, incredulous.

Harry's erection was pushing the tunic skirt up obscenely, and he looked away as Louis' hand came to rest on his thigh. He knew there would be no last minute reprieve this time, and bit his lip as Louis moved meaningfully higher, up under the tunic until he was first cupping Harry's balls in his hand and then drawing his fingers up Harry's cock. Braced for a rough groping, to his surprise Harry found Louis' touch gentler than he'd expected, and he bit back a moan.

Louis pushed back the material, exposing Harry's shame, and his eyes widened.

"Wow. You're just full of surprises aren’t you?"

Harry looked at him, wretched, and Louis gave a short laugh that was almost impressed. "You're huge," he remarked conversationally, giving Harry's cock a firm squeeze. "I'm having me some of that."

Louis gathered the hem of the tunic in his hands and lifted it off over Harry's head, before pushing him flat on the bed. Then he unlaced his own trousers, peeling them down slowly to give Harry a good eyeful as his rock-hard cock emerged from his clothing. Louis stroked himself lazily, not taking his eyes off Harry, then straddled his thighs in one fast motion.

Flinching, Harry wished his erection would have the decency to shrivel away like the rest of him wanted to, but his traitorous dick appeared to have its own ideas, clearly approving of the way Louis' hand was now working him.

Louis leaned over, his cock brushing against Harry’s, and he shivered.

"Please, please don't hurt me," Harry whispered, despising himself for begging but so afraid of what Louis was going to do.

Louis ran his tongue over Harry's lips, biting at them teasingly. Then he sighed.

"Why don't you tell me what you do like then?" he suggested. "Given that you seem to disapprove of all the things I find diverting." He sat up, his weight on Harry's legs and shrugged. "It may astound you to know that I would actually prefer it if you were willing." He stretched. "Rape is so tiring, don’t you find?"

Harry looked up at him in confusion. "I - I don't - "

Louis smirked. "You have had sex before, right?"

"Of course," Harry muttered, awkwardly.

Louis' smirk widened. "Liar. I think you're a virgin." He rubbed his cock meaningfully against Harry's stomach. "God you're boring."

The touch made Harry squirm underneath him, and Louis laughed. He took Harry firmly in one hand and rose up on his knees. Before Harry could realise what he was about to do, Louis had lowered himself down onto Harry's cock.

Harry stared up at him in shock. He felt Louis' body close around him, a hot tightness that enveloped his shaft and made him suck in a startled breath.

Louis groaned in pleasure as he sank down onto it, savouring the feeling as it penetrated him, filled him. He began to push up and down the length of it, fucking himself on Harry's thick cock and pumping his own erection at the same time.

Harry's expression was one of utterly confused arousal and it made Louis want to laugh. This felt good, right; it had been a long time since he’d had anyone this big inside him. Louis wanted to come all over Harry's pale chest, cover him in his seed, demean him, mark him as Louis' own property.

Louis' fist moved faster on himself and he slammed down onto Harry with more force, finding the angle that felt incredible, ramming Harry's cock into him over and over until he felt Harry jerking beneath him and a sudden rush of wetness inside. Louis let go, let his own climax brim over and rip through him, splattering Harry's face and chest liberally with his come.

Satisfied, Louis climbed off and flopped down beside him on the bed. Harry looked like he was near tears, so Louis ignored him until the boy had wiped the mess from his body with shaking fingers, using the corner of his tunic.

A sudden yawn caught Louis by surprise, and he blinked up at Harry who was sitting with his knees drawn up protectively in front of him, passively awaiting whatever Louis' next whim would be with a blank expression.

"Stay with me?" Louis offered lazily, yawning again. Sex always made him sleepy. "I mean - I can have you escorted back to your quarters if you'd prefer. But - and this is just a guess because I've never been down there - the chances are this bed is a fuckload more comfortable."

Harry looked at him and frowned. "How do I know you won’t murder me in my sleep?" he asked suspiciously.

Louis snorted. "The sheets, dearheart, think of the sheets."

"Alright then, how do you know I won't murder you?"

Louis opened one eye, then closed it again dismissively. "You don't strike me as the type. You're too nice. Too dull."

Harry felt obscurely insulted. "And that's it, is it? You're just going to go to sleep now, like nothing has happened?" he demanded, while a part of his brain urged him to shut up, shut up!

But Louis just smiled without opening his eyes. "Forgive me, it's been a long and tiring day."

"Hard day's pillaging and kidnapping?" Harry retorted.

"Precisely. Now am I going to have to gag you, or are you going to shut up and go to sleep?"

Harry lay down silently. The bed was so large he could stretch out without fear of touching Louis, and he'd been right, it was comfortable, softer than Harry had ever imagined a bed could be.

Louis rolled onto his side and settled down to sleep. Harry stared at his back resentfully, fighting the urge to close his eyes. This was his chance perhaps. Wait until Louis was asleep and sneak out.

He'd rest for a moment, just a moment, first. It had been a long and traumatic day, and he was exhausted.

Within a minute, Harry was fast asleep.

--

When Harry cautiously opened his eyes the next morning he found to his relief and mild surprise that he was alone in the bed. Sitting up, he saw the room was flooded with sunshine and stretched luxuriously in the unaccustomed light.

He pulled the rather soiled tunic back on with a sigh of disgust and climbed out of the bed. On the table, a gently steaming basin of water suggested that Louis had already washed and left the apartments. Pouring fresh water out of the pitcher, Harry washed his hands and face and felt slightly better.

Drawn by the light, he wandered over to where heavy drapes and wooden shutters were folded back to give access onto some kind of balcony. Harry walked outside and gasped out loud at the view that met his eyes.

Louis' window proved to be on the outside wall of the fortress, and below the countryside stretched away for as far as he could see, a grey-green quilt beneath the sky. And what a sky. Harry's village of Mare's Deep nestled at the foot of the mountain, surrounded by foothills. They got little sunshine there, and in the depths of winter, none at all, the sun never climbing high enough to penetrate their valley. Here though, it felt like Harry was standing in the very sky itself, bathed in sunshine falling from a cloudlessly crisp blue autumn sky.

He moved forward as if hypnotised, and looked down over the balustrade.

It proved to be a mistake. Below him was - nothing. The balcony hung out over a sheer drop to the valley floor below, over what felt like miles and miles of empty space that seemed to be trying to suck Harry out into it. His hands scrabbled for purchase on the stonework in front of him, and he tried to back away, but any movement felt like it would surely end in death. He whimpered, a low noise of misery in his throat, rising terror rooting him to the spot.

Just when he though he must surely pass out and fall, he felt unexpected hands come to rest on him, prising him away from the edge and pulling him back to safety. Harry transferred his death-grip to his rescuer, clinging onto them desperately with eyes screwed shut, burying his face in their shoulder. He stayed there, shaking, while arms held him tight and someone murmured, "You're okay. You're okay. You can't fall, the parapet's too high."

After a moment, the voice filtered through to him and he looked up disbelievingly, to find that he wasn't hearing things.

Louis.

"Best not to look down. Not till you're used to it," Louis advised quietly.

They stared at each other in silence for a while, awkwardly.

Harry pulled away, and Louis let him, seemingly remembering that they weren't exactly friends.

"Still here then?" he asked lightly, although his voice had gone hard.

"Apparently so." Harry looked beyond him to where a chair was set against the wall, and a table was laid with what looked like coffee and sweet rolls. He'd walked right past him, he realised, so captivated had he been by the view.

"May as well make yourself useful then." Louis suggested with a nasty smile. And he let his robe fall open to reveal the fact he was naked underneath, and fully aroused. "Well?"

Harry stared at him stupidly, and Louis gestured. "Suck it man, suck it!"

In a daze, Harry dropped obediently to his knees before him and Louis gave a smirk of triumph.

Harry had barely parted his lips before Louis pushed his cock between them, forcing his way into Harry's mouth.

For the next minute or so Harry could do nothing but concentrate on not passing out or throwing up. Louis used his mouth roughly, fucking his lips, plunging too far into Harry’s mouth, hard, throbbing flesh that he couldn’t breathe around.

It didn’t seem to bother Louis that Harry was an entirely passive participant, and continued to get himself off selfishly, until he finally came with a grunt into Harry’s mouth, thick warm come pulsing over his tongue and down his throat.

Harry did jerk back then, choking, and Louis' hand suddenly clamped over his mouth.

"Swallow it," he hissed, as if determined to erase any lingering memory of weakness or charity from when he'd held Harry earlier.

Harry shook his head, revolted, eyes wide and frantic, but Louis kept his hand firmly over his mouth.

"Swallow it and I'll let go," he promised, and finally, throat working painfully, Harry did as he was ordered.

Louis took his hand away and Harry bent over, retching weakly. Louis fastened his robe again, beaming down at him.

"I think more days should start like this, don’t you?"

--

Not long afterwards, a guard came up to the apartment with the attendant who'd come to clear away the remains of Louis' breakfast. Silently, he escorted Harry out and back down the hundreds of steps into the main body of the keep.

Harry barely paid any attention to where they were going, but the corridors got narrower and less ornate, and the lamps were spaced further and further apart. He wondered dimly if he was going to be locked up, but finally he was left in the charge of the older woman who had supervised his preparation for Louis the night before.

She glared at him and consulted a list, sighing. "Not another one. Why do they keep sending me people late and expecting me to have time to place them? Well there's only one bed left, you'll have to share." She flapped at him impatiently and herded him down another corridor lined with doors until they stopped in front of one at the end. "This is you. Keep it tidy or there'll be words. Do you know what you're supposed to be doing?"

Harry shrugged helplessly and she sighed again. "Well I haven't got time to find you something now and you're not on my list. I suppose you'll be another for special duties. If you haven't got anything to do by tomorrow come and find me and I'll put you to work somewhere."

She bustled off again, leaving Harry looking faintly surprised. He'd expected security to be a bit tighter than this. Then he realised - he'd just spent the night with one of the princes. Unless or until Louis told anyone otherwise, Harry's currency would probably be pretty high round here right now.

Feeling marginally more cheerful, he cracked the door open carefully and went in, slightly nervous in case his new roommate objected to company.

Inside was a small windowless room, lit by a couple of candles. There was a table, a washstand, a single chair and couple of narrow beds. A boy was lying face down on one of them, and Harry's face split into a grin of recognition as some of the housekeeper's words started to make sense.

It was Zayn.

He rolled over, wincing, and then brightened when he saw Harry. "Hey you. Where have you been?"

"Oh, you know. Around," said Harry, non-committally. "How'd it go?" He realised Zayn was clearly in a considerable amount of discomfort, and frowned. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah. Fine." Zayn tried to sit up, and yelped.

"You're not alright." Harry came over and sat on the edge of Zayn's bed, concerned. "Was he cruel to you?"

Zayn shook his head. "No. No, he was - kind."

"But he hurt you?"

Zayn hesitated. "He was kind three times."

Harry couldn't help it, he laughed. After a second Zayn joined in, despite the fact that right now any kind of movement made him ache.

"Stay there," Harry said redundantly. "I'll see if I can go and find something to help." Ignoring Zayn's protests, he slipped out of the room again and went exploring. At the end of the passage, it opened out into kitchens and pantries, and he wandered through them looking for someone who might help. Turning a corner into a scullery full of people scrubbing dishes, he was delighted to spot a familiar blond figure.

"Niall! Hey."

Niall turned round and grinned in surprise. "Hey! It's Harry isn't it? What can I do for ya?"

"Have you got any cream?"

Niall frowned. "Like - to eat?"

"No, no, like - ointment or something? For when you're like sore and stuff?" Harry waved his hands about vaguely, conscious that others were listening.

Niall looked concerned. "Are you okay Harry?"

"Yeah, yeah, it's not for me." He made a decision and leaned closer, to whisper, "Zayn got lucky."

Niall's eyes widened and they both sniggered conspiratorially. "Oh, right! Okay, I'll fetch something. I'll come and find you, 'kay?" He scurried off, and Harry made his way back to his room, feeling pleased with himself.

It wasn’t long before there was a knock at the door and Niall came in clutching a pot of salve. He grinned at Zayn. "I hear you got lucky. I saw you get summoned last night, I'm glad it worked out for you."

"Thanks," said Zayn, grinning weakly. "Is that, um, for me?" he reached out to take it and Niall batted his hand away.

"Don't be daft, let me do it, I can see what I'm doing. I'm used to bathing people, it's no biggie." He made Zayn lie flat and pulled his trousers down.

Zayn buried his face in the pillow and tried to pretend he was somewhere else entirely as Niall proceeded to apply the salve gently to his tender skin.

Harry averted his eyes politely, and it was Niall who chattered on, asking Zayn questions about Liam and what he'd been like. When he was done, and had washed his hands in the china basin with water from the jug, he turned to Harry, curiosity getting the better of him.

"What about you Harry? What happened to you last night? I saw - "

"Nothing," Harry snapped, more sharply than he'd meant to. "You didn't see anything, okay, nothing happened."

Niall went quiet, and flushed to the roots of his hair.

"Right. Yes, I'm sorry. I was mistaken." He hurried to the door and went out, ignoring Harry's shouts for him to come back.

Zayn raised his eyebrows. "What was that all about?"

Harry sighed, feeling guilty. "Nothing. I just - I miss home okay, I feel like crap." He wasn't ready, he decided, to talk about what had happened with Louis. He wasn't sure how he felt about it himself. He'd been lucky, he realised, in that he'd got away without having any actual pain inflicted on him. It had been awful at times, and he'd been scared and humiliated, but if Zayn, who had wanted this, and had apparently had an understanding partner, if he could be this sore after his first time, then who knew what state Harry could have been in right now if Louis had carried out any of this threats?

"Come here babe," Zayn said softly, and held out his arms. Harry hesitated, then went over to him, lying down on the bed next to him and letting Zayn cuddle him close. He let his head sink onto the pillow, and for a while they dozed quietly in weary companionship.

--

A couple of hours later there was another knock on the door and Niall came back in, looking awkward and carrying a bundle.

"I brought you some clothes Harry," he said in a low voice, not looking at them. "I figured you wouldn’t have any."

"Thank you." Harry sat up in surprise, and called to Niall quickly as he turned to go again. "Hey. Niall, I'm sorry I snapped at you before. I guess I'm having a hard time coming to terms with being here, I shouldn’t have taken it out on you."

Niall's face lit up with a smile. "That's okay. Hey, are you guys hungry? There'll be lunch in the hall if you want?"

Harry found he was ravenous, and Zayn decided that he too was hungry enough to make it worth moving. He felt a lot less sore now, and complimented Niall on his medical skills, making him blush.

He led the two boys through winding corridors until they came out in the same hall they'd eaten in the night before. Harry thought gloomily he would never learn his way around this place, and then even more gloomily that actually he would presumably be stuck here long enough to.

When he had a pile of food in front of him he cheered up a little though, and started paying more attention to Niall's running commentary on who was who in the hall, and often, who was doing what to whom.

A ripple of noise spread round the room and Harry nearly choked on his biscuit as he looked up to see Louis had entered the hall, with a group of men-at-arms. For some reason he hadn't expected to see him again so soon, and his stomach gave a peculiar lurch at the sight of him.

Louis was wearing a black silk shirt and black riding trousers, with a bright red sash. Harry held his breath as he walked towards them - and then walked on past, without acknowledging Harry with so much as a look.

Harry shrank back a little, not quite knowing how to feel. Louis had to have seen him, he'd walked right past him. Surely the fact he'd ignored him was a good thing, if it meant Louis was bored with him, had moved on, that left Harry a lot safer.

So why did he feel so obscurely upset?

They watched as Louis' group crossed the floor to another group of well-dressed young people, and a girl got to her feet and took his hand with a slight curtsey. Harry felt like his eyes would bore right through her.

"Who's she?" he managed to ask, trying to sound uninterested.

"That's the lady Eleanor," Niall informed him cheerfully. "A lot of people think she's going to be Prince Louis' official consort."

"What's that?"

"Like a wife, right?" put in Zayn.

"Sort of. The Families don't usually marry, but they have to have at least one child to carry on the line. Whoever's the consort mother or father of that child gets to be pretty powerful." Niall sniffed disapprovingly. "She's nice. Too nice for him."

Harry glanced at him, wondering what it was Niall seemed to have against Louis. Then again, he was a kidnapping bastard with a taste for dubious sexual practices, so maybe that pretty much summed it up.

At the far end of the hall another group entered, and it was Zayn's turn to sit up in sudden interest as he spotted Liam. On his arm was the girl who'd been feeding him grapes the day before, and Zayn frowned, realising she couldn’t be the mere serving girl he'd taken her for.

"That's Danielle," Niall explained without needing to be asked, relishing his new role as the fount of all knowledge. "She's Liam's companion, a lot of the time. Eleanor's noble born, but Danielle came here as tribute. She was a dancer."

Niall looked sideways at Zayn, and winked at Harry. "Prince Liam seems to have a bit of a thing for dancers," he added slyly.

"Bendy," suggested Harry, with his mouth full, and Zayn choked on his drink.

The group at the far side of the hall appeared to be in high spirits about something, with Louis the centre of attention. His laugh made Harry's skin prickle, and he fidgeted in his seat.

When the group moved off, followed at intervals by various other hangers-on, Harry was both uncomfortable and oddly pleased when Zayn suggested they should go too, to see what all the fuss was about.

Niall demurred. "I'm supposed to be back in the kitchens. There's stuff I'm supposed to be - "

"Oh, come on they won’t miss you for half an hour!" Zayn pressed.

Harry nodded. "Besides," he grinned. "We need you to show us the way back!"

Niall gave in, face pink with pleasure that they wanted him around badly enough to argue the point.

Together they followed the stragglers out of the main doors and through the castle until they emerged unexpectedly into the open air, on the edge of what appeared to be a stable yard.

Held in the centre on the end of two long tether ropes was a huge horse, clearly unbroken, dragging two grooms this way and that as it reared and plunged on the cobblestones.

"Whatever's going on?" Zayn asked, astonished.

"It's a wild horse," Harry murmured. "They must have brought it in from one of the herds on the mountain. I guess someone's going to try and break it. Poor thing."

A cheer went up and Harry looked round. He'd assumed this was all a pointless entertainment for the princes, so when he saw Louis walking up to the horse, carefully avoiding its stamping hooves, he stared in amazement.

"He's going to do it himself?" Harry asked, only realising he'd spoken out loud when Niall snorted.

"Oh he likes to show off, does Prince Louis."

Harry couldn't tear his eyes away as Louis ducked and wove around the whinnying beast, finally leaping onto its back to cheers from the crowd. It immediately reared, and Harry's stomach clenched in instinctive apprehension, but Louis hung on. He was laughing at the horse's attempts to unseat him, Harry realised, and shook his head in disbelief.

It was a stupid thing to do, for someone who surely had no need to risk himself like this. But Harry also knew it took true guts and skill to attempt what Louis was doing, and felt a stab of reluctant admiration.

For several long minutes Louis held his seat, and the gasps and applause of the crowd grew more confident. Then suddenly, without warning the horse stumbled on the stones. It regained its footing almost immediately but the unexpected shift in weight had thrown Louis off balance, and he slipped. He made a wild, futile grab to try and save himself, but to no avail.

As if in slow motion, Harry saw him fall. He hit the ground hard, and for a second lay still. Someone in the crowd screamed, once, shrill with fear, but then Louis was sitting up, shaking his head as if to clear it, blood running vividly down his face. The horse was rearing over him, hooves flying inches from his head, and Harry caught the flash of fear on Louis' face as he realised the danger.

Louis tried to roll away, but the unpredictable plunging of the horse, enraged and frightened in equal part, made it impossible. The crowd watched in horror, knowing it was surely only a matter of time before one of those lethal hooves caught him on the head, or trampled him underfoot.

Before he could even think about what he was doing, Harry found he was dashing across the cobbles. There was an astonished yell behind him from Zayn, but he didn’t look round, sped faster, ducking under the horse's neck, grabbing the mane and swinging.

Louis had been good. But Harry came from a village where their affinity with horses bordered on the mystical, he'd been able to ride almost before he could walk, and they held no terrors for him.

He wrapped his arms and legs around the horse's neck, now rolling its eyes and furiously trying to dislodge him, ignoring the shouts of the crowd, trying not to think about Louis still in danger beneath, just stroking and whispering to the horse until its mad bucking stopped, and gradually, snorting, flanks heaving, it quietened.

As the horse clopped to a standstill, Harry leaned weakly against its head and slithered off, using the horse to keep himself upright, the strength having vanished from his legs.

Louis, too, had got to his feet, shakily. Eleanor rushed up and pressed a handkerchief solicitously to his still bleeding head, but he didn’t so much as look at her, didn’t take his eyes off Harry, an odd expression on his face that Harry couldn’t for the life of him read.

Harry shifted uncomfortably under his scrutiny. It was dawning on him that he'd probably just saved Louis' life, and a wild hope blossomed within him, that surely, now, Louis couldn’t deny him his in return, surely he would grant him his freedom for this?

But Louis didn't look grateful, or relieved, he looked almost angry. Finally, he turned and started to walk away without a word spoken.

"Hey!" The shout was out before Harry could wonder if it was advisable. But too late now, Louis was turning back, looking boredly enquiring.

"Yes?"

Harry swallowed. "Don't I get a reward?"

Louis turned away again, waving a hand dismissively. "I'll be sure to send you some flowers," he called, and let the assembled ladies draw him back inside, followed by an anxious looking Liam.

Harry stared after him, dumbstruck. The grooms came and took charge of the now docile horse, and Niall and Zayn rushed over to him. He looked at them, miserably.

"It's not fair. I saved his life! I thought he'd let me go home!"

Niall shook his head. "You don’t get it do you? You made him lose face."

"What?" Harry said, not understanding.

"You showed him up," Niall explained, apologetically. "You did what he couldn’t, in front of everyone. He's probably pretty pissed off right now. You're lucky to be alive, I reckon."

Harry felt like his legs were going to give way, and swayed. Zayn grabbed his arm, and lead him over to a bench. "You were amazing though," he murmured admiringly, and Harry gave him a watery smile of gratitude.

"What did you want to go and do a thing like that for anyway?" Niall asked, sounding faintly disgusted. "Why do you care if he dies?"

"I - I don't," Harry stammered.

Niall looked sceptical, and Zayn rubbed his arm. "You did just risk your life to save his," he said quietly. "That kind've implies you care a bit?"

"I was worried about the horse," Harry blurted. "If it had killed him they'd probably have put it to death. I felt sorry for it, okay?" He got to his feet and stormed inside, feeling like he just didn’t know what to think any more.

Zayn watched him go, and shook his head. "What's eating him? And for that matter, I don’t understand why he should assume someone like that would know who he was anyway. I hardly imagine the Princes keep tabs on everyone who ends up here."

Niall took Harry's place on the bench and bit his lip. "I guess Harry didn’t tell you?"

"Tell me what?"

"Last night - after you'd been summoned to Prince Liam? Louis came back, and ordered Harry be taken to his chambers. I mean - I don’t know if anything happened, and Harry said earlier that nothing did, so - "

Zayn looked shocked, then shook his head slowly. "He must have been there all night. He only came back this morning."

They looked at each other, wondering.

"It - must have been okay?" Zayn suggested, hesitantly. "I mean - Harry just saved his life. That sort of suggests it can’t have been all bad?"

Niall wrapped his arms round himself as if cold despite the sunshine. "Prince Louis' bad news. Trust me. You saw the way he reacted. Harry needs to stay away from him."

Zayn sighed. "I wish he'd told me." They sat side by side and watched the horse being rubbed down and lead into the stables.

"What would have happened if he had been killed?" Zayn wondered. "To the crown I mean?"

"Would pass to his younger sister," Niall said. "That was her standing by lady Eleanor, she was the one who screamed when he fell."

"So, not just Harry who cared then?" Zayn suggested mildly. Niall just harrumphed and declared he had to get back to work.

--

Harry wandered through the passages of the castle, utterly lost and not caring. He was a mess of conflicting emotions, resentment and fear and homesickness warring with the memory of that morning when Louis had held him tight and told him things were okay. It was barely a moment, but for those fleeting seconds Harry had felt safe, and he couldn’t reconcile that man with the one who'd dismissed him so casually just now, or for that matter used him so vilely in other ways.

Eventually his wanderings brought him to a courtyard he recognised, the same one he'd originally arrived here in. Filled with a sudden hope, he dashed along the passage leading outwards, expecting to be stopped at any moment, but no-one appeared to challenge him.

When he got to the end, Harry saw why. A massive drawbridge connected the fortress with the outside world and it was closed up tight, a vertical wall of wood three storeys tall, barring the exit.

He wandered back slowly, feeling utterly defeated.

It must have been an hour or more later, that with a weary tread he found himself right back where he'd started, coming out of a different doorway to end up in the stable yard again.

There was no-one about, and he slipped across to the stable block itself, wanting suddenly to make sure that the horse was alright. Inside, it was dimly lit and smelt sweetly of hay and horses. He relaxed for the first time in hours, and wandered along the stalls, whispering and clucking to the horses.

Right at the end, he found the horse he was looking for. To his relief, it had been well looked after, and he stroked its head and whispered his secrets to it. They were both prisoners here, he thought, as it neighed softly back at him.

Suddenly he heard footsteps approaching, boots clipping the flagstones, and wondered panic-stricken if he was supposed to be here. He looked round for somewhere to hide and quickly pulled himself up on the side of the stall, crawling into the hayloft space above.

Wriggling around to see who was coming, he nearly fell out again when he saw it was Louis.

He'd changed his clothes, and someone had bathed his head, although Harry could still see a livid red cut just beneath his hair-line. Harry held his breath and glared at him. If Louis was coming to take revenge on the horse that had tried to kill him, he'd - well, he wasn’t sure what he’d do but it wouldn’t be pretty.

Admittedly, he didn’t seem to be angry, in fact Louis was scratching the horse's head and feeding it bits of carrot.

Harry peered down, trying to catch what Louis was saying. He inched closer to the edge, straining to hear the words, and then the board he was leaning on tipped sideways and he was falling into space.

Winded, Harry found himself staring up at Louis, who covered his surprise at Harry's unexpected appearance and looked enquiring.

"Nice of you to drop in," he said. "Are you spying on me?"

Harry spat straw out of his mouth, and sighed. "Don’t flatter yourself," he muttered.

Louis held out a hand, and Harry found to his surprise that he was taking it, letting Louis pull him to his feet.

"I wasn’t sure I was allowed in here. So when I heard someone coming I hid." Harry shrugged, embarrassed.

"Oh." Louis picked a length of straw out of Harry's hair, and twisted it in his fingers.

"I didn’t thank you. For what you did." he said eventually, when the silence had stretched out uncomfortably.

"No. No you didn’t." Harry said flatly.

Louis gave a bleak smile. "Thank you," he murmured. Harry sighed, and nodded acceptance.

"A reward was mentioned, I believe?" Louis added, not looking at him. "You didn’t strike me as the type to want payment."

"I want to go home," said Harry simply.

Louis nodded, stroking the horse. "That's what I thought you'd say. It’s why I didn’t offer, in front of everyone. I'm not willing to lose you yet Harry."

"Lose me? I thought you hated me?" Harry said, bewildered.

Louis shot him an unreadable look. "You - amuse me."

"I'll have to work on being duller."

Louis smiled, but said nothing, just carried on smoothing down the horse's neck. After a while he pulled an apple out of his pocket and cut it into pieces, gave some to Harry. In silence, they took it in turns to feed them to the horse.

"You're nicer to horses than you are to people," Harry couldn't help observing.

"Horses are nicer to me. Generally," said Louis, turning to look at him and then, "Ow!" as he took his eyes off the horse and it nipped his curled fingers instead of the apple. He shook his hand ruefully, and Harry couldn’t help laughing.

"What should I name him?" asked Louis after a while.

Harry considered. "He's mean and bitey. How about Louis?"

Louis gave him a sideways look. "Brought here against his will and refusing to accept he's here to stay? I was thinking maybe Harry."

Harry's lips twitched, and he looked away obstinately.

"Why did you do it?" he asked.

"Do what?"

"I'm guessing it's not like you need another horse. Why risk your life like that?"

Louis was silent for a while. "Do you know what it means, to be a ruling prince?" he asked.

"That you get to behave like a twat?" Harry hazarded.

Louis laughed, softly. "That whatever I want - I can have." He paused. "Have you any idea how mind numbingly dull that is?"

For a moment, Harry actually felt sorry for him. Then he reminded himself sternly that this was someone who had kidnapped not just him but others, who had threatened him and abused him and who was still refusing to let him go free.

"So you put yourself and others at risk just because you're over-privileged and bored? My heart bleeds," he snapped, not daring to look up, and therefore missing the way Louis flinched.

Silently, Louis turned and walked out to the entrance, before looking back at him.

"I'll tell them to let you in here any time, if you want?"

Harry looked surprised, then nodded hesitantly. Louis nodded too, as if in echo. "Harry?" he added. "Come to my rooms tonight. I'll send someone to show you the way up."

He was gone before Harry could agree or refuse.

--

Harry slowly found his way back to his room, lost in thought. Pushing the door open he was pleased to find Zayn already in residence, fiddling with a comb in front of a huge mirror that Harry was fairly sure hadn't been there when he left.

"Where'd you find that?" he asked, as Zayn looked up and grinned at him.

"Niall got it for me. He says there's loads of rooms that people have just forgotten about, full of stuff they don't want."

Harry came up behind him and ruffled his hair. Zayn ducked away, yelling objections.

"Oi! I just got it looking right!"

"Well now you'll have to do it again. Don’t pretend you won’t enjoy that." Harry sat on his bed, smirking, and after a second Zayn came and sat next to him.

"Harry - can I ask you something? Tell me to fuck off if it's none of my business, but - well, Niall said that - Prince Louis - and you - ?"

Harry sighed, and drew his knees up in front of him, hugging himself comfortingly. "Yeah," he admitted softly. "I - spent last night with him."

It was a relief to tell someone, finally, and he was at least fairly sure that Zayn wouldn’t judge him for it. He was right, Zayn just nodded thoughtfully.

"Was it - okay?" he asked.

Harry glanced at him, then looked away with an awkward shrug. "S'pose it could have been worse. It just - wasn't quite how I imagined my first time, y'know?"

Zayn screwed up his face sympathetically and gave him a hug. "I know that you don’t really approve of the way I've been going about things, and I don’t know what Niall seems to have against him, but - I really do think that if you can gain his favour - you'd have a much better chance of going home one day. And even if not, a better time of it while you're here."

Leaning against him tiredly, Harry nodded in surrender. "I don't know any more Zayn. Sometimes I think - maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. And then he does or says something that makes me hate him, so much, and I have to see him again, tonight, and I just - I just don't want to be here."

Zayn rubbed his back soothingly. "How about I lend you one of my outfits? Make yourself look nice for him? Maybe it'll go okay?"

Harry sighed, and mustered a smile. "Yeah. Okay. Thanks." He looked back at Zayn, and his smile became a little more teasing. "It's not going to fall off me if I move wrong is it?"

"They're not all for stripping!" Zayn giggled and shoved him, and Harry shoved back, trying to get him in a headlock. They scuffled on the bed, laughing and cursing, until they fell onto the floor with a thud and lay there for a while, catching their breath.

Zayn turned his head to look at Harry. "First thing to do? You need a wash. You kind've stink of horse."

Harry squealed indignantly. "I do not!"

"You so do!" Zayn laughed, fending off Harry's fingers that were trying to tickle him. "Come on, I found the baths we can use, they're amazing. I'll show you."

--

Harry looked round in something like awe as Zayn lead him into the bathhouse. He was used to water for bathing having to be warmed by the fire first, and there being never quite enough to cover you, and if you were unlucky or not quick enough you weren't even first in.

This though, was an entire series of rooms that were served by water warmed by furnaces somewhere beneath and piped in. There were baths big enough to float in, and he looked at them longingly as Zayn dragged him past, insisting there was something much better.

They stripped naked and hung their clothes on the wooden pegs provided, and Harry followed him into what he said was the cascade room. Pushing up a lever in the wall, Zayn laughed out loud in delight as water spilled out of the channels above, pouring over his head and splashing Harry.

"It's a waterfall!" Harry laughed, immediately shoving him out of the way and standing under the torrent with his eyes shut and his face turned up into the warm water.

"It's a shower, you horsey barbarian," Zayn jibed, ramming Harry back out of the way with a bony hip. "Don't tell me you've never seen one before."

"You have these?" Harry asked, too impressed to be cross.

"Well - okay, they're nowhere near as big as this," Zayn conceded. "But yeah, the principle's the same. Except we get our water from the lake, and this is from a spring inside the mountain."

"How do you know all this stuff?" Harry muttered, edging back under the water. This time Zayn made room for him.

"Niall told me. I figured it would pay to find out as much as I could about the place, if I'm going to live here." He grinned. "Also, once you start him talking, it's hard to shut him up."

Harry sniggered, and ran his fingers through his hair, washing out stray bits of straw. He took a sneaky glance at Zayn's naked body while he was at it, and the next minute caught Zayn doing the same to him. They giggled, embarrassed, and a shove became a tussle became a full-blown wrestling match, slippery limbs wriggling out of each other's grasp beneath the falling water.

It felt good, to be fooling around without any worries for once, and Harry found himself laughing helplessly as Zayn's hands pulled him about and wet legs tangled with his own. They were both half-hard by now, and their wrestling somehow found more and more reasons to push against each other, neither admitting what they were doing but silently complicit because it felt kind've amazing.

Finally they tired of the play-fighting, and just leaned against each other in truce, letting the water beat against their shoulders. Zayn fetched a bottle of a herbal rinse to wash his hair with, and Harry mocked him loudly, although he still let Zayn wash his for him too, enjoying the feeling of long fingers rubbing against his scalp.

"Ready?" Zayn murmured finally.

Harry nodded. "Yeah. Let's do this then."

--

By the time the guard arrived to escort Harry to Louis' chambers, he was dressed in loose, soft, blue-grey trousers of Zayn's with a matching shirt that wrapped around his chest in folds and billowed out around his arms. He'd brushed his hair, and Zayn had kissed him on the cheek and told him he looked incredible.

Climbing the stairs he got more and more nervous, and concentrated on counting the steps instead of letting himself dwell on what might lie ahead. At the top, chest heaving for breath, and wondering why Louis had to pick such an inaccessible bedroom, Harry leaned against the door frame and knocked.

It was a moment before the door was pulled open, and whatever Louis had been going to say appeared to die on his lips as he took in Harry's appearance.

"Fuck," he said instead. Harry shifted awkwardly, and Louis shook himself. "Well, don't just stand there, come in already." He disappeared back inside and Harry walked cautiously after him, letting the door swing closed. To his relief, Louis made no move to lock it this time, just threw himself on the bed and picked up a goblet of wine.

His face was a little flushed, and Harry realised with a sinking heart that he was probably drunk.

"Well? Come here then," Louis ordered impatiently, and Harry crossed to the bed, sitting down rather stiffly and flinching as Louis' arm snaked round his waist from where he reclined beside him.

"Oh don't be like that," Louis murmured, walking his fingers up Harry's side, and sitting up enough to nuzzle his neck. Harry couldn't help jerking his head away irritably, and Louis sighed. "Now what?"

"You're pissed."

"So?" Louis yawned. "There's plenty to go round. Why don't you get drunk too, you might lighten up a bit."

"If I'm such a disappointment, why am I here?" Harry muttered.

Louis curled round him, arms wrapping round his waist, resting his chin on Harry's shoulder. "I can't lie Harry. I want you. I want to have you."

Harry tensed as Louis' hand slid inside his shirt and fingernails dragged lightly down his chest.

"Can I have you Harry?" Louis whispered, teasing.

"Do I get a say in the matter?"

"It would be nicer all round if you said yes." Louis sighed and sat up, letting go of him. "I thought we'd been through all this."

"You want me. I get that. What's in it for me?"

"Other than the most amazing sex of your life?" Louis enquired, eyebrows raised.

"You'd only have to beat last night, so that shouldn't be hard," Harry said sourly.

Louis raised his hands in mock surrender. "Fine. Fuck it. You don’t want to be here. So say yes, and I'll let you go."

"What?" Harry looked round at him, shaken.

"You heard. Let me fuck you, willingly, and you can go home."

Harry stared. He was ninety five percent certain Louis was lying, and not even bothering to sound all that convincing about it. But if there was a chance, however small, that he might keep his word -

He thought of Zayn's advice, to make nice and play up to him. He wasn’t sure he had the stomach for that. But, to give in, to just let it happen? Maybe it would be worth it.

"Fine," he whispered.

Harry wondered if Louis would make him say it again, labour the victory, but he just seemed to take Harry at his word and leaned in, pressing a kiss to the nape of his neck, and sliding his hands back inside Harry's shirt.

Louis lay him down on the bed, stripping off his own shirt and then removing Harry's more slowly, as if he was unwrapping an expensive present. he let his hands stroke over Harry’s chest, exploring him, and then leaned forwards, lips pressing against Harry’s mouth.

Harry didn’t fight it when Louis' tongue slipped into his mouth. He didn’t object when Louis' hands roamed over his body, seeking out the fastenings of his trousers. He only tensed a little when he felt Louis' blatant erection come to rest against his groin, nudging against him expectantly.

He closed his eyes, praying it would be over soon, praying, too, that Louis would be content to just take what he wanted, that he wouldn’t expect Harry to pretend he was enjoying it.

The weight of Louis on top of him moved insistently against his body, while surprisingly soft lips worked their way around his jawline, biting gently. Harry found that despite himself his breathing was getting faster, and he clenched his fingers in the covers beneath him.

Louis' hands were starting to pull open Harry's trousers when behind them the door to the room flew open and someone barged in, making them both jump. Louis looked round, glaring.

"Does nobody bloody knock in this place?" he snarled.

Harry looked over Louis' shoulder, and was startled to find that the intruder was Liam. He blinked, as the second prince ignored Louis' bad temper and started pacing round the room.

"Louis, I've got a problem. I need your help."

Louis made an exasperated noise. "Li! I'm kind've busy here!"

"Oh. Yes. Sorry. Hi." Liam waved slightly to Harry, and looked back at Louis. "Please Lou? I really need your advice."

"It can't wait?" Louis groaned, looking down at Harry regretfully.

"It's important!"

"So's my cock!" Louis rolled off Harry and sighed. "Fine. Go on, piss off out, you didn’t want to anyway."

Shocked and embarrassed, even through Liam wasn't taking any notice of him, Harry grabbed his shirt and scuttled back out of the door, red in the face, as much from anger as shame.

When he'd gone, Louis poured himself more wine and waved Liam to a seat.

"Go on then you badly timed bastard. "What's so drastic you needed to come all the way up here? I thought you didn’t trust my advice anyway?"

Liam smiled, and took some wine after all. "Maybe I want to know what you’d do so I can do the opposite?" he suggested and Louis laughed.

"It's - delicate," sighed Liam. "There are two people I like, and - I'm not really sure how to approach it. You've got more - "

"Experience?" supplied Louis, smugly.

"I was going to say reputation," Liam snorted.

"So go on," encouraged Louis, lying back against the pillows. "So far i don't actually see a problem, other than lots of sex? And incidentally, if I'm not one of the two, I'm going to be upset."

Liam flapped at him. "Fine, three people I like then. You're not a problem though."

"You're possibly the only person that thinks that," Louis said darkly. Liam ignored him and carried on muttering to himself.

"I don't want to cause a problem. If I see one more than the other - I just don't see how there isn't gong to be jealousy."

"So who is it anyway? Danielle, presumably? and - oh, don’t tell me, that prancing stripper from the lake." Louis sniggered. "What is it with you and fucking the tributes? Is it some bizarre attempt at egalitarianism? Or do you just assume the peasant classes are going to be filthier? Remind me to let you have a go on Eleanor sometime, that'll change your mind."

"You're not helping, Louis," Liam complained.

"You want my advice? Have both."

"But I already said that's going to cause - "

"No," Louis interrupted. "Have. Both. Together. Threesome." He beamed, pleased with his suggestion, and Liam went red.

"I'm not sure they'd like that."

"Who gives a fuck what they want? You're the prince, they do what you want."

"I’m not like you Louis," Liam objected, and Louis sat up and pointed at him.

"Yes you are. You just don’t like to admit it. Go on, tell me the idea of it doesn't turn you on."

Liam groaned. "Fine. I can’t. It does."

Louis smirked. "There you are then. Incidentally, how turned on are you exactly, because in case you hadn't noticed I just passed up a shag to sort out your existential crisis."

"Oh, go and suck yourself," Liam retorted. Louis cackled.

"If I could do that I'd probably never leave my rooms. Go on Li, why not?"

Liam drained his goblet and laughed, giving in. "Okay! Alright, fine." He got up." "But I'm going on top. You get too bitey for my taste when you're in control."

Louis flopped back on the bed, laughing affrontedly. "Don't you start!"

Unseen, watching with wide eyes through the crack in the not-quite closed door, Harry knew he should go. He should run, before he was discovered, and tell Zayn what they were plotting.

But as Louis quickly wriggled out of his trousers on the bed and Liam stood over him, unlacing his own, somehow Harry couldn’t bring himself to move.

Harry held his breath. From his position at the door, he had a perfect line of sight to where Louis had shuffled over to the edge of the bed and was lazily stroking himself, waiting for Liam to get his act together. Harry bit his lip. He knew he shouldn't still be here, dreaded to think what might happen if they caught him watching. But something kept him rooted to the spot, eyes fixed on the two young men inside.

Louis was laughing, impatient, as Liam finally shoved his trousers down and took his cock into his hand. He too was hard, eager, knowing that with Louis at least he didn't have to worry about appearances or protocol or, for that matter, whether he hurt him. Louis liked it rough, always had, and while part of Liam shied away from being overly aggressive, Louis seemed to bring out a certain uninhibited freedom in him.

Rocking back on the bed, Louis lifted his knees and presented Liam with his arse. Liam shook his head, an embarrassed giggle escaping his lips.

"You're so awful."

"Am not." Louis flung his arms out across the bed and grinned up at him. "I just know what I want. And what you want, for that matter."

Ignoring him, Liam promptly lined himself up and shoved his cock into Louis' body without further prevarication.

Outside, Harry's hand flew to his mouth in startled sympathy, thinking that anything that violent and unprepared would have to hurt like fuck, and the noise it forced from Louis certainly contained an edge of pain. But it was also clear he was enjoying it, and as Liam continued to pound into him, Louis gave out further loud, unrestrained grunts of pleasure.
His legs were draped over the crook of Liam's arms, and Liam, who hadn’t even bothered to remove his shirt, his trousers pooled around his ankles, was driving into him, leaning over the bed and fucking him hard and fast, making breathy, urgent noises of his own.

Louis arched back into the bed, pulling at his own cock with rapid jerks of his hand, eyes closed and lips parted as he sought release.

Harry had never imagined sex like this, almost animal in its intensity. He'd always had a picture in his mind of loving tenderness and gentle passion, and wondered now if that had been just a naive ideal. At first he'd imagined the princes' coupling to be angry, combative, but glimpses of the blissed-out expression on Louis' face made him realise he was wrong. There was a trust there between them that he somehow hadn't expected.

Louis hadn’t struck him as someone who trusted easily, and Harry wondered if it was just because Liam was his equal, or to do with the way Liam stood up to him. The only person who safely could, Harry thought with an odd spike of what almost felt like jealousy.

In the room beyond, Louis finally gave a shout of exultation, and came messily all over his hand and stomach. Liam groaned in climax moments later, bending over in spasming satisfaction as he lost his load deep inside him.

At the door, Harry finally wrenched himself away, realising Liam at least would probably be not long in heading this way.

He padded hastily down the winding steps, made awkward by the fact his dick was a shamefully rigid bar in his trousers.

--

By the time Harry found his way back to the part of the castle given over to what seemed to be by and large the people keeping it running, he was restless and conflicted. He hesitated at the end of the passage leading to his room. He should go and find Zayn, tell him what he'd overheard. But on the other hand he didn’t want to have to explain what had happened, or why he was back so quickly.

He turned the other way instead, wandering through the kitchens, looking out for the others from his village that he'd come here with. They were all several years younger and he didn't know them all that well, but he felt guilty for not seeking them out before. They seemed to have been absorbed seamlessly into the daily workings of the fortress, he knew from Niall that they'd been set to work, either hidden in the maze of pantries and sculleries, or in the case of the more attractive ones, serving in the hall.

It seemed to be only himself and Zayn that had so far avoided work in any meaningful sense, and he wondered briefly if he should just go and find the housekeeper and ask for something to do. If he kept out of sight down here, Louis would surely lose interest. If he hadn't already. Harry’s mind skipped over that thought as strangely uncomfortable, and then in the next moment all thoughts of Louis were driven out entirely.

He'd walked into one of the enormous kitchens, full of bustling cooks and boys lugging pails of water and buckets of peelings about, where copper pots glinted in the light from the massive candelabra overhead, and charcoal glowed redly in three huge fireplaces.

In the wide chimneys were hung enormous iron spits for roasting animals to feed the top tables in the hall. Two were empty, but the centre one held a whole pig, being slowly turned over the coals.

It wasn't the food that caught Harry's attention though, it was the method by which it was being cooked. At the side of the fire on a low stool, a small boy was turning the metal handle of the spit, tears pouring down his face.

Harry rushed over and dropped to the ground at his feet. "Jack! What's happened, are you alright? What are they doing to you?"

Hesitantly, Jack held out his hands to Harry and he saw with stomach clenching horror that the little boy's palms were blistered from the heat of the metal.

He dragged him out from the seat and held him tightly, looking round and yelling furiously at anyone who might be listening to go and fetch Niall.

Evidently someone did, if only because it meant someone else got to deal with the disruptive influence in their midst, because a minute of so later Niall came running in.

He stared in horror, and then to Harry's aggrieved bafflement hastily turned the spit half a rotation himself.

"Fuck that," Harry objected, "what about Jack? Go and get that ointment, he's been burnt Niall."

Niall looked round uncomfortably, relieved to find neither the housekeeper nor the head cook were in evidence.

"You can’t let the meat spoil Harry, or we'll all be in trouble."

"Niall!"

Niall looked wretched. "I know, I'm sorry. It's not so bad once you develop calluses and stuff, I'll get him some gloves." Harry’s thunderous expression made him back away, promising in a stuttering voice to fetch the salve as well, but that Harry should please not let the meat burn.

He returned quickly, and daubed the soothing paste onto Jack's raw hands, the little boy holding them out so trustingly that Harry's heart contracted in impotent rage.

Niall looked at him, awkwardly. "He's going to have to go back on Harry, there's no-one else to do it, he's got half an hour of his shift left to go."

"Fine." Harry bit the word off, not trusting himself to say more, and squeezed himself into the seat instead. It was cramped, the mechanism clearly geared to smaller operators, and that in itself made him angrier. He seized the metal handle, wincing as the heat struck up through his hands, and began turning the heavy spit around.

Niall looked at him, scared. "Harry, you can’t."

"Watch me," Harry spat. It was an effort to turn, and he wondered how the hell Jack had managed it as long as he had. The boy was staring at him with wide, devoted eyes, and Niall sighed.

"You’ll get us all in the shit Harry," he muttered, but he lifted a serving towel off his shoulder and passed it to him. Harry wound it round his hands, protecting them from the worst of the heat, and carried on, obstinately.

Around him, he was vaguely aware of people coming and going, whispering and arguing about what to do in hushed voices.

Twenty minutes passed, and Harry's shoulders were burning in their sockets. He'd got into a rhythm though, and in a bizarre way was grateful as the pain and the exertion cleared his mind of anything else.

A commotion at the door finally made him look up, and recognised in shock the last person he had expected or wanted to see here.

The kitchen fell silent as Louis stalked slowly across the floor towards him. Harry was starting to realise Louis chose clothes like weapons, and right now he was wearing tight leather boots that came halfway up his thighs. Harry really didn’t want to think what sort of mood that meant he was in.

Louis stood there for a moment, hands on his hips, watching Harry turn the handle.

"Fond of a spit-roast, are you?" Louis murmured eventually, smirking at a joke Harry didn’t get.

Harry ignored him, just kept on automatically turning the spit.

Louis put his head on one side, consideringly. "You know, I sent for you. To come back. At first they told me you couldn’t be found, and then I got word you'd taken up a new - position. Frankly I had to come and see for myself." He looked enquiring, clearly waiting for a reply.

"I'm not speaking to you," Harry muttered, still furious. "You brought him here, you made this happen."

A muted ripple of consternation ran through the watching crowd, and out of the corner of his eye Harry saw Niall clap his hand over his mouth. Louis though, just raised an eyebrow.

He looked round. "You know," Louis said conversationally, "I've not been down here for years. Not since I was little. I used to think it looked like fun, to work the spit. But I guess not so much if you're on it for hours," he conceded with a ironic smile.

Harry glared at him, then forced himself to look away again. He wouldn’t be drawn, he wouldn't.

Louis drew out a wicked looking knife from his belt and sliced off a sliver of the roasting meat, the outer surface already cooked. He chewed it slowly, eyes on Harry's face. "Perfect," he murmured. "So tender. Just how I like it." He sliced another piece off and held it against Harry's mouth, smearing his lips with grease. Harry refused to eat it, lips clamped shut, and Louis shrugged, stuffing it into his own mouth instead. He turned away, attention sliding to a new victim.

"And who have we here? It's Jack, isn't it?" Louis crouched down to examine the boy who'd been sitting on the floor watching Harry and refusing to leave his side.

"You leave him alone," Harry blurted, and then wished he could bite his tongue off as he caught the glimmer of triumph on Louis' face. He'd given himself away, practically handed Louis a lever to use against him, and cursed himself for a fool.

"Hello Jack. Did Harry take your place?" Louis asked in a friendly voice, and then shot Harry a glance. "Again."

Jack nodded, and silently held out his hands for inspection, clearly expecting Louis to sympathise like everyone else had. Harry was staring openly at them now, torn between intervening and the fear of making things worse.

"Oh, now that does look painful," Louis murmured. "We'll have to do something about that, won't we? You come with me, and we'll cheer you up, yes? Find you a nice treat?" He picked the little boy up in his arms, and cast a mocking glance down at Harry. "I'll take very good care of him, don’t you worry." And then to the room at large, "Harry here's a good strong lad. And he's clearly worried about the kids on spit duty. Let him take the next shift as well. Another two hours."

And he marched out of the room, bearing Jack with him. Harry stared after them in desperation and horror, and was halfway out of his seat to follow when the guard who'd accompanied Louis in stamped to attention in front of him, brandishing a pikestaff twice the height of Harry. He sank reluctantly back onto the stool, feeling numb with horror.

--

Somehow, the two hours passed. At the end of it, Harry was helped from the spit chair by Niall, back and shoulders a mess of pain, hands cramped into claws from where they'd been holding the handle. Niall offered to make him a drink, or to fetch him ointment, but Harry ignored him and walked unsteadily out of the room.

He was too late to stop whatever Louis might be doing to Jack, logically he knew this. But he had to try.

As if in a daze, Harry made his way back through the castle, passages more familiar now, climbing up and up until he came to the foot of the staircase leading to Louis' apartments. To his shock, there was a guard on duty at the bottom, and he hesitated.

It was the man who'd escorted him up and down a couple of times already though, and Harry took a risk, walking openly up to him.

"Um, Prince Louis sent for me?" he explained, hoping the man would recognise him and take him at his word. If he accompanied him up, then Harry was stuffed, but the thought of all those stairs was clearly too unpleasant, and to Harry's relief he was waved on his way.

He took the steps at a run, lungs burning, legs protesting, and flung himself against Louis' door. It was locked, and he banged angrily, grazing his knuckles on the wood.

There was no answer, no sound in fact from inside, and he gradually had to accept there was nobody at home. He slid miserably to the floor, utterly spent, and saw, too, that no lights were burning inside, the gap under the door showed only darkness.

Wherever they'd gone, it wasn’t here.

Harry keeled over onto the cold flagstones, and lay there in a weakly shaking heap, too tired and wrung out even to cry.

Despite the hardness of the ground, and the coldness of the tower, he slid into a deep and blessed sleep.

--

At some point during the night, Harry started dreaming. He dreamed that strong arms were gathering him up from his hard bed, and then the dream changed to one of feather-soft pillows and warmth, and he was sucked back down into darkness.

--

Harry opened his eyes, blearily. Found he wasn't as surprised as he might have been, to discover he was now lying on Louis' bed.

Louis was sitting in a chair, one leg resting on the other, watching him silently over steepled fingers.

Harry sat up, trying to blink the sleep from his fuzzy brain.

"Jack?" he asked quietly, the first thing on his conscience, although the urgency had gone, bled away while he slept, and somehow he knew he'd been wrong, that Louis had been fucking with his mind again.

"He's fine. Probably in bed by now. We went to the stables, found a fat little cart pony for him to sit on." Louis smiled slightly. "I think he likes me."

"Someone has to," Harry muttered, but there was no real spite to his words.

"You really believed I'd hurt him?" Louis asked quietly, after a second.

"Yes. No. I don't know." He'd been so sure, convinced the boy was in danger, or at least he thought he had been. Now Harry was wondering if it hadn't been an excuse, to come up here. And that thought almost frightened him more.

"For what it's worth, I wouldn’t have?" Louis murmured. "Although I don’t expect you to believe me."

Harry shook his head. "I do believe you," he breathed, and found to his surprise that he did.

He noticed for the first time how low the candles were, and wondered what time it was, how long Louis had been sitting there watching him. Swung his legs off the bed, looked up at him.

"It's late. I should go," Harry said, hesitantly.

Louis just watched him, not moving. "You don’t have to."

"Yes. I do."

Harry got to his feet, expecting Louis to object, but he just carried on watching as Harry walked to the door and let himself out, making no move to prevent him.

Outside, Harry leaned weakly against the door and wondered why he felt so miserable. By the time he'd got to the foot of the stairs, there were tears rolling down his cheeks and he couldn’t for the life of him have said why.

He walked heavily back to his room, dragging his feet with every step. Slipping in through the door, he was startled to find the candles lit and Zayn still awake and talking to Niall on his bed. They broke off when he came in, and looked up at his tearstained face in horror.

"Harry, what happened? Niall told me about the kitchen, then he said you ran off, and - ?" Zayn tailed off as Harry threw himself face down onto his bed without a word, his shoulders shaking.

He just wanted to be left alone, but the next minute Zayn's hands were on his shoulders, rubbing soothingly. "Harry? You don’t have to tell us what happened, but we're here, okay, if you need us?"

The bed dipped as Niall, too, came to sit next to him. "I'm sorry Harry," he said in a low voice. "I know you think I let you down. It's just - that's the way things have always been here. Nobody's ever had the influence to change it." He hesitated. "Should I go?"

Harry sat up, wiping his eyes on his sleeve, and shooting Zayn an apologetic glance as he remembered it was his shirt. "No," he croaked. "Don't go. Please."

Two pairs of arms wrapped around him then, and he let himself fall against them, sobbing as if he'd lost something precious and not knowing what.

--

Harry was woken the next morning by an insistent banging on their door. He stuck his head out from under the covers, feeling stiff and grumpy, and watched gratefully as Zayn dragged himself groaning out of the opposite bed and went to see who it was.

Outside the door he found a self-important page waiting impatiently. "Zayn Malik of Greyglass?"

"Erm. Yes?" Zayn pulled the blanket he was clutching closer round himself and wished he'd put pants on before coming to the door.

"His Highness Prince Liam requires your attendance."

"What? Now?" Zayn nearly dropped the blanket in shock.

"Immediately, yes."

"Oh. Right. Shit. Hang on." Zayn ducked inside again and slammed the door in the man's face. "Harry! He wants to see me! I'm not ready!"

Harry sniggered. "Maybe if you didn't take two hours to get dressed it wouldn’t be so bad."

"Bollocks, man." Zayn let the blanket fall to the floor and studied himself critically in the mirror. "What do you think he wants?"

"Your baby-smooth arse, presumably," Harry grinned. Then he remembered something and sat up hurriedly. "No! Wait, shit, I forgot to tell you!"

"Tell me what?" Zayn threw him a panicked look, washing quickly in cold water from the jug and pulling on a loose white robe over white trousers, and wishing they weren’t quite so crumpled.

"I overheard him last night. Louis talked him into a threesome."

"What?" Zayn spun round and looked alarmed, and Harry realised his mistake.

"No, no, not him and Louis you twat. Liam and you and - and whatever his girlfriend's called."

"Danielle?" Zayn asked faintly.

"Yeah, her."

"Shit." Zayn sat on the end of Harry’s bed, looking worried.

"Is that bad?"

"She hates me. I think. I ran into them yesterday in the hall after you'd run off in a snit, and the Prince was like 'oh hey I must see you again', and I think if she could have throttled me she would have." Zayn paused for breath and looked embarrassed. "Plus, you know. I've never - done it with a girl. It's possible I might be crap."

"You might not have to. He might just want to fuck both of you?" Harry suggested helpfully, and Zayn gave him the finger. The page started banging on the door again, and they both jumped.

"I'd better go." Zayn got to his feet, and took a deep breath. "Wish me luck."

Harry crossed his fingers and waved them at him, and Zayn grinned, and hastened out of the door.

--

The page lead Zayn back to Prince Liam's apartments. He quickly realised they weren't heading for the same room as before, and wondered what lay in store. As they walked further in, the air became warm and heavy with steam, and when ushered through the next door he found himself in a private bath chamber, a large pool set into the floor, brimming with hot water.

Reclining in the bath was Prince Liam.

He blinked up sleepily as Zayn entered, and smiled. "Ah, there you are. I hoped you might be kind enough to bathe me this morning?"

Zayn tried not to stare. The prince was completely naked apart from a thin, twisted gold chain around his neck. He recovered himself quickly and bowed. "Of course, my lord. As you wish it."

He looked around, wondering what exactly he was supposed to do. The edge of the bath was flush with the floor, and kneeling on the tiled surface was just going to be damp and awkward. Various attendants stood at intervals around the walls, but didn't appear to be taking any notice. Danielle, he was relieved to see, wasn't among them.

He looked again at the bath, and saw there were shallow steps leading down into it at the side. Fuck it, he thought, and let his robe slip off his shoulders. One of the attendants stepped forwards and took it from him, and Zayn smiled gratefully, hopping his way out of the trousers too and hoping he didn’t look ridiculous.

Naked, he waded carefully into the warm water, and settled next to Liam, taking up a sponge and starting to bathe him carefully, pouring water over his shoulders, stroking down his arms and chest.

Very quickly Zayn cottoned on to the fact that this was less about washing and more about sex, looking down to find Liam was already erect under the water. He slowed his movements, made them more lingering and soon abandoned the sponge altogether in favour of just his hands.

Embarrassed at first by the fact there were people watching, eventually Zayn gave a mental shrug and ignored them. It wasn’t as if they were making comment, and besides, they probably saw this sort of thing all the time. Although he could imagine the conversations in the servants' hall later. It made him all the more determined to be good.

Giving up the pretence entirely, Zayn had one hand around Liam's cock now, stroking him gently. The steamy heat was making them both drowsy and it seemed fitting that things should be slow and relaxed.

Before Zayn could make him come, Liam got to his feet and Zayn wondered anxiously if he'd done something wrong. Liam though, held out his hand and drew Zayn with him out of the bath.

As soon as he emerged from the water, attendants stepped forward with large towels and swathed him in their folds. Nobody offered Zayn one, and he stood there dripping and feeling foolish until Liam beckoned him to follow.

In an alcove was a couch, and Liam lay down upon it, indicating that Zayn should carry on with what he'd been doing.

Beside the couch was a tray of pots and bottles of various creams and potions, and Zayn's eyes fell on this speculatively. He ran his hand over a couple, and picked one out. Liam looked enquiring, and Zayn gave him a confident grin. Cosmetics, he could do.

Realising he was apparently in good hands, Liam let him have free reign.

Firstly Zayn paid attention to his face, smoothing cool moisturising balm into Liam's temples, carefully stroking it into his cheekbones, thumb swiping across his lips, making him smile.

Then he rubbed a tonic into Liam's hands, paying attention to each finger in turn, kissing them when he was done.

Finally, he poured massage oil into his hands and set about exploring every inch of Liam's body with his fingers, unwrapping the towels as he went and leaving Liam spread out and exposed before him. Before long Liam was fully hard again, and moaning quietly under Zayn's attentive ministrations as he worked his fingers into Liam's flesh, finding the tense spots and working out the knots in his muscles.

When Liam was totally relaxed and pliant under his hands, Zayn finally trailed his fingers back down to his cock, standing up to attention in a lewd salute. Zayn wrapped his fingers around the shaft and Liam pushed instinctively into his touch.

Zayn bit his lip, and made his mind up. Bent over the couch and with a deep breath, took him carefully into his mouth.

He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, but the noise Liam made suggested it had been well received so far. He slid his lips up and down experimentally, and Liam made it again, which gave him more confidence.

Zayn brought his hands in to wrap around the base, to squeeze and stroke as he licked and sucked with his mouth, and soon Liam was bucking under his touch, impatient noises of want escaping his throat, trying to push deeper in. Zayn was leaning over him though, at a suitable angle to control exactly what Liam was able to do, and let a hand come to rest between his thighs, slippery still with massage oil.

As he sucked down on the head of Liam's cock, cheeks hollowed and tongue exploring the slit, at the same time Zayn slid a finger up inside him.

Liam gave a surprised gasp, and then came without warning, flooding Zayn's mouth with thick hot come. Zayn swallowed quickly, trying not to think about it, and bowed his head deferentially while Liam recovered himself. He had been, Zayn thought to himself, at the very least, memorable.

Liam was rising, attendants gliding in immediately with a dressing robe for him.

He laid a hand on Zayn's head, and he looked up. Liam smiled. "Thank you," he said quietly. "I - would like to see you again, tonight? I have - a surprise for you. I hope you’ll like it." He turned and went out, followed by the rest of the attendants.

As Zayn dried himself off and pulled his clothes back on, he had two things on his mind. Firstly, that thanks to Harry he had a fairly good idea what the surprise would be.

And secondly, who was going to help him with this massive erection?

--

For some time after Zayn had gone Harry tossed and turned, trying to go back to sleep with no success. He thought about the way Zayn had received the news of the summons, with nervous excitement. Wondered how he would have reacted, if the summons had been, as he'd half-feared, for him from Louis.

Maybe the difference was that Zayn didn't seem to take any of it personally, he mused. But then, he'd been raised to know this was coming, hadn't been snatched from his family at a second's notice. Harry buried his face in the pillow and fought back tears. He'd tried not to think about his family, how they must be feeling, he'd tried to concentrate on just getting from one minute to the next.

He sat up, mind made up. Today, he would make a concerted effort to get out of here.

Dressing quickly, he thought ruefully that at least having come with nothing he didn't have to worry about packing. He felt a twinge of guilt, that he was planning on escaping alone, but he didn't even know where the others were, and besides, it would be surely impossible for a group to slip out unnoticed. Alone, he might just manage it.

Harry took a last look round the room. He wondered if he should leave a note for Zayn, realising if he was successful, the boy would never know what had happened to him. Reluctantly he decided against it. If anyone else found it, or Zayn told someone, they might send people after him, to bring him back.

He walked briskly along the corridor, knowing that he was far less likely to be challenged if he looked like he knew where he was going. The layout of the castle was gradually settling into his mind, and Harry found he knew at least which direction to take, to head towards the entrance.

Turning a corner, he nearly fell headlong over two small boys rushing the other way, and called out in surprise as he recognised the second one.

"Jack? Hey, Jack!"

The boy spun round and beamed when he recognised Harry, running back to him immediately. Harry crouched down and smiled at him, glad that he could at least satisfy himself on this point.

"Hey, you. How's things? They haven't made you go back in the kitchens have they?"

Jack shook his head. "The Prince said I didn't ever have to go back there," he told Harry happily.

Harry blinked. "He did?" He realised for the first time Jack was wearing considerably finer clothes than when he’d last seen him, and that the little boy he was with was dressed even more elaborately.

"Jack! Come on!" the other boy ordered imperiously, and Jack gave Harry a fast hug and dashed off again, laughing.

Harry got to his feet and nearly bumped into a woman who was chasing after them with a harassed but tolerant smile. She was too young to be the other boy's mother, Harry decided, and dressed more simply. Had to be his nursemaid or governess or something.

"They seem happy," he said, smiling at her, hoping she'd give him some idea of what Jack was doing there.

"Oh yes, so happy now," she exclaimed. "His little lordship didn’t have any friends his own age, so His Highness sent him a playmate, wasn’t that kind? He'll have someone now, to do lessons with, he's so pleased." She hurried off, leaving Harry staring after them. He wondered why Louis hadn't told him, why he'd let him think Jack would stay where he was. He sighed. He'd given up trying to figure out how Louis' mind worked. And anyway, if he was lucky, he'd shortly never have to worry about him again.

Another few minutes' walk brought him out into the main entrance yard, and today it was a hive of activity, with people bustling around, carts loading and unloading, and horses and people coming and going through the passage to the outside. The drawbridge was clearly down this time, and Harry felt a shiver of excitement.

He walked down the tunnel towards the exit, wondering if surely it couldn’t be this simple, that if he held his nerve he could walk straight out?

But no, as he got closer his hopes were dashed, there were guards on the gate, carefully checking each person who came in or out. They seemed to be showing some kind of pass, and Harry's heart sank. He needed a plan.

--

Getting back to their room, Zayn was surprised to find it empty and wondered where Harry had gone. He flopped down onto his unmade bed, palming his stiff dick through his trousers. He'd entertained a vague hope that Harry might have been up for a spot of mutual fun, but it looked like he'd just have to see to himself.

Zayn slid a hand down the front of his trousers, closing his eyes as his fingers wrapped around his cock. He thought of the way Liam had felt, hard in his hand under the water, and then hot in his mouth, and groaned quietly.

He was just wriggling out of his trousers when there was a knock on the door, and he snatched his hand away with a guilty curse. Sighing, he adjusted his clothes and went to see who it was.

Outside, Niall was waiting with a basket over his arm and a hopeful smile.

"I didn’t see you guys at the breakfast sitting, and I thought if Harry was still upset maybe you didn't want to come out, so I um, brought you some food?"

Niall could feel himself blushing and hated it, hated too the thought that they might think he was being a pain, or too needy, but he'd found that he liked them so much, and they didn’t seem to mind him being around, and...his train of thought trailed off as he realised Zayn's loose trousers were pushed out obscenely at the front. His blush deepened.

"Oh, um, if I'm interrupting," he started to stammer, but Zayn shook his head and threw the door open wide.

"Nah. Come on in. Harry's not here. I don’t know where he's gone, but I think he's alright. It's just me. If that's okay?"

Niall nodded quickly, and they sat down next to each other on Zayn's bed. There was an awkward silence. Round the handle of the food basket, Niall's fingers were white with tension.

Zayn eyed the basket with interest, wondering if it would be rude to ask what he had, and could they maybe get it out?

Beside him, Niall shot a sneaky glance at Zayn's crotch and wondered much the same thing.

"So. Um." Niall set the basket on the floor, trying not to stare openly at Zayn's erection. "How's it going? With Prince Liam?"

Zayn smirked. "He sent for me again this morning," he boasted. "And wants to see me again this evening." Niall looked suitably impressed, and Zayn dissolved into giggles. "He did kind've leave me hanging though. And you're being terribly polite and not mentioning it, but, yeah, sorry about, uh." He gestured vaguely at his groin and Niall smiled shyly up at him.

"I could, um, help with, um, if you wanted I mean?" he offered, somewhat incoherently, and stuttering over the words, but Zayn's eyes gleamed with eager amusement.

"Really? You'd be up for that?" He'd been unsure about Niall's interests, as despite the boy being immensely chatty he'd so far never mentioned any partners, male or female. But Niall was nodding, face suffused with an attractive pink blush, and Zayn noticed too that there was now a distinct bulge in the other boy's trousers where there hadn't been one before.

Zayn slipped his robe off and pulled down his trousers, letting his cock spring free. At Zayn's encouragement, after a slight hesitation Niall unfastened his own trousers, pushing his underwear down around his knees.

Tentatively they reached out, arms knocking awkwardly as they took hold of each other's erections. Swapping embarrassed smiles, they shifted position, leaning back against the wall and taking a better grip.

Zayn felt Niall's cock throbbing under his fingers as if his heart was racing, and stroked him quickly, grinning when the blond boy jerked and gasped under his touch.

Niall's hand was firm around him, too, and Zayn thrust into his touch eagerly, by now desperate for some relief.

For several minutes they wanked each other off, getting harder and sweatier and laughing helplessly when Niall accidentally banged his head on the wall, and when Zayn's cock slipped out of his grasp and slapped loudly against his stomach.

The act was almost more fun than the pay-off, but eventually Niall gasped that he was going to come, and his fist tightened around Zayn's cock as his body tensed in anticipation.

The harder grasp was all it took to finish Zayn and he came a split second before Niall, shooting all over his chest with a loud moan.

He felt Niall coming too, cock pulsing under his fingers, wetness dribbling over his hand. When he looked over, Niall was ruefully examining a big wet stain on the bottom of his shirt. Zayn burst out laughing again. Life in the castle was certainly turning out to be better than he'd dared hope.

--

A sudden rumbling behind Harry made him jump, and he leaped out of the way only just in time as a huge cart pulled by two horses rolled past him. Plastered flat against the stonework, he watched it go, and an idea began to form in his head.

Running lightly back to the courtyard he skulked amongst the barrels and crates of goods at the edge, waiting for an opportunity. It was starting to drizzle unpleasantly, and he pulled his collar up, shivering. The good weather seemed to have gone, and he could feel the nip of winter's approach in the air.

Finally he saw his chance. An open wagon loaded with a bed of straw was preparing to leave, presumably to fetch in livestock from the outer pastures. More pigs for the spit, he thought grimly. However unexpectedly well-meaning Louis had been in helping Jack there would be others to take his place Harry realised, children presumably just as young. He leaned miserably against the cold stone wall and told himself that he couldn't save everyone. He wasn't even sure he could save himself.

As soon as everyone's eyes seemed to be elsewhere, Harry dashed across the cobbles and took a flying leap into the back of the cart, scrambling over the lip and burrowing hastily into the straw until he was completely covered.

Bracing himself against the rough planks of the bottom, he'd barely settled down before the cart rolled forward with a jolt and he knew if he'd hesitated a moment longer he would have missed his chance. A sudden darkness fell, and he tensed, knowing they were moving slowly back up the entrance passage.

Another jolt, and then five minutes that felt like years of start-stopping as the queue to cross the drawbridge gradually moved forward. Harry resisted the temptation to peek out and see what was going on, forced himself to lie deadly still and keep his head down.

Finally daylight filtered back through the covering of straw, and he knew they must be at the gate. He froze, hardly breathing, as muffled voices floated down to him, the drivers of the cart conversing with the guards. He prayed that there'd be no problem, that they'd be waved through, the checks surely just a formality for an apparently empty cart.

But there were footsteps coming closer, hobnailed boots on stone, and he suddenly realised in horror that they really did intend to check the back. He wondered if he should make a break for it, jump out and run across before they could stop him. But the mental image of an arrow in the back kept him where he was, and he bit his lip fiercely to keep from making a sound.

He screwed his eyes shut, in the vain hope that if he couldn't see them, they wouldn't see him, trying not to picture them searching the piles of straw by swordpoint.

Perhaps if he'd picked a different cart, or the bed of straw had been thicker, it would have worked. But as one of the guards glanced in, a cursory check that didn't expect to see anything out of the ordinary, his eye was caught by a heap of straw in the corner much deeper than the rest. A shouted query to the drivers received blank stares and a shrug, so he jumped up on the footplate and reached in with a long arm.

Spluttering and shouting in alarm, Harry was hauled out and dragged unceremoniously from the cart, sprawling full length on the cobbles. He flinched, expecting at best a kick or a blow, but the guards seemed to be wondering what in the world to do with him.

He was pulled roughly to his feet and hustled away, shoved into a guardroom off the main passage where questions were shouted at him, too many and too fast for him to answer.

"I just wanted to go home," he stammered, determined he wouldn't cry, not in front of the guards, but he was scared to death what would happen to him. What was the penalty for trying to run away? Theoretically he was the property of the princes, he realised. Maybe he'd be charged with theft. An awful laugh threatened to bubble out of him, and he clamped his mouth shut, digging his nails into his palms painfully.

Eventually they stopped shouting demands at him and gave up, going away and locking him in. Harry sank onto a hard chair and waited, apprehensively. He'd failed. And however bad things had been before, they could surely only get worse now.

An hour passed. Presumably they were trying to find someone who knew who he was, or at least someone willing to take responsibility for him. Harry found himself actually starting to hope that Louis would turn up. He seemed to have a habit of appearing unexpectedly. At least Harry had a reasonably good idea what his punishment would be at his hands. Left to the normal channels, who knew. What if he was executed, or mutilated, or - his wild imaginings were halted by the door being opened and two people stared in at him.

One was the guard from the gate, the second was the fearsome bulk of the housekeeper. She folded her arms and sniffed, and informed them in no uncertain terms that he was the property of their highnesses, had already earned himself the reputation of a troublemaker, and that as far as she was concerned they would be doing her a favour if they took him off her hands, and what happened to him after that she didn’t care.

The door was slammed on him again, and another hour slid torturously past. Finally there was the sound of a key in the lock, and two different men came in. His hands were bound, and Harry was escorted out under close guard, back into the keep, and down through corridors he'd never seen before, away from the busily populated areas of the hall, or kitchens, or royal apartments. Finally they arrived in a block that was clearly some form of prison, with heavy doors and large locks, and an air of hopelessness.

An empty cell was opened, and Harry was thrust inside, the door banging shut behind him. There was no window, just faint lamplight from the corridor beyond, through a small grille in the door. There was a hard wooden bench, and a bucket in the corner, and that was it.

He realised with a cold horror that it was entirely possible this was it, that he could be here for years. No-one other than the housekeeper knew where he was, after all.

Harry sank slowly down onto the bench, and stared numbly at the door.

--

As the day wore on, Zayn wondered where Harry had got to. At first he assumed that he'd been summoned back to attend on Prince Louis, but when Zayn wandered into the hall in search of something to eat he found Louis lounging in one of the thrones, surrounded by courtiers and declaiming what sounded like an extremely rude poem to a giggling lady Eleanor.

Zayn shrugged. He was reasonably sure Harry could take care of himself, and he had more important things on his mind. Like what he was going to wear for Prince Liam.

--

Arriving at Liam's apartments later that evening, Zayn was ushered respectfully into the bedchamber and the door closed quietly behind him.

A figure stood in front of the fireplace, warming herself in front of the blaze. She turned as he entered, and eyed him with disfavour. Danielle.

For a moment they stared at each other, assessingly. Zayn thought wistfully how beautiful she was, and how he hoped she wasn’t going to make things difficult this evening. Danielle though, was looking at him like he was something she'd scraped off her shoe.

"Do you know?" she asked eventually. "What he's got planned for us?"

Her tone made it clear that she at least was privy to Liam's intentions. Possibly this explained her bad temper.

Zayn nodded cautiously, mentally thanking Harry for the prior warning. "He wants - both of us."

Danielle tossed her head and turned back to the fire, warming her hands. "Just so you know? I am so not okay with this."

Zayn edged closer, joining her in front of the crackling flames. The castle was draught-ridden and chilly when the sun went down, and not every room had a fire. "It's not like either of us have a choice," he murmured, pacifyingly.

"Hmmph." She looked at him, indignant at the implication he might not want to sleep with her, either. Things could have been worse, she decided. At least he was quite attractive. Although she suspected he knew it too.

After a moment's consideration Danielle relented slightly. She knew Liam's preferences drifted both ways, and at least this way she got to keep an eye on him. She hadn't risen this far to lose him to some pretty-faced new arrival.

Zayn stared into the fire, conscious of her scrutiny. "Someone told me you're a dancer?" he murmured, hoping to break the ice a little.

She nodded, warily.

"So - just think of this a dance," he suggested. "One with new steps. And a new partner." Danielle didn't reply, but he was heartened by the slight twitch of her lips.

Behind them, the door opened again and they turned to face it, both instinctively softening their body language to something less confrontational. They sneaked a sideways look at each other, recognising their own behaviour. Perhaps this would be okay after all, Zayn thought. They were clearly both willing to do whatever it took to please Liam.

Liam had entered alone, and broke into a smile at the sight of them both.

"My two favourite people!" he exclaimed. Danielle immediately dipped in a curtsey, and Zayn wondered worriedly if he should bow. He settled for a respectful nod of the head.

Liam beckoned them closer, and took a deep breath.

"Tonight, I should - like to watch you. Together?" He'd meant it to come out as a confident, princely decree, while instead it just sounded ridiculously hopeful.

Zayn and Danielle swapped startled glances. They'd assumed he'd at least be involved. But he was looking at them with such an eager expression it wasn’t as if either of them was going to say no.

"Just like a dance," Zayn whispered to her. "And you can lead."

She shot him a look, flash of humour in her dark eyes. "As long as you don't tread on my toes," she hissed back.

"I wouldn't dare," he murmured, and the twitch of a smile was back on her lips.

They turned to face each other, raising their hands, touching each other slowly, at first just fingertip to fingertip. Beside them, Liam arranged himself in a chair, leaning his chin on his hand, watching them avidly.

They moved closer, palm to palm now, swaying slightly, taking the other's measure, finding a balance.

Danielle slid her hands up his arms to Zayn's shoulders, a slight question in her eyes. He nodded, and she untied the lacing of his shirt, letting it fall into two halves and drift to the floor. They moved round each other, without consultation making sure Liam had the best view.

Zayn slid an arm round her waist, and laid a hand lightly on her breastbone, just enough pressure to make his intent clear. She nodded her understanding, and he pushed with an elaborate flourish, dipping her backwards so her hair trailed to the floor, face and breasts towards Liam, and with his free hand Zayn unbuttoned her blouse.

She was flushed when he pulled her back up, and let her blouse ripple to the floor as part of the movement. One of Zayn's legs entwined with hers, and they twisted slowly round each other, gazing intently.

Zayn's hands drifted to her waist, and drew her gauzy trousers down over the curve of her bottom. Danielle stepped back, lifting and kicking elegantly in a move that left Zayn holding the trousers in one hand and reflecting that if he'd tried that he'd have ended up on his arse.

He let go, and stepped in again. She was wearing nothing now but lacy golden knickers and a golden bodice that pushed up the mounds of her breasts appealingly.

With a glance that told him Liam was leaning forward in the seat, possibly without realising it, Zayn let his fingers stroke down over Danielle's cleavage, and as she threw her head back, bosom heaving dramatically, he untied the lacings, leaving her bare-breasted and brazen.

He was getting hard, and had little doubt they had both noticed. It was Danielle's turn to push him, down onto the bed, and he fell in an artful sprawl, letting Danielle catch the bottoms of his trousers and pull them off in one fluid movement.

She joined him on the bed, and he drew her knickers off with slow, teasing care, inching them down her legs, making sure Liam had time to appreciate the sight.

Both naked now, Danielle straddled Zayn's thighs, kneeling up so that his erection wasn't quite touching her but so that Liam had an unobstructed view. A light hand on the back of Zayn's head told him what she was allowing, and he took her breasts in his hands, caressing them reverently, flicking his tongue out to tease her nipples, and then sucking each one in turn with pleasure.

He'd thought being watched would be weird, but Zayn found it was turning him on instead, and Danielle, too, seemed to be spurred on by Liam's scrutiny. She slid down to the bed, and wrapped a hand round his cock, stroking him with languid movements that made him throb.

Danielle spread her legs wantonly, and Zayn knelt between them, waiting for her to indicate what she wanted. Hands on hips, she lifted her feet until they were on his shoulders, then one foot slipped behind his head and drew him down towards her.

Wide eyed but willing to be directed, Zayn let her push him down between her legs, and slid his hands beneath her thighs to take her weight.

Danielle pressed her shoulders back into the bed and lifted her hips, closing her eyes as she finally felt Zayn's mouth between her legs. As his tongue flicked out, a warm wet pressure, she bit her lip, driving down towards him and encouraging him further in. He was working her now, tongue pushing and probing inside her, a gentle shallow fucking that made her legs weak. She didn’t know how much Liam could see, and was getting to the point where she didn’t care, because it felt amazing.

The thought of Liam brought her back to herself, and she shifted away a little. Zayn sat up, lips glistening with saliva and looking slightly dazed. She smirked, and turned to Liam, holding out a hand.

"Won't you join us my lord?"

Zayn used the distraction to surreptitiously pick a hair off his tongue and wipe his mouth. He was hard as fuck, and he too hoped Liam would say yes because he was embarrassingly close to just coming everywhere right now.

Liam stood up, failing to hide an obvious erection, and together they drew him down between them and swiftly divested him of his clothes.

Without needing to be asked, Danielle knelt in front of Liam and took him into her mouth. He groaned, and leaned back into Zayn's arms, and when he turned to look up at him Zayn took the opportunity to kiss him. Liam was restless in his arms, muscles tensing and body jerking as Danielle sucked him off, and Zayn let his hands roam Liam’s body, mouth following suit, kissing and nipping at his sensitive flesh.

Finally Liam gasped out to stop, and they drew back slightly, exchanging a complicit look of satisfaction at the state he was in.

"Dani, I - I want you," Liam managed, and then, before her look of triumph had time to piss Zayn off too much, turned to him and added - "and you. I need you inside me. Now," he added, shakily.

They sprawled out on the satin sheets, experimentally moving together, trying out arrangements and positions that might work. Danielle opened her arms and Liam covered her body with his own. When he slid inside her she groaned quietly, and buried her face in his neck. Liam stroked her hair, thrusting deeper, his own breath hitching.

After a moment, he rolled them over so his back was to Zayn, and lifted a leg to drape over Danielle’s. Zayn lay against him, hands and fingers exploring, opening Liam up as he thrust inside him.

It was awkward at first, the three of them connected in this way, but it felt good too, and instinct took over from art, leaving them thrusting and grunting and fucking harder and louder until the bed was shaking and no-one was quite sure any more whose legs belonged to whom.

Danielle came first, Liam moving inside her, a hot hard pressure that brought her in a spasming, groaning delight.

Zayn felt Liam's body reacting to Danielle's orgasm, his own hands brushing her arms as she shook in climax, and he lost control, spilling into Liam's body in a sudden rush, face buried between his shoulder blades and breathing hard.

Sandwiched between two quivering lovers, Liam felt his own orgasm building, and kissing Danielle, pulled out of her carefully before he could come. He rutted against her belly, sticky and hard, feeling the throb inside him from Zayn's hard fucking, the trickle of come down his thigh, and in the next second had spurted his load all over Danielle's chest.

He sat up panting and she flushed, embarrassment finally taking hold, that Zayn should witness this. But Zayn rolled closer, and with a gentle but deliberate touch, proceeded to lick Liam's come from her breasts.

Liam moaned quietly, and swore under his breath at the sight. Danielle gasped, and then lay still, watching him with bright eyes. Zayn didn’t move away until he'd licked up every last drop, and then looked up to find them gazing at him. He shrugged.

"I skipped supper," he grinned mischievously, and they both burst out laughing.

"You were amazing," said Liam fondly. "Both of you."

They pulled Liam down again between them, and settled into a three-way hug. Zayn and Danielle held Liam close, and now when their hands and ankles brushed each other in the bed, neither of them objected. Gradually, the hug became a doze, and spread out in crumpled sheets, surrounded by discarded clothing, one by one they fell asleep.

--

In the depths of the castle, Harry passed a cold and uncomfortable night alone. A few hours after he'd been brought in, a guard brought him a basic meal of stew and bread, and cut his hands free to eat it. When he came back to collect the bowl Harry was relieved that he left him unbound. Not that there was any danger of him escaping from here, the cell was solidly built and he had nothing to work with.

He lay on the hard bench, as being only marginally more comfortable than the floor, and counted the ways he'd fucked up. The thing he kept coming back to was if only he'd taken Zayn's advice and just given Louis what he wanted. But part of him still wouldn't accept that. Despite everything, he was glad he hadn't gone through with it, he wanted more out of life than being used for empty sex.

The fact that time and time again his mind slid back to Louis, he put down to resentment and hatred. At least the anger kept him warm. Definitely the anger. Not the thoughts of Louis.

He twisted on the bench, trying to get comfortable. The light outside stayed constant, and he had no idea what time it was. It must be late, by now. He wondered if Zayn was puzzled by his disappearance. Or Louis, for that matter. Would he think Harry was hiding from him, and be angry? Or had he even given him a second thought? If wasn't as if Harry was so vital to his world that he couldn't find other entertainments.

Eventually Harry slid into a troubled sleep, still trying to stop thinking about everything in terms of Louis.

He woke early the next morning, disoriented and cold. Two hours dragged by, until the jailer brought round breakfast, porridge, and a mug of milk. He devoured both hungrily, glad of the warmth in the food. It was simple but perfectly edible, and he gave silent thanks to whoever's job it was to cook for the prisoners.

Harry wondered who else was down here with him, and what they'd done. Whether he would be charged with a crime, or left here to rot. Realised he had no real idea of what the laws were like here, or how strict the punishments likely to be.

--

"Under the straw, if you please! Did you ever hear such a thing!"

The housekeeper was in loud and incredulous conversation with the cook, and Niall wasn't so much eavesdropping as failing to block out their voices. Even so he didn't take much notice until her next words.

"Ungrateful wretch, you'd think he'd be glad of a position here. Running away indeed! Mind you, after that business with the spit I'm not surprised, I marked him as a troublemaker, didn't I say? It'll serve him right if they leave him locked up all winter."

Niall stared, wondering if it could be true. He'd been looking for Harry on and off during most of the previous day, and Zayn didn't know where he'd gone either. But locked up?

He started listening more intently, until he was satisfied both that it was Harry they were talking about, and of where he was. Waiting until their backs were turned Niall abandoned his task and dashed out of the kitchen.

Banging frantically on the door of their room, he realised frustratedly that Zayn had disappeared as well, and in a worried state and without a concrete plan in mind, headed for the prison block on his own.

--

Alone in the cell, Harry's thoughts that morning were bleak and despairing, and when his door rattled open again hours later he didn't even look up at first, huddled miserably on the bench in the corner.

There was a pause, at the end of which someone cleared their throat pointedly, and Harry slowly lifted his head.

Leaning in the doorway, his legs crossed at the ankles, and arms folded in front of him, looking faintly amused, was Louis.

Harry was startled at how his heart lifted at the sight of him. Anything was better than being left in here, he thought, that was all it was.

"Harry, Harry, Harry." Louis shook his head sadly. "I thought you liked it here. And now they tell me you were trying to run away. What next? Insurrection in the stables? Panic in the larder?"

"I just wanted to go home," Harry said quietly.

Louis snorted. "And, what, you were planning on taking a stroll down the mountain? Do you even know the way? Or how far you'd have to go?"

Harry shook his head silently. He would have found a way, he was sure of that, but Louis was making it sound ridiculous.

Louis looked at him consideringly, then gave a slight smile.

"Well?" he said. Harry just looked at him, lost and Louis sighed. "Coming?"

Harry got to his feet, hesitantly, and Louis smirked. "I mean - you can stay here if you prefer?"

"You can just - let me out? Just like that?" Harry asked, and Louis gave him a look.

"What do you think?" He lead Harry down the corridor, past the guard at a table who looked up as they went past but said nothing. Harry moved instinctively closer to Louis, who immediately draped a proprietorial arm around him.

Harry looked uncomfortable, but let Louis guide him onwards. Neither of them noticed the figure who ducked back into the shadows hastily as they went past. Leaning against the wall to catch his breath, Niall watched them go with troubled eyes.

--

Louis took Harry all the way up to his rooms, and there threw open the shutters to let the light in. Harry saw it was still raining outside, a grey curtain of water blurring the world. Despite the weather, he had a sudden need for fresh air after being shut up inside, and walked out onto the balcony, keeping a careful distance from the edge.

"How did you know where I was?" he asked, curious.

In the shelter of the doorway, Louis stood and watched him. "It may surprise you to learn that there isn't actually a lot of crime here," he sighed. "Normally the head guardsman would report dull things like that to Liam. But apparently he was, er - not to be disturbed. So they came and found me instead." Louis grinned. "Aren't you glad?"

Harry didn't dignify this with a reply.

"What were you thinking?" Louis asked eventually, sounding exasperated. "I mean really?"

Harry shrugged uncomfortably. "I wasn't thinking, I suppose. I just needed to get out of here." He edged closer to the parapet. "Maybe I should just throw myself off," he added bleakly. "Better dead than a prisoner."

Louis pursed his lips, as if seriously considering the empty threat. "You'd have a long time to think about it, before you hit the ground," he advised, and Harry shuddered. Louis suddenly crossed the balcony in a couple of quick strides and spun Harry round to face outwards, pushing him up against the stonework of the parapet.

He stiffened fearfully, unsure of Louis' intent, but Louis just wrapped his arms securely round Harry's waist and held him, letting him look out over the countryside without the irrational fear of falling.

"Over there," Louis said after a second, lifting a hand to point. "Between those two hills."

Harry followed the line of his finger, and shook his head. "What is?"

"Your village," said Louis, quietly, and Harry stared into the rain, feeling suddenly hollow.

"Over half a day's hard ride," Louis continued in an undertone. "On foot you'd have had to spend a night out in the open, minimum. Probably have been eaten by wolves."

Harry shivered. He knew Louis was just trying to put him off the idea, but he also remembered lying awake as a small boy and hearing the howl of wolves in the hills around the village. They only came close in the harshest of winters, but who knew what roamed the mountains this high up?

"Do you know what it's like?" Louis murmured. "To look out here, and know that I control all the land for as far as I can see in all directions?"

"You can’t control land," Harry objected, turning in his arms to look at him. Louis' face was closer than he'd expected. "Only people."

"I don't seem to be able to control you," Louis breathed.

For a charged moment, they just looked at each other. Then Louis kissed him, gently at first and when Harry didn't protest, with a rising hunger that took Harry's breath away. He found he was clutching Louis' arms, and kissing back instinctively. It seemed - somehow right.

By the time the kiss ended, they were both soaked by the rain, but neither seemed to notice. Harry remembered something.

"Why didn’t you tell me what you did for Jack?"

"Oh." Louis looked out over the hills. "I suppose I didn’t want you to think I was doing it as some kind of sop to you."

"It was a nice thing to do," Harry said softly.

Louis looked at him for a long time, smoothed a lock of wet hair away from his eyes. "I could make it good for you Harry. If you'd let me," he whispered.

Harry's breath caught in his throat. "You - like it so rough - " he objected.

"It doesn't have to be that way. I won't hurt you, I promise," Louis breathed, mouth just inches from Harry's, eyes fixed on his.

"I'm not sure I believe your promises," Harry whispered weakly.

"Trust me, then?" Louis asked. And when Harry didn’t reply he kissed him again, lips warm against Harry's mouth, and this time Harry didn't object when he took his hand and lead him inside.

Harry allowed Louis to guide him through the room and push him down on the bed. Smiling faintly, Louis joined him, eyes never leaving Harry's face as if expecting him to object at any moment. But something in Harry had accepted this was going to happen, wanted it even.

He'd been struggling for days to make sense of what had happened to him and despite everything Louis was responsible for, for whatever reason he was offering comfort, and Harry was going to take it. He just wanted to not have to think for a while.

Louis was unbuttoning his shirt, slipping it from his shoulders. He reached out and took hold of Harry's, lifting it off and kissing him again when Harry's arms were still tangled over his head. Harry pressed against him, for the heat of his body as much as anything. Harry was cold and Louis represented a warm chest and hot lips against his wet and chilled skin.

Louis plucked something out of Harry’s tousled hair and held it in front of his eyes. A piece of straw. "You seem to have an affinity for straw, farmboy," he smirked. Harry made a face and he laughed.

Shoes were cast to the floor and Louis lay Harry back against the pillows, lying half on top of him. Harry could tell Louis had an erection already, a hard bulge against his hip, but so far Louis was being patient with him, perhaps sensing that if he didn’t rush things then this time Harry would be his.

Harry found that however confused he might be about Louis' motivations, let alone his own feelings about him, his dick appeared to have made up its own mind what they wanted and was getting stiffer by the second. Louis' hand soon sought out his groin, palming him encouragingly through his trousers and making him even harder, until it was a relief when Louis finally unfastened Harry’s trousers and drew out his cock.

He felt awfully vulnerable with his dick lying in Louis' hand, but the other boy's touch never became too firm for comfort and to his shame Harry found he'd started pushing against him instinctively. He flushed, waiting for Louis to gloat, but Louis just kissed him and pulled his own trousers off hurriedly.

Both naked now, Louis realised Harry was still cold and pulled the covers around them, his body pressed along the length of Harry's, legs entwined. Louis was still stroking Harry's cock, a gently insistent rhythm that was making his shivering turn into a hot flush.

Louis' weight was on top if him now, and when Harry felt the hard length of him slip between his legs he tensed, even as his cock gave a throb of nervous arousal.

"Harry?" Louis breathed, fingertips brushing his cheek, his jaw. "Okay?"

Harry nodded tightly, not trusting himself to speak without his voice shaking. His world had shrunk to the enveloping warmth of the feather bed, the slide of Louis' skin against his own sending trembling thrills of arousal through him, and to Louis' eyes, still fixed on him, still watching him.

Harry was achingly hard now, erection digging into Louis' stomach as he moved languorously on top of him, a delicious friction that made Harry close his eyes and moan quietly. Louis' lips touched his eyelids and Harry felt him smile.

In the next moment Harry felt Louis wriggling to one side with a determined purpose and opened his eyes to see what was going on. Louis was clutching a small ornate bottle with a little spout. As Harry frowned, uncomprehending, he tipped a couple of drops of glistening oil onto his fingertips and rubbed his thumb into them, thoughtfully. He caught Harry's look and raised an eyebrow.

"Helps things go in easier," he explained, and Harry went red with embarrassment. Louis kissed him, laughing. "You’re beautiful when you blush," he whispered. "You should blush all the time. Maybe I'll dedicate my life to saying filthy things to you - no," he amended, "Doing filthy things to you."

Louis poured a little of the oil into his hand and Harry watched breathlessly as he stroked himself until his cock was wet and slippery, his hand gliding over the swollen flesh. Louis wiggled his fingers at Harry and smirked. "Guess where these are going?" he suggested, grin widening in delight as Harry's blush deepened again.

When Harry he felt Louis' finger breach him for the first time he bit his lip, determined not to cry out. It felt strange and somehow illicit to have a finger up there at all, let alone someone else's. He spread his legs wider without thinking about it and Louis pushed further in, thrusting gently, spreading him open. He added a second finger, fucking Harry slowly with slick fingers until he was shaking under his touch.

Louis straddled him, oiling himself again, hand moving deliberately on his rigid cock in front of Harry's eyes. Harry braced himself for the pain of penetration but Louis paused, the head of his cock pressing lightly against Harry's entrance. In that moment, Harry caught a glimpse of the iron control that lay under Louis' apparently careless facade.

Louis was studying him as if weighting up an admission.

"This might hurt," he murmured, finally. "A bit. I know I promised it wouldn't - "

Harry shook his head with a small smile at Louis' uncharacteristically honest confession.

"I know," he whispered back. He might be relatively new to all this but he wasn’t daft, and he'd seen the state of Zayn after his first time. Harry held on to the thought that Zayn at least had considered it was all worth it. He made up his mind and craned up to kiss Louis on the mouth.

Louis looked almost startled, and Harry gave a breathy laugh, feeling half in control for the first time. "Do it," he whispered.

Louis didn’t need telling twice. Harry felt the head of his cock enter him and his fingers clenched on Louis' shoulders as the hot, thick length of him gradually slid inside, so much wider than Louis' fingers had been and to Harry's surprise so, so much better. There was pain, but less than his apprehensive mind had been expecting. What he hadn't been expecting was quite how satisfying it would feel to be filled like this, and he took a long shuddering breath as he adjusted to the sensation of having Louis inside him.

Louis was moving now, long, slow thrusts that made heat flare inside Harry's body and made his cock jerk violently. Louis leaned closer, changing position so that Harry's cock was trapped between them. The different angle made Harry gasp and buck against Louis' body, shameless now in wanting deeper contact. He felt the muscles in Louis' shoulders flex as he gathered Harry into his arms, thrusting harder into him now, kissing his throat, his collarbones, feeling Harry shuddering beneath him as he finally surrendered completely to Louis' fucking.

Harry's hands tightened on Louis abruptly, fighting for breath as he felt the hot pressure in his groin becoming too much to hold back.

"Louis," he breathed, hardly knowing what he was saying, and then seized by the fear that he shouldn’t have been so familiar, hearing Niall's scolding voice in his head warning him over his habit of refusing to refer to them as 'your highness' or 'my lord'.

But Louis' eyes just glinted with amusement and he said nothing, just drove into Harry's body with a sudden hard thrust that broke Harry's remaining control and made him come in a quivering, groaning rush, grateful for the arms that were holding him tight, conscious of Louis' voice murmuring something too low to make out through the white noise in his head.

When he could see straight again, Harry found Louis was grinning at him and laughed self-consciously.

"My turn," Louis growled and started pushing into him again, fast, shallow thrusts that made Harry feel hot and bothered all over again before he felt Louis climax, hot seed spurting inside him that in itself felt better and filthier than anything that had gone before.

Louis pulled out of him, panting, and collapsed against the bed. He drew Harry back into his arms and they lay in a peaceful half-doze as they gradually came down from the rush.

Despite this, it wasn't long before Harry's mind woke up and started churning again. He had to admit, the sex had been better than he'd imagined and even the soreness lingering in his body felt good. Louis, he conceded had at least kept his promises in that respect. But what would happen now? He couldn’t held being afraid that now Louis had got what he wanted he would lose interest in him.

To his surprise and no little disgust, Harry found the thought of that now was actually painful. A day ago he'd been praying Louis would forget about him, and one orgasm later here he was acting like a lovestruck girl? Harry sighed, resenting the fact that he could no longer deny he appeared to be developing feelings for the arrogant bastard.

"What's wrong?"

The murmur by his ear startled him, he'd assumed Louis was asleep.

"Nothing," Harry said awkwardly, looking away. But Louis propped himself up on his elbow and pressed him.

"Tell me."

"I was just - wondering what happens now," Harry said quietly, knowing in his heart he should just stay silent but needing to know where he stood.

Louis smirked. "Well we could do it again if you're that keen?"

Harry didn’t return his smile. "And after that? What am I to you, Louis?"

Louis slowly realised what Harry was implying and his expression clouded, closing off somehow.

"You mean you're expecting me to throw you out now that I've finally had you?" he demanded, more harshly than he'd meant to.

"Are you?" Harry asked and Louis rolled away onto his back, one arm flung over his head, staring at the ceiling.

"You really don't like me, do you?" he asked with a bleakly incredulous laugh.

Harry just looked at him miserably. The fact that pretty much the opposite was true smarted painfully, but there was no way he was going to reveal his true feelings if Louis had no further interest in him.

Louis groaned, rubbing his eyes. "Why do you have to make things so complicated?" he asked plaintively. "What's wrong with this? You enjoyed it didn’t you? You seemed to, and I can't believe you'd bother faking for me."

"Maybe I just don’t like the idea of being used," Harry muttered, stung.

Louis sighed. "Oh for - it's just sex! Why can't that be enough?" He sat up and looked at Harry, softening his tone. "I want you. I'm not ashamed of that and I don’t need an excuse for it. And yes, I want you again, Harry, more than again, I want you on the bed, on the table, upside down, in the bath - " he broke off, trying to think of somewhere more ridiculous and Harry couldn't help smiling finally.

Louis laughed, gesturing helplessly. "I don’t do monogamy," he warned suddenly. "Don’t expect my undivided."

Harry shrugged awkwardly. He supposed this brutal sort of honesty was better than falseness. Plus he couldn’t deny the treacherous feeling of pleasure he'd experienced when Louis declared that he wanted him still.

"Guess I can live with that," said Harry with careful dignity. "If you can accept the fact I don’t think you're somehow better than me."

For a second he thought he'd gone too far, then Louis snorted and pulled Harry against him.

"If you think you're better, I'm willing to learn," he said, waggling his eyebrows suggestively and wilfully misinterpreting Harry's sentence. And Harry sighed, and laughed, and kissed him, because in the end it was easier than fighting.

--

Harry arrived back at the door of his room just in time to see Zayn approaching from the other direction. They eyed each other curiously.

"Where have you been?" Zayn demanded.

Harry shrugged. "Around." Despite the fact he'd just slept most of the afternoon away in Louis' bed, he still felt drained after a night locked up and then all the emotions of the subsequent events. At some point, he sensed he would be grateful for the opportunity to talk things through with Zayn, maybe get his mind a bit straighter, but not yet.

Zayn made a face. "You're so secretive, you." He pushed his way into the room and flung himself on the bed, wincing at the solid mattress that refused to give underneath him. Liam's bed was much nicer, he reflected, allowing himself a smile as he thought back to the way he'd spent the day and previous night.

"What are you smirking at?" Harry countered, going to pour out some water to wash in, and then groaning when he found the pitcher was empty. "We're out of water."

"And whose turn was it to fetch some?"

Harry glared at him. He felt being incarcerated in a dungeon was a good excuse for skipping chores, but couldn't exactly say that without lengthy explanations. Zayn wasn't taking any notice anyway, he was lying on his back with his hands behind his head, whistling.

"What's made you so happy?" Harry persisted. He smiled, slyly. "Prince up the bum?"

Zayn snorted with laughter. "You're so delicate!"

"It was then?"

"Maybe. If you're not telling me what you've been up to, why should I tell you?"

Harry sat cross legged on the bed across from him, and grinned. "Because you're clearly dying to tell someone?"

Zayn relented, laughing, and proceeded to describe in eye-watering detail the night and day he'd passed in the royal apartments with Liam and Danielle.

--

A week passed. The weather outside had turned from rain to sleet, and Harry was secretly grateful to be spending most of his nights with Louis, in his much warmer rooms with roaring log fires. They had, it seemed, a temporary truce. Louis refrained from saying anything maddening, and Harry managed not to demand to be allowed to leave every five minutes, and in this way they achieved quite a large volume of mutually acceptable sex.

Zayn, too, was frequently absent, and for several days they only saw each other in passing while bathing, or eating in the hall. One day though, Zayn grabbed Harry's arm as they passed in the corridor, and pulled him to one side.

"Have you got a minute? I want to show you something."

"It's not a rash is it?" Harry grinned. "You're probably better off asking Niall for a pot of something soothing if it is."

"Oh shut up!" Zayn flushed, but excitement won out and he grinned again. "No, it's - oh, look, just come with me, yeah?"

Harry followed him, muttering darkly about the fact he was going to be late and Louis was expecting him, but Zayn just tugged him onwards, down corridors Harry didn't recognise.

"Where are we going?" he complained, and then fetched up with a jolt as Zayn came to a sudden halt in front of him.

"Here." He opened a door and gestured for Harry to go in ahead of him. Frowning warily, Harry edged into the room beyond.

"What do you think?" Zayn closed the door behind them and leaned on it. Harry looked around, impressed. The room was large, with a high ceiling and a deep fireplace where a blaze crackled merrily. Candles gave the room a bright glow, and in the far corner was a massive four poster bed. There was a carved wooden table, and comfortable looking chairs in front of the fire, and what had obviously once been a richly patterned carpet, before it had faded and started falling into holes. In fact, looking closer, Harry realised everything in the room had a sort of faded grandeur to it, not to mention a thick coating of dust.

"Whose room is this?" Harry asked, his voice hushed slightly, as if afraid he might wake up the room itself from a long sleep.

"Ours. If we want it." Zayn walked over to the fire and dropped into one of the chairs. "What do you reckon?"

"What do you mean, ours?" Harry demanded, sitting cautiously into the other chair, and spluttering as he stirred up a cloud of dust.

"You know when Niall gave me the mirror he reckoned there were loads of empty rooms that nobody used any more? Well I had an idea, and I asked him about them. We spent yesterday afternoon exploring. I figured - well nobody else wants it. And the other room's horrible."

"There's only one bed," Harry pointed out, practically.

"Yeah but it's bloody huge! Besides, we're hardly ever likely to be in it at the same time, the way things have been lately."

Harry considered. "Are you sure nobody will mind?"

"Nah. I told you. Besides, Niall thinks it'll be fine, and you know how jumpy he is about pissing off authority."

"True." Harry looked round. He privately thought the room might be rather spooky if he was sleeping in it alone, but with Zayn by his side it would probably be okay. Plus, he was swayed by the other boy’s enthusiasm.

"Alright. Why not?"

Zayn squealed happily and pounced on him, hugging him until they disturbed so much dust they had to stop to cough.

"First thing? We need to clean the shit out of this place," Harry decided.

--

Two days later Harry was lying in Louis' bed, listening to the rain beating on the shutters and feeling vaguely guilty for being so comfortable, when Louis announced out of the blue something that made Harry sit up in indignant surprise.

"You know, I think I'll make you a page," Louis yawned, fingers trailing down Harry's bare arm. "Would you like that?"

"What?" Harry turned to look at him in disbelief.

"A page. You'd report directly to me, of course. Don't worry, it's not like your duties would be exactly onerous. Running messages, mostly. Maybe bringing me my meals up? When you're not here already, that is." He slid his hand along Harry's thigh suggestively, but Harry jerked it away.

"You want me to be your servant?" Harry demanded, icily.

Louis shrugged. "Lot of people would kill to be my personal attendant."

"You just want to order me around!" Harry climbed out of the bed and started pulling his clothes on huffily.

Louis raised his eyebrows. "Don't be like that. You'd get paid?" he added.

Harry spun round and gaped at him for a second, physically speechless. He settled for throwing up his hands with an "Agh!" of frustration, and slammed out of the door.

He was still seething when he banged his way into his own room five minutes later. Zayn was lounging in a chair with a book, and jumped as he stormed in.

"Haz? You okay?"

"That man!" Harry flung himself onto the bed and hit it with his fists.

"What did he do this time?" Zayn asked, abandoning the book on the grounds that Harry-drama was generally more entertaining.

"He wants to make me a page. Can you believe the cheek of the man?" Harry sat up and folded his arms, glaring.

Zayn looked bewildered. "But - Harry, that's immense!"

"What are you talking about?"

"He wants to make you a member of his private household? Harry, that's like - do you realise as a page working directly for Prince Louis you'd be automatically more powerful than half the people in this castle?"

"He just likes to order me around," Harry said sulkily, feeling that Zayn's reaction left a lot to be desired.

"Seriously Harry. It's huge. Liam's been screwing me on a practically daily basis, and seems to like me a hell of a lot more than Louis likes you, and he's never even suggested it." Zayn frowned at him. "You did accept, right? I mean, you'll tell him yes?"

Harry looked awkward. "Not sure it's even still an option. I kind've walked out on him."

Zayn dropped his face in his hands groaning and Harry shrugged sheepishly.

There was a knock on the door, and they looked at each other in surprise. The only person who knew where they were was Niall, and he'd have come right in after knocking.

Outside, a man in Prince Louis' livery thrust a bundle of clothes into Zayn’s arms. "For Master Harry of Mare's Deep, compliments of his Highness." He turned and marched off, leaving Zayn staring after him.

Closing the door, Zayn brought the bundle over to Harry on the bed, and they laid it out. It was a page's uniform in deep greens and soft browns. Harry had to admit Louis' livery was at least more tasteful than Liam's, whose household had to wear entirely too much purple for his liking.

"Guess he's not a man to take no for an answer," Zayn murmured, hiding a smile.

Harry sighed. "How did he even know where I was?"

"Probably got spies all over the place," Zayn suggested offhandedly. He looked again at the outfit and frowned.

"When did you say he asked you this?"

"Just now. He has whims."

Zayn shook his head. "This has been tailor-made. It looks like a perfect fit for you Harry. He had to have decided this days ago."

"Well he can fuck off. I'm not working for him. I slept with him Zayn, and now he's offering to pay me? Do you know how that makes me feel?"

Zayn blinked. "He's going to pay you? How much?"

"Zayn!"

Zayn grinned, stroking the set of clothes absent mindedly. "Why don't you at least just try it on?" he coaxed.

Harry looked at himself in the mirror. He had to reluctantly admit, the uniform did look nice, flattering in both cut and colours. Zayn grinned over his shoulder, hands on Harry's hips.

"See? You look great."

"It's the principle of the thing." Harry sighed. "Besides, after the way I stormed out, he might have changed his mind, clothes or no clothes."

"So go up there wearing it. Right now. Show him you've changed your mind."

"Who says I have?" muttered Harry, but he went anyway.

Knocking on Louis' door a few minutes later, he still wasn't sure he was doing the right thing. Zayn had convinced him to a certain extent that it was less of an insult than he'd assumed, but it still didn't sit quite right with him. He couldn't decide if the offer was a sign of Louis' trust, or a way of keeping a closer eye on him.

Louis pulled the door open, and they stared at each other. After a moment, Louis nodded.

"Looks good on you," he said neutrally.

Harry sniffed. "Marking your territory?"

"Maybe I was just tired of seeing you in the same three outfits." Louis stepped back to let him through the door. After a second's hesitation, Harry followed him in.

--

Having reluctantly consented to be Louis' page, Harry found to his relief that it wasn't too bad after all. Louis had been right, he spent most of his time ferrying messages to and fro, and consequently came to develop a good knowledge of the castle's layout, having access to areas and people that otherwise would have been out of bounds to him.

The money helped too. His prickliness in this regard was somewhat eased when he realised at the end of the first week he was to be handed a pouch of coins by the steward, along with the other pages, rather than have to accept something from Louis.

He spent half his first wages on a new outfit for Zayn, who stared at him in amazed disbelief and then fell on him with such elaborate hugs and kisses that they sent Niall into peals of laughter.

--

On the days when Harry hadn't spent the night in Louis' bed, it was his responsibility to carry his breakfast up to him. The bother of carefully balancing a tray of food up what felt like a mile of steps, and all before the pot of coffee got cold, was generally mitigated somewhat by the fact Louis would then share it with him.

Consequently, when Harry reached Louis' door on a morning in the middle of the second week as his page, he had nothing more on his mind than whether Louis would let him eat the glass-house strawberries out of the fruit bowl again. He gave a cursory knock and pushed the door open, steadying the tray as he went. He was therefore well inside the room before he looked up.

Louis was there alright, sprawled sleepily in the bed. But he wasn't alone. Lying next to him, sheets modestly pulled up over her chest but clearly naked, was Lady Eleanor.

Harry stared, and stuttered something meaningless.

"Thanks, Harry, just put it on the table, would you?" Louis waved his hand dismissively.

Somewhat to his surprise, Harry found he was still clutching the tray, having neither dropped it in shock, or hurled it at them, which had been his first impulse. Cheeks burning with humiliation, he set it down carefully and walked stiffly out, praying that Louis wouldn’t call him back and order him to serve them. Louis let him go though, and Harry descended the steps in a daze.

"That was quick!" remarked the guard at the bottom as he passed, and Harry muttered something about having to fetch more rolls. He was mortified, both that Louis had effectively set him up, and that he was in bed with Eleanor at all.

He'd been told, he reflected miserably. Louis had warned him he wouldn’t be the only one. But for days and days it had only been the two of them, and the reality of it was like a bucket of cold water.

When he returned to his room, he stripped his uniform off in a rage and hurled it into the corner.

Zayn, still in bed, watched in tactful silence. Down to his under-garments, Harry climbed back in beside him and flopped face down into the pillow.

"Don't ask," he ordered, in a muffled voice.

After a while, Zayn shuffled closer and slid an arm round him. Harry burrowed against his chest, and tried not to cry while Zayn quietly stroked his hair.

--

Harry woke from a restless doze to find Zayn was up and dressed and plucking quietly at an instrument, legs curled under him in front of a low fire.

"I didn't know you could play the lute," Harry said, having listened for a few minutes. Zayn looked round.

"Oh you're awake are you? Yeah, well, there's a lot of things you don’t know about me."

"Is there?" Harry asked, surprised, scrambling out of bed and pulling a robe on to stave off the chill away from the fireplace.

"Nah, not really. Just trying to sound mysterious," Zayn grinned, and Harry hit him over the head with a cushion.

"What are you doing?" He noticed for the first time Zayn had been scribbling on a piece of parchment.

Zayn looked shifty, and Harry giggled. "Go on! What are you writing?"

"It's - a ballad," Zayn confessed, finally.

"Is it about your dashing and handsome room-mate?" Harry sat on the rug as close to the fire as he could get and bit into an apple.

"Who's that then?" Zayn grinned. "No, it's - well, it's for Liam, if you must know."

"Seriously?" Harry nearly choked on his mouthful. "You're writing him a love song? What's it called, 'Ode to Cock'?"

"Oh fuck off if you're going to take the piss!" Zayn looked sulky. "I'm just - trying to keep his interest that's all. He had Danielle in last night, and not me. I wanted something that would make me stick in his mind."

Harry was silent for a second, realising they had the same problem. Zayn appeared to be facing his with a little more grace though, and he sighed. "I'm sorry. Go on, tell me about it."

"Well it's not finished yet, but you can read it if you want?" Zayn held out the parchment and Harry hesitated, flushing.

"I - um. I can't really - I mean, I know my letters and stuff, but - well, there's not really a lot of call for reading when you're up at dawn mucking out horses and sowing crops," he blurted in a defensive rush, looking away in shame.

Zayn chewed his lip, feeling sorry for him and wondering what he could say that wouldn’t sound condescending.

"I could - sing it for you instead, if you like?" he offered, quietly.

"Would you?" Harry looked up at him and smiled, and Zayn found himself wishing Harry would smile like that more, because it made him quite beautiful.

He picked out the tune first, with a quiet thrumming of the strings, and then sang the first few verses in a low voice, not looking at Harry but feeling his eyes on him.

When he finished, muttering apologetically that there wasn’t any more yet, Harry applauded him and Zayn looked up in surprise.

"You've got a lovely singing voice," Harry said sincerely. "He'll be well impressed with that. And if he's not then he's a moron."

Zayn found he was blushing and laughed helplessly. "Thank you," he whispered.

Harry settled against his legs and rested his head on Zayn's thigh. "Sing it again?" he encouraged.

--

It was later that evening, and they were sitting round in front of the fire playing a dice game with Niall when the summons came. A messenger knocked on the door and declared that His Highness Prince Louis requested Harry's presence in his chambers, immediately.

When the page had gone, the others looked at Harry expectantly. "So, whose go is it?" he asked, juggling the dice absently.

"Harry! You can't just ignore a direct summons!" Niall protested, sounding half-scared and half-impressed.

"Can't I? Watch me," said Harry obstinately, and carried on playing.

Ten minutes later there was anther knock at the door, and the same page appeared, repeating the message in a considerably less friendly tone of voice.

Two sets of eyes watched for Harry's reaction, but he didn't budge, just carried on casting the dice. As the minutes bled past, it was Niall who got steadily twitchier, but still Harry refused to crack.

A third loud rap on the door made them all jump. Niall nearly leaped into the fireplace, and even Harry dropped the dice in alarm. Before Zayn could get up and open the door it was thrown back and the imposing figure of the head steward filled the gap.

"I'm not coming," Harry declared, before he could say anything.

The steward looked down his long nose at them all and sniffed. "His Highness Prince Louis desires the immediate presence of - "

"I'm not coming!"

" - of Zayn Malik of Greyglass."

They all stared at him.

"What?" said Zayn, faintly.

"What!" Harry snapped.

"Oh fuck," whispered Niall.

"His Highness is given to understand that as Master Harry appears to be indisposed, he must select alternative - company - for the evening." The steward bowed stiffly and withdrew. They all looked at each other.

"Harry?" prompted Zayn, uncertainly.

Harry sighed. "Fine. Fine! He wins. As per fucking usual. I'll go." He got to his feet. He wasn't wearing his page's livery, and clearly didn't have time to change. Louis would just have to live with it.

--

Harry stood outside Louis' door and braced himself. He had no idea how Louis would react, either to his own initial non-appearance, or now to Zayn's. He gritted his teeth and knocked, mentally preparing to be yelled at.

But when Louis opened the door, he just raised an eyebrow and wandered off back into the room without a word, leaving Harry to edge warily in after him.

"Recovered ourselves, have we?" Louis enquired archly, pouring himself some wine. Harry said nothing, and Louis eyed him over the gilded rim of the glass. "I can't imagine what caused such a delay?"

"I was busy," muttered Harry.

"Busy? Gracious, I can't imagine what with, given that you work exclusively for me, and I've given you no tasks all day."

"Stop it," Harry begged, and Louis frowned.

"Stop what?"

"Trying to make me angry with you."

Louis shrugged, not looking at him. "I rather assumed you were angry already, after this morning. That is why you're being difficult, isn't it?"

"What you did this morning - was unkind," said Harry quietly.

Louis looked as if he was going to argue, and then sighed. "Yes. It was," he admitted. Then he brightened. "Should have seen your face though!"

Harry snapped and strode forward until he was up in Louis' space. "Who the hell do you think you are?" he yelled.

Louis smirked. "Oh, I don’t know. Royalty, maybe?"

"That doesn't give you the right to mess about with people's - " Harry broke off, just stopping the word 'hearts' from blurting itself out all over the scenery.

Face to face, they glared at each other, and Harry clenched his fists.

"Going to hit me?" Louis enquired, daring him with his eyes.

Harry balled his fist into the front of Louis' shirt and dragged him closer, doing the only other thing he could think of to relieve the seething tension inside him, and kissed Louis roughly on the mouth.

Louis kissed back with what might have been a moan, yielding beneath Harry's bruising lips and letting Harry’s tongue lick into his mouth, hot and fierce and demanding.

They staggered over to the bed, in something still more struggle than embrace, and Harry shoved Louis down, straddling his legs and kissing him again, grinding against his crotch in angry arousal.
Louis was writhing beneath him, although more in an effort to increase the contact than actually escape. When Harry released his mouth Louis laughed, which made Harry even angrier. He wanted to hurt Louis, to punish him, and the fact that the swell of Louis' erect cock pressed against his leg was making Harry hard himself just added to his fury. Hardly knowing what he was doing, Harry unfastened his trousers and shoved them down.

Louis let Harry manhandle him, unceremoniously yanking down his trousers and then rolling him onto his front. Harry took his now rigid cock into his hand and lined up against Louis' arse, pushing the blunt head against his hole and watching in fascination the way Louis' body stretched around it as he forced himself inside.

Louis was breathing filthy expletives into the covers, fingers clenching in the sheet as Harry took him so roughly, glorying in the rush of pain and the feeling of Harry's hot shaft sliding into him, stretching him, filling him. Harry's weight was pinning him to the bed and sparks were bursting behind his eyes as Harry pounded into him furiously, taking out all his anger and frustration on Louis' willing body.

Harry fucked him for a long time, until Louis was a weak, moaning mess, sore and throbbing, his own untouched cock rutting into the bedclothes until he finally came, beaten at last by Harry’s determination not to be the first to give in, spilling across the quilt in a helpless, shaking orgasm that left him breathless and dizzy.

Feeling Louis coming beneath him, the tremors of his body vibrating their way up through Harry's cock, Harry finally let himself follow suit, coming hard in a sudden spurting rush, still buried deep inside Louis' body.

He pulled out rather shakily, feeling drained and suddenly nervous. He'd all but forced himself on Louis he realised, what if -

But Louis was rolling onto his back with a blissed-out expression and heavy-lidded eyes, holding his arms out to Harry.

"Fuck, Harry," he whispered, and Harry let a laugh escape, a short, relieved gasp that made Louis smile and pull him down against him.

"I knew you were special," Louis whispered, kissing him, and Harry wrapped his arms around him, suddenly needing comfort.

As they slid, exhausted, towards sleep, Harry had the thought that as a way of recapturing someone's attention, this beat writing a soppy love song hands down.

--

To everyone's relief, a few days passed with no further drama. Zayn worked on his ballad, and practised it before an admiring Niall and teasing but impressed Harry. Louis behaved himself, at least by Louis' standards, and Harry felt himself relaxing into the pattern of the days, despite knowing the fragile peace could so easily shatter again.

Louis kept him busy running errands, and it was a week or so later that he despatched Harry with a message for his sister. Entering her lavish and pretty apartments, Harry was somewhat startled to find her taking tea with the lady Eleanor.

Harry bowed politely to them both, deciding to give Louis the benefit of the doubt on the grounds he couldn't possibly have known she'd be here. He delivered the message and would have promptly withdrawn, but to his surprise, Eleanor rose and walked with him to the door.

Harry looked at her awkwardly, wondering for the first time how she felt about Louis screwing around with him. It wasn't something he'd given much thought to before. Her words though, surprised him.

"I wanted to apologise, for Louis."

"Apologise?" Harry gaped at her in bemusement and Eleanor gave him an awkward smile.

"I saw your face, the other morning. I realised that maybe you didn't know, about us. Louis can be cruel sometimes, when he thinks he's being funny."

Harry closed his mouth, and blushed. "No, no, I did know. I just - I suppose I didn’t expect to see it like that." He chewed his lip, debating whether to ask. "Doesn't it bother you? Him being - with me?"

Eleanor gave him a resigned smile. "I know Louis' tastes run more to men. So as long as I'm his only girl? Then I'm okay with that." She studied Harry for a moment.

"Harry? Can I ask you something now? Do you like him? I mean - honestly? Not for who he is, or what he can do for you, but just for him?"

Harry hesitated, wary of giving too much of himself away. "Yes," he said, finally.

Eleanor nodded. "Not many people do. Not really. He doesn't - let many people see what's underneath. Look after him, Harry? For me?"

Harry took her hand impulsively, and pressed it between her own. "I will," he promised. Then frowned. "Don't - tell him? What I said about liking him?"

Eleanor's smile widened, and she laughed. "I wouldn’t dream of it!"

--

When Harry returned to his chamber that night it was to find a sulky-looking Zayn pacing about the room, while Niall looked on from the arm chair with a sympathetic smile.

"What's up?" he asked, dropping into the second chair and yawning. "I thought you'd have been warbling away to his Liam-ness by now."

"That's the problem," Niall told him. "Prince Liam hasn't asked to see him for days."

"How am I supposed to sing it to him if he doesn't send for me?" Zayn complained. "He's forgotten me hasn't he?"

"Maybe he's just recovering from your last visit?" Harry smirked, and Niall had to turn a splutter of laughter into a hasty cough.

"Fat lot of good you two are."

Niall looked pained. "I know, he's bound to come down to the hall for supper. Why don’t you just go up to him? Tell him you've written him a song?"

"Niall's right," put in Harry. "He'll be flattered. Intrigued. We already know he likes you, he's bound to invite you back for a - private performance." He accompanied the final words with an obscene hand gesture, and Niall giggled. Zayn glared at them both, then sighed.

"Got to be worth a shot I guess."

--

Consequently, an hour later Zayn found himself nervously approaching the royal table, while Harry and Niall watched from a discreet distance, tense with amused anticipation.

"My Lord." Zayn bowed respectfully at Liam's side.

At the far end of the table, Harry saw Louis look over at them and then immediately glance round the hall, seeking Harry. When their eyes met, Louis raised his eyebrows ironically. The implied message was clear. You never bloody do that.

Harry immediately performed an elaborate bow in his direction with a lot of hand flourishes, straightening up in time to see Louis give a snort of laughter. At his side, Niall laughed half-admiringly.

"How do you get away with that?" he asked, nervously.

Oblivious to the peripheral exchanges going on, Zayn blushingly explained to Liam that he'd composed a ballad for him.

"For me?" Liam beamed at him, pleased and surprised. "How sweet! Very well, let's hear it then."

Zayn went pale. "What - now? I mean - here?" he stuttered. He'd expected to perform in front of Liam alone, maybe a few discreet attendants, in a cosy atmosphere of music and candlelight. Not in front of the whole hall.

Liam was looking at him expectantly, and Zayn's throat went dry. His mind went blank, and he couldn’t remember the first line. "Er. Right, um - I - "

A short distance away, Harry was watching this unfold anxiously. Suddenly, he had an idea, and dashed across to the minstrels' alcove.

"Can I borrow this?" he panted, grabbing a lute from one of them. "Good, thanks." He darted off again without waiting for a reply. Slowing his pace, he sidled up to Zayn and nudged him.

Zayn turned and stared, looking panicked.

"You'll need this," Harry said quietly, and nodded encouragingly. Zayn took it from him slowly, and nodded back, taking a deep breath. Harry slipped away, hoping he'd done enough.

With something to focus on, Zayn felt more confident, and ran his hand across the strings. After a second he started to sing, voice low, pretending at first he was just singing to Harry and Niall as he'd done so many times while practising.

Liam was smiling at him, but so far only in polite interest, and Harry groaned under his breath. "Sing it like you mean it you idiot," he hissed, although Niall was the only one close enough to hear. "Sing it to him!"

After the first verse, Zayn's confidence started to return and he raised his head and lifted his voice, singing more loudly and with more purpose, capturing Liam's eyes with his and holding his gaze. Liam's smile softened as for the second time he was captivated by one of Zayn's performances.

When it was over, a smattering of applause came from those listening, startling Zayn who'd managed to convince himself that only he and Liam were present.

"Thank you. That was beautiful." Liam beckoned him closer and smiled. "I assume you won't be against a more - personal performance, later on?"

"I should be honoured, my lord," Zayn replied, trying desperately not to do anything obvious like punch the air.

--

Harry and Niall were eating breakfast at the back of the hall when Zayn finally reappeared. He was wearing the same clothes as the previous night and they nudged each other and sniggered.

"Morning," Harry grinned, pushing the coffee pot towards him. "Good night?"

"What? Yeah." Zayn seemed distracted and Harry and Niall exchanged glances.

"What's up?" Harry probed. "He didn't make you dress up as a serving girl and whip you with his sword did he?"

Niall promptly choked on the roll he was eating and Harry shook his head sadly. "You really shouldn’t bolt your food like that."

Zayn snorted, rubbing tired eyes. "If you must know, he's asked me to become his official bard."

Niall looked up. "Oh, yeah, the last one died last year. He never did get round to appointing a new one."

"Didn’t have him killed for an especially awful rhyme did he?" Harry enquired, grinning.

"No! No, he just died of old age I think."

Zayn groaned and they both looked at him.

"You don’t seem terribly pleased about it, I must say," Harry remarked. "What happened to all that 'massive honour to be a part of the household' bollocks you were spouting the other day?"

Zayn looked gloomy. "It's not exactly a sexy job though is it? I mean - all the bards I've ever known have been old, long-haired and loopy."

Niall got to his feet, stuffing another roll into his pocket. "Gotta get back. Hey, at least he's recognising you yeah? He obviously wants to keep you around?" He patted Zayn on the back and scurried off.

Harry and Zayn watched him go. "At least neither of us has to be bothered with regular hours?" Harry offered. He kicked Zayn under the table. "Cheer up misery. Being a bard's a great privilege."

Zayn gave Harry a look that suggested he was nuts, and Harry shook his head. "I mean it," he insisted quietly. "We - don’t have a lot of use for books, where I’m from. They don’t last well for a start, in the damp. All our history, our laws, our stories - they're all spoken. Passed down through the generations by word of mouth. The bard is like - the most revered and important person in the village."

Zayn eyed him suspiciously. "This isn't a wind-up 'cause I talked you into being a page is it?"

"No! I'm trying to help," Harry persisted. "Besides, isn't it just what you make it?"

"Had a different kind of oral tradition in mind if I'm honest," Zayn muttered, but he brightened up a little.

"What does Liam want you to do anyway? Write him more songs?"

"Last night he had me read to him, afterwards." Zayn smiled, rather shyly. "It was kind of nice, actually."

"There you are then. You just have to find stories to tell him that encourage sexy-times."

Zayn snorted. "And where am I supposed to find them?"

"Well duh, you could try the library."

"There's a - how do you know there's a library?"

"Had to deliver a message to the librarian. Madame Katrine. Terrifying." Harry gave a mock shudder, then remembered something else and smiled. "One of the other boys from Mare's Deep works in there too, he was sent to help her out apparently."

"From your village? Can he - er - you know?" faltered Zayn.

"Read? She's teaching him apparently. On pain of - pain," Harry smirked.

"Hmmn." Zayn looked thoughtful and helped himself to some food as he discovered his appetite had suddenly returned with a vengeance.

--

"Hey Niall." Zayn pulled himself up onto the counter top next to where the blond boy was working.

"Hello Zayn." Niall smiled at him, pleased to have been sought out. "What can I do for you?"

"Could you show me where the library is? Harry was going to take me but he's disappeared, so I assume he's somewhere upstairs clutching his ankles by now."

Niall blushed and laughed, glancing up at the clock over the door.

There were three of these huge clocks in the castle. One hung over the gatehouse in the main courtyard, one in the hall and the third here in the kitchens. Whatever else might occur in the fortress of Stronghold, there was an unspoken determination that meals, at least, would happen on time.

"Yeah, I can take a break," Niall nodded. "Come on."

--

As he followed Niall into the library, Zayn looked round in awe. It was a huge room, ascending through three storeys, the walls lined with seemingly endless shelves holding the biggest collection of books he'd ever seen in one place. There were enormous leatherbound volumes, slim manuscripts, rolls of parchment and collections of thick tomes with intriguing designs tooled into their spines. The air smelt of age, and tranquility, and learning.

A woman came out from behind a huge oak desk and they both took an involuntary step back as she eyed them disapprovingly.

"Can I help you?"

Madame Katrine was tall and thin, with a long thick plait of grey hair hanging over one shoulder. She wore a heavy green velvet dress that swept the floor as she walked, and a slim chain round her waist from which hung a bundle of keys.

Zayn cleared his throat. "Um. I was looking for - er - maybe love poetry?"

Niall nudged him sharply in the ribs, and he blushed. "That is - more - well, like, seduction, really, but love too, and er - "

Madame Katrine snorted. "Erotica, you mean?" she said crisply.

Zayn wanted to die. "You have - ? Um. I mean yes. Please. Er."

She pursed her lips. "Looking or borrowing?"

"Borrowing. Please."

"I assume you have permission?"

Zayn nodded. "From Prince Liam," he said, thinking that it wasn't technically a lie. If Liam wanted him to be a bard he could hardly deny him access to the library. It was just that the question hadn't actually come up.

Madame Katrine looked less impressed than he'd hoped. "I will, of course, be checking. Name?"

"Fine." Zayn swallowed and tried to project an air of confidence. "Zayn Malik."

"Mmmn. Well, the section you’re after is on the east wall, third level. You'll have to use the steps." She looked around irritably. "Steven?"

A sleepy-eyed boy of about thirteen emerged from behind a bookcase, clutching a haphazard stack of books. Zayn got the distinct impression he'd been having a sneaky nap.

"Ah, there you are. I need you to take a message for me."

Her attention distracted, Zayn and Niall edged towards the part of the room she'd indicated. A polished wooden staircase was fitted to the shelves which they discovered was on runners and could be rolled into the desired position. Gripping the handrails tightly, as it was nearly as steep as a ladder, they ascended to the third level and stepped out onto a narrow walkway in front of the shelves.

Zayn took down a book at random and opened it. "Fuck me!" he blurted, staring at the image on the page in amazement. Niall leaned over his shoulder to have a look.

"Crikey. Are they - ?"

"Yep."

"And he's - ?"

"Yep."

"In her ?"

"Yep."

They both stared in contemplative silence for a moment. Then Zayn turned the book experimentally though ninety degrees and they stared some more.

"I'm not sure I could do that," said Niall eventually.

"I'm not sure I'd want to," replied Zayn. "I'm not sure I'd ever untangle myself again."

"Better not take this one then," Niall grinned. "Might give him ideas!"

The next half hour passed in a combination of sniggering and shifty arousal, as they uncovered a treasure-trove of lurid illustrations, stories, and in one case what appeared to be an instruction manual. Zayn made a mental note to come back on his own and have a closer look at that one.

Finally they made their way back down, with the fact they were clutching Zayn's book selections not quite accounting for the awkwardness of their movements. Some of the drawings had been very - stimulating.

They approached Madame Katrine's desk warily. Zayn wasn't encouraged to notice she was using a polished skull as a paperweight. Her smile this time however, was more welcoming.

"His Highness has confirmed you are to have access to whatever you wish," she said, not missing the look of relief that passed over Zayn's face. "If I could just see what you are taking please?"

Zayn went bright red as she carefully noted the titles down against his name in a thick ledger, but she made no reference to their content, just pushed them back across the desk when she was done.

Niall and Zayn made a hasty exit and Niall helped carry the books back to Zayn’s room. Once shut away in greater privacy, they couldn’t resist taking a better look at their prize.

Some of the illustrations certainly seemed somewhat larger than life and Zayn laughed. "Making me feel inadequate, some of these."

Niall, perched on the arm of his chair for a better view, patted his shoulder. "From what I've seen you don’t have anything to worry about," he said, blushing when Zayn looked up at him in surprise.

Zayn grinned. Looking at the pictures had given him a considerable problem, and Niall had been willing to help out before, after all...

"Did you want to - I mean - if you like, we could - " Zayn hedged, wishing he could just come right out and say it, but then his eyes fell on the distinct bulge at Niall's crotch and realised maybe he didn’t have to.

He slid his hand onto Nail’s thigh and rubbed his fingers up and down in friendly proposition.

To his surprise, Niall promptly slid off the chair and knelt on the floor in front of him.

"Did you want me to - ?" Niall let the thought tail off, but the offer was clear and Zayn's cock gave a twitch of excitement.

"Fuck yes," he said eagerly, then felt a bit guilty. "I mean - only if you want to?"

Niall nodded, looking embarrassed, and Zayn let his legs fall open, unfastening his trousers so his cock could lurch free. If the pictures had aroused him to begin with, the thought of getting sucked off turned him on a hundred times more. He enjoyed his sessions with Liam, but so far the prince hadn't offered to return that particular favour.

Niall shuffled closer and wrapped his fingers round the base of Zayn's cock. Zayn held his breath as Niall's lips slid over the head, warm and wet, drawing his mouth up and down the shaft with hollowed cheeks.

Zayn groaned, fingernails digging into the arms of the chair as Niall licked and sucked him with obvious pleasure, taking most of him in at once and swallowing around him convulsively.

After a while of this, Niall lifted his mouth away for a moment, leaving Zayn's glistening cock waving hard and proud in the air while he hastily unfastened his own trousers and slid his hand inside with a sigh of relief.

Niall took Zayn into this mouth again and resumed sucking him, this time jerking himself off at the same time.

It was this sight that met Harry's eyes when he burst through the door a few minutes later - Zayn sprawled loose-limbed in the chair with his head thrown back and Niall between his knees, lips wrapped around Zayn's rigid cock, and hand between his own legs, wanking furiously.

"Oh. Shit. Sorry," Harry stuttered, eyes wide and feet refusing to move.

Zayn's unfocussed eyes travelled over to him and he smiled breathlessly. "Harry! I - "

What he would have said was lost as he came, spilling without warning into Niall’s mouth.

Niall sat back, licking slack lips and too far gone to do anything other than carry on pumping his own cock until he came with a moan all over his hand.

There was a heavy silence, broken only by Niall's laboured breathing. Harry dropped slowly into the other chair, his own cock showing distinct signs of interest despite the fact Louis had made him come barely half an hour earlier.

"Um. Sorry about that," he said finally. "I didn’t mean to interrupt."

"Not a problem," Zayn smiled lazily, clearly in a mood to forgive anyone anything. His legs were still splayed shamelessly open, his cock lying heavy against his thigh.

Harry glanced down at Niall who gave him a sheepish grin, tucking himself away. "I don’t mind if you don’t," Niall confessed in a low voice.

"Well that's alright then," Harry smiled, relieved.

Zayn gave a sudden laugh. "I must say I like this barding business so far!"

--

The weather had been bad for weeks, rain and sleet lashing the fortress, the crisp blue days of autumn a distant memory. The temperature had dropped steadily, until no-one was surprised to wake up one morning and find the world had turned white with snow.

Harry, Zayn and Niall held snowball fights in the courtyard, then thawed out in front of the enormous fireplace in the great hall, sipping mugs of chocolate and cream that Niall produced from the kitchens.

As the weather appeared set in though, Harry became more and more preoccupied. A week passed, and no thaw was in sight.

On the eighth day, Louis woke to find a warm space in the bed beside him, and no Harry. Pulling on a thick robe, he found him on the balcony, staring out at the distant hills.

Louis came over and draped a blanket round them both. "You'll catch cold, out here like this. What's so fascinating?"

Harry leaned back against him, but said nothing. Louis followed the line of his gaze, and worked it out.

"Oh. Worried about your people, in this snow?"

Harry sighed. "It never normally lies this long."

For a while they stood in silence, gazing out over the changed landscape. Harry had got used to the height, finding he was okay as long as he didn’t look straight down. Now, a movement against the white backdrop caught his eye, and he made out a line of three wagons making their careful way down the mountain track. They were loaded with goods, and he frowned. He'd seen plenty of carts coming into the castle like that, but never leaving.

"Where are they going?" he asked.

Louis looked over his shoulder at where Harry was pointing. "One of the plains towns probably. Greyglass, maybe?"

"Greyglass!"

Louis gave him puzzled eyes until he made the connection. "Oh, that's where your little friend's from. Of course."

"But what are they doing?"

Louis settled his arms more comfortably round Harry’s waist. "Taking supplies. Grain, and so on. See them through the freeze."

"What?" Harry turned and stared at him in surprise, and Louis looked back, placidly.

"We hold a surplus here. Big storerooms, under the castle. We gather it in, during the year. And in times of need, like this, it goes out again, where it's needed. To those places under our protection," he added, pointedly.

"I - didn’t know that," Harry muttered.

"You didn’t ask." Louis gave him a tight smile. "Really, you thought that a town like Greyglass would put up with our rule, with sending us tribute, if they weren't getting anything back? We're not standing there with a knife to their throats Harry, it's to their benefit."

"But - " Harry shook his head, determined to find fault. "They send you their children. How can that be right?"

Louis sighed. "Not all of them. Just a few, who are of age, and who have been prepared for it. Like your friend. How is he by the way, is he as desperate as you to go home?" Harry didn’t answer, and Louis nodded, knowing that was answer enough. "People die, Harry. They get old, or they leave. The castle needs new blood, it always has. This arrangement benefits everybody."

And what about my village?" Harry demanded. "Where exactly was the advantage when you looted our food and our children?"

Louis shuffled his feet. "Ah, yes. Well. I'm afraid the villages that refuse to recognise our authority - annoy me."

"Annoy you?" Harry repeated acidly. "And what about me? Where do I come into this?"

Louis smiled, broadly, falsely. "I was bored, and you were pretty. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time, Harry. You and your cat."

Harry turned away, lost for words, looking out towards his village, untold miles distant.

"Do you hate me?" Louis asked behind him, quietly, bravado gone from his voice for a moment.

Harry didn’t answer at once. "I should," he said finally.

"Do you?" Louis persisted.

Harry sighed. "Would I sleep with you if I hated you?" he asked, evading the question.

"I don’t know, Harry. I honestly don’t know." Louis sounded suddenly tired, and Harry had to fight the urge to turn round and hug him.

"You know, I could send a cart to Mare's Deep, if you wanted?" offered Louis, out of the blue.

Harry did turn then. "You would?" He narrowed his eyes. "What's the catch?"

Louis' expression hardened. "Oh, I don’t know. Just for you to send a message with the cart declaring you like it here so much you're never coming home, and that you recommend they should accept Stronghold's patronage."

Harry stared at him, aghast. "You're not serious."

"Aren’t I?"

"They'd never agree to it."

"Oh I know that. I just want you to say it."

"I won’t do it. I won't!" Harry pushed past him and ran through the room beyond and down, almost slipping on the stairs in his haste. He didn’t stop until he reached his room, where he flung himself into the combined embrace of Zayn and Niall and clung to them while they petted him comfortingly, trying to get him to tell them what was wrong.

--

Over the next two days, Harry watched the snow get deeper and deeper, and felt more and more miserable. he felt guilty too, knowing that it was only his pride that was keeping his family and friends from potentially life-saving supplies.

Finally he cracked and went to find Louis.

"I'll do it," he blurted.

"Do what?" Louis looked at him blankly.

"I'll say it. I'll send them any damn message you want. Please Louis, just send them the supplies, I'll do whatever you ask."

Louis sighed. "You're too late, Harry."

"What do you mean?"

Louis drew him over and pulled back one of the shutters so they could see out. It was snowing again, and Harry shivered.

"The snow's too deep now. A cart would never get through."

"But - but try!" Harry insisted.

Louis looked at him. "You'd condemn a driver to probable death by exposure, would you?"

Harry stared at him in anguish, and Louis finally relented.

"So - just as well I sent one four days ago, really."

"What?" Harry gaped, disbelieving, and Louis nodded. "You bastard!"

Louis raised his eyebrows. "A simple thank you would have sufficed."

"But - four days - that's - ?"

"Before you asked me to, yes."

"What did you say to them?" Harry demanded, still suspicious.

"Just that it was a gesture of goodwill in a time of hardship. A one off. But that if they accepted our protection there could be more."

Harry went weak with relief and Louis studied him sympathetically. "They're a proud people," he warned. "They may not accept it."

"They will," said Harry. "If the children are hungry, they will."

They looked at each other. "Why didn’t you tell me?" Harry pleaded. "Why all that crap about a message if you'd already sent it?"

"You were the one assuming there was a catch," Louis pointed out. "I was just living up to your expectations. Plus, I wanted you to say you'd stay," he added more quietly.

"I'm not a caged bird, Louis," Harry said sadly. "You can't make me into one."

"But you sing so beautifully," Louis whispered, fingers tracing Harry’s face. He kissed him, softly, lips ghosting against Harry’s mouth, a question rather than a demand, and Harry let his anger dissolve. He melted into Louis' kiss, hopelessly confused but accepting for the moment that to be in Louis' arms was enough.

--

Harry, Zayn and Niall were sitting eating hot chestnuts raked out of the ashes of the fire when the page arrived at the door with the news that Louis wanted to see Harry.

He scrambled to his feet, looking surprised. He'd only left him around midday, and Louis had given no indication he'd want Harry back that night.

"Must have got a sudden urge," cackled Zayn, and Harry made a rude gesture as he hurried out of the door.

Panting slightly as he got to the top of the tower, Harry let himself in and was surprised to find Louis sitting in his study rather than the bedchamber, looking pensive. He got to his feet as Harry came in.

"Harry. I thought you'd want to know. The driver of the cart for Mare's Deep finally returned an hour or so ago, and he brought some - bad news. The rains earlier in the season seem to have brought sickness with them, a fever - "

"My family! Are they - ?" Harry interrupted with panic-stricken urgency.

Louis shook his head quickly. "No, they're okay, sorry, I should have said that first. Although I understand that your sister came down with it, but she pulled through. Others - weren't so lucky. Harry - Jack's family - they're all dead."

Harry blinked at him in shock. "All of them?" He asked hoarsely. He had a vague mental image of a brood of siblings running down the street with the littlest boy laughing in the middle, watched by their parents.

Louis nodded. "I'm sorry, Harry."

"You're sure?"

"The driver had very - specific, instructions, to find out all the news. I knew you'd want to know. I just - didn't expect it would be this."

Harry stumbled over to the narrow window and stared out into the pitch black night, hand over his mouth. Louis left him alone, watching him silently from across the room, but not intruding.

Eventually, Harry turned back to him.

"Thank you," he said quietly. Louis frowned, questioningly, and Harry sighed. "For not pointing out that if you hadn't taken Jack that he'd probably be dead now. And that so might I be, for that matter."

"Harry, I'm not - " Louis broke off and stepped forward then, pulled Harry into his arms. "I'm so sorry," he whispered.

Harry let Louis hold him, fighting back tears. He'd started getting used to his life in the castle, but suddenly felt more homesick than he had for weeks. He wondered miserably what they'd been going through while he'd been away, whether his sister was really alright. Although, at least he still had something to go back to one day.

"Louis? Don't tell him? Jack, I mean."

"No?" Louis rested his head against Harry's and sighed. "If you think that's best. I can't say I was looking forward to it."

"He's happy enough," Harry said, wiping a stray tear away from the corner of his eye. "Let him stay that way."

"Are you okay?"

Harry took a deep breath and nodded, pulling away and sighing. "Yeah."

"Will you stay tonight?" Louis invited quietly, but Harry shook his head.

"Do you mind if I don't? I'm not really - you know."

"Sure." Louis nodded slowly, and Harry gave him a watery smile of thanks. Part of him really did want the comfort that Louis could offer, but there was still a part that couldn't forget that it was Louis' fault he was stuck here, whatever the consequences might have been otherwise.

Harry made his way slowly down the tower steps, lost in thought, and by the time he reached his room there were silent tears staining his cheeks. In the doorway he nearly bumped into Niall on his way out, and the boy clutched at him in alarm.

"Harry! What's wrong?" Niall scowled. "What's that pig done to you now?"

Harry shook his head, too choked up to explain. "Nothing," he muttered, thinking that for once this at least was true. "Night, Niall."

"Yeah. Night Harry." Niall watched the door close and wondered whether to follow Harry back in. Decided Zayn at least was there to comfort him, and reluctantly made his way back to his own quarters behind the kitchens.

Inside, Harry undressed in the candlelight and pulled on his nightshirt. Zayn was already in the big bed, watching him curiously but not pressing for details.

Harry crawled under the covers, and blew out the remaining candle. After a moment, he felt Zayn's arm snake round his waist, and smiled gratefully, snuggling back against the boy's warm body.

"You okay Harry?" Zayn whispered.

"Yeah," Harry whispered back. "I'm alright. Just a bit sad right now, that's all. I miss my family Zayn."

"Yeah, me too," sighed Zayn, and Harry turned over, reaching out to hug him back. Zayn was always so focussed on making a place for himself here that Harry sometimes forgot he'd had no more choice in the matter than he had.

They held each other in the dark, offering and receiving quiet comfort. Harry could feel Zayn's warm breath against his cheek and wriggled closer, pressing into his arms. After a while he felt Zayn getting stiff against his leg and gave a quiet snort of amusement.

"Shit. Sorry," Zayn laughed under his breath and Harry grinned, unseen in the blackness of the room.

"I forgive you," Harry replied sleepily. "Thousands wouldn't."

"Charming," Zayn muttered, and deliberately rubbed his growing erection against Harry's groin, making him squirm and giggle.

"Oi!"

"Oh, like you don't love it," Zayn teased, tickling him for good measure and rather enjoying the way Harry was writhing against him protestingly, yet somehow without actually managing to move away.

"Let me go you beast," Harry laughed, retaliating with sharp fingers and a bony knee.

"Ow! Right, I'm getting you for that." Laughing, Zayn flung himself on Harry and they scuffled for supremacy until they were both panting and breathless.

Zayn had managed to climb right on top of Harry, and lay there obstinately while Harry alternated between trying to push him off and giggling helplessly. Somewhere along the line, Zayn realised, Harry had got hard too. Of course as soon as he'd noticed the warm, firm bulge against his hip he couldn’t resist sliding against it, just to see if he could make Harry gasp.

The moan Harry produced was a lot filthier than a gasp, and for a second they both froze, uncertainly.

After a second, Zayn repeated the action experimentally, and this time Harry gave a breathless laugh, shuddering slightly against him. Somehow, they seemed to be holding each other a lot more tightly than they had been before.

"Harry?" Zayn breathed.

"Shhh." Harry rolled his hips against Zayn's body meaningfully, and it was Zayn's turn to groan. He shifted into a better position and pressed down against Harry's groin, rubbing his cock along the line of Harry's erection.

"Fuck," moaned Harry quietly, and Zayn did it again, harder this time, and Harry bucked into the touch.

Zayn found his hands were sliding under the hem of Harry's nightshirt of their own accord, pushing it up his thighs. Harry, too, was grappling with Zayn's attire, pulling it up until it was bunched under his arms, and they were both naked from the waist down.

The shock of warm, bare skin was delicious, and they both hastily pulled their nightshirts right off, falling back into each other's arms as if they'd been doing this forever. Without needing to ask, their lips met and they kissed, hot and wet, all tongues and teeth, as they pushed against each other needily.

Suddenly Harry felt Zayn's fingers wrap themselves around his cock and he moaned his approval into Zayn's mouth. Zayn was stroking him, hard and fast, and Harry felt his cock throbbing urgently beneath his touch. He reached down and returned the favour, Zayn's swollen shaft warm in his hand.

They jerked each other off quickly, urgently, not speaking, just gasping and groaning and occasionally swearing under their breath as the sensations made them shudder and thrust harder into each other's grasp.

Harry came first with a stifled moan, feeling his release spurt up wetly between them, shaking with the intensity of his orgasm. Moments later he felt Zayn's cock pulsing under his fingers as he came immediately afterwards, a second rush of wet warmth splattering up their chests.

They lay there weakly for a minute or so, getting their breath back, and both hoping they hadn’t just fucked up a friendship.

"Well. That was - " Zayn said, weakly.

"Yeah. It was." After a pause, Harry laughed, and Zayn joined in, sounding relieved.

"Urgh. I need a wash," Zayn declared after a couple more minutes had gone by, and they'd wriggled closer again in companionable sleepiness.

"Wash in the morning," Harry grumbled, half-asleep and comfortable nestled against Zayn's side.

"That's gross. I'm covered in your spunk." Zayn leaned over him and lit the candle again. Harry blinked up in the wavering light and smirked.

"And yours. You nearly drowned me."

"I have big balls. It's both a curse and a blessing," Zayn grinned and Harry snickered.

"Only thing big about you's your head," he jibed, and then grunted painfully as Zayn crawled over him to get out of bed.

Harry curled on his side and watched Zayn fussily cleaning himself up, reflecting that sheer uncomplicated sex certainly had its attractions. He ignored the tiny voice in his head that warned him of Louis' likely reaction if he ever found out about this, and the even smaller one that was trying to make him feel guilty about it.

He gave a quiet sigh, as an inescapable truth took hold - that however nice getting off with Zayn had been, it was still Louis he had feelings for. Maddening, manipulative, kidnapping, comforting, complicated, teasing, fucking sexy Louis. Harry groaned, and Zayn looked over at him.

"You alright babes?"

"Why couldn’t I just fall in love with you?" Harry asked bitterly. "Why did I have to fall for a complete bastard?"

Zayn grinned, combing his hair carefully in what Harry considered to be a completely pointless exercise, given that he was about to get back into bed.

"Because you’re an idiot?" Zayn suggested.

"I must be," Harry sighed.

Zayn came back over and climbed in beside him. "You do then?" he asked quietly. "Love him?"

Harry was silent for a moment. "I think so," he admitted. "I mean - sometimes I hate him as well, and I don’t really know how that even works, but - it's like he’s inside me or something. Not like that!" he added, slapping Zayn as he sniggered. "I mean like - inside my head or something."

"Or your heart?"

"Yeah. Maybe it's that." Harry sighed. "How do I get him out again Zayn?"

"Do you want to?"

"It's not like I'm stupid enough to imagine he feels the same way," Harry admitted. "I'm not even sure he actually likes me. I amuse him, he says. Not exactly the basis for a great relationship, is it? And - I'm scared, Zayn. I'm scared he'll get bored of me and not want to see me any more, and - and that should make me relieved, but it doesn’t." Harry groaned. "I am so screwed."

Zayn put his arm round Harry's shoulders and hugged him close. "At least Louis shows you some emotion. Sometimes I wonder what's going on in Liam's head," he murmured. "He's so - precise, about things. And I hardly ever get him alone." Zayn laughed, humourlessly. "At least Louis' never fucked you in front of a row of attendants."

Harry's eyes widened in shock. "No! Really?"

"Yeah. It's like - he doesn’t even see them. Like they're part of the furniture. Sometimes it feels like he's playing the part of what he thinks a prince should be, you know?" Zayn sighed. "I sometimes wonder what he'd be like if you got him really on his own."

"Maybe you'll find out one day?" Harry leaned against him, yawning despite himself. "Anyway, what about Niall? You two seemed to be getting on rather well the other day," he smiled, suggestively.

Zayn wriggled down in the bed and laughed. "Yeah. Niall's a funny one. He never stops talking, but never really tells you anything about himself. Did you know he sleeps in a dormitory?"

"Yeah?" Harry settled down as well, nuzzling against Zayn's arm. "I'd have thought he'd have had his pick of the spare rooms with his knowledge of the place."

Zayn shook his head. "He showed me once. There's a room behind the kitchens, mostly for the younger kids that work in there, with Niall at the end. He says he doesn’t like being on his own."

Harry yawned again, and Zayn blew out the candle.

"Do you think there’s anyone in this place that's not fucked up in some way?" Harry mused.

Zayn's laugh rang out in the dark. "Speak for yourself!"

"You've totally got a tribute-complex," Harry muttered, snuggling up against him.

"That's not even a thing, bounty-boy," Zayn objected, folding Harry securely into his arms.

"Is too," Harry whispered, determined to have the last word even on the edge of sleep.

"Is not," Zayn whispered back, but Harry was already asleep.

--

It was nearing midwinter, and the castle was preparing for the festival. Harry and Zayn hadn't seen much of Niall for days, he'd been busy in the kitchens helping prepare endless confections and savoury dishes for the hall.

Liam had sent Zayn a new robe to wear, dark, rich purple on the outside, trimmed with soft grey fur and lined in grey silk. He paraded around their room wearing that and nothing else before a giggling Harry.

Zayn threw himself down next to Harry on the bed, careful not to crease the robe. "What are you going to wear?" he asked.

Harry shrugged. "Dunno. Hadn't thought. Page's uniform I expect. It's kind've the smartest thing I've got."

"But it's midwinter Harry! You've got to dress up! Can’t you ask Louis for something?"

Harry glowered at him. "No."

Zayn sighed.

The afternoon of the festival day, they were getting ready for the feast when a knock at the door heralded a package for Harry. Under Zayn's eager urging, he untied it and laid it out on the bed. It was a suit of clothes, black trousers and a black jerkin, threaded with gold, and beautifully cut. It was one of the loveliest things Harry had ever seen, and Zayn stroked it admiringly.

"Thought you weren’t going to ask for anything?"

"I didn't," Harry admitted. "Guess he just doesn't want me to show him up."

Zayn groaned. "Or maybe he thought you'd like to look nice?"

Harry relented with a reluctant smile. "Maybe."

"Go on, try it on," Zayn demanded. "I bet you look amazing."

To Harry's secret delight, it fit him perfectly, and he did look incredible. Impatient now, he rushed Zayn through his own last minute finishing touches and together they made their way down to the hall.

It had been transformed, and they both gasped in admiration. Swathes of greenery hung round the room, pine and fir, ivy and mistletoe and holly. Red and gold ribbons were tied along it, and decorations hung everywhere, crafted from coloured rags and paper, oranges studded with cloves, and sugar biscuits with icing in every colour you could imagine.

Great logs were blazing in the fireplace, and the room was already bustling with people, drinking and dancing and talking. There were fire-eaters, and jugglers and conjurors and everywhere was something else to stare at.

Eventually Zayn spotted Liam and nudged Harry. "I'll see you later, yeah?" he wriggled away through the crowd determinedly.

Harry hadn't been alone long when a touch on his elbow made him turn. It was Louis, smiling at him and checking out his clothes from head to toe.

"You look gorgeous," he said softly, and Harry, who'd been preparing something defensive, found he was blushing.

"Thank you," he said instead, and Louis took his hand.

"Will you sit with me?" he asked, and Harry stared in amazement. To be invited to join Louis at the royal table - he'd never offered this before. Harry nodded, speechless, and Louis grinned in relief, and lead him through the crowds.

When they reached it, Harry saw to his amusement that Zayn was already there, sitting on the far side of Prince Liam. Zayn gave him a discreet little wave and a grin, and Harry laughed.

Louis pulled up a seat next to his own and Harry blinked at him in faint shock. Louis took in his expression and sighed. "What? I can’t be nice?"

"Makes me nervous," admitted Harry, and Louis gave a bark of laughter.

"I just love this festival okay? It makes me buzzy. Plus, I want to know what that outfit looks like later when it's lying on my bedroom floor," he added slyly, and it was Harry's turn to laugh.

"Okay, bribery for sexual favours, that's the Louis I know and love," he said without thinking, then blushed a dark red as he realised what he'd said.

Louis didn’t see though, he was too busy staring suddenly at the table as if it held something of great interest.

"Ah, the mead," Louis said hastily. "Harry, will you try some?" He held out his own goblet, made of gold with jewels round the rim, and Harry took it. It was heavy, and he lifted it to his lips carefully.

The liquid caught in his throat, and he tried to smile, but it turned into a cough. He handed the cup back to Louis hastily before he dropped it, and tried to gasp for air, but it wouldn’t come.

Harry's hand flew to his throat, choking now, clawing at his skin as the mouthful of mead seemed to turn to knives in his stomach, and he slid out of his seat to collapse on the floor.

Horror-struck, Louis sniffed the contents of the cup, and went pale. He set it back on the table and dropped to his knees, cradling Harry's now convulsing body in his arms.

"Fetch an emetic," he roared at the startled attendants. "Salt water, something, quickly damn you!"

There were panicked flurries in the crowd and eventually a cup was thrust into his hand. Louis forced it between Harry's lips, tipping it down his throat, making him cough and scream. It did the job though, in seconds Harry was retching a thin gush of mead and bile onto the flagstones.

When it was over, his eyes fluttered weakly, and he felt consciousness slipping away from him.

Louis held him close, frantic and helpless. "Don’t you dare die on me Harry," he hissed, "Don’t you dare! You keep breathing, that's a fucking order!"

But Harry's head lolled to one side as he passed out completely. Louis stared at him, disbelieving, the weak rise and fall of Harry’s chest the only sign he was still alive.

Eventually a physician was sent for, and Harry was carried from the room, to be taken to the infirmary. They would do all they could for him, they said.

Numb with shock, and powerless to help, Louis turned back to the table in a daze. It was finally dawning on him that the goblet had been his. That the poison had been meant for him.

His eyes slid over the surface looking for the incriminating goblet, but the table was oddly bare of all the drinking vessels.

"Who took that?" he demanded.

A nearby attendant with a tray looked up. It was Niall.

"I - I cleared away, your Highness," he stuttered.

Louis' face darkened. "On whose authority? Who told you to touch that goblet?"

Niall went pale and nearly dropped his tray in fright. "It - was one of the ladies. I don't know who, I didn't look up. I was just doing my job," he stammered.

Louis glared at him, furious. "Then congratulations. Because you just got promoted to my chief food taster."

--

As soon as it had been established that someone had tried to poison Louis, the whole royal party had hurriedly left the hall. Following Liam to his chambers, Zayn felt like he was in some kind of bad dream.

Zayn had wanted to go after Harry, but from what he'd heard they weren't even letting Louis in, so he'd come with Liam instead, flattered that the prince obviously trusted him that much.

Having for once shut everyone else out, Liam was pacing the room anxiously, wondering out loud whoever would want to hurt Louis and what was going on. Zayn wasn't really listening. He suddenly felt more alone than he ever had. Harry was lying in the infirmary, maybe dying; Niall had been forced into a position of possibly enormous danger, and his family were miles away with no way of contacting them. He missed his sisters, he realised, miserably.

Hardly realising he was doing it, Zayn put his head in his hands and started to cry.

Abruptly, Liam stopped pacing and stared at him.

"Zayn? Are you - alright?" he asked hesitantly.

Zayn hastily tried to stem his tears and wipe his face. "Sorry," he muttered, thinking that this was hardly the way to make a good impression. But Liam had come to sit next to him, and put a tentative arm round him.

"What's wrong?"

Zayn looked up at him, and saw genuine concern in his face. He sniffed. "My best friend's just been poisoned! And I don't know if he's going to be okay, I don't even know if he's still alive!"

Liam hugged him close, and Zayn collapsed into his arms, faintly stunned that he was being comforted by an actual prince but too genuinely miserable to question it.

For a while Liam held him, rubbing his back soothingly and telling him that he was sure Harry would be alright.

"I don't know what's wrong with this place," Liam muttered. "It's always been slightly peculiar. I've done my best, to make it better, I have - I've sat in the court, and I've talked to the people, and - still this happens." He sighed. "And maybe after all, all I've been doing is maintaining the old lines."

Liam sighed again, guiltily. "I know Louis still goes out on raids," he said softly, talking to himself more than Zayn now. "And that I still - take people to my bed without questioning whether they actually want it themselves," he added, not looking at Zayn.

Zayn sat up, and boldly took Liam's hand.

"For the record?" he said quietly. "I want it."

"You do?" Liam studied his face, and wiped away a tear with his thumb.

Zayn nodded, and slowly leaned in to kiss him.

--

Louis entered the infirmary quietly. It was a high-ceilinged room with plenty of light from tall windows at the end, looking out into one of the courtyard gardens. There was a hush over the place, and he walked silently towards the one bed that contained a still figure.

He'd thought Harry was asleep, but as Louis approached he turned his head and gave a faint smile when he saw who it was.

Louis sat awkwardly on the side of the bed, and looked at him.

"How's the patient? They - tell me you can't speak very well, which I guess for once gives me the advantage."

Harry crossed his eyes and Louis tried to smile, but his lips threatened to tremble and he clamped his mouth shut again.

"I'm sorry, Harry," he whispered. "That poison was meant for me."

Harry's hand crept across the bedclothes and nudged Louis' fingers until he took it in his.

"They said you saved my life," Harry croaked, throat sounding raw and painful.

"Guess that makes us even," Louis said with a tiny laugh. "I suppose for once it was a good thing that I make you sick, huh?"

"You don't make me sick," Harry whispered.

Hesitantly, Louis leaned in and kissed him gently on the mouth. Then rose and hurried out of the room, as if afraid of what he might say if he stayed.

--

Harry was three days in the infirmary and then spent another week in the royal apartments at Louis' insistence. He decided guiltily he could get used to being waited on like this. Louis came to see him at frequent intervals, and by the second day they'd ended up making love in Harry's sickbed.

Louis was gentle with him, loving even, and Harry came hard in his arms, clinging to him desperately and wondering if things might be actually working out for them for once.

When he finally returned to his own room, nearly two weeks after the poisoning incident, he found it occupied by Zayn and Niall who flung themselves on him in joy.

"You're back!" Zayn hugged him madly and drew him over to a chair. "How are you feeling?"

"Throat's still a bit sore, but I'm fine." Harry grinned. "It's good to see you. What have I missed?" He looked at them, thinking that Niall looked unhappy and wondering why. Zayn though, was clearly on a bouncy high.

"I've been getting on amazingly with Liam. He's really opening up to me. I never really appreciated how stressed he gets." Zayn smirked. "We've been working on cures for that."

Harry snorted. "That's really sweet and all, but details of your love life wasn't really what I meant. What about the poisoner? Do they have any idea who it was yet?"

Zayn grinned. "Given Niall's mystery woman, at the moment castle opinion seems to be split between whether it was her Highness Princess Charlotte in a bid for the throne, or the Lady Eleanor actually trying to get rid of you."

He seemed entirely too pleased with both theories, but Harry noticed Niall looked even more miserable at the suggestions. He supposed it must be hard, having people under suspicion based on something you'd said. Louis had told him they were looking for a woman because of what Niall had been told to do, but he couldn't believe it was either of them.

"They're much too nice, both of them," Harry objected. He couldn't honestly see Louis suspecting them either, after Liam they were probably the two people he was closest to.

"Yeah, well." Zayn conceded the point with a wave of his hand. "We don’t even know if it was connected. Could have been anyone. He's pissed off enough people, anyway."

"It's horrible," Harry said. "Thinking that someone's trying to kill him. What if they try again?"

"Doubt they'll try the same way twice, not now everyone knows he's got a food taster, eh Niall?" Zayn smirked, and Niall muttered something rude.

Harry stared at them, uncomprehending. "What are you talking about?"

Zayn looked up in surprise. "Didn’t he tell you? He made Niall his food taster. Niall has to eat and drink some of everything he has, before Louis does. I have to say, there probably isn’t a better qualified person in the castle in terms of eating experience," he grinned, but Harry was looking appalled.

"He can’t do that! That - that's horribly dangerous! You could be poisoned like me!"

Niall shrugged. "It's not so bad. At least the food's the best," he said, trying to manage a smile. "And Zayn's right, they - they probably wouldn't deliberately poison me to get to him."

Harry wasn't having it. He was abruptly furious with Louis for doing it and thought crossly that nothing had changed after all.

"It's not fair! I'll ask him to release you, it's dangerous Niall!"

Niall looked wretched. "Don't. Please. I'm not in danger Harry," he insisted quietly.

"But they might try again!"

"They won't."

"How do you know?" Harry persisted, and Niall groaned in guilty frustration.

"Because it was me, okay? It was me."

Zayn gasped. "What?"

Niall stared at them unhappily. "I'm sorry Harry, I never meant for you to drink it, honest I didn't."

"But - Louis was the only one who knew what to do, if he'd taken it he'd have died," Harry said, horror-struck.

"I know." Niall looked awkward. "That was kind've the idea."

Harry felt faint. "Why Niall? I knew you didn't like him, but I never realised you hated him. What - what did he do to you?" he asked, not sure he wanted to know the answer.

Niall was fighting back tears. "Nothing," he mumbled.

"Nothing?" Harry was incredulous. "You tried to kill him for nothing?"

Niall curled up in his chair defensively, and little by little told them his story.

"It was - Louis' father. The consort of his mother, the Princess. He allied with her for the position it gave him, but what he really liked was - was little boys," said Niall in a tiny voice. "It wasn't just me. There were lots of us. He - did things to us. Until I got too old and he lost interest, moved on. I was twelve when it stopped. I swore I'd kill him when I grew up, but he got sick and died anyway, before I could. So I swore I'd have my revenge on his son instead. Louis seemed to be taking after him, he was cruel and unkind and liked to hurt people. So I - I plotted. And I was too weak to speak out when he took Jack, and he's hurt you Harry, I know he has, so many times. I wanted to make him stop. I thought I was protecting you." Niall burst into tears. "What have I done, Harry?"

Harry and Zayn looked at each other helplessly, then went and put their arms round him.

"He didn't touch Jack, Niall. He really didn't," Harry told him quietly, making Niall sob even harder.

Harry hugged him hard. "I know Louis can be a bastard at times, but he's not a bad person Niall, he doesn't deserve to die. I've probably caused him as many problems as he's caused me. And he's not a monster, he would never touch a child. He seems to actually like them, I think, more than he likes grown-ups."

"We can never tell anyone this," Zayn muttered worriedly. "If anyone finds out, Niall'll be for the chop."

Harry groaned. Just when things seemed to be going well, he was saddled with the biggest secret of his life.

--

For days, Harry and Zayn carried Niall's secret like a burning weight of knowledge in their hearts. They didn't dare discuss it other than in hushed whispers in the dark after they'd gone to bed.

They found that they were both blaming themselves, for not having reached out to Niall enough to uncover the depth of his hurt before it spilled over in such an awful manner. They wanted to comfort him now, but Niall was staying out of their way, terrified he would somehow implicate them if he was discovered.

Harry found too, that it was awkward being around Louis, knowing what he knew. He could tell Louis was worried there would be a second attempt on his life, even though Louis never mentioned it, and wanted more than anything else to be able to tell him he was safe. But he couldn't do that without revealing Niall's guilt, not to mention his own part in concealing it. So he started finding reasons to avoid Louis when he could, and if Louis noticed, he said nothing.

Then one morning, Zayn came pelting up to Harry in the corridor, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him into a dark corner, looking frantic.

"It's Niall! They've arrested him!"

Harry went pale. "What! What did you do?"

Zayn looked taken aback. "What do you mean, what did I do?" he demanded.

"Well no-one else apart from us knew about him, and I know I didn’t say anything!" Harry hissed.

Zayn glared. "Well thanks a fucking bunch. Now I know just what you think of me! If you'd've let me finish, I was going to tell you what happened. Apparently he was talking in his sleep. I guess it was preying on his mind. Anyway, you know he's in a shared room, well apparently someone overheard what he was muttering, and reported him."

Harry sagged against the wall. "Oh."

"Yeah." Zayn folded his arms and looked mutinous.

"Sorry," Harry offered. Zayn glared at him.

"Fuck off."

Harry groaned. "I'm sorry, okay? I just - didn’t know how it could have happened. Come on, if you hadn’t known about the sleep talking, you'd have assumed I'd let something slip to Louis, right?"

Zayn scuffed his foot on the ground. "Maybe." He relented, sighing. "Yeah, probably."

"Please don’t let's fight?" Harry pleaded.

"Thought you trusted me," Zayn muttered and Harry winced.

"I do. Zayn, please? It was a stupid thing to say, okay, I just panicked."

Zayn sighed and let Harry fling his arms round him, holding him back tightly. "I just don’t want to lose you as well," he said sadly.

Harry looked up. "What do you mean?"

Zayn realised in the heat of Harry's accusation he hadn’t told him the whole story.

"He's going to be executed, Harry. It was attempted regicide. Louis' insisting on the death penalty."

Harry stared at him in shock. "You can't be serious."

Zayn nodded miserably. "It's true. Apparently Niall's so traumatised about what he did, and about nearly killing you, that he's not even denied it."

"I won't let him do it," Harry said weakly. "I'll make him change his mind somehow."

"Harry - be careful," warned Zayn. "If Louis thinks for a minute that you're implicated - he's not in the best of moods right now by all accounts."

"I've got to try." Harry hugged him, sadly. "I've got to try, Zayn."

--

Harry climbed up to the tower, his feet and heart feeling like they were made of lead. He found Louis in his study, staring out of the window, and knocked cautiously on the open door.

Seeing Harry, Louis got to his feet and beckoned him in urgently. "Did you hear?" he said quickly. "We've got him, Harry. Turns out it was the little bastard I made my food taster." He looked slightly queasy. "Not one of my best ideas that, as it turns out."

Harry went up to him, feeling shaky. "Louis - you can't have him executed."

Louis looked surprised. "What do you mean? Harry, he tried to kill me, he almost did kill you! I'm not letting the fucker get fat in one of my dungeons for the rest of his miserable life. I thought you'd be happy."

"Happy?" Harry choked the word out. "Louis - Niall's my friend. He - he didn't mean to do what he did, he - "

Louis' expression changed to one of coldness. "Well, no, I presume he didn't mean to kill you. He did however mean to kill me, and I do not intend to let him have another crack at it."

"He had - reasons, for what he did. He's sorry for it Louis, he won't ever try it again, he knows he was wrong about you now - "

"Harry, I may not be popular, I may not be always fair, but what I am, without question, is the law here. And just because some kitchen-snipe with a grievance doesn’t like me does not give him the right to go round trying to kill me." Louis broke off, frowning, as the implications of what Harry had said sunk in.

"Harry - you were with me this morning," he said slowly. Harry nodded, guiltily. "So - given that the boy was arrested then - when exactly did you find time to talk to him about all this?"

Harry said nothing, just stared at Louis miserably as he saw the truth dawn on his face.

"You knew," Louis whispered. "You knew it was him and you didn’t tell me." He sank into his chair as if his legs had given way. "Harry - " He put his hands over his face, looked at Harry disbelievingly through his fingers. "What have you done?"

Harry shook his head urgently. "It's not like that Louis, I didn’t know until afterwards, I swear! I would never have put you in danger, you can't think that!"

"Well you appear to have let him go on having unprecedented access to me for a week, so your concern can't be that deep," Louis snarled.

"Louis please," Harry begged. "You don’t know the circumstances. I wanted to tell you, I did, so much, but I knew you'd be like this." He drew a breath. "Don't do it Louis. Please. If you let him live, I - I'll stop trying to escape, I'll stop talking about wanting to leave. I'll stay with you. Willingly. I promise. I'll never mention it again. Just - just let him live?"

Louis stared at him for a long time. "You must care about him an awful lot," he said finally, barest hint of a tremor in his voice.

Harry's eyes widened. "Not like that! Louis, you don’t think - no, he's my friend, there's nothing like that between us."

"You expect me to believe that? You'd give up your precious freedom for a friend?" Louis demanded.

"Some people have friends like that," Harry shot back, stung at the unfairness of it all. "Not that you'd know."

Louis laughed, harshly. "So go on then," he said after a second. "Tell me what these precious circumstances of his are."

"What?" Harry sat down himself, without being invited. He hadn't bargained on being made to tell Louis the full story.

Louis smiled humourlessly. "You're asking me to commute a fully-deserved sentence on a man who, by his own admission, tried to kill me. I think I deserve to know the facts."

Harry was shaken. He had no choice but to tell Louis everything now, but he wasn't entirely sure how he'd take it - if he'd believe it, even. It involved his own father, after all.

He told him Niall's story from the beginning, his abuse at the hands of Louis' father, his lost chance at revenge, his building resentment. Throughout, Louis' eyes didn’t leave Harry's face for a second, barely even blinked.

When it was over, Harry stared back at him miserably. "You do believe me?" he asked quietly.

Louis looked away. "Yes. Unfortunately." He stared into the fire instead, and Harry stayed silent, not daring to interrupt his thoughts.

"He'd still have to be punished," Louis said finally, with a heavy sigh. Harry's heart leapt with relief.

He nodded. "I realise that."

"Very well. You'll get what you ask."

Overjoyed, Harry crossed to him, reaching out to kiss him, wanting to show his gratitude, but Louis jerked his head away.

"Don't," he said coldly. Harry stepped back in hurt surprise. "I think you'd better go, Harry," Louis said, refusing to look at him.

Confused at Louis' rebuffal but happy that Niall would be safe, Harry left the apartments and hurried to find Zayn and tell him the news.

--

Late that afternoon saw what felt like half the castle gathered in the council chamber to hear Niall's sentencing. Harry and Zayn managed to squeeze onto one of the benches near the front, due to their royal association. It was an imposing room, with dark wood panelling and heavy drapes.

Niall was lead in, wrists manacled in front of him, looking tiny and pale and frightened. They tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t look up, not until Louis and Liam entered the room in full official regalia.

As Harry understood it, it was normally Liam who took the lead in such proceedings, but this was clearly going to be Louis' show.

"Niall Horan," he began, looking stern. "You stand accused of attempted regicide and of actual poisoning of a member of the royal household. Do you understand the charges against you?"

Niall licked dry lips and nodded. "Yes," he whispered.

"How do you plead?"

"Doesn't he get an actual trial?" Harry hissed in Zayn's ear. Zayn shrugged.

"Not like Louis' going to want the details to come out, is it?"

Niall took a breath. "Guilty, my lord," he said, voice shaking. Neither Harry nor Zayn had been allowed in to see him, and Harry watched him sadly, knowing that Niall must believe he was condemning himself to death with the admission.

Louis stared at him, consideringly. "I am given to understand there are - mitigating circumstances - behind your actions," he said finally, eyes flicking for the briefest of seconds over to Harry. Harry blinked, he hadn’t realised Louis even knew he was in the room.

"I understand you work in the kitchens?" Louis was continuing.

"Yes sir," Niall confirmed, looking puzzled but now with a glimmer of hope.

"Yes, well. I don’t think any of us are going to be particularly happy with a poisoner working in the kitchens, do you?" Louis narrowed his eyes. "Therefore consider this your sentence. From sundown today, you are to consider yourself banished from the fortress of Stronghold. You may collect whatever possessions you may have, and you are to leave this place, never to return. Should you do so, the original sentence of execution will be carried out. Is that clear?"

Niall nodded, face white as a sheet, and Louis got to his feet. "Get him out of my sight," he ordered.

Niall was hustled away by his guards and as the two princes left the room, the crowd broke out into a clamouring roar of conversation.

Harry and Zayn stared at each other in shock.

"Banished," Zayn said, disbelievingly. "Fuck."

Harry wondered wretchedly if Louis had done it to remove a perceived rival, or whether it was just to protect himself from possible future attempts on his life. Either way, he had to have known it would hurt Harry.

"I have to see him," Harry said, getting to his feet. "Louis I mean." He'd been so cold earlier, it made Harry ache inside to think Louis believed he'd been carrying on with Niall behind his back.

"Okay. I'll go find Niall, yeah?" Zayn gave him a quick hug, and they parted company.

--

"Louis?"

Harry entered the room cautiously, to find Louis staring out of the unshuttered window, the orange rays of the descending sun playing over his figure.

He turned, and sighed. "Harry. I'm glad you're here."

Harry smiled hopefully, but Louis still looked somehow so sad.

"I need to decide - what to do about you, Harry."

"What do you mean?" Harry stammered, taken aback.

Louis smiled tiredly. "I was wrong. I see that now," he murmured. "I thought I could steal you away, and that maybe you would learn to like me. But it doesn’t work like that does it? How you must hate me, Harry, to conspire with someone intent on killing me."

Harry's mouth dropped open in shock. "It wasn’t like that," he croaked. "I never meant you harm Louis, I was just protecting my friend!"

Louis shook his head. "It hardly matters. The fact remains that you kept from me the one thing you knew I wanted to know above all else. I can't trust you any more Harry. And - " he held his hand up to stall Harry's interruption. "And you clearly don't trust me. Or you'd have come to me when you first found out."

"Louis - " Harry's throat felt tight. "What are you saying?"

"Go home, Harry," Louis whispered.

"What?"

"It's what you want, isn’t it? It's what you've always wanted. Well, now I'm giving you permission. Heck, it's a long walk, I'll even give you a horse. Go home Harry."

"You're - banishing me too?" Harry asked, feeling like his stomach had fallen through the floor.

"No!" Louis looked irritated. "No, I'm not banishing you, I'm - giving you want you want," he sighed. "Just - get out."

Numb with shock, Harry stumbled to the door, blinking back tears. "Louis - " he started, but Louis turned his back and marched into the room beyond, slamming the door behind him.

--

Harry found Zayn alone in their room, and stared at him. "Where's Niall?" he asked.

"Gone," sighed Zayn.

"Already?" Harry sank down next to him on the bed.

"He wanted to get going before Louis changed his mind. He said to say goodbye to you. And thanks, for what you did."

Harry nodded, sadly. "Where's he going? Home?"

"Nah. He was so young when he was taken he doesn’t even know what his village was called, much less where it was."

"So - where's he going?" Harry leaned against him tiredly.

Zayn slid an arm round Harry's shoulders. "Greyglass. I gave him my address. My parents will look after him, find him somewhere to stay." He sighed. "How'd it go with Louis?"

"Louis - told me to leave," Harry said, "I'm going home Zayn." He winced at the look of disappointment on Zayn's face.

"That's - you must be pleased," Zayn said, trying to look happy for him and failing.

"Not really," Harry confessed, feeling the tears threatening to start again. "He thinks I hate him. And he hates me."

"Today really sucks," Zayn said bitterly. "First I lose Niall and now you?"

Harry fell against him, and they held each other desperately tight, trying not to cry.

--

The following morning, Harry packed what few possessions he'd accumulated into a satchel and prepared to leave. He left his page's uniform on the bed, and finally left the midwinter outfit from Louis behind as well, telling Zayn with a sigh that he would have no use for it in Mare's Deep.

They hugged each other goodbye, promising that they would see each other again one day, and Harry walked out without daring to look back.

He made his way to the foot of the tower, intending to at least say goodbye to Louis, but to his surprise was stopped by the guard at the bottom.

"What's up?" Harry asked, surprised. He knew the guard, he'd said hello to him virtually on a daily basis since he'd arrived here.

"His Highness left orders he's not to be disturbed."

Harry blinked, annoyed. "Oh come on Paul, it's me!" he insisted, but got a regretful shake of the head.

"Especially you he said Harry. Sorry."

Harry turned away sadly, and made his way to the stables. True to his word, Louis had arranged for a horse to be made available for him, and Harry almost laughed when he saw which one it was.

"Hello boy," he murmured, rubbing the horse's nose as it neighed softly at him in recognition.

Mounting up, he rode slowly out of the castle, nodding at the guards in faint amusement that they probably had no idea he was the same boy they'd hauled unceremoniously out of a pile of hay some months before. No-one stopped him now, even though he found himself wishing they would. He'd half expected Louis to send after him, that he'd get a last minute reprieve, but nobody came and soon he was riding out over the drawbridge and into the open air.

He rode slowly down the track, pausing once to look back and up, eyes searching the facade until he made out, far, far above, the tower with its tiny balcony that signified Louis' rooms.

Harry stared until his eyes hurt, but he couldn’t tell if there was a figure up there or not, maybe watching the track. He finally turned away, wiping his eyes that were surely only watering from the late winter sun, and rode onwards.

--

In the castle, Louis was lying face down on his bed, shutters bolted to avoid the temptation of looking out, when his door opened.

He sat up, heart pounding, and then saw it was Liam.

"Oh. It's you. What do you want? I thought I left orders not to be disturbed?"

"Since when do your orders apply to me? And why are you lying in the dark? Are you alright?"

Louis sighed. "No," he confessed miserably, and Liam sat down next to him, looking concerned.

"What's wrong Lou?"

"I made a hideous mistake," Louis said, unhappily.

"What?"

"I fell in love," Louis confessed, fighting back the urge to throw himself into Liam's arms.

"How is that a mistake?" Liam frowned.

Louis' face crumpled. "Because he hates me," he moaned, shoulders shaking, and Liam pulled him into a hug as Louis finally gave in and broke down.

--

As he rounded the brow of the final hill and his village came into sight, Harry drew up on the reins for a moment and just stared. It seemed to have been an age since he was here, but at least nothing seemed to have changed much. He'd harboured an awful fear that somehow it would be different, but to his relief it looked as welcoming as always. The tops of the houses glowed with the final sunlight as it slid behind the mountains, and he kicked the horse gently onwards, suddenly desperate to be home.

As he rode up the main street, first one cry went up, then another, then there was a crowd of people flocking around him as he was recognised.

"Harry! He's back!"

"It's Harry!"

"Somebody fetch Anne!"

And suddenly there was his mother, running up the road trying to untie her apron, surrounded by a group of people dragging her along.

"Harry." She stopped by his horse, looking like she might burst into tears. "You're back. And - just look at you!"

Harry grinned. "Hello Mum." He slid off the horse and into her arms and for a while they just clung to each other. Then he noticed his sister standing nearby, and had to hug her too, and then it felt like half the village were grabbing him and showering him with hugs and kisses.

He fended them off laughing. "Mum," he said, remembering something. "Is it true, about Jack's family?"

She nodded, suddenly sad, and then looked at him hopefully. "Is he alright though?"

Harry assured her that he was, and was then abruptly deluged with queries about the other children that had been taken. He answered them all, having made it his business to go round and track them all down the night before he left, and gather messages to take home for them. He'd spoken to Jack too, just in case he came into contact with any of the others and wondered why he'd been left out. It had taken all Harry's willpower not to cry as he listened to the little boy's words for his family, and he wondered if Louis would one day tell him what had happened to them.

Thinking about Louis made things twist painfully in his stomach, and he shook himself. He was home now. Back to his old life. Things would just go back to how they'd been and his time in the castle would soon be just like a dream, he told himself.

Lying in bed that night though, he just couldn’t get comfortable. The mattress, stuffed with straw and horsehair was like a board compared to Louis' feather bed, or the four poster he'd shared with Zayn for that matter. He missed the warmth of another body too, despite the fact that his sister was asleep in her own bed across the room. It wasn’t the same.

It was noisy as well, creakings and rustlings from the wooden houses, and the horses in the stables, and the wind outside. The castle had been busy, but its thick walls meant once you were shut into a room you were rarely disturbed by what was going on outside.

He tossed and turned and tried not to think about what Louis might be doing. Would he be with Eleanor tonight? And Zayn, would he be with Liam? He wondered about Niall, whether he was safe, whether he'd made it to Zayn's family.

In the end he crept out of bed and wrapped in his blanket went to talk to the horse, as his only remaining link with the castle and Louis. He'd forgotten to ask what Louis had called it in the end, assuming he'd been joking about calling it Harry. They found him there in the morning, fast asleep, curled up in the hay against the horse's warm flank.

--

Days turned into weeks, and weeks became a month. The first flush of springtime began to appear, with trees starting to bud, and the brown mush of winter becoming a sea of bright green grass.

Harry went about his daily tasks with diligence and no complaints, but his heart wasn't really in them. He missed the bustle of life in the castle, he realised, the fact there was always something going on. He missed the food too. And the huge fires. Harry realised guiltily he'd got used to Stronghold's ridiculous excesses.

When he found himself defending the tribute system on the grounds it provided for support in winter and realised he was getting some very strange looks, Harry shut up quickly. They had voted, he was told, over whether to accept the cartload of supplies Louis had sent. The vote had just gone in favour, on the grounds they would only be taking back what was stolen from them in the first place.

Harry would end each day sitting on the fence in the paddock staring up towards the mountains, in much the same way he used to stand on Louis' balcony staring out in the direction of the village.

He'd thought he was hiding his melancholy mood from his family, but when one morning he finally announced that he was going back, his mother just nodded.

"I wondered how long it would take you," she said quietly. "It's been like - you left a part of yourself there, ever since you came back."

"I think I did," said Harry. "I - met someone there. And - and he believes things about me that aren't true. And I have to at least try and make him see that." He sighed. "He may not even agree to see me. I guess I might be back sooner than you think."

She hugged him. "There's always a place for you here Harry, you know that. But you have to follow your heart in life."

So with a packed lunch and a wild hope in his heart, Harry set out on the long ride back towards the fortress.

--

It took longer, climbing into the mountains than it had coming down. Twice, Harry ended up going the wrong way and had to retrace his path, and once a bridge had been washed away in the spring thaw, and he had to ride miles out of his way to find a route past. The day had long faded into evening by the time he saw the dark bulk of the fortress rising out of the gloom ahead of him.

He'd been worrying about whether he would even be allowed in, but to his relief he saw that one of the men on guard duty was Paul.

He hailed him, and was hailed back in surprise.

"Master Harry! Fancy seeing you back here!"

"What are you doing out here in the cold?" Harry laughed. "Fed up with the stairs?"

Paul shook his head disapprovingly. "His Highness told me that if anyone was suicidal enough to have another go at him, they were welcome to try. Said there was fuck all use, pardon my language, in having a bodyguard if the bastards were just going to poison his dinner."

Harry made a face, wondering what Louis' mental state was like if he was practically inviting people to attack him.

"You back to stay then lad?" Paul called after him as he rode down into the entrance passage.

"Depends on Prince Louis," Harry called back, and dug in his heels to go faster.

Dismounting in the courtyard and handing the reins to a groom, he looked up at the clock. It was suppertime, he realised. Louis would almost certainly be in the main hall. Setting his shoulders determinedly, he set off through the castle.

--

Making his way through the noisy throng in the hall, Harry felt a sense of inner warmth that he realised with a jolt was the feeling of coming home. And then his eyes settled on the royal table at the head of the room, and the figure of Louis lounging boredly on one of the two thrones, and his stomach tightened.

He felt physically sick, with nerves and longing. Made himself walk forwards, stepping out of the crowd and towards the royal party. He noticed that Eleanor was sitting at Louis' side, and that Liam was on his other side, but beyond that everything was a blur.

Harry saw the moment Louis spotted him, the way he sat up as if he'd been jabbed in the back, every muscle going tense. He stared at Harry as if he was a ghost, never taking his eyes off him as Harry came right up to the foot of the dais and stopped.

"You came back," Louis said redundantly, although Harry couldn't tell from his flat tone if he was pleased or angry.

Harry nodded. "There were - things I needed to say," he said, vaguely aware of a spreading hush around them as people stopped talking and started staring at them.

"You couldn't have sent a letter?" Louis said flippantly.

"Wasn't sure you'd get it," Harry shot back. "I heard you were down a page."

Louis inclined his head. "Yeah, you just can't get the staff, I've discovered."

They stared at each other.

"So?" Louis said finally. Harry noticed his hands were clenched so hard over the arms of his chair that the knuckles were white. He took a deep breath.

"You think that I betrayed you," he said clearly. "I didn't. I would never. I was just protecting a friend, who was as much a victim as anyone else."

"Is that it?" Louis asked bitterly.

Harry shook his head. "And - and you seem to think I hate you. I don't."

Louis flinched. "You came all the way back here just to tell me that?"

"No." And Harry thought - Fuck it.

"I came back to tell you that I love you."

Louis' head came up sharply. "Say that again," he said in a low, dangerous voice.

Harry swallowed nervously, but he straightened his back and glared. "I love you. I love you Louis. I have no fucking idea why, but I do. And if you want me to go again, then I will, but I - I just - wanted you to know."

Harry's voice cracked on the last few words, but somehow Louis was on his feet and coming down the steps from the table, eyes intent on Harry's face, and then he was there, right there, and gripping Harry's arms so tightly it hurt.

"Harry?" Louis studied him desperately, searching his face for the truth. "Do - do you mean that?"

Harry nodded, too choked up to get any more words out, and Louis gave a kind of despairing whimper and then his mouth was jammed against Harry's in a frantic kiss. Harry kissed him back, clutching at him, and it was messy and stupid and painful because there were too many teeth involved, but Harry didn’t care.

--

When Louis pulled back he was still grasping Harry's upper arms hard enough to bruise, staring at him as if he thought Harry might evaporate into thin air at any second.

"I love you Louis," Harry whispered, because he'd waited so long to say it he never wanted to stop.

Louis looked helpless. "I love you too," he whispered back. "I always have."

They kissed again, and it was softer this time, if no less desperate.

"You do?" Harry asked him, not because he didn’t believe him but more that he didn’t believe his own ears.

Louis gave a laugh that was almost a sob, and nodded. "So much. I love you so much."

They were resting their foreheads together, oblivious to everyone around them, still clutching each other.

"So - can I come back?" Harry laughed.

Louis nodded. "But not as my page."

"No?" Harry frowned, and Louis took his hands.

"No. This time - as my official consort."

"What?" Harry's eyes went wide, and Louis laughed.

"If you want? Will you?" He looked suddenly nervous, and Harry smiled in disbelief.

"Yes," he breathed, and Louis gathered him up in his arms and spun him round until they were both breathless and dizzy and laughing.

Louis took him by the hand and lead him to the table, and Harry was suddenly painfully aware of Eleanor's eyes on him.

"Hey," he smiled awkwardly, sitting in the chair Louis had dragged up for him.

"Hi Harry," she smiled. "It's good to have you back."

"It is?" He looked surprised. "I mean - you don’t mind? About the consort thing? I mean - you must have been expecting - "

Eleanor shook his head. "He loves you. I know that. If only because he's been a fucking nightmare for the last month."

"He has?" Harry grinned.

"More than usual," she murmured conspiratorially, and they laughed. "Anyway. I have someone."

"You do?" Harry asked, feeling vaguely like he wasn't contributing much to this conversation, and wondering who the hell she could be with that wouldn’t annoy the fuck out of Louis, whether he wanted her or not.

Then someone appeared behind Eleanor and slid an arm round her neck. "So the wanderer returns," smirked Danielle, perching on the arm of Eleanor's chair. "Are you staying this time, babycakes?"

Harry nodded. "Looks like it."

"Thank fuck for that." She slid down into Eleanor's lap and stole her wine glass.

For the first time Harry became conscious that someone else was staring at him, and looked up to realise that on the far side of Prince Liam, currently busy congratulating Louis, Zayn was leaning round them and sticking his tongue out at Harry.

He grinned, and waved, and Zayn gave him a triumphant gesture that managed to be somehow obscene at the same time.

Then Louis was sitting down beside him and taking his hand in his as if to stop Harry running away again, and Harry leaned against him, feeling suddenly worn out.

Louis moved closer, putting a protective arm round him, and seemingly noticing Harry's travel worn state for the first time.

"Bed?" he murmured.

Harry smiled sleepily. "Not sure I can manage the stairs," he teased.

Louis grinned. "If I have to, I'll carry you up myself."

--

Two hours later they were lying in a tangle of sleepy kisses and smiles, neither willing to admit they were afraid to go to sleep in case this turned out to be the dream.

Louis kissed the tip of Harry's nose, making him giggle, and winked at him.

"You get a present you know," he said conversationally.

Harry sniggered. "I can image what your idea of a present consists of," he said, reaching down to grope Louis' cock shamelessly.

"Mmmn. No, don't stop. You do! You get to ask for whatever you want."

"I don't want anything," Harry yawned. "Not now I've got you."

"You need to widen your horizons you do," Louis retorted, grinning.

"Is that what you were doing?" Harry snuggled into him, and sighed. "I can think of one thing I want. But I don't think you're going to like it."

"Harry my lad? If I can teach you nothing else in life, it's that the best time to ask a man for a favour is just after you've given him a mind-blowing orgasm," Louis told him, nuzzling into his neck and nibbling the skin.

Harry sighed, wary of upsetting their so recently acquired equilibrium. But Louis was right, there probably would never be a better time to ask.

"I want you to grant Niall a pardon. To let him come back. Come home." Harry held his breath, as Louis stilled against him for a second.

He sighed. "Can't I buy you a horse instead? Or a tiara? Or a dwarf?"

Harry giggled. "You said I could have anything," he reminded him, glad that Louis at least seemed in good spirits still, even if he was reluctant.

"He won't poison my porridge will he?"

"He won't. I promise." Harry wrapped his arms round Louis' chest and kissed him.

Louis groaned. "Oh alright then. If it makes you happy."

Harry beamed up at him in amazed relief. "You will? Louis, thank you!"

"Hmph." Louis looked considering. "You know, I think I'm entitled to demand another orgasm for that though."

"I think that can be arranged," Harry murmured, sliding further down in the bed.

--

A wagon was sent out the very next day to Greyglass, bearing Zayn with it as the castle's messenger, at Harry's suggestion. Harry waved him off down the track, wishing he could see the faces of Zayn's family when he showed up in Prince Liam's livery and told them he was already the fortress's bard.

Harry spent most of the day occupied with arrangements for the binding ceremony, as Louis' sister seemed to have taken over the running of it and kept asking him about flowers and colour schemes on the grounds that Louis was apparently hiding from her.

When he finally found him in the stables, Louis innocently denied he'd been keeping out of sight at all, and then when footsteps approached outside, tackled Harry down into the hay.

--

When the wagon returned the following evening, a nervous-looking Niall was escorted into a room in the gatehouse. Once inside he was shocked to find Prince Louis waiting for him. Zayn had explained that he was to be pardoned, but he'd rather assumed he'd be able to stay out of Louis' way, and they'd perhaps each pretend the other didn't exist.

"Niall." Louis nodded to him. "I - wanted a chance to speak to you."

"Thank you for the pardon," Niall said quickly. "I won't let you down your Highness."

"I wanted to offer you an apology," said Louis quietly.

Niall blinked. "An apology?" He smiled awkwardly. "I suppose I did actually try and poison you, so that's probably not - "

"Not for the banishing," Louis interrupted, sensing that left to his own devices Niall might not actually stop. "For - for what my father did to you."

Niall stopped, and flushed. He nodded. "I wasn't the only one," he said, desperately hoping that Louis didn't suspect him of making it up.

"No." Louis looked at his hands. "I know," he said quietly.

It took a while for the implication to sink in, and when it did, the colour drained from Niall's face. "No. Oh, no. Not his own son."

Louis looked up at him briefly, then walked over the desk, idly shuffling a stack of books. "Harry told me that you were - upset, that you lost out on the chance of revenge." He stilled his hands, kept his eyes on the desk. "It was a very - sudden, illness, that took him."

Suddenly Louis looked up, smiled. "I used to spend a lot of time exploring the kitchens when I was little. Probably even saw you there at some point, had I but known. You have access to a lot of things, in a kitchen that size. As you know."

"What are you saying?" Niall asked carefully.

"Saying? Nothing." Louis slapped a book closed with a loud bang that made Niall jump. "Just that - " he softened his tone. "Just because vengeance wasn’t yours, doesn’t mean it wasn't had."

Niall took this in in silence, then looked at him cautiously. "Why are you telling me this?"

Louis sighed. "Because - maybe because I don’t like the idea of someone being frightened of me. Not in the way you seemed to be. Not in that way."

"I'm sorry," said Niall, after a pause. "For everything."

"Yeah. Me too." Louis gave a sudden smile. "So, you want your job back? Or - with Harry becoming my consort, I've got a vacancy for a page?"

Niall gazed at him in astonishment. "You'd trust me? With that?"

Louis held his eyes. "Yes, I would."

Niall beamed. "Then I'd be honoured."

"Good." Louis hesitated. "Niall? Can I ask - that you don't tell Harry any of what I've just told you?"

"He doesn't know?"

Louis shook his head. "He doesn't need to. Okay?"

"Sure. But I know he'd be - "

"I don't want his pity," Louis interrupted. "Understand?"

Niall nodded meekly. "I won't say a word. I promise."

Louis relented. "Go on then, he's probably waiting for you out there." He watched Niall walk out the door and after a moment he followed. Outside, Niall was in a three-way hug with Harry and Zayn, and he watched them for a while, smiling.

Eventually Harry noticed him and came over. "Thank you," he said, and kissed him lingeringly. Louis slid his arms round Harry's waist and deepened the kiss, until they drew the attention of the other boys, and a daring catcall from Zayn.

"Still want to be my consort?" Louis whispered.

"More than ever," Harry smiled.

--

In the morning, Harry was bound to Louis as his consort in an official ceremony carried out in the great hall. Liam officiated, and afterwards Charlotte and Eleanor cast flower petals over them from a silver basket carried proudly by Jack.

Louis spat a petal out of his mouth and grimaced. "I hate this part," he grumbled. "You end up looking like a compost heap."

Harry picked another one out of his hair and grinned. "Makes a change from straw."

Hand in hand, they lead the procession out to where a feast had been set up beneath canopies in the courtyard gardens, and at the first available opportunity slipped away from the congratulatory hordes and disappeared up to Louis' apartment - to their apartment, Harry mentally amended, with a warm flush.

Louis had asked if he'd rather have somewhere in the main body of the castle, but Harry had come to love this tower suite, with its breathtaking views, and its admirable privacy.

Now, they sprawled on the bed together, kissing hard and hungrily. They'd both had a difficult time keeping their hands off each other all morning, trying not to crease their ceremonial finery and behave themselves until it was all over.

Now though, they could do what they liked, and the floor was soon littered with items of crumpled clothing.

Louis wrapped his hand around Harry's stiff cock and pulled at him gently, making Harry groan and flop back against the pillows.

"Fuck, Louis."

"I intend to," Louis replied with a wicked grin, and dipped his head to take Harry's cock into his mouth. The noise Harry gave made him laugh around it, sucking harder just to hear him moan.

When Harry was hot and throbbing in his mouth, leaking pre-come all over his tongue and writhing in the sheets, Louis pulled away grinning, and Harry made a noise of frustration.

"Louis! I want to come."

"You will," Louis smirked, leaning over to kiss him with a messy mouth.

He took hold of Harry's cock again, squeezing him hard at the base, and steadying him carefully. Harry's eyes widened as he realised what Louis was going to do, and watched as Louis positioned himself over him, lowering himself onto Harry's rigid shaft.

Harry gasped, and Louis gave an 'oof' of escaping breath as he sank down onto Harry’s cock, before lifting himself up and sliding down onto him again.

He'd taken Harry like this the very first time, but this was utterly different now. They trusted each other, loved each other - and this time Harry was as eager for it as Louis.

He thrust up into Louis' body, knowing he'd like it hard, grinning as Louis closed his eyes and pumped his own erection quickly.

The feeling of Louis's body around him, his weight bearing him down on Harry’s cock as he rose and fell on him, the sight of the muscles working in his thighs and stomach, made Harry ache with his impending release. Louis' hand was all slippery motion on his own cock, and Harry reached out, added his hand as well until they were jerking him together.

Harry bucked upwards to meet Louis' body, pounding into him as far as he could go, and finally tipped Louis over the edge. He came with a long moan, spurting shamelessly over Harry's chest and nipples. He clenched hard around Harry's cock as he came, and that finished Harry too, already wound up to the point of no return by Louis' mouth. He spilled into Louis' body, pulse after pulse of sticky wetness that trickled down his thighs when Harry pulled out.

"Was that our first official fuck?" Harry asked, breathless and laughing.

"Yeah." Louis grinned, panting. "And when I've got my breath back, we're having our second one."

Harry rolled over into his arms, and kissed him. "I love you," he smiled. He didn't think he would ever tire of saying it.

Louis held him close and toyed with his hair. "Even though I'm a bastard?" he teased, tugging his curls.

"Maybe because you're a bastard," Harry agreed, laughing. "You're my bastard, that's the important part."

"Always." Louis kissed him again, cupping a hand round Harry's neck and exploring further down his body with the other.

"Lou? What do I have to do? As your consort, I mean?"

Louis grinned and Harry slapped him. "And no silly answers. I mean - do I have duties or anything?"

"Other than sit about and look pretty? Anything you want, really," Louis murmured. "You're one of the most important people in the castle now." He went back to kissing his way down Harry's body, but Harry was still considering.

"So - if, say, I wanted to make some changes - I could?" he asked, hesitantly.

"What sort of changes?" Louis looked indignant, then laughed. "Harry, do whatever makes you happy."

"I was thinking like - not using such young children in the kitchens?" Harry suggested.

"Well, if you can come up with a viable alternative, knock yourself out," Louis yawned lazily. "What else?"

"No more raids?" Harry said hopefully.

Louis snickered. "Why did I have to fall for a bloody reformer?"

"Because you're a good person at heart?" Harry smiled.

"Don't tell anyone, eh?" Louis smirked. "I've got a reputation to uphold."

Harry wriggled down beneath him. "How about I give you something better to uphold?" he murmured suggestively, and Louis made approving noises.

--

In the gardens far below, Liam was starting to wonder out loud where they'd gone, and Zayn rolled his eyes and pulled him into the shade of a tree away from the crowd, where he proceeded to remind Liam it wasn't just singing his mouth was good for.

Liam, caught between horror of being seen and massive arousal at the idea of getting sucked off in public, thought to himself that maybe Louis had the right idea, and looked speculatively down at the dark head industriously working his cock.

He threaded a hand into Zayn's hair, and he looked up, questioningly. "Why don't we take this inside?" Liam suggested, voice thick with desire. Zayn let himself be pulled to his feet, and followed him indoors, smirking.

--

In the tower room, Louis and Harry were making love for a second time, Louis moving slowly inside him, their bodies slick with sweat. As Harry threw his head back and came, Louis held him close and pressed kisses to his chest and thought gladly that this time, he would never have to let him go.

--