Dear Mr Tomlinson,
His Royal Highness Prince Harry requests your presence
at a royal ball to be held in his honour at the palace
this coming Friday, the twenty fourth day of the seventh month
at eight o'clock in the evening.
Formal dress only.
Carriages will be provided on request.
Louis read the invitation three times over, eagerly taking in the carefully curled script, feeling the weight of the thick, luxurious paper underneath his grubby fingertips. He held the invitation gingerly, careful not to mark it with soot from the fireplace, and tilted it a little more towards the stump of his candle to better make out the swirls of dark blue ink.
A royal ball, in the Prince's name...and Louis was invited. Of course, everyone in the kingdom had received an invitation, but Louis liked to pretend that he'd been singled out, as if for one moment he was important enough to be personally invited to such a regal occasion. He was perfectly aware of the fact that he'd only been invited because he was registered as unmarried, but he allowed himself this one small daydream.
Footsteps thundering down the wooden stairs had him startling and stuffing the letter into the front of his apron. He grimaced as he turned to grab his broom, instantly regretting being so careless as to scrunch up something so precious. He didn't have time to do anything about it; only seconds later the door to the basement banged open, and armfuls of dirty clothes were flung his way.
"Louis, clean these before tomorrow-"
"They're absolutely filthy, and we're supposed to be riding out at dawn-"
"Father is taking us to town to shop for the ball, so do make sure you clean them properly this time-"
"You don't want to embarrass us again, do you?"
With a sneer and a smug bark of laughter, the door slammed shut again. Louis dropped the clothes immediately, wrinkling his nose at the smell. They would take all night to get clean, and knowing his stepbrothers, they would have more for him in the morning.
Louis reached into his pocket for his invitation, flattening it on the table and smoothing out the creases the best he could. There was no way he could go, not with all the chores he had to do. Between cooking, cleaning, mending, tending to the animals, shopping for the family, and running errands, he barely had a second to himself. There would be no time to make something before Friday, and he had no money to buy himself anything new.
Louis sat down heavily in his seat, tracing a finger over Prince Harry's name. What he would give to see the Prince up close. Though it wasn't explicitly stated, the reason for the ball was obvious; to find the Prince a spouse before his twenty first birthday in April. Eligible people were coming from all over the land to try and catch the Prince's eye, all hoping for an offer of marriage. One person would be so lucky as to win his affections, and it certainly would never be Louis. The Prince, fall for a serving boy? It was outrageous. Ludicrous. Prince Harry wanted someone with a title, someone with wealth to their name and nobility running through their blood, none of which Louis had.
Louis tucked the invitation carefully under his pillow, and headed to the yard to fetch some water. It was already late, and the clothes wouldn't wash and dry themselves. Once he was back in his room, shivering a little from the cold, he fueled his little fire and settled in.
It would be a long night.
When his mother remarried, Louis' family expanded from just himself and his mother, to the two of them plus a new stepfather and two new stepbrothers. Everything was fine at first, Louis enjoyed growing up with his two new playmates, happy to have people his own age to be with. It was a little after two years of being a family that a things began to change. Games of hide and seek turned into hours of Louis hiding and no one coming to find him. Games of catch turned into his stepbrothers throwing his possessions to each other over Louis' head, far out of reach. Skipping ropes became weapons to try and trip Louis up, high fives and guffaws of laughter the sound that reached Louis' ears when he picked himself off the floor, grazed knees and palms and tears in his eyes.
Over the years he'd learnt to ignore them, learnt to keep out of their way. Then they started asking them to do a few of their dishes, or just take their clothes down to the laundry. He made them snacks here, put away their shoes there, then before he'd even realised what was happening he was waiting on them hand and foot all day everyday. There was no respite, and if he ever failed in his duties, they made sure he knew not to ever do it again. His mother had no idea, and Louis wanted to keep it that way. Her last marriage had been hard, and she deserved to be happy in this one. The less she knew, the better, and Louis would just quietly do as he was told.
He dreamed, though. Oh, did he dream. The castle was visible from his bedroom window. When he was younger, he would sit there night after night, wishing and hoping and praying that he might get a chance to be there one day. Sometimes the royal carriage passed through the village, and Louis would always be there to see it go by. He imagined being able to ride in it one day, to be pulled along by white horses with magnificent feathered plumes, and feel the gentle rocking of the wheels over cobbles underneath him. As he'd got older, those dreams had turned into wistful gazes at the castle every now and then, pauses at the window where he looked over at the grand palace and got lost in thoughts of dances and banquets and a certain green eyed prince that he knew was at the center of it all.
He'd never imagined he would actually get a chance to be there. Until now.
Hours of washing and cleaning and drying later, the laundry was done, and Louis collapsed into bed with the dawn chorus ringing in his ears. What only felt like minutes later, he was being awoken by a hammering at his door, the hinges protesting as it was flung open and loud voices approached.
"Glad to see you've done what we asked, that makes a change-"
"Took you long enough to do all this, didn't it? We actually had to come all the way downstairs to get it-"
"I suppose it would have troubled you too much to actually put it in our rooms for us-"
"It's like you want to make life difficult for us-"
"And there's no breakfast on the table, either! Lazy little-"
"You're completely useless. I don't know why you're still around here-"
"Urgh, this shirt isn't even clean! You know what, you have it. It might actually make you look presentable for a change."
"Yes, let him have it. It won't fit him; he's far too small, but god knows I can't stand what he's wearing now."
"Louis! I expect breakfast to be on the table in five minutes, or so help me god..."
The voices faded away back up the stairs again. Louis heaved himself up, cracking his eyes open again. They felt like sandpaper, and he rubbed at them with his sleeve and let out an almighty yawn. Breakfast, right. He lifted himself off the mattress, stretching out his limbs, and then stumbled his way to the kitchen, brain fuzzy with the little sleep he'd managed to get.
When the family had gone off to town, Louis shuffled back to his room, covering his mouth through another huge yawn. He stopped on his way to get the mop and bucket from the cupboard, vaguely remembering something about his brother letting him have a shirt. He turned in a circle, peering into the corners of the room, sure he hadn't been dreaming.
He eventually spotted it crumpled on the floor next to the fireplace, and he gingerly picked it up and shook it out, holding it up to the light at the window. It was perfectly clean and presentable, black, soft, silky material with a high collar. Louis stroked it over his fingers, looking for any marks or scuffs or rips. But there was nothing; it was fine.
Louis hung it up over the fireplace carefully, and stepped back to observe it. He considered it from one angle, and then another, walking around his room to see it from every possible point. He turned a little, looking over his shoulder at the invitation resting on his bedside cabinet. For a moment he just looked at it, nibbling his bottom lip between his teeth. Then, he got out his sewing box, and got to work.
He shouldn't be here.
This was quite possibly the stupidest idea he'd ever had.
Louis walked up the castle steps with other guests, showing his invitation at the door. Part of him was convinced that the guards would take one look at him and turn him away whether he had an invitation or not, but he was shown in, and directed up a huge winding red carpeted staircase, flanked by soldiers in decorated uniform.
Louis kept his head down, self-conscious at his own appearance. He'd done his best with the shirt, pinning and sewing it until it fit him, and he'd washed and dyed old grey trousers so they turned black, and shined his best shoes until his face shone in them, and still he felt he looked scruffy. He'd styled his hair so it was quiffed up into a curl, but what he thought had looked good in his little room at home suddenly looked awful and scruffy against all the gentry in their suits and long dresses, jewels glittering in the light of the chandeliers.
The palace was staggering, all high ceilings and thick carpets covering corridors that seemed to stretch on for miles. Portraits adorned the walls, some of people that Louis didn't recognise, and some that he did, of Prince Harry when he was younger, some of him in uniform in his teens, up until the most obviously recent one of him on horseback looking every inch the Prince he was, regal and proud. Louis slowed his pace, transfixed by piercing green eyes that appeared to follow him as he passed by.
It didn't really sink in that he was in the same room as the man he'd daydreamed about for so many years until he was being shown into the ballroom with some of the other guests, herded in so they were all stood around the edge of the room facing inwards. Louis checked his stepbrothers were nowhere near him, and found them across the room, whispering to each other and peering around at everyone else, obvious distaste in their expressions. Louis maneuvered his way through the throng of people, ducking in and out until he was only two people from the inner circle. When he was through, he could see what everyone was looking at.
It was him. Prince Harry.
He was standing in the center of the circle, perusing the crowd. He nodded his greeting to people, turning to make eye contact with everyone there. Louis let his eyes rove over him greedily, drinking in his expensive trousers, his gleaming shoes, his hair that was artfully mussed, curling gently around his face and the tips of it just brushing his shoulders. His jacket was the most extravagant thing Louis had ever seen, black and decorated with embroidered curls of gold, high collar just touching his sharp jaw. Louis swallowed, all his remaining self confidence draining away. That jacket probably cost more than everything Louis had ever owned combined.
Then Prince Harry was facing him, meeting his eyes and nodding his polite greeting. Louis froze, transfixed, pinned to where he stood by his gaze. He didn't have the wherewithal to nod back; all he could do was stare. The Prince's smile faltered for just a second, and then he moved onto the people next to Louis. His eyes flicked back to Louis a couple of times more, and when he'd finished acknowledging everyone he bowed low, and made his way to the head of the ballroom. The crowd shifted, turning into a long line of people that snaked its way from where Harry had seated himself at his throne, all the way to the back by the doors.
The ballroom itself was enormous, with numerous chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and gilded candle holders fixed to the walls. The floor was a great expanse of white marble, polished so much it shone. White pillars were dotted around, supporting the great ceiling above them. From his place around halfway through the line, Louis craned his neck, checking his stepbrothers' location. Fortunately, they were at the front, and Louis could see from where he was the way they jostled each other, fighting to be first in line to meet the Prince.
Louis had to stifle a laugh at the way the Prince's friendly, open expression turned into one of mild disgust when Louis' stepbrothers stepped forward and bowed so low they nearly overbalanced. Louis couldn't make out what he said to them, but his brothers all but stormed away, elbowing each other and arguing in not-so-hushed tones. Louis turned his head away, making sure they wouldn't see his face. Not that they would probably even recognise him like this, anyway.
Slowly, the line edged forward, and with every person that came away, Louis' nerves escalated. His heart beat double time, his palms felt clammy. There was high chance that he could pass out at any moment. He peered over a couple of heads to see the Prince doing the same to the long line of people. For a moment, their eyes met, and a flash of recognition crossed the Prince's face. He smiled, and Louis felt his eyes bug. He ducked down out of sight, pressing his fingers to his mouth to stifle his nervous whimper.
Louis wrung his hands together. No one would notice if he slipped away now. He could just join the line of people leaving, and pretend he'd never been here. His brothers were on their way home anyway, and they'd want tea before they went to bed. Louis heart sunk lower and lower with the growing realisation that he'd wasted his time here. All he'd wanted was to finally meet the Prince, but he would only see Louis for what he really was; a common servant boy. He'd been such an idiot to think the Prince would ever give him a second thought.
Louis ducked out of the line, shoving his hands in his pockets as he hurried towards the exit. A few people stared, obviously wondering what business he had leaving before he'd spoken with the Prince, but Louis carried on, staring at the floor as he made his way past the line.
As he approached the guards at the door, there were quick footsteps behind him, the click of a well tailored heel on the marble floor. A hand touched his shoulder to stop him in tracks. Louis turned and looked up, heart slamming into his throat.
"Good evening," the Prince said with a warm smile. "I don't believe we've met."
Louis gaped, all too aware of the crowd that had gathered around them, silent and still as they watched the Prince.
Prince Harry bowed low, eyes never leaving Louis'. "My name is Harry," he said unnecessarily.
When he'd straightened, looking at Louis expectantly, Louis copied his movements, bowing stiffly and glancing nervously around at the people all staring at him with a mixture of envy and fascination on their faces.
"I, uh," he cleared his throat. "Good evening, Your Highness."
"I noticed you were leaving," the Prince said. "We haven't had a chance to properly meet, yet. Perhaps you'd care to dance with me?"
There were mutters around them, some drowned out by the music that had started on cue. Louis met the Prince's eyes, noting that they were stunningly accurate to the portrait he'd walked past earlier. He nodded jerkily, unsure of what else to do. Prince Harry smiled kindly, and offered his hand. Louis placed his own inside it, praying that the Prince didn't notice how sweaty it was, how his fingers trembled a little when Harry's own warm, dry fingers closed over them.
Louis was lead out to the middle of the floor. He concentrated hard on not tripping over his own two feet, and tried his best to ignore the hundreds of eyes that were on him, all watching his every move with baited breath. The Prince stepped close to him, looping an arm around his waist and moving their hands into hold. Louis placed his free hand on Harry's shoulder, and let him take the lead, adjusting to the easy waltz Harry eased them into.
"I've never seen you before," the Prince murmured to him as they turned slowly. "Where are you from?"
Louis swallowed heavily down a dry throat, clearing it before he even tried to speak. "M'from the little village just south of the river...I've lived there all my life."
Harry considered his words. "Strange. I've traveled through there many times, and yet our paths have never crossed."
Louis stumbled a little when Harry turned them without warning, tripping over his own shoes. The Prince's arm tightened around his waist to steady him, pressing them even closer together in doing so. Warmth emanated from the pressure at Louis' back, spreading all the way up to his cheeks. "Oh. Maybe they did, we just never noticed each other."
"Impossible," Harry dismissed. "I never forget a face, and I would certainly never forget yours."
Louis looked away, hot under the Prince's intense stare. He had no idea how he'd managed to get here tonight; from sneaking up the castle after his brothers, to dancing in the arms of the Prince himself. This was the stuff of his fantasies; the stuff he'd dreamed of but never dared to consider actually happening. He half expected to wake up any moment now, to be torn from this wonderful moment back to the reality of slaving over a hot stove to make breakfast for his brothers.
But no, this was real. The Prince was really looking at him, his arm was really holding Louis close, and they were really dancing in the ballroom of his palace. One more rotation, and the song ended, melding seamlessly into the next. There were still people watching them, some looking at Louis with open disdain. Louis shifted uncomfortably.
Harry seemed to understand, for he pulled away and gestured to the open doors. "Walk with me?" he asked, and Louis nodded gratefully.
Together, they headed for the double doors that lead out into the vast gardens. As they stepped out into the cool night air, away from the stuffiness of the crowd and the heavy gazes of others, Louis felt some of the tension in his shoulders melt away. He smiled gratefully at Harry, who proceeded to guide Louis by the small of his back into a meandering walk around the gardens. They walked together, the Prince keeping a respectable distance away, only brushing their arms together occasionally.
"So," he said as they passed under a willow tree. "You've told me where you're from, but you won't tell me who you are."
Louis thought for a moment. "Guess," he finally said, stealing a glance at the Prince.
Harry's eyes glittered a little in the moonlight. "A game? Okay." He tapped his chin with his index finger, pretending to think. "Are you a Prince, too? Did you move to the village from a far off land in an attempt to have a 'normal' life?"
Louis shook his head, fighting back a smile. "No, sorry."
"Good, I'd hate to have to fight for my crown. Okay, not a Prince. Are you a Duke?"
Louis laughed aloud, shaking his head no. Harry looked delighted, grinning widely. He stopped them at a large concrete fountain, sitting on the edge and gesturing for Louis to do the same.
"But you come from a noble family, yes?"
The smile faded from Louis lips. He looked away, choosing instead to look at the running water cascading down the stone into the pool underneath them. He dipped his fingertips into the water, slightly surprised at how warm it was. He lifted his hand back out, watching the drops from his fingers create circular ripples in the dark water.
Louis licked his lips. "Of course," he lied.
"Ah, well. I must have heard of your family somewhere, then," the Prince said confidently. "Though I'll admit I can barely keep up with all the names I have to remember."
Louis tried to smile, but the illusion of the whole situation was beginning to disappear. He might be sitting on the edge of a fountain bathed in moonlight with the Prince, and said Prince might be looking at him with such warmth in his eyes that Louis felt he could melt from it, but that didn't change the fact that Louis didn't have a title. He was a nobody, and once the Prince discovered that, he would want nothing more to do with him. Louis sighed and wiped his damp fingers on his trousers.
The Prince shifted closer to him, leaning in so he could speak lowly into Louis' ear. "It doesn't matter to me, though. I'm sorry if you think this forward of me but...would you mind terribly if I kissed you?"
Louis pulled back a little, eyes wide. Prince Harry just looked at him honestly, openly, waiting for Louis' reply.
Louis shouldn't, he knew he shouldn't.
He nodded his permission, just a tiny dip of his chin. The Prince grinned, and leaned in closer ever so slowly, alerting Louis to every one of his movements; a hand at his back, the touching of his nose to Louis' before he was right there, pressing his lips to Louis' in a chaste kiss.
Louis' heart pounded in his ears, blood rushing to his head and making him feel a little dizzy. The Prince's other hand cupping his cheek grounded him, and they parted only for him to press their lips back together, not pulling away this time. His lips were so soft, so warm, enticing Louis into responding, resting a hand on the thick material of the Prince's jacket. The Prince hummed approvingly, tilting his head to the left so he could deepen the kiss.
Louis pulled back when the need for air was desperate. "Your Highness-" he panted.
"Harry," the Prince corrected, pressing another kiss to the corner of Louis' mouth. "Call me Harry."
"...Harry. You should know, I don't go round doing this," he gestured between them. "With anyone. I don't know what's come over me."
"You and I both," Harry replied, leaning in to steal another kiss. "As soon as I first saw you in the ballroom, I knew. There's something about you...I couldn't look away."
"I felt the same," Louis replied, tilting his head to bring their lips together again. The Prince was lying, of course he was, probably telling Louis whatever he could so he could take more kisses from him, but Louis desperately wanted to believe him. He wanted it to be true, wished Harry actually felt that way about him.
He closed his eyes and tried to memorise this moment, wanting to keep it with him for all eternity. This would be what he had left when the Prince found out he was a pauper and never wanted to see him again.
"Tell me your name," Harry begged. "I have to know. Please."
Sharp panic stabbed at Louis' chest and he pulled away abruptly, shaking his head. He went to remove his hand from Harry's chest, but Harry caught it on its way back. "I can't. Please don't ask that of me."
"I have to go." Louis shook his hand free and stood, looking down at his Prince. "I'm sorry. Thank you for tonight."
Harry stood too. "You can't leave me here like this!" he said, disbelief evident in his voice. "How am I ever supposed to find you again?'
Louis shrugged helplessly, backing away. "I'm sorry."
Before Harry could reply, he turned away, heading for the direction he thought they'd come from. He walked blindly, ducking under trees and stepping over flowerbeds. If he thought the illusion was fading before, it was well and truly shattered now. He cursed himself for the umpteenth time that night for ever leaving his little room at home. Now he'd got himself into a mess that he couldn't escape from.
He ignored Harry's pleas from behind him, breaking into a jog as he spotted the doors leading back inside the ballroom. There was still a large crowd of people dancing inside, and Louis hurried right into the center of them, using them as a moving human shield to hide himself from Harry.
He saw the Prince burst back into the room, saw him call a guard over and bark short, sharp instructions. As the message spread around the guards they all came to life, beginning to move into the crowd, looking carefully at each of the men they passed. Louis saw his opportunity as the soldier standing guard at the doors to the corridor moved away. He dove for the door, thanking the gods above when it swung open in his hand, and slipped out, shutting it firmly behind him. As the door closed he thought he heard Harry's voice shout, but he was gone before the sound faded, running back along the corridor and down the carpeted stairs to the front door. The guard at the door, oblivious to the commotion upstairs, let Louis out with little thought.
Louis sprinted for a nearby oak tree, hiding behind it and peering back out. Moments later, Harry appeared out of the front doors, head turning this way and that. Louis heard him bark orders to his army of soldiers behind him, and they began to move, heading in Louis' direction.
Louis took one last long look at Harry, and then ran, disappearing into the night.
"What do you mean, the Prince has met someone?"
Louis paused outside his brothers' bedroom door, inching closer so he could make out what they were saying.
"It's the talk of the town. Prince Harry met and danced with a boy last night, but the boy disappeared. No one knows who he is."
"That's so unfair! The Prince didn't even look at us!"
"That's because you looked cheap and ugly."
"Me?! You were the one who put him off, all that snivelling and grovelling at his feet!"
Louis moved back away from the door, securing the heavy laundry basket on his hip before he made his way downstairs.
He'd made it back just in time to give his brothers' their evening tea last night, and then he'd sat at his window ledge, looking out at the palace. The shoes he'd worn had rubbed blisters at the back of his ankles, and he'd sat there, absently rubbing a salve onto them, half a dazed smile on his face. He'd been there, danced with Harry, held his hand, kissed him. It felt like a lifetime away, such a stark contrast to his life here.
He would never forget it, that was for sure. And in another life, where he was from a noble family and he had a title, he would keep Harry and never let him go. Tonight he'd gone and done the one thing he'd promised himself he would never do, and he'd fallen in love. He fallen for the ever-unattainable prince. The future king of their land. He didn't belong in that life, no; his place was here, with his family. Harry never had to see him again, and once he'd given up any remaining thought about Louis, he would meet someone else, someone suitable that could rule by his side. That person could never be Louis.
He'd touched a finger to his lips, remembering, and then he'd fallen into a fitful sleep, dreams full a life more lavish than his.
The next day, Louis took a walk into town. The morning was unseasonably cold, and he trudged his way through the mile journey into the center of the village, pulling his jacket around his shoulders as he went. His wicker basket swung from his right hand, a hastily scrawled list of things to buy folded up inside. His breath swirled up in a mist with every exhale, disappearing into the crisp air above him. As he gathered his purchases through town, it appeared that there was only one thing on people's lips, and that was the ball. Wherever Louis went, people were talking about it, and a worrying amount of people were talking about the mystery boy the Prince had taken a shine to.
"I was there," Louis heard one woman tell another matter-of-factly in the queue at the bakery. "Such a handsome boy, he was, and the Prince only had eyes for him. How a person disappears without a trace like that in a palace full of guards is a mystery to me."
"Does the little one with the cheekbones know the Prince is in love with him?" the other woman asked, and Louis stilled.
"How could he not know?" the first woman replied. "It was written all over the Prince's face when he couldn't find him. He was desperate. Highly unusual for a Prince, I'm sure."
It felt like all the blood had drained from Louis' face. He didn't wait to hear any more of their conversation. He hurried out of the shop, bread forgotten, leaning against a nearby post and sucking in deep breaths of fresh air.
In love with him? With Louis?
"You alright there, lad?" a man asked, pausing to assess Louis on his way past.
"Fine," Louis nodded, taking another deep breath in an attempt to gather himself. "Yes, fine, thank you."
The man squinted, heavy brow creasing as he frowned. "You look familiar to me. Have I seen you somewhere before?"
"No!" Louis gasped. "No, I'm sure we've never met."
"Only," the man carried on regardless. "You look like the boy Prince Harry is searching for...handsome reward for whoever finds him, I've heard...." he looked Louis up and down. "Sure you're not him?"
Louis shook his head firmly, gripping onto the post now to keep himself upright. "A...a reward?"
The man tilted his cap, looking more and more suspicious. "That's right, m'boy. Announcement from the palace this morning- Prince will pay handsomely for anyone who knows where the boy he danced with at the ball is. I don't know, but...I reckon he's right here in this very village."
"I've...I've never seen him. I don't even know what he looks like," Louis said faintly. He pushed himself off the post, clutching his basket to his chest. "Excuse me." He staggered away, hurrying back down the lane towards home. He'd not bought all of his shopping, but he'd take any punishment from his brothers as long as he was inside the house where no one could see him.
Once home, he closed his curtains over his window and paced backwards and forwards, twisting his fingers in the strings of his apron. He'd thought it was over. Just one night where he'd indulged in his fantasies, let himself escape from this life, and now it turned out that the Prince was searching for him? Not only that, but he was willing to pay someone to find Louis?
And as for what that lady in the bakery had said...the Prince was in love with him? No. No, there was no way.
And yet. Louis stopped at his window, peeking out of the crack in the thin curtains. He still remembered how it felt to be pulled close to Harry's body, how it felt to have his hand on his cheek, his lips at his ear. He knew how he felt...it was just too much to hope that Harry could feel the same way about him.
Louis pulled the curtains fully closed, and turned away.
Days went by. Louis hoped that talk in the town would die down, but if the conversations his brothers were still having were anything to go by, Prince Harry's mystery boy was still the hot topic of conversation. Louis had avoided going into town again by feigning illness, and his brothers were so fearful of catching any sort of disease from him they left him well alone, much to Louis' pleasure. He still had to do the rest of his chores, but all the time he was 'ill', he was left on his own to do them.
Then one morning, a full week after the ball, a letter from the palace arrived. It was opened while Louis' brothers were having breakfast, and read aloud so Louis could hear as he poured them more tea.
"By royal decree, His Royal Highness Prince Harry has ordered that every eligible male in the land shall report to the castle at five o'clock tomorrow evening. Carriages will be supplied to all those without suitable means of transport...oh my god."
"So the Prince has moved on, then? He's looking for another suitor?"
There was silence between them, then all at once they broke out into a cacophony of noise.
"Louis, wash my best shirt-"
"Louis, shine my shoes-"
"Did you mend my suit? I told you to mend my suit-"
"Louis- for god's sake, boy, why are you just stood there?!"
Louis just stayed where he was, teapot still poised in his hand, looking out of the large dining room window towards the castle that was just visible behind the trees. A small smile played around his lips.
Harry was still looking for him. Maybe, just maybe, the women in the bakery had been right. Louis had been wrong about the Prince; perhaps he was as honest and genuine as he seemed, and he'd been wrong to think Harry would just forget about him. The small flicker of hope that Louis hadn't been able to let go of over the past few weeks burst into full flame, burning bright and warm inside him.
He knew then, with full certainty, that it was time. No more hiding away.
His brothers sat as far away from him in the carriage as they could, noses turned away as if they thought that just breathing the same air as Louis would infect them with whichever non-existent disease it was that he was supposedly carrying.
"Make sure you stand well away from us, Louis."
"Yes, we don't want you embarrassing us, do we?"
Louis just smiled benignly and nodded. He hadn't bothered to change, was still in his tattered chore clothes, but he felt strangely calm about it. If Harry was this keen to find him, Louis reasoned that he wouldn't care how he was dressed.
By the time the carriage pulled up to the palace steps, though, the nerves were beginning to take hold. He hung back from his brothers as he was asked, and followed a good ten paces behind them as they were all led up the stairs and along the corridor to the ballroom again. It felt strange to be retracing his steps like this, and Louis paused again by the portrait of Harry on horseback. The longer he looked, gazing directly into the painting's eyes, the more he felt his nerves shifting again, into a sharp twist of fear and anticipation. The Prince he was in love with, who was supposedly in love with him, was waiting for him just beyond those grand doors.
They were all shown through, and asked to stand in a wide circle again. Like history repeating itself, the Prince stood in the center of the circle, rotating slowly, eyes darting from one man to the next. Louis smiled to himself, warmth blooming in his chest. When he got a proper look at Harry though, it stuttered and faltered, the smile slipping from his face.
Harry's demeanour was different to the first time Louis had set eyes on him. His shoulders were rigid, faced lined with stress, making him look harder and older than his years. There were shadows the colour of bruises under his eyes. He was dressed more casually than last time, in simple breeches and riding boots and a white shirt unlaced at the neck.
Louis hid himself, slightly worried by Harry's mood. He hadn't thought about the possibility of Harry being angry with him, and right now it looked like a real possibility. He stayed hidden behind a tall, broad man, just watching.
When they were all assembled, the room fell quiet. Even in the huge room, a pin could have been heard dropping to the shining floor. Harry kept turning, seemingly getting more and more agitated as his eyes fell on every man that wasn't Louis. After a few moments, he let out a frustrated cry and spoke out in a loud voice that boomed off the walls.
"Where are you?" he demanded. "I know you're here- you can't not be."
All was quiet. No one dared move.
Then, a voice sounded. "I'm here."
Louis craned his neck, eyes wide, watching as a blond haired boy not much older than himself stepped into the inner circle. "I'm here, my Prince."
Nausea rolled in Louis' stomach as Harry's confused expression morphed into hurt. "No..." he breathed. "No. You're not him."
"He's not!" another voice cried from Louis' right. A younger boy stepped forward, eyes wide and adoring. "It's me, Your Highness. I've come back to you."
Harry spun to look at the next boy, already shaking his head. "No, no you're not him either!" He gripped furious fistfuls of hair in his hands. "Stop playing games with me!" He spun on his heel, glaring around the room. "I know you're here! Someone here knows who he is!"
Louis shoved his own hand through his hair, biting his lip fiercely between his teeth. Across the room, he saw one of his brothers puff his chest up and go to take a step forward, mouth already half open.
"No!" Louis cried, pushing past the last few people that stood between him and Harry. He saw the look of shock cross his brothers' faces simultaneously. Harry whipped around to face him, wide eyed.
Louis took a deep breath. "I'm here," he said quietly.
Harry was still for a moment. Then he was striding across the remaining distance between them and crushing Louis to his chest, arms tight around his shoulders and waist.
"It's me," Louis rushed, words tripping over each other in his desperation to make Harry believe him. "I swear, I'm not trying to trick you, I promise it's me, please-"
Harry hushed him, a hand coming up to cradle the back of Louis' neck. "I know," he said with conviction. "I know."
"It's me," Louis said into Harry's shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, I didn't realise...I thought-"
"Shhh," Harry cut him off again. "It is no matter. You're here now."
Louis inhaled sharply, squeezing Harry tight before he pulled back to look him in the eye. "You believe me?"
Harry quirked an eyebrow. "I have no doubt. I never forget a face." He cradled Louis' face between his palms. The stress from his body had melted away, and although he still look tired, there was genuine happiness radiating from his every pore. He grinned, eyes sparkling, and leaned down to press his lips to Louis' in a bruising kiss. Louis was vaguely aware of protests from voices that sounded like his brothers, but with a flick of Harry's hand they gradually got fainter and fainter, until they were gone completely.
"I'm sorry-" Louis said again and again between kisses, but Harry hushed him each time. "No, listen," he pulled away from Harry, waiting until he had his attention. "You should know- I have no title, I'm not noble, or royal. I have no money. Or anything, really."
"You think I care?" Harry demanded. "You came back to me, that's all that matters."
"You ordered it, I had no choice."
Harry huffed a laugh, shrugging unashamedly. "This was my last resort- I tried everything else. You are aware I am never letting you out of my sight again, yes? You're mine, now."
Louis felt his mouth stretch wide. Pure, unadulterated joy spread from his fingertips to his toes, so strong he felt like his body couldn't contain all of it. "Like I would ever let you."
"I mean it. I'll marry you if I have to, so you're tethered to me forever."
"You still don't know my name," Louis pointed out, tightening his grip on Harry's arms.
Harry laughed, a happy sound that echoed around them. He shook his head from side to side slowly. "My god, we've done everything backwards, haven't we?"
"It's Louis," Louis told him. "Tomlinson."
"It's nice to meet you, Louis Tomlinson," Harry said, leaning down to take another kiss from him. "Don't ever leave my side again."
"Never," Louis promised, throat strangely tight. ''As long as you'll have me, I'll stay."
"Well, then," Harry's eyes shone brightly in the light from the chandeliers. "I think we'll be just fine."
Louis never saw his brothers again after that day. Some people said they'd moved away, others said that their father had forced them out. Either way, they had vanished. Louis mother was distraught when she learned of the years of hard work Louis had been put through, and no amount of reassurance would console her. Louis did the best he could, though, and gave her the task of organising his upcoming wedding. She threw herself into it, as if planning the best wedding ever would atone for her guilt.
Louis spent his days learning how to be a member of the royal household. It was frustrating, sometimes; he had no idea how to walk properly, or talk properly, or the proper dinner etiquette...did one person really need that amount of cutlery for one meal? But Harry was always one step behind him, always on hand to listen to Louis frustrated outbursts and offer gentle reassurance and encouragement when it was needed.
Contrary to his earlier declarations, he did let Louis out of his sight. He had been twitchy the first time Louis had gone out by himself, and Louis had made it halfway down the garden before he'd realised he was being followed by a soldier, but Harry soon relaxed, secure in the knowledge that Louis would always come back to him. He was understanding of Louis' need to feel normal again, to take a walk through his old village and be reassured by the fact that although his life had changed, his old home hadn't.
Maybe he would never get the hand of this royalty thing, but that was just a front, a constructed image. Behind closed doors, where Harry cradled him close in bed and woke him with gentle kisses down his spine, that was where Louis would spend the rest of his days happy.
Fairytale endings did happen. They were proof.
And they lived happily ever after.