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Madrigals and Misadventures
by astolat

It was really cool at Lord Cowell's estate—at least, the place was cool. There was so much space, all these big fancy ballrooms with high ceilings and shiny wood floors with rugs that David was sort of scared to get dirty, so he usually ended up walking all the way around the edges if no one else was watching him. The pipes were spelled so you could get hot water just by turning a spigot, and the cooks were really nice and always gave you a snack even if it was late. David had a big bedroom all his own, with a window that looked out over the stables and the green hills of the paddocks, all the way down to the river. He was kind of nervous about getting too close to the horses in person, because those things were huge, gosh, as big as sedan chairs, but they looked really pretty running around in the fields.

And those were just the modern parts of the house. They were built on and around this really old abbey, like from a thousand years ago, and in those parts the stones were mostly held together with magic by now, so much of it that when you walked around the tiny twisty halls, you could hear this faint sort of singing far off in the distance.

Well, David could. He'd mentioned it to one of the other pages and she'd kind of stared at him blankly, and the next day, Josiah had made fun of him in the hall and been all, "So you hear voices, huh?"

That had been bad enough, but then Lady Abdul overheard and said, "Oh, David, that is amazing. It takes a truly powerful talent to hear old spells working." Yay.

Then just yesterday Lord Cowell had come into class right when David was doing a really tricky set-spell on a badly broken stone, singing it back into a single whole piece. After he was finished, Lord Cowell had said, "I really don't see any reason why we're wasting your time, this material's beneath you. There's some damage to the boundary wall on the northern border, take the time tomorrow and go fix it. As for the rest of you, I would apologize for taking away his excellent example if I had any illusion that any of you were profiting from it, but from the atrocious phrasing that has been wafting to my study over the last hour, none of you are."

David was definitely glad Lord Cowell was happy with him, but he was pretty nervous about this plan. He'd never even seen a formal boundary wall spell before—you didn't have them in cities—and he didn't know where the northern border of the estate was. Plus, he figured this was just going to make the others hate him even more.

But when he went out to the yard the next morning and tried to ask the servants where the damaged boundary wall was and what it would look like, Josiah was walking by, and he rolled his eyes and said, "Dumbass. Cross the river, then turn right and keep going along the river until you hit it, it's set on a fence."

"Oh," David said. "Um, thanks."

"Whatever," Josiah said, and went inside.

It was a long walk to the river, and a long walk along it to find the ford, and then it took him fifteen minutes to cross, because there was this sort of weird spell across it like a spider-mesh. He thought maybe it was there to catch mosquitos or something—it was invisible but all sticky, and he had to sing to it for a long time before it finally was all, okay, fine, and gave him a little opening. And then he was so relieved he darted right through and forgot that, um, hello, there was a river there, too, until he was already in it. So then his feet and pant legs and the bottom four inches of his tabard were all totally soaked.

He sloshed the rest of the way across glumly and took off his shoes on the other side and poured out the water. He wanted to use magic to dry them, but anything with heat was tricky for him—he'd scorched the top of their table at home, trying to clean up a spilled glass of water—and also he wasn't sure how hard it was going to be to fix the boundary wall, which was way more important than having dry feet. There was all this soft grass, anyway, so he tied them together by the laces and slung them over his shoulder and walked barefoot with his pants rolled up to his knees. He was sure he looked really stupid, but at least there wasn't anyone around to see.

It took another half hour walking until he finally saw the fence up ahead, and the big gap where it was all broken and splintered. "Oh, gosh," he said, relieved, because he was getting kind of hot and tired.

He put down his shoes in a patch of sun and spread his socks and his tabard out next to them, out of the way, so at least they would dry while he worked. Fixing the fence wasn't going to be too hard—but overlaid on the wood, he could hear the boundary wall spell running, and it was, um, really kind of scary, all these notes piling on top of each other. He wasn't sure how to start singing with it at all.

He started with the fence—wood was easy, when it was good treated wood like this, seasoned oak. All the broken pieces were totally happy to listen when he sang to them about being in a line, getting back to true, and soon it was all nice and solid again when he patted it. Then he sat down in the grass and just listened to the spell going.

It took a while, but then suddenly on the third repetition, he picked out the underlying melody. Actually, it was the same as the river spell, it was just all layered on itself in different tempos and keys with some variations, like the bits of the Pachelbel canon where it got all fun and complicated and stuff. Once he'd gotten that, he could see where the problem was—it was dropping notes out of the melody in a whole bunch of the layers.

He started out humming the simple version of the melody, and got in sync with the song. He felt it when the spell started listening to him, and that was when he started trying to fill in the dropped notes, singing each damaged variation over and over until the spell got the idea and started doing the missing notes too, grudgingly, and then there was this awesome moment where it picked up the last note, and all of a sudden the spell was just perfect, every note in the right place and feeling so right, and David sang along with it once all the way through just for fun.

David finished, and took a deep breath, and then he jumped, because someone was clapping. When he turned around, there was a man he didn't know sitting on a horse watching him. The man was dressed kind of weirdly casual, in tight laced-up pants and no tabard, just a shirt and a vest over it, and he had a guitar slung over his back. "Nice," the stranger said, jerking his chin at the fence, and swung down from the horse.

"Um, thanks," David said, embarrassed—gosh, he was standing out here in just his shirt and rolled-up pants, looking like a complete dork. He threw a longing glance at the rest of his clothes, way over in the grass, but he figured going to grab them would make him look even more stupid. He felt dumb for not thinking, of course Lord Cowell wasn't going to just set him loose on a big spell like this without anyone following to check on him. "Is it—did I do it right?"

The man was patting the fence, and he hummed a little bit along with the spell. He had a nice voice, a tenor, all warm and a little raspy. David wondered why he'd never heard him in the hall at dinner. "That's awesome," the man said. "I can't believe you fixed that just singing."

"Oh," David said. "Yeah, um. I—we had to sell the piano when I was little, so—I learned how to, without, I guess."

"Huh." The man turned back from the fence and looked at him with a critical expression. "So, just how old are you?"

"Um, seventeen?" David said, a little nervously. He really hoped he hadn't done something wrong.

The stranger rubbed his jaw. "And you're sure about this?"

"Huh?" David said. "Um, yes? I mean—if—you said it was okay?" He looked at the fence, confused.

"Yeah, all right," the man said, and walked over, and before David really knew what was going on, the guy was kissing him.

David didn't know what to do. Nobody was supposed to just kiss you like that—they had to—they had to court you, and get your parents' permission, and your permission, and—and—in marriage halls, and—and it was really kind of, um, nice. The stranger had his hand around the back of David's neck and another in the small of his back, and he smelled like horses and fresh grass and sunlight, and they were lying down in the grass before David really knew what was happening. There was sort of this licking thing going on, and then the man's hand was under his shirt and on his skin. This huge shiver ran right up David's spine, and—

"Oh my gosh, no!" David said, struggling free, shocked. "What are you doing!"

The man sat back on his heels, frowning, while David scrambled backwards away from him. "Uh, so when I asked if you were sure—"

"About the fence!" David said. "Not about—about kissing! I don't even know who you are! I wouldn't kiss some total weird guy I've never met before."

The man laughed. "You seemed pretty okay with it to start, there."

"Oh my gosh, that is so unfair, you totally surprised me," David said, blushing, and the weird guy laughed more.

"Okay, so if you're not here because you want to get picked up, what are you here for?" the man said, still sounding all amused. "Do you always go wandering around onto random estates fixing fences?"

"Lord Cowell told me to!" David said.

The man stared at him. "Lord Cowell told you to come over here and fix my fence?"

"What?" David said, staring back. "Who are you?"

"I'm Cook," the man said.

"Oh," David said. Lord Cook was Lord Cowell's new neighbor, the one who had bought the estate next door a year ago—he knew that much. "But—but wait, your fence?"

"Yeah," Cook said. "West of the river is mine."

"But," David said, "Josiah said—" He stopped. "Oh."

"Didn't you run into the boundary wall on the river?" Cook said, eyeing David.

"It was—it let me through," David said. "It's not—" He gulped, starting to feel kind of panicky. If he had really just barged onto Cook's estate—"Please don't—please don't have me arrested," he blurted. "I swear I didn't mean to. I can't—I have five sisters, and I'm sealed to the temple, and I'll never do it again, and my family—"

"Whoa, calm down, and—uh, did you say temple?" Cook said.

"Yes!" David said urgently, and tugged his shirt laces loose, to show the seal over his chest. "See, I'm—" He stopped.

"Oh, fuck me," Cook said. David didn't really hear it. He was staring down at himself, a hot sickening wave of horror rushing over him. The edges of the temple seal were fading into the normal skin around them, going all soft and blurry.

"Oh," David said, small, and tried to touch the edges, tried to push the color back—it wasn't working. "Please, please," he whispered to it, and he even took a breath to try and sing it back, but Cook reached out and put a hand over his mouth.

"Hey, quit it," Cook said. "You can't do that to a temple seal, you'll just burn out your vocal cords."

David knew that, but—but—He turned his head away and tried to wrench loose again. He didn't want to cry in front of this—this depraved—jerk, who had just—who'd—"Let go of me," he choked out.

Cook did let go of him, and sat back in the grass and rubbed his jaw. "Uh, wow. Okay, so this sucks."

David stared down at the ground and gulped hard. Everything—he'd ruined everything. He tugged his shirt laces tight again, and struggled up to his feet and blindly went for his tabard and his shoes. He didn't know what he was going to do, but right now he wanted more clothes on.

"Where are you going?" Cook said, getting up and coming after him.

"Stay away from me!" David said, yanking his tabard back on. "Haven't you done enough?"

"Hey, I grant you I'm partly responsible here, but you know, you did come on my property—"

"That doesn't mean you can just go kissing me!" David said. "Oh my gosh, do you just, jump on anyone who comes on your property?"

"I thought you wanted to be my vassal!" Cook said.

"Just because I fixed your fence?" David said. "Do people just show up wanting to be your vassal all the time?"

"Uh, yeah, actually," Cook said.

"I totally don't believe you," David said. "Lord Cowell's estate is way bigger than yours and people don't show up on his, and you're not that good looking."

Cook burst out laughing, like anything about this was funny. David was so angry and miserable he wanted to cry, but he turned around and started jamming his wet shoes back on, rolling his pants down.

"Here," Cook said, and sang a quick line of music David had never heard before, about the sun and warm, and his shoes and pants were dry just like that, and not at all scorched, which kind of made David want to punch him even more. "Commoners come here because if they're good enough, I'll get them into the Academy, in Los Angeles," Cook said. "Then I cut them loose after they graduate, and they can go on as independents." He shrugged. "I thought that's what you were looking for."

"I wasn't," David said. "All I wanted was to fix a stupid fence, and, and keep sending my stipend home, and get a temple post, and now he'll send me away. He'll send me away, and—" He scrubbed his face and stood up again.

"Take a deep breath, man," Cook said. "Cowell's not going to dump you on the street. I know he acts like a jerk sometimes, but he's actually a nice guy—okay, quit looking at me like that if you don't want me to crack up again."

"I don't care if you laugh at me," David said, although he kind of did. "I think you're a—a jerk. And kind of a pervert, too." He turned around and started out for the river, blinking hard.

Cook was laughing, behind him, and then he jogged after David to catch up. "Okay, hey," Cook said. "Look, if one kiss can flip your switch, maybe the temple wasn't meant to be. I'll come with you and talk to Cowell—"

"Shut up," David said. "It's easy for you to say something like that—I needed this, my family—" He gulped, and had to scrub at his eyes, and then Cook was saying more gently, "Hey—hey, don't—" and tugging him in by the shoulders, and David tried to resist it, but Cook was a lot bigger, and also David was kind of losing the fight, so he somehow ended up crying into Cook's shirt, and it was stupid and lame that Cook rubbing his back made him feel better, but it did.

"So, okay, you don't have a calling?" Cook said.

"Um," David said. "I don't know. I mean," he snuffled a last bit against his hand, "it sounded kind of cool, like, being able to help people out, with charity and stuff, and maybe go be a missionary in other countries. And I like temple music. But mostly it was so my sisters—we had to spend their dowers, when I was little, and—"

"Dowers?" Cook said, in a weird tone, and then he pushed David out to arm's length and looked down at his tabard. "You're noble."

"Um, well, kind of," David said. "My dad's grandfather was a knight, and my mom's family were, back in Honduras, but after the revolution—so, a little bit, I guess. Enough for me to be a page, and stuff."

"Awesome," Cook said, sounding like he meant the opposite. "Okay. Come on, let's go—" He jerked his head back towards the horse.

"Oh my gosh, I'm not getting on that," David said.

"I've got to tell you, if I was planning to run off with you, I'm pretty sure I could just throw you over the saddle," Cook said.

"What?" David said. "Oh, I'm not scared of you, I'm scared of the horse. Um, don't tell anyone," he added, belatedly.

Cook paused, and then looked at him with a sort of weird expression. "Okay, so," he said, "this is either the best day of my life or the worst, and right now I have no clue which it is."

David didn't understand that until after they got back to Lord Cowell's house. They walked, and Cook led the horse behind them. There was kind of a big fuss when they came into the courtyard—everyone running around trying to make things look nice, since Cook was important—and Lady Abdul came out and hugged him. Cook whispered something to her, and she looked at David sort of startled.

She whispered something back to Cook and short-circuited the whole formal greeting and led them inside and up some stairs. Before David even had a moment to really panic, they were outside Lord Cowell's study, and Cook had opened the door and gone inside.

David was so petrified he didn't really process much of what was going on at first. "What is this all about?" Lord Cowell said, eyeing Cook narrowly. "Paula tells me you came in with our prodigy? You shouldn't be riding around alone with him, he's sealed to the temple."

"Uh, yeah, about that," Cook said. "Turns out one of your other pages is a piece of work who thought it would be funny to send the kid over to my lands—"

"Oh, you did not," Cowell said. "How many times have I told you this habit of yours of taking in strays was going to get you into trouble?"

Cook squinted up at the ceiling thoughtfully. "Eight—hundred and twenty—three?"

Cowell glared. "So make it eight hundred and twenty-four, and proven thoroughly right."

"In my defense, let me point out it wasn't taking on a real stray that was the actual problem," Cook said.

"Close enough," Cowell said. "Did you not bother to mention you were temple-sealed at any point in this process?" he demanded from David.

"I, I, um," David said, terrified.

"Yeah, he did," Cook said. "Right after I'd, uh, laid a good one on him. I've got it on good authority I took him by surprise."

"Wonderful," Cowell said. "Let's see the damage."

Cook looked over and waved a hand at David, who stared back blankly. "Show him the, uh—"

"Oh, um," David said, and blushed. "Do I have to?" Cowell's eyes narrowed, and David hastily unlaced and tugged his shirt open again to show the seal. More of the edges had faded.

"Splendid," Cowell said, waving David to lace back up. "With one kiss you've just ruined the most promising temple candidate I've seen in seven years. And yes, he's noble-born, and yes, he's under my formal protection."

"Yeah, I got that," Cook said. "I'll make the offer tonight, if that works for you."

Cowell flicked his eyebrows disdainfully. "Well, you can't do it any sooner, can you."

"Um," David said, timidly. "Offer?"

"Congratulations," Cowell said. "You're getting married."

"What? To—to him?" David flailed a hand at Cook. "I just met him today, and the only thing I know about him is he kisses random people who walk onto his estate."

Cook cracked up again, and Cowell rolled his eyes. "Yes, admittedly undesirable behavior. However, on the bright side, a rich husband is far less work than a temple post."

"But—that's not—I'm not going to marry someone for, for money. That's wrong, and—and I can't, that's not—" David stopped and swallowed, because Cowell was looking at him for real now, and his eyes were flinty and hard.

"Well, you don't have very many other options, do you?" Cowell said. "You can't get into the temple with a broken seal. Or for that matter, any decent house or hall. It's one thing to have sneaked in a bit of premarital snogging, it's another to have a label on your chest announcing the fact. What are you going to do, go back to that wretched little hovel your family is living in, cram back in with seven people and do piecework for spare change the rest of your life?"

David stared at him, with a tight painful feeling around his chest, and he swallowed and said quietly, "I—they wouldn't ask me—they wouldn't want me to do something wrong. I didn't—I meant it when I did the chastity vows, I wasn't planning to—to—whatever." He waved a hand. "And—and marrying is taking vows, too."

"Oh, for heaven's sake," Cowell said. "Look, if you're going to be melodramatic, I'll wash my hands of you. Cook, as long as you've made the offer, I'll consider honor satisfied. And you can go," he added to David. "I suggest you spend the next few hours contemplating your future seriously. If you haven't come to your senses by dinnertime, you can pack your things after."

David pushed himself up out of his seat, keeping his eyes on the floor so he wouldn't humiliate himself even more, and half-groped his way to the door. "Simon—" Cook was saying, and Lord Cowell was saying, "No, don't even start—" while David fumbled his way out into the hall and pulled the door shut behind him.

He didn't go back to his room. He went into the old part of the abbey and crept up to one of the empty crumbling little turrets, and he sat down on the floor and hugged his knees to his chest and put his forehead down against them. It was going to be awesome, having Cook ask him in front of everyone—everyone would get it right away, that he was only doing it because he had to. They would probably think—they'd think David had done something, or let Cook do stuff, and—and maybe he had, but not like that.

He wondered how he was going to get home. He'd sent his whole stipend for this month back already. He didn't know the way, even if it wasn't too far to walk. And then—he thought about walking back in, and having to tell his mom and dad—having to tell the girls. It was going to be even worse than before. Before, at least he could have gotten into a hiring hall and gotten some real work, eventually. Now the examiners were going to look at him and think he was immoral.

He couldn't help thinking that he could say yes. Cook would have to marry him, and he'd have to take care of the girls, because it would be really embarrassing for a lord to have sisters-in-law who were working, or even just not well married. He'd probably have to give them really good dowries, and they could get into all of the best marriage halls, and all David had to do was—was really be immoral.

He gulped down a sob. He didn't think he had a calling for the temple, or anything except magic, but—but that wasn't the same thing as doing something wrong, something you knew was wrong, and a lie.

It started getting dark outside. David could smell the kitchen fires going, below, where the smoke was coming up through the arrow-slit windows. It wasn't going to be long until dinner. He got up and dusted himself off and went to his room. He splashed his face and changed his dirty and crumpled clothes and put on his dressy tabard, and then he packed everything. It wasn't a lot, only one small bag—he could carry it easily. He made the bed and neatened up, so the servants wouldn't have a lot of work to do clearing it out, and then he knelt down next to the bed and whispered, "Please don't let me say yes. And—and please let it be okay, for the girls. I'm sorry."

Then he went downstairs. Nearly everyone was in the dining hall already. Nobody paid a lot of attention to him—he heard people talking about Cook coming to visit, and wondering why, but they didn't seem to know.

Lord Cowell always ate the formal way, at dinner—with the narrow tables where people only sat on one side, set up in a square with the servants going back and forth from the loaded platters on the table in the middle. David went to his place at the bottom table, with the other pages, but the chamberlain Seacrest came and caught him by the shoulders and pointed him to a different seat. "You're sitting in the first chair on the side to Lord Cowell's right, tonight."

"Oh," David said miserably, and went. People did look at him then, and he saw Josiah kind of scowling, which for a second made David want to say yes just so he could shove it in Josiah's face. He bet Josiah would say yes in a second if someone like Cook asked him, even if he'd never met them before.

Lord Cowell came in and sat down, which was the signal for everyone else to get to their places. Seacrest cleared his throat and said, "Lord Cowell, Lord Cook would like your permission to join us."

"Yes, yes," Cowell said, waving a hand without even interrupting his conversation with Lord Jackson. Seacrest glared at him—Lord Cowell was always messing up ceremonies and stuff, because he didn't care, even though he paid Seacrest heaps and heaps, and Seacrest totally did care, because he was a really good chamberlain.

Everyone was murmuring now, excitedly, because Cook was Cowell's neighbor—there wasn't any reason he'd be doing a formal request like this just to come have dinner. If you were formally allowed into a nobleman's house, though, it was like being allowed into a marriage hall, or a hiring hall—it meant you could make an offer to anyone else there, and if someone made you an offer, you knew that the lord, or the examiners of the hall, had vetted the person.

Cook came in, carrying a flat, rectangular box. He was dressed up, in a nice black silk tabard with his sigil embroidered on the sleeve and shoulder in silver, a kind of stylized guitar design, all swirly. He nodded to Lord Cowell and grinned at Lady Abdul, who was beaming at him. He stepped into the middle of the square of tables and walked down the length to where David was sitting.

David stared at his plate. No. No, no, no, he repeated over to himself, so that it was the only thing that could possibly come out of his mouth.

"Where the hell did you run off to?" Cook whispered. "Nobody knew where to find you."

"What?" David said, startled into looking up. "Um, I—nowhere. It doesn't matter. Can we—can you please just—get it over with?"

Miss Binchley—one of the fencing teachers—was sitting on his right, and she let out a shocked giggle and covered her mouth.

Cook rolled his eyes and said, not whispering anymore, "You know, if you weren't ridiculously cute, I'd be offended by now," and there were more giggles around the room, and then Cook held out the box and said, "This is for you."

"—okay?" David said, confused. He was pretty sure you didn't give presents before you offered. You just asked, and the person said yes or no, and then if they said yes, you gave them a piece of jewelry, and this box wasn't a jewelry box. But Cook poked it at him again. David took it, stared down at it and back up. Cook made a little go on movement, so David opened the box and looked inside.

It was a piece of sheet music—old sheet music, on really good, thick vellum that felt almost a little soapy to the touch, with ink that was a bit raised, and it was labeled Moro lasso al mio duolo in a weird old font. It was for five voices, and really cool and weird—it started by juxtaposing C-sharp major and A-minor, and David hummed along with the first line for a bit before remembering he wasn't alone and looking up again.

Cook was grinning at him. "It's by Gesualdo. Who was nuts, but hey, he wrote some pretty amazing stuff. So you like it?"

"Um," David said uncertainly. "It's—it's really cool. Thanks? But—" And Cook leaned over the table and kissed him again, oh my gosh, and in front of everyone, and David opened his mouth to protest, except that didn't work exactly how he'd planned, and now Cook was kissing him even more, and—

"All right, good Lord, that's enough for a first kiss, I would think," Lord Cowell said with emphasis, and Cook broke it off. David opened his eyes—um, he'd closed them at some point?—and he was kind of half-standing in his seat, stretching over the table towards Cook.

"Oh, gosh," he said, horrified, jerking back. He stared at Cook. "What are—but—you—" He looked around the room, expecting to see everyone looking shocked, but instead people were clapping and laughing, except for Josiah and his pals, and they looked really mad. David looked at Cook helplessly.

Cook winked at him. "Hey, I was ready to offer. You're the one who wanted to hold out for courting."

"I, what, courting?" David said, and then he stared down at the sheet music, and, oh, duh, music—first courting present.

It finally started to make sense. If Cook officially courted him for a while, then David just could say no at the end, and they wouldn't have to get married, and Lord Cowell could give David a reference saying that he had been courted under his supervision and it just hadn't worked out, so David could still get into a hall or whatever even with the broken seal.

"Oh," he said. "But—" He wasn't sure what to do. You didn't have to marry someone just because you let them court you, but you weren't supposed to take a courting present and do all the, um, kissing stuff, if you didn't really honestly think you might say yes at the end, and Cook didn't really want to marry David, and David didn't really want to marry him, so this was all just fake and kind of like lying, but—but it wasn't as fake as actually getting married, and they wouldn't have to actually do a lot of kissing, so maybe—

"Repeat after me: 'thank you, David,' " Cook prompted.

"Huh?" David said. "Why am I thanking—myself?"

"My name's David too," Cook said.

"Oh," David said. "Um, that's confusing."

"Okay, shut up and thank me and sit down, Archuleta, or else I'll be irresistibly compelled to kiss you again, and Simon will yell at us," Cook said.

Dear Mom and Dad,

So, something really weird funny weird happened yesterday, and I'm not really sure how to explain, but I guess I'll just tell you, haha, and I hope you don't get all freaked out or anything. So anyway, I kind of by accident met this guy, Lord Cook—he's Lord Cowell's neighbor, and he's a lord—I guess you could tell that already—and now he's courting me.

I hope everything is good at home and you're all doing great!

Love, David

He finished the letter and stared at it. Wow, that was lame. David figured he had better add something.

PS: He has a really nice voice.

He stared at it some more, and then he folded it up and stuffed it in the envelope and after lunch he took it to Seacrest's office to be franked. "Hey, David," Seacrest said, holding out a hand for the letter. "Here, I'll take that. I can bundle it to go out with Lord Cowell's letter, they'll have it tomorrow."

"Lord Cowell's letter?" David said.

"Yeah, he's sending your family a formal notification," Seacrest said.

"Oh," David said. "Um, can I maybe—" have my letter back, he meant to ask, so he could add some stuff, but Seacrest was studying him critically.

"That's the same shirt you wore three days ago, and I hate to tell you this, but it was ugly then, too," he said. "Have you already spent your stipend for the month?"

"Well—yes?" David said awkwardly.

"Let me guess, you blew it on gambling and drinking," Seacrest said.

"Oh my gosh, no," David said. "I sent it to my—oh, you're kidding."

Seacrest lifted his face back out of where he'd buried it in his hands. "Okay, we're going to have to do something about this. You can skip your etiquette class—" David had no idea how Seacrest knew exactly where David was supposed to be, but apparently he did—"and go find Miles and tell him I said to dress you."

Miles—that was Lord Cowell's valet—was all pleased about getting to put together a pile of outfits, because Lord Cowell couldn't be bothered most of the time and always wore like the same three things, he just had ten of each one. David didn't see why it wasn't okay for him to wear the same thing all the time, too, but apparently no, that was not an option.

So he ended up stuffed into these pants that were really, um, kind of tight, and one pair that was also sort of shiny that he immediately planned to lose in his closet, and a bunch of shirts to wear alone or under his tabard that were definitely two sizes too small, and then there were these wristbands Miles wanted David to wear, and shoes in like four different colors. Then Miles lectured David for like an hour on what he absolutely had to wear together, and what would bring, like, instant death if he put it on at the same time, and David had forgotten all of it by the time he'd staggered back to his room with the stuff.

He fumbled at the doorknob with his two free fingers, blindly—one of the shirts had flopped over onto his face—and nearly fell inside when the door opened.

"Hey," Cook said, catching him, and looked down at the pile that was now sort of hanging over both their arms. A couple of shirts slid free and landed on the floor. "Okay, so you were out robbing a tailor. I was wondering."

"Oh my gosh, this is all your fault," David said. "My clothes are all embarrassing now. I mean, they were embarrassing before, but nobody cared, and now I have to wear these pants. Don't look," he added, trying to angle his hips away. "Also, you totally shouldn't be in my room."

"Don't worry, we won't close the door," Cook said, grinning. "I've got permission to take you out riding."

Cook dragged him out to the stables while David came up with a whole bunch of good reasons why he really had to go to class, which Cook ignored, and David finally said desperately, "I'm still not getting on that," as they got to where Cook's black horse was tied waiting, along with another giant wild animal, even if it was kind of pretty, all gold-colored, with a pale gold mane.

"If we ride, we can get out past the hills where it's private," Cook said.

"Oh my gosh, what, so you can, like, have your way with me or something," David said. "Now I'm totally not getting on the horse."

Cook started laughing. "There's about twenty really interested people watching from the castle windows right now—" David darted a quick look, and oh my gosh, there were—"So if we stay in sight, we do have to make out. If we get out of range, your virtue can stay as intact as you want it."

"Oh," David said, and looked at the horse. It blinked at him in what David felt was a really suspicious way. "We could walk?"

"You made me walk two miles yesterday in riding boots, pal, I'm done," Cook said. He cupped his hands to give David a boost up. "Come on, just a short ride. It'll be fun."

"I'm so going to fall off," David said morosely, but he managed to scramble into the saddle, and the horse didn't immediately take off running, so that was something. Cook mounted up and took its reins, and he led it forward along with his, out of the paddock.

"Okay, here, you seriously can do this," Cook said, after they were over the first hill, and he showed David how to hold the reins. "And if you fall off, just hum a line of Free Falling, it'll coast you down."

"I'm not going to remember to sing while I'm falling off a horse," David said, but Cook just laughed and started the horses going faster, and then suddenly they were running and it was awesome, the wind was rushing in his face and they were racing over the ground and then he did fall off, but he remembered to sing after all, and he landed softly in a mound of high grass.

"Hey," Cook said, jumping down and bending over him. "You okay?"

"Oh my gosh, wow, that was so fun," David said, propping himself up onto his elbows and looking up at Cook. "Can we do that again?"

Cook said roughly, "In a minute." He was leaning really close, and David took a deep breath and waited, kind of shivering—and waited, and waited, and nothing happened, and finally he said faintly, "Um, are you going to kiss me or not?"

"I told you your virtue was staying as safe as you want it to," Cook said. "You're totally welcome to kiss me, though."

"Oh," David said, downcast, because that was totally different. He stared at Cook's mouth some more, wistfully, and sighed. "It must be more fun not having morals." Then it hit David that might not have been all that polite, so he added, "Oh, I'm sorry—I didn't mean—it's not that you don't have any morals, just not, like, all of them—" and for some reason that made Cook fold down over himself and tip into the grass laughing, and when David poked him and said, "What? Oh my gosh, what—" Cook tugged him down and kissed him again, after all.

After a while, the yellow horse came back over and whuffled at them interestedly.

Cook rolled off David and covered his face with his hands. "All right, so much for my good intentions. You totally got me there."

"I did?" David said, dazedly. He patted the horse on the nose.

Cook got up and took his guitar down from the back of his horse. They spent the rest of the afternoon sitting together under a tree doing the Gesualdo together, taking different voices each time. They were just practice-singing, not really casting, but David could feel all the power in it running deep under the surface. Afterwards, he lay drowsily in the last fading patch of sunlight while Cook picked out music of his own, wandering through songs David had never heard before.

"Time to get you home," Cook said finally. He helped David get back into the saddle again and handed him up the reins. David stared down at him. Cook had some grass stuck in his hair, and a smudge on one cheek, and his smile was all crooked off to one side. He totally didn't look like a real lord.

"Um, by the way, I never—I didn't say thank you," David said. "So, you know. Thanks. For the courting, and stuff."

Cook smiled up at him, kind of a different smile, all sort of warm and gentle, and he patted David's leg. "Don't mention it," and, okay, so maybe Cook didn't have very good morals and kissed a lot more than he was supposed to, but he was also kind of awesome, too.

For dinner, Cook sat at the head table, obviously, and David got put next to him, so he ended up directly across the square from Josiah, who was at the bottom table with the rest of the pages. So, that was really, um, comfortable, being glared at furiously the whole night. It wasn't even like Josiah had any right to glare, he was the one who had almost ruined David's whole life, and after a little bit David gave up on poking his mashed potatoes around on his plate and just sat and glared back.

Cook leaned over and murmured, "The pouty kid across the table, Clive Davis's nephew—is that the guy?" with kind of a hard glint in his eye.

David was really kind of tempted to say yes, but he wasn't going to be a lame tattle tale, so he said, "Oh, I, um, can I have the green beans?"

"Uh huh," Cook said. "So how would you feel about making him really jealous?"

David wavered, because that was really not a good motive for doing anything, and it would be better to be above that kind of thing, and, um, "Yes, okay," he said. "How—" and then Cook was kissing him again, sort of tipping him back a little and cupping David's head with his hand, and with his other hand he sort of stroked his fingers down David's neck and into the collar of his shirt, teasing a little. David made this totally lame noise that probably everyone in the room could hear, even though Cook was still kissing him, and his back just arched on its own even though he didn't mean to, and he clutched at Cook's shoulders.

"So you like it, huh?" Cook said, after he let go.

David got all red and said, "Oh my gosh, how am I supposed to help it when you're all, whatever, petting me."

"I meant the present," Cook said.

"The what?" David said, blankly, and then he noticed there was something cool and heavy clasped around his wrist: a watch with a band of silvery metal links and a big dark blue face with Roman numerals. "Oh, wow. That's, um. It's all—it's really pretty." It was also kind of, well, sparkly—

"Oh my goodness, let me see." Lady Abdul leaned over. "That is beautiful. Look at the fire in those stones."

"Yeah, I know," Cook said, a little smugly, with a one-shouldered shrug.

David felt bad he wasn't being more enthusiastic. "Yeah, um, they're really nice," he said. "They're really—glittery. Are they, like, crystals?"

Lady Abdul made a funny kind of hiccuping noise, and Cook started laughing. "No, I'm sorry. I know real diamonds are so passé, but I couldn't find anything I really liked with rhinestones," he said, and hung his head.

"Oh my gosh, wait, what?" David said. "What are you doing! This must be all expensive and stuff. What if I lose it?"

"Uh, maybe don't do that," Cook said.

After people finally stopped paying attention, David leaned in and whispered at him desperately, "You don't have to give me this kind of stuff! Not like, real courting presents—even if it was a real courting, this is like, way too much—"

Cook put his arm around David's shoulders and patted him on the chest with his other hand. "No one's going to believe it if I'm giving you cheap junk," Cook said. "Besides, tell me it's not worth it for that," and when David glanced across at the bottom table, Josiah totally looked like someone had stuck a rotten lemon in his mouth.

The next day Cook took him riding again. David was really determined there wasn't going to be any making out this time, but then they found a nice wild blueberry patch that hadn't been picked over yet. His fingers got totally covered with juice and he licked them, and Cook gave this big heavy sigh and reached out and caught him by the belt and reeled him in and kissed him again. Somehow that ended up with David lying on top of Cook in the grass, with Cook's legs on either side of his hips, and Cook was kissing him, and David's hips kept twitching helplessly, and there was this warm, hard—um, thing, right there, right up against his

"Oh," David said feebly, and shivered all over, and Cook groaned deep and heaved him off. David rolled into the grass and sat up. Cook flopped his arm over his face and made another pained noise. There were inky purple fingerprint stains all over his skin.

"Oh, but," David said.

"Shush, you," Cook said, muffled. "How long does courting last?''

"Um, four weeks, usually—" David said.

Cook groaned again.

"You, um, you don't have to, for that whole time, obviously," David said. Then he got another handful of blueberries and ate them, because for some reason his throat went all tight and his mouth was dry.

They got back to the house only a little before dinner, and ran into Seacrest on his way to the dining hall. He stopped and stared at them pointedly.

"Hey, Ryan," Cook said blithely, and was about to walk right on into the room.

"Um," David said, and caught Cook's arm. "Maybe we should—go change?"

"Yeah, that's a thought," Seacrest said. "Baths could also be in your immediate future."

So they ended up coming in late, in front of everybody. Cook didn't care, he just strolled right in, nodding to people, but David was cringing the whole long walk to the head table, and it was totally punishment when Lord Cowell said, "We'll have a dance Friday evening, I think," in sinister tones.

"Awesome," Cook said, like he meant it, and that Friday afternoon he showed up in their Vocals class, and he seemed to know Ms. Byrd, because he kissed her on the cheek, and she got all pleased and said, "Yes, you can steal David," and all the girls giggled and whispered a whole lot while David fumbled his things together.

"Sorry I didn't make it for lunch today," Cook said, cheerfully, and dragged David upstairs to his room. Cook stretched out on David's bed—the door was still open at least, David consoled himself, even if it was just a crack—and made him get dressed for the dance, which was annoying, since David had to change in the closet. Cook sitting outside laughing and saying, "Seriously, man, you haven't got anything I haven't seen," totally didn't help.

"I'm not taking my clothes off in front of you!" David said, coming out in yet another shirt. "You keep kissing me and stuff, it is not safe. And I'm not wearing those." Cook had just turned up the shiny pants, which David had hidden in the clothing chest at the foot of the bed.

"Yeah, you are," Cook said, tossing them over. "Trust me, enjoy the metabolism while you've got it." He patted his stomach. "It gets harder from here on."

"You're not really fat or anything," David said. "No, I didn't mean—!" he said, while Cook started laughing again, "That's not, I mean, and you have really nice arms, and, um, your mouth, and—"

Cook was kind of smirking a whole lot. "You like my mouth, huh?"

"I'm not going to talk to you at all anymore," David said.

"You could come over here instead," Cook said, and his voice went low and kind of a little bit growly, and he was stretched out on the bed and heavy-lidded, and David bit his lip, because he really kind of did want to go over there.

"I'm—I'm going to change," he said, and it only came out a little bit squeaky, and he ducked into the closet again with the horrible shiny pants.

Then Cook made him wear one of the tight shirts, too, and didn't let him put his tabard over it, and then he gave David the next present, which was a necklace with a big cross all covered with more diamonds, and David tried to protest, partly because oh my gosh, again, and partly because it was even more sparkly than the watch, except Cook gave him this sorrowful look and said, "I designed it myself."

So then David had to be all, "Oh, it's really awesome, but—" except Cook ignored the but and took him by the shoulders and turned him around so he could put the necklace on him. David kept protesting until Cook's fingers were on the back of his neck, brushing against his skin while he fastened the clasp, and then his voice sort of died away. Cook bent down and nuzzled at David's neck under his ear, wrapping an arm around his waist and pulling him close. David's knees were all wobbly and useless, and he couldn't help leaning back against Cook's body, and Cook was all, um, again, and so was David, and then the bell was rung for seven o'clock and it was time to go downstairs, which was really lucky, except for how David kind of wished it wasn't.

"I can't dance," he blurted out, when they got to the ballroom. "I totally forget the steps, and turn at the wrong time, and—"

"That's okay, we'll waltz," Cook said. "I can't, that's an immoral dance," David said, then, "What?"

"You remember the part where we were rolling around in the grass yesterday, and—"

"Oh my gosh, that wasn't on purpose," David said. "And it wasn't, like, in front of everyone."

"So you moaned and grabbed my ass and fell down on top of me by accident?" Cook said.

David squirmed. The grabbing part had been, um, kind of accidental. "Well, it wasn't, you know, planned." Then it occurred to David—"Wait, did you plan it?" he demanded suspiciously.

"I don't really need to plan these things with you," Cook said. "It seems to all work out that way serendipitously."

David didn't ask what that word meant, because he thought the odds were good it was probably something he wasn't supposed to know, and also Cook had somehow maneuvered him onto the dance floor, and they were in a set with Lady Abdul and Lord Jackson, and oh, this was going to be so humiliating.

"Okay," Cook said, after the first set, "so you weren't kidding."

"I told you so!" David said. "Please get me out of here."

"I thought maybe it was like the horseback riding thing," Cook said, taking David off the floor, his arm slung across David's shoulders. "How did you manage to grow up with five sisters and not learn how to dance?"

"We don't have room to dance at home," David said, tugging him towards one of the eating tables, because they were totally about to play a waltz next, and he didn't want Cook getting any more awesome ideas.

They sat down and some of the servants brought them plates of food. Cook said, "So where do you live?"

"Oh," David said. "In Salt Lake City—it's really nice, and our apartment is near the park. So we don't need a lot of room at home, we go out there a lot," he added, a little defensively.

Cook nodded, but then he said quietly, "Listen, man, I don't know if Simon's talked to you about this at all, but so you know, the way this works is, I'm responsible for your prospects."

"Huh?" David said.

"You gave up the seal for the courting—"

"No I didn't," David said. "It was already broken."

"Well, far as anyone else knows, you did, and that's how we want it," Cook said. "And there're rules about that kind of thing. You can't court someone sealed, mess them up, and walk away. Even if I wanted to, Simon couldn't let me get away with that, it would look like he was running a loose house. Ryan's working out the details for me, but just so you know, your family's going to be taken care of. Either way, I mean, even if you turn down the offer."

David stared at him, and then he had to get up and run out onto the balcony. Cook followed him out and hugged him, and David buried his face in Cook's chest, feeling like the world's biggest jerk. He wasn't crying because it was so awesome, he wasn't even crying for the girls. He was crying because he had no excuse for saying yes now, when Cook did finally make the offer, and it was pretty clear that Cook wanted him to know he didn't have an excuse, and—and—and now David realized miserably that he really wanted one.

He managed to gulp it all down and say, "Thanks," as if he really meant it, and when Cook tilted his chin up and kissed him again, David closed his eyes and leaned up into it. If this was all he was ever going to have, however long Cook was willing to spend on courting him, he wanted all of it, and he was really sorry that he hadn't let Cook—do more stuff, earlier, in his bedroom. Maybe Cook would want to again tomorrow—or later tonight—?

"Shouldn't the two of you be doing that inside?" There was a little bit of a sneer in it, and David felt Cook stiffen as he broke it off. It was Lord Davis, standing in the balcony doorway leaning on his gold-handled cane.

"Hey, Clive," Cook said, easily, but his hand behind David's back was clenched shut. "I guess we got a little carried away."

"Yeah, the way you do," Lord Davis said. He eyed David up and down. "You're moving on to temple candidates now, huh? Tell me something, if you're settling down, is it too much to hope that you'll quit taking in every commoner who flashes you a little leg?"

"Actually, I'm just going to let my chamberlain handle them from now on," Cook said. "Sorry, man, I know you've been having some recruiting issues. Maybe you could try taking your vassals for less than eighty percent? Just a thought."

Cook kept his arm around David's shoulders, and steered him past Lord Davis and back into the room. David nervously tried to stay really close to him. He didn't really like the way Lord Davis had sort of slid his eyes over him, it was weird, and, um, kind of icky, like he was trying to figure out how much David was worth. He rubbed the side of his leg uneasily and wished he hadn't been in the tight pants.

"Asshole," Cook said mostly under his breath. His mouth looked tight and hard, turned down at the corners. "He's got a couple of guys I know on the hook for life. They're building highways and cathedrals, and they can barely pay their rent."

"Why don't they—can't you, like, stop being a vassal, after five years?" David said, uncertainly. "If they pay the quitclaim—"

"He keeps them so short they can't save enough for it on the jobs he gives them," Cook said. "And if any of his people try to do extra work on the side, he dumps them on his farms where they can't get a thing. He's got a healer who saved my brother's life picking fruit in Idaho."

"Oh my gosh, you're not just taking anyone who shows up so you can be all kissing them," David said, with a huge surge of relief. "You moved here so anyone around would come be your vassal, instead of his—"

Cook glanced over at him, and his mouth quirked. "You got that in thirty seconds when it's taken Clive a year to figure it out. I love you, man, seriously."

David tried not to let that make him stupid and glowy, because Cook totally didn't mean it that way, but he couldn't help liking it even if it wasn't for real, and he even let Cook coax him out onto the dance floor for the next waltz after all. What they mostly did was sort of stand in a corner and sway pressed up against each other, so David felt all dizzy by the time they were done, and then Cook tugged him deeper into the corner and they kissed some more, and then Cook said all roughly, "Okay, you'd better get to bed, and I'd better get home. I'll see you tomorrow—"

"Oh," David said, and gulped. "You could—you could come back to my room?"

"Yeah, no, I really couldn't," Cook said. "You don't want to lose the whole seal," and David sort of wanted to say, um, actually—but he chickened out, so Cook kissed him goodnight, and went out of the hall whistling and giving a little wave goodnight to the girls watching over the balustrade.

David went up to his room and sat down and folded his arms on the windowsill and watched the guests streaming out into the night, and all their horses and carriages—Lord Cowell didn't need to give a lot of advance warning to have a lot of people show up for one of his parties. He couldn't pick Cook out of the huge crush, so after a bit he drowsed off, and when he roused up again, a little, he looked down and saw his horse Windy—he'd named her Windy—poking her nose out over the fence to whicker and nudge against Cook's black horse.

David sat up and rubbed his face and leaned out, looking to see where Cook was. Everyone had gone—the lights were off in most of the house, except the scullery windows, and the drive in front of the house was empty. He glanced over his shoulder at his door, wondering if maybe Cook was going to—come up? He looked back down, and then he realized, the black horse wasn't tied up to the fence. It had wandered further down along the fence, and now it had its head down, eating grass. The reins were trailing loose.

"All right, that's enough hysteria," Lord Cowell said, after David had woken everyone up yelling. He looked annoyed and tired, standing in the hall in his gray shirt and loose trousers, but David didn't care at all. "And no, you may not go out wandering the estate in pitch dark, you will do neither him nor yourself any good. The servants are out looking for him, and the worst that can have happened is he managed to fall off into the river. There are no bandits lying in wait between here and his house, Archuleta. Now, I am going back to sleep, and I suggest the rest of you do as well."

Except if Cook had fallen off, he would've called the horse back, unless he'd—he'd hit his head or something, and he was lying somewhere in the dark hurt, and David had been totally right to be scared of the horses, after all, and if only he got Cook back he would never let him ride again, no matter how much fun it was.

Lady Abdul hugged him and said, "I'm sure he'll be just fine, David,"

He said, "Um, thanks," and wished she would just go away, along with everyone else, so there would be no one to stop him going out, because he totally wasn't sitting around here. They were all taking so long to drift away, and Josiah and his friends were lingering by the door, and David was sure they would run and tell on him, the jerks, if he tried to go while they were still there.

Finally even they started heading in, and as Josiah went by, he kind of smirked and said, "Too bad you won't be landing your lord after all, Archuleta. Did you at least get laid before he bit it?"

First David just wanted to punch him, but he told himself it was way more important to get out and start looking, and then it hit him, and he turned and ran after them and grabbed Josiah's arm and pulled him around. "You—he—you know something happened to him. Oh my God, you know, you—you—Where is he?"

"I don't know what you're talking about," Josiah said, giving his friends a really fake shrug, barely even trying. "Get off me." His friends shoved David away and back a few steps.

David stood there trembling. "Where is he?" he said again, faintly. His voice was all choked up and quiet. He thought about Cook hurt, maybe—maybe even—and Josiah just laughed and started turning to go.

David hadn't ever—he'd never used magic on a person before, never to hurt them. He'd never even wanted to. But now he opened his mouth and sang the Dies Irae at them, not loud, not the Mozart or the Verdi, just a chant all soft and slow and awful.

They jerked around to look at him, and Josiah took a breath and tried to sing something back, but David took a deep breath and got louder, drowning him out. Their faces got white and sick, and then they fell down on the floor gasping, and finally David stopped and said, "Where is he?"

Josiah choked out, "The—the tower, my uncle's place, the tower—" and David turned and ran out the door. Cook's horse was tied up by the paddock now, still saddled and bridled. David pulled himself up and went.

The boundary wall spell recognized him and let him through, at least the one on Cook's side, and the one on Lord Davis's side was kind of crummy and old—it didn't stop him for long. Lord Davis had a creepy old-fashioned castle, with one big round tower standing back behind the rest of the structure, crumbly stones with vines and cold angry murmuring songs woven around them, and no windows or doors at all except at the very top. David scrambled up the narrow stairway that wound around the outside, using hands and feet. At the top he leaned through the one archway and looked into a big endless black pit and called, "Cook? Cook, oh my gosh, are you there?"

"Jesus, Dave, is that you?" Cook said, or more like croaked, all weird and thick-sounding, and David gave a desperate gasp of joy and jumped down, humming Free Falling again. He landed in—um, something, he totally wasn't paying attention—and flung himself on his knees next to Cook, who was sitting on the ground, leaning against the wall. His wrists were chained together, and there was a horrible collar tight around his throat, with a metal frame keeping his head forced back, so he couldn't sing.

"Oh my gosh, hold on," David said, and tried to find a buckle or something, but it was spelled so his fingers kept slipping off it. "Are you okay?" It was too dark to really see anything, which, well, going by the smell that was probably a good thing, but he couldn't tell if Cook was hurt or bleeding or anything.

"I've been better, but things are looking up," Cook rasped. "Although I'm going to kick Simon's ass for letting you come jumping down here like that."

"Um," David said, "he, uh, doesn't know I'm here?"

Cook paused and then he said, "Dave, did you come alone?"

"...yes?" David said.

Cook flicked his eyes up towards the top of the tower. "How were you planning for us to get out?"

"Oh," David said. "Um. I—didn't really think that far?" Cook started laughing as much as he could with the collar, in these choked little noises. David poked him. "Stop it! I'm totally going to get you out."

"You need to get yourself out and get word to Simon," Cook said. "There's probably some kind of alarm on this place. Get the cavalry and come back—"

"Oh my gosh, not in a million years," David said, and took a deep breath and put his hands on the collar and chains and sang to them about opening, letting go, coming off, now, now, now, please, and all of a sudden they came apart, along with Cook's shirt and also his belt buckle, which managed to get halfway undone before he caught it with his hand.

And about three seconds later there were noises outside—thumping of a lot of heavy boots coming up the outside stairs of the tower. "Dammit," Cook said, more normally, clearing his throat. "Okay, this is going to be interesting."

"We could try the Gesualdo?" David said.

Cook paused and looked around them at the tower, and then he said, "All right, it's worth a shot—aim it for the walls and the foundation." They started singing together, following all the weird sharp changes, and David shut his eyes and imagined the music sinking into the stone, chasing out the music already there. Distantly he heard a kind of low muttering discordant sound where the two pieces of music fought for a little bit. It was hard to keep to the line, but he managed it, Cook's voice soaring higher next to him. The twisty music pushed in, shoved out the other song, and then the tower was theirs—David felt it like a key fitting into a lock, where every stone and bit of moss and mortar was listening.

Cook sang different words to the music, telling the stones to slip loose from each other and fall away, and overhead the stars began to come out as the tower slowly crumbled away, shouts and yells as the guards fell with the stones, and then they were standing in an empty circle at the center of a pile of spread-out rubble. Cook's horse whickered at them nervously from the trees where David had left it.

"Okay, so let's get the hell out of here," Cook said, looking over at the castle, where lots of lights were suddenly coming up, like torches being lit.

"Um, yes," David said, and they ran for it.

Just as they got to the horse, Cook said, "Wait, I almost forgot," and David looked at him, and Cook cupped his face in both his hands and kissed him and kissed him and kissed him.

"This is so not the time," David said breathlessly, except then he kissed Cook back.

"Come on, man, it's completely the time," Cook said, giving him a boost up and swinging up behind him. "The hero always gets a kiss after the rescue."

The sun was coming up as they got back to Lord Cowell's house. Cook's poor horse was really tired after running away from Lord Davis's men, even though they'd helped it with a spell, so after they'd gotten back through the boundary wall, they'd gotten off and walked the rest of the way. They hadn't hurried. It was kind of nice, walking through the cool late night together with Cook's arm slung over his shoulders and the insects still chirping a little as the sky got lighter and lighter. They didn't really talk, although once a song came into David's head for a while, and Cook joined in with him on it. Cook's thumb was just sort of resting against David's collarbone.

They stopped in the stables to take care of the horse, and then they went into the courtyard and stopped—it was full of people all rushing around and talking in loud voices and saddling horses, and nobody noticed them come in until Cook raised his voice and said, "Hey, is Simon around somewhere?"

"Oh, splendid, now you turn up," Lord Cowell said, coming down the stairs. "All right, call off the bloody search. What happened to you? And as for you—" he added, glaring at David.

"Let him off the hook, he was hauling me out of Clive's oubliette," Cook said. "Speaking of which, I'll be reading out some charges I'll want you to witness tomorrow. But for now, I'd really like to just find some crash space. And you can make it big enough for two."

"Um," David said, urgently.

"Don't even start that, Archuleta," Cook said. "You totally want to sleep with me."

"Um," David said. "Hi, Dad."

"Oh," Cook said.

David's dad looked kind of horrified. "This is your idea of a suitable courtship?" he said, to Lord Cowell.

"It's been slightly derailed, I'll grant you," Lord Cowell said, "however—"

"Dad—" David said.

"Get your things," his dad said grimly. "We're leaving."

"Uh, look," Cook said. "We should talk—"

"About your taking advantage of a temple-bound seventeen-year-old and luring him into a deliberately false courtship?" his dad said. "Cowell's told me all about this wonderful scheme of yours. I have nothing to say to either of you, and my son is coming home with me, now."

David stumbled up to his room numbly. Cowell had started getting irritated and snapping at his dad not to be stupid, and then he'd said, "Look, I'm trying to tell you, he's bloody well made your family's fortune," and David had winced, and his dad had snapped back, "My family has a different idea of fortune than you do," and it was just getting worse, and finally Cook had leaned over and murmured to him, "Go upstairs, it'll be okay."

And, well, the thing was—there wasn't really a reason for David not to leave. Cook had courted him in public, there had been plenty of witnesses, and David's dad showing up and disapproving was kind of a good reason to end it without an offer. Everyone would believe it, and even if they thought David had gone, well, a little over the line, at least officially it would be okay. Cook would probably be glad he didn't have to keep coming over and riding out with him.

David couldn't make himself start packing, though. He sat down on the bed and told himself he wasn't going to cry, and then he thought about the courtship presents—since his family was breaking it off, that meant, he thought, that he was supposed to give them back. He wanted to anyway—well, he didn't want to, he wanted to keep them forever and ever, but he didn't want Cook to have spent all this money on them. Or maybe Cook would want them for—for whoever he did court, someday. David got up and took them out of the back of the closet, where he'd stuck them after the dance, and then he sat down on the bed again looking at the stupid sparkly jewelry, and he wiped his eyes a little after all.

"Hey," Cook said, from the doorway.

David looked up at him and tried to smile. "Um, hey. I just—I think—I should give these back to you?"

"Yeah, no," Cook said. "Put those away somewhere safe, and let's go."

"Where are we going?" David said, confused, putting down the jewelry.

"Somewhere in this place where we aren't going to get interrupted for the next hour," Cook said, tugging him along and poking his head into random doors along the hallway.

"There's the old parts...?" David said, and led Cook into the abbey section, where Cook opened more doors until he found one of the fancy bedchambers, the ones they only used for special guests, with the tiny little stained-glass windows and all the gothic ceiling thingies overhead and the four-poster beds with the canopies.

"Awesome," Cook said, and shut the door behind them.

"But what are we doing here?" David said, and then, "What?"

Cook put a hand over his face and sighed. "Take off your clothes and get in the bed."

"But," David said.

"I'm going to dishonor you."

David blushed. "Oh. Um, but—if—if you dishonored me, then you'd have to—"

"That's the idea," Cook said.

"But the idea—wasn't the idea, you'd court me, and—and then I'd say no, and—" David trailed off, because Cook was laughing.

"You've been making out with me like this and you weren't planning to say yes?" Cook said. "I don't know if I can marry somebody with such loose morals, man."

"I don't, no, I mean—I was only going to say no because I thought you wanted—" David said, except before he could finish, Cook was kissing him again, and all things considered, that was a way better idea, and Cook was taking off his clothes, and David took off his, and they got in the big soft velvet-draped bed. The faint voices of the spells in the stones whispered approvingly around them.

"Um, your hands are cold," David said, trembling a little.

"They'll warm up quick," Cook murmured, against his ear, and bit him a little, which was really weird and David thought about complaining, because seriously, biting, but instead he tipped his head back against the pillows so Cook could do it again a little further down his neck. Cook's hands were already warmer, and they were on his hips, tugging David in close.

"Oh, gosh," David said, a little while later, and wow, being dishonored was pretty amazing, actually.

Seacrest opened the door two hours later and said, "Okay, guys, sorry, but Simon locked himself in his library five minutes after you disappeared, and I'm done dealing with the angry parent on my own. Up and at 'em."

His dad was really mad when they got back downstairs, and even when David said, "Dad—Dad, no, I'm marrying him! No, for real—oh my gosh, no, he's not lying—" and when David desperately tried to say he was all dishonored now and had to get married, his dad started talking about calling the authorities, until finally David had to burst out, "I'm in love with him!" which was so embarrassing, but at least his dad paused and looked at Cook.

Cook shrugged. "I'm pretty crazy about him, too."

"See," David said, relieved. "And we could even get married tonight," he added. "Lord Cowell has a chapel—"

"Uh, no, we could not," Cook said. "We're not eloping, man. I want some flowers and a party, and I'm not getting married without my mom there."

"We can have a party anytime!" David said.

"You're just trying to get out of dancing in public," Cook said. "I don't think so. Also, I want to see you in the whole white suit thing, that's going to be awesome."

"Oh my gosh," David said disconsolately.

"Don't talk to me, you were ready to make me wait four weeks," Cook said.

"You're only ready to wait now because I already, um, with you," David said.

Cook looked kind of smug. "Yeah, that's working out pretty well for me, huh."

"Well, I'm not going to again until after!" David said.

"Awww," Cook said, looking all downcast.

David folded his arms. "I'm so not falling for that again."

"No, man, this time I'm disappointed for real," Cook said. "How about a week? Ryan, can I steal you for a week? You can throw something together, right?"

"Sure, it's about time to make Simon remember why he pays me," Seacrest said. "About five hundred guests, maybe? We could get the Jonas Brothers to perform."

Cook looked at David's dad and said, "Is that enough time to get your family here? There's plenty of room at my place—"

"Well," his dad said, uncertainly, and looked at David. "You're sure about this?"

"Um, except for the part about the giant wedding!" David said.

The wedding totally sucked.

He got driven to the chapel in an open carriage with four white horses, along a road lined with cheering people throwing flowers—David had no clue where they had all come from, there weren't any horses in sight, and they couldn't all have walked, and Cook was being driven up on the other side, so David had to sit there alone in front of all of them, which was really weird, and Ryan—Ryan was riding alongside, probably to make sure David didn't run away—kept poking him to wave at people, which made him feel even more stupid.

Then he finally got to the chapel and there were hundreds of people there all sitting to stare at him up close. His sisters were at the front with his mom and dad, all beaming and happy while they watched David totally humiliate himself. Cook had gotten them fancy dresses and jewelry, too, so they were all on his side, and when David had tried to stand up for anything, like not having to dance after, or maybe how about not having diamonds attached all along the edges of his suit jacket, or skipping the parade, they were all, "oh, no, that'll be awesome!" and "Davey," like he was being totally heartless and mean, especially whenever Cook made a sad face.

And the wait had turned into two weeks just so they could invite even more people, and his parents totally hadn't let him be alone with Cook again for a minute the whole time, and David had to walk up to the altar past everyone wearing these tight white pants and even more jewelry that Cook had gotten him, and it was all completely unfair and David cringed the whole way.

And then he was down the aisle, and he climbed up the stairs to the raised dais, and Cook climbed up from the other side and stood there across from him, looking really serious for once, and David gulped. They clasped arms over the altar, and Cook's pulse was jumping under David's fingertips, and the priest laid the white silk ribbon over their wrists. David breathed all the way down deep to sing the vows, and the chapel walls rang with the notes. Cook's voice wobbled a little just at first, but then he went up and up higher, winding around David's voice and doing all these amazing little flourishy bits that David almost wanted to just stop and listen to.

The ribbon quivered and wrapped itself around their hands five times, and then it even grew longer so it could keep going down their arms a couple more times. By the time they were done and everyone else in the chapel lit their candles and sang the last chorus back at them and the ribbon sank into their skin, the raised spiraly pattern went all the way to their elbows. And then, finally, there was kissing, and David didn't even care that there were, like, thirty million people watching him and cheering loudly, because oh my gosh, they were married, and Cook was holding him like he never wanted to let go, and David was so happy.

The altar dais sank down to the lower level with them still kissing, and then a few minutes later the priest coughed and said, "You can go back up to your guests now," hinting. They broke off, and Cook looked at David and said, "Okay, so the reception was a bad idea," and David said, "See, I told you," and instead they snuck out through the delivery entrance in the basement and ran away from the chapel holding hands.

It was a beautiful day, and they found a nice comfy field full of soft green grass, and David flung off the pants and the shirt and the stupid suit jacket, which was at least useful for putting down for them to lie on. Then Cook was too busy kissing his neck to finish getting undressed, so David sang his clothes off with the unlocking spell, only a little breathlessly.

Cook started laughing as his buttons and laces all undid themselves and the clothes peeled off him. David poked him. "Don't stop," he said—Cook had let go to spread out his arms so his shirt could get off—and then he got impatient and pushed Cook flat onto the pile of discarded clothes and got on top of him.

Cook said in a low purry kind of voice, "Yeah, that's good," and gripped David's thighs with his hands, and David kissed him, and gosh, it was even more awesome the second time around.

Afterwards they lay curled up together while the sun went down and music drifted faintly over from the party. David was feeling kind of glowy, and he was thinking that okay, maybe they could go back to the party for just one dance, if he didn't have to put the jacket back on, and that was when the fireworks started going off.

"I swear that was Ryan's idea," Cook said, after a moment.

"I so don't believe you," David said.

= End =

With heaps of thanks to Cesca, Terri, Celli, and Madelyn! <3

All feedback much appreciated!
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