More than a Little Crazy

RECAP: After being imprisoned for an ambush he didn't even know he was taking part in, Kurt Hummel is forced to act as Prince Blaine's personal servant; the alternate option of being locked in the dangeous dungeons until Kurt's innocence is proven not boding well on Blaine's conscience. To learn the "art" (if glorified slavery could be considered such) of servantry, Sam Evans – hot elf with a tragic past and questionable sexuality – is enlisted to teach Kurt the ropes. Kurt does NOT like Prince Blaine. You know. Much . . .

One of Blaine's friends (Knight Wes) thinks Blaine's charity case (Kurt) has something evil up his sleeve (which can't be true!), and that Blaine trusts people too blindly (he doesn't. Really.). Meanwhile, Princess Quinn Fabray of McKinley, the forerunner for Blaine's heart and the queen's crown, actually does have something evil up her sleeve . . . All because she is not about to let some peasant boy from unimportant Glee get in the way of her crown and, more importantly, her impending escape from the cruel dictator of McKinley, Queen Sylvester.

Ch. 5 Pavarotti

The scenic mountains rolled by, purple, green, and brown. Lazy cows grazed along hillsides, as sphinxes peered at the cattle lecherously, hidden behind tall blades of grass. Wood nymphs jumped from trees and chased each other through the fields, giggling and waving teasingly at the passing carriage. It was pleasant, beautiful, perfect.

But not for long.

Gradually, life was disappearing from the wild hills. The trees grew blackened, a fog began to collect low in the air, and if a nymph was caught darting between the grasses, she never stopped to chat, only racing faster, as if she had something to hide. Or hide from.

Knight Finn Hudson readily accepted that he was not exactly the brightest spark in the pixie's eye, but even he could tell that this was messed up.

"They look scared, don't they?" he remarked to his traveling companion, as he caught a brief glimpse of some nymphs watching the carriage, before quickly scampering up a tree. "Like – really scared."

His companion stayed silent, and he turned back around.

Noah Puckerman was watching his mohawked self in the reflection of the glass window, flexing his biceps. His facial expression kept morphing, probably trying to figure out which was more him. Puck caught Finn staring and he cocked an eyebrow. "You say something?"

Finn rolled his brown eyes. "Dude. Listen, won't you? This is why Coach Bieste wants to kick you out of the Knights."

It was Puck's turn to roll his eyes. "Beastly is all bark, no bite. I've got nothing to worry about. She knows you guys need my badass battle presence – with me, we don't even have to start a fight, and the opponent's already wetting their panties."

Finn was about to answer when something heated against his leg in his pant pocket. He pulled out a handheld mirror, intricately decorated with expensive gems, whose face glowed like a firefly's backside. Puck snorted.

"Careful, Hudson," he said. "Your true preferences are showing."

Deliberately ignoring him, as Finn had been often instructed by Coach Bieste, he waited; the glow dimmed and the eyes of his sometimes-annoying-but-also-pretty-endearing fiancée stared up at him, where a normal mirror would have reflected his own face. But this was no normal mirror.

"Finn!" Rachel exclaimed, no-nonsense. "Have you reached McKinley yet?"

"Not yet," he said, glancing out the window; taking in the bruised sky, dead trees, total absence of life and color and hope. "But I've got a feeling we're almost there." He dragged his eyes back to Rachel. "Is my mom there?"

"No. Your mother and stepfather, as well as my dads, are still undergoing investigation. Listen, Finn . . . are you sure Karofsky had anything to do with Kurt's disappearance? I know they've never gotten along well, but doesn't a kidnapping seem a bit . . . out of the blue?"

Finn couldn't even bring himself to feel irritated that this was the reason she called. When people always doubted everything you did, eventually, you became numb to it. "I know what I saw, Rach. Karofsky and Kurt were talking at the beach the day he disappeared, and then, poof, Kurt's gone. If he didn't kidnap him, maybe he knows something. It doesn't hurt to try."

Rachel was still frowning, but her eyes seemed to clear, if only a little. "Well . . . I suppose you're right. I just . . . I just really want Kurt back. He's planning our wedding and though I could obviously do a far superior job on my own, seeing as putting together weddings and/or balls is one of my 652 major talents, I am absolutely swamped with campaigning, not to mention finishing an inaugural speech that will blow King Schuster's ex-wife's speech out of the water – not that it will be hard, that woman made me look normal –,"

To be completely honest, Finn was still stuck somewhere around "He's planning our wedding," because that sort of made it sound like Rachel and Kurt were getting married. Which was fairly disheartening, seeing as Finn was madly in love with Rachel and, anyway, he was pretty sure Kurt didn't swing that way. To lose a girl to a gay dude? Harsh, man. Harsh.

"Alright, white girl, I'm gonna stop you there," a new voice cut in and Finn watched in mild interest as Rachel was shoved out of the way to make room for a new face. Mercedes Jones, black and proud, took the stage.

"Listen to me, Finny-boy." Mercedes spoke slowly, menacingly, as if to a particularly bothersome child. That was how most people spoke to Finn these days. "I don't care how it happens, who you have to talk to, where you have to go – just get Kurt back to Glee in one piece, or I? Will cut you."

Finn gulped. Puck snickered.

"I hear you laughing back there, Puckerman! Don't think for a second that I can't take you, too!"

Puck quickly sobered and it was Finn's turn to smirk.

Having successfully (and terrifyingly) made her point, Mercedes allowed Rachel's return to the mirror. Finn couldn't be more grateful.

"Well, I suppose I should let you go . . ." Rachel said, voice trailing off, soft and sad.

"Yeah . . ." said Finn. He didn't want to see her go either. She was smiley and happy and outside his carriage window, the world was dark and depressing. He wished they could turn around now, go back to Glee, where he could hold his fiancée in his arms and forget about all the bad in the world . . .

But Kurt was family. And that's that.

"You hang up first," Rachel murmured.

A small smile played around Finn's mouth at the familiar game. "No, you hang up first."

"No, you –,"

"Oh, for God's sake, shut up!" Puck snapped, ripping the mirror from Finn's fingers. He pressed a sapphire adorning the handle and the mirror's face was wiped blank.

Finn gaped at him. "Dude. Not cool."

Puck shrugged like he couldn't care less. Which he probably couldn't. Um, why was he Finn's best friend again?

"Hey, look what I smuggled in," Puck whispered, pulling a satchel from under his seat. He held it open to reveal that it was full to the brim with fried cheese balls; a food that had been banned from the Knights of Glee after Knight Matt nearly went into cardiac arrest from eating too many.

Oh, yeah. That's why.

Grinning, Finn reached a quivering hand to taste the awesomeness that was the beautifully unhealthy cheese ball. He hadn't eaten one in months and though he appreciated Coach Beiste's concern for his health, it had been far too long

THUMP!

Cheese balls exploded into the air as the carriage screeched to a halt. Finn's knuckles whitened, clutching desperately at the edge of his seat; his cheeks dusted orange from the flying cheese powder.

". . . The hell?" voiced Puckerman. "Did we hit something?"

Oh. My. God. Please don't be a repeat of the Mailman Incident . . .

Puck threw open the door and hopped out. Finn reluctantly followed; he had an image to maintain, after all.

King Schuster's resident chauffer (and royal accompanist), Brad, sat at the head of the carriage, horses' reigns limp on his lap, hands raised in surrender – at the mercy of two teenage girls' sword points.

Another six girls suddenly surrounded Finn and Puck, drawn swords and daggers glinting in the gray sunlight. They each wore clean-cut smocks, red and white and expensive, a cursive "M" embroidered in the fabric; each and every single hair pulled into precise ponytails; jeweled tiaras glittering.

"Surrender your weapons or face the consequences!" a redhead barked.

Slowly, deliberately, Puck and Finn unsheathed their daggers and dropped them to the dirt. Two of the girls darted from their formation to collect the weapons, before immediately rejoining the ranks, faces devoid of any emotion other than sheer will.

"I think I had a dream like this once," Puck murmured. "'Cept the girls were naked."

"Quiet!" said the redhead, again. "State your names and purpose."

Finn gulped, but forced himself to speak. For Kurt. "Uh, I'm Finn Hudson. And this is Noah Puckerman. We're knights from Glee –,"

"Visiting hours are closed," she said.

"Oh, um . . . but we just – we really need to talk to someone," he said.

"Visiting hours are closed," she repeated. Like he was stupid.

He hated being treated like he was he stupid.

"Listen," said Puck, "we don't care about your frigging visiting hours and shit. We're going to talk to Karofsky about our homeboy Kurt or –,"

A sharp crackling cut him off. Ginger-hair hiked up her skirts to grab a walkie-talkie from a strap around her thigh ("Hot," Puck muttered dazedly) and held it to her ear. "Yes, Ma'am," she told the device. "That's what he said."

Sharp eyes darted to Puck. "Kurt who?" she asked.

"Wha . . .?"

"Hummel," Finn supplied, seizing his chance. "Kurt Hummel, my stepbrother. He disappeared recently and Dave Karofsky was, like, the last person to talk to him . . ."

She held up a silencing hand and listened intently. The walkie-talkie's crackling grew louder, but Finn could still not make out any distinct words.

Finally, the girl replaced the walkie-talkie with one last, short "Yes, Ma'am." As if receiving a wordless cue, the other girls lowered their swords, but remained at attention.

For a single moment, a heavy silence hung in the even heavier air, the loneliness, the isolation, the fear of this sad land's people blowing with the chilly wind.

"Get back in the carriage," Redhead ordered. "The queen wishes to see you."

-X-

Kurt Hummel was dreaming. Not a good dream, nor a bad. Simply . . . a dream.

In this dream, he sat on a pier, bare feet dangling in the salted ocean. The setting sun cast its dying rays against his face, his hair, his naked calves. A soft breeze, neither warm nor cold, enveloped his body.

Kurt sat, and sat, and sat some more, unsure of why he continued to sit. What was he waiting for?

As if in answer, the surface of the water began to bubble. Kurt cradled his knees to his chest. A woman's head broke the water, slowly followed by the rest of her body, clad in a dress that Kurt somehow knew was made of seaweed. She was beautiful; all long, dark hair, pale skin, and strong limbs, with eyes that were like the ocean itself.

Kurt knew her, of course. He could never forget.

The woman opened her mouth and began to sing a tune so heavenly it could not have come from her body, but rather the sky, the sea, the sun. It floated in the wind, rolled with the waves, enchanted Kurt until the song was all that made sense in the world.

Kurt stood in a trance, just as the woman reached out her smooth, unblemished hand. There was no hesitation; he grasped it.

And then, Kurt was no longer overlooking the ocean, but a meadow, framed by tall trees, and dotted with yellow and white and pink daisies. The sun, much higher in the sky than before, illuminated a couple of men running through the paths of wildflowers. Kurt peered closer, thinking there was something oddly familiar about those shining heads of dark hair; one a gleaming chestnut, the other eye-catching ebony.

With a start, he realized that that one of the boys was Kurt himself and the other was Prince Blaine. Except, it didn't look like Kurt and Prince Blaine. Gone was the air of formality, the sense of master and servant, the hostility that Kurt felt towards the prince for enslaving him. No, there was . . . something else entirely, and it confused the real Kurt to no end.

Dream Kurt and Blaine were dressed in billowy clothes that Kurt would normally never imagine wearing, but actually looked sort of awesome on him. They were giggling about something, casting each other hopeful glances when they thought the other wasn't looking. Suddenly, Dream Kurt took off at a run, arms thrown out to catch the wind, like the cover of one of those trashy romance novels that Kurt had hidden in a box under his bed. Laughing brightly, Blaine chased after his companion.

Kurt abruptly stopped, causing Blaine to ram into his back, and they went tumbling in mess of tangled limbs and schoolgirl giggles to the grass.

Then, the scene shifted.

Kurt was still watching over the meadow; he wasn't sure how he knew, seeing as it didn't look anything like its previous state. The trees had collapsed in piles of ash and flame, newly spilled blood clotted the grass, smoke hung low in the air – something bad had recently occurred here. Something terrible.

Kurt's feet touched down on the dirtied grass. Had he been in the sky? He didn't know, as people in dreams rarely do.

As he walked through the meadow, lifeless bodies materialized from the smoke, marking his pathway. He tried not look at them, but it was like being told "Don't look down" – he couldn't help the way his eyes dragged over the corpses with a sort of twisted magnetism.

All he could feel was detached disgust for the mangled people and creatures, until he glanced up ahead and noticed the head of black curls spread over a particularly bloody patch of burnt grass. Kurt took off running to the body's side.

Blaine's dead gaze bore into his own.

Kurt awoke with a gasp.

It took him but a moment to remember where he was and that it was all a dream. Slowly, the ivory ceiling came into focus, replacing the terrible memory of hollow hazel eyes and sallow cheeks. He disentangled himself from his sheets, hobbled into the beautiful bathroom, and promptly puked up his guts into the marble toilet.

An entire year had passed sine Kurt's mother last visited his dreams. Before then, her presence was a regular occurrence. Most nights, she would emerge from the ocean and sing to him, an enchanting song that Kurt could never remember the melody to come morning. But every once in a while, when Kurt was particularly emotional, she'd offer her hand and take Kurt on a journey of visions that were both nonsensical and entirely too real. Kurt always woke with a churning stomach and mind.

Back then, Kurt didn't put too much thought into the visions she showed him; until one night, he saw his father dropping dead to the floor during a day's work. Unusually perturbed, he canceled all his plans for the day (which consisted mainly of an all-day shopping spree with Mercedes and Tina), in favor of helping his dad out in the shop, even though patching up boats that smelled like fish guts was often not high on his priority list.

If Kurt hadn't been there that day, no one would have known about Burt's heart attack until Kurt returned home in the evening.

And Kurt might be one parent less.

That was the last time Kurt dreamed about his mother. But apparently she was back.

Kurt heaved and heaved, until he was left panting over the toilet with tears streaking down his flaming cheeks, the occasional dry-retch wrenched from his throat like a sob. Feeling like there couldn't be anything possibly left in his body, he dragged his feet over to the bathtub and drew the water, yanking the knobs to cold; the mere thought of warmth made his stomach roll all over again.

He lowered himself into the bath, welcoming the bathwater's bite and allowing it to send shivers down his spine. Even though he was exhausted, he kept his eyes firmly open – terrified of the dead prince still lingering in the back of his mind.

He needed a distraction. He needed something that wouldn't make him sick. He needed something that was sure, and real, and out there somewhere, waiting for him to return.

Kurt thought of Glee.

He thought of Rachel's two dads, who were both slightly less annoying than Rachel herself, and were generous enough to take Kurt and his family into their home when Burt no longer had the money to support both his stepson's campaigning and pay off a house. They never judged him because they knew – knew what it was like for the world to judge you for something as silly as the sashay in your step, the lilt of your voice.

Kurt thought of the three others that joined him in the Fabulous Four: Mercedes, Tina, and Artie. He recalled the long nights they'd spend whispering their biggest dreams to each other, how for those few hours spent in darkness, anything was possible: shy Tina could ask the popular knight, Mike Chang, to the ball; Mercedes could feel as beautiful as all those tiny girls who lived on a diet of garden salads; wheelchair-bound Artie could dance again one day; and, for once, Kurt could be normal.

He thought of the Knights of McKinley, especially Karofsky; though Karofsky wasn't a citizen of Glee, he sure spent enough time there, trading cargo and negotiating treaties with the Glee Knights. He thought of all the insults the McKinlians threw his way whenever they were visiting, thought of the bruises that lined his sides from constantly being pushed around by ignorant boys three times his size. Remembered when Karofsky suddenly stopped being their Neanderthal of a leader, and started being just another scared little kid.

Kurt thought of Finn, and his goofily charming smile and his hugs that were much too big, but at the same time were the perfect size. He remembered all the days he admired Finn from afar, all those times Finn was so nice to him when barely anyone else noticed he was alive, all those stars he wished on that Finn would drop the spoiled brat that was Countess Berry, and love him instead. Remembered cursing the stars and shouting at them, "Brothers wasn't exactly what I had in mind!"

Kurt thought of Burt and his stepmother, Carole, and how much they loved him, and how much he loved them. How they had both already suffered one loss too many. How, if he didn't find a way to escape this glorified prison, their hearts would break all over again and he just couldn't do that to the two best people he knew!

Before he could stop them, before he even realized they were coming, tears had trickled down his face, disappearing into the bathwater with nothing but salt-stained cheeks to prove they'd even been there in the first place – and Kurt wondered if someone, somewhere, was thinking of him, too.

-X-

For Kurt, Finn chanted in his head, as the carriage pulled them through the desolate McKinley streets. Nothing looked out of the ordinary for a large kingdom, but there was this feeling that stuck in his bones . . . It was like everything here, from the toothed trees to the bright flowers planted on windowsills, was surrounded by a hazy, dark aura that wouldn't even let up in the dead of day. It might have been thrilling to some people, like Puck or Karofsky, or maybe even Kurt on his bitchy days, but Finn was naturally drawn to all things light, and repelled by those of the dark. He knew the chills on the back of his neck, the clamminess of his palms, totally weren't cool for a big shot knight . . . but he couldn't help them. This place scared him.

For Kurt, for Kurt, for Kurt.

The carriage bumped up and down, as it carried them along a gravelly road that wound deep into the mountainside. Finn watched the blackened trees and shrubs pass his window, wondering, What happened to you? Who made you like this? Finn had met Queen Sylvester a couple of times before, and even though she was always a bit out of her mind, she never seemed evil.

Well, maybe a little.

Or a lot, now that he thought about it.

Actually, was there ever a time when she didn't seem evil?

Finn closed his eyes and rested his head against the window, trying to remember: Queen Sylvester always spoke of her "handicapable sister" rather fondly, even if she rarely did so. That was good, right? Wasn't it, like, a rule for evil queens to dislike disabled people?

Finn felt the carriage slowing, and then it completely stopped. He didn't open his eyes.

"This is as near the premises as you are allowed," announced one of the princesses (Finn had managed to remember who they were from his previous visits to McKinley). "All who are proceeding to the esteemed McKinley Castle will now abort the vehicle."

Finn's eyes fluttered open to stare at the three princesses sitting across from him: the redhead from before, a black girl, and a dirty blonde. The other girls had stayed behind to continue guarding McKinley's border.

". . . Ok, I didn't understand, like, half the words you just said," Puck spoke from beside Finn.

Finn snickered; the girls shot him unified glares and he frowned seriously.

"Ok, ok, we're going," he said, hopping from carriage. He was in a dark, dank forest with low-hanging trees and jagged rocks jutting from the swampy floor. The dull buzz of insects was the only sound to be heard.

There was a soft cough; Finn looked up at the box to see Brad's concerned eyes staring down at him, his white knuckles clenching and unclenching over the horse's reigns.

"Will you wait for us here?" Finn asked softly. Brad nodded.

"Enough chitchat; onward," barked the redhead, who was now named "Princess One" in Finn's mind, as she jumped from the cart and marched purposefully into the jungle, her two allies flanking her. They weren't ordinary royalty, it seemed, maneuvering the murky ground with a practiced ease.

Finn and Puck exchanged nervous glances, and hastily scampered after the princesses.

They pushed their way through brambles and thickets, muddy swamps, prickly branches that scratched at their faces unrelentingly. It was all very new: on the only other times Finn visited McKinley Castle, the Glee Knights had strict business with the queen, and were granted a designated McKinley coach driver to carry them safely from their homes, into McKinley's realm, through the dense growth that hid the castle from view, and to the castle doors.

He didn't like this. He didn't like this one bit.

At one point, Puck broke the heavy silence: "So, if you guard the kingdom's borders, and escort possibly dangerous visitors to the castle – what the hell is the point of having knights?" He stumbled over a vine, but Finn caught him by the sleeve, just before he planted his face in a puddle of what looked suspiciously like quicksand.

"Hurry, for we wait for no one," was the only response.

"Bitch," Puck muttered, but was spared no mind except for a few disparaging glances. Finn smirked; Puck lived for reactions, good or bad, and it was pretty funny to watch his shoulders slump at the princesses' lackluster replies.

They walked on.

Eventually, when Finn's feet ached and Puck was severely grouchy after several more failed insults and pickup lines directed at the girls, the princesses seemed to slow. Finn bit back the eager grin that threatened to overtake he face, not wanting to raise his hopes in vain.

But it wasn't in vain.

Because just then, the group pushed through a thick curtain of moss and into the near-blinding daylight.

Finn gasped; they were standing at the foot of a thousand narrow stone steps stretching over steep, rolling hills; atop the highest hill, sat the majestic McKinley Castle, dark turrets and towers puncturing the broken cloud cover.

Princesses One, Two, and Three took off up the steps, still in impeccable formation.

"Yeah, it's ok!" Puck called. "Don't wait for us, or anything! We didn't just run fifty freaking miles through the freaking jungle . . ."

"It's a lost cause, man," Finn said, patting Puck's back. "We might as well get started." He began up the stairs and, groaning, Puck followed.

-X-

"Good mooorning, sunshine!" Kurt trilled, skipping into Prince Blaine's sleeping chambers with a cheerfulness that was not, in the slightest bit, malicious. He yanked open the velvet curtains that covered the splendorous, wall-length window opposite Prince Blaine's four-poster bed, so the morning sun could cast it's glorious golden glow right on the slumbering prince's face. Because what better way to wake than by the blinding, relentless light of a new day?

That was Kurt Hummel for you, folks. Always thinking of others.

Moaning low in his throat, Prince Blaine attempted to cover his face with his comforter and sheets, but Kurt quickly pried the blankets away.

"Nuh-uh-uh!" he sing-songed. "You have a busy day ahead of you, my liege. Treaties to sign, princesses to fornicate with, babies to kiss – you know the drill better than I."

"Why," Blaine muttered groggily, "do I get the feeling you're being sarcastic?"

"You, Prince, are a bright one, I knew there was a reason you're being trusted with an entire country –,"

"Call me Blaine."

Kurt faltered. He hadn't been expecting that at all.

"I'm sorry?"

"No Prince. Call . . . me . . . Blaine."

With that, Prince Blaine rolled over and buried his face in his pillow. Kurt stared at the back of the prince's black curls, which were disheveled and matted with the remnants of gel. It was both adorable . . . and gross. Back home, Kurt made sure to wash out all his hair products before he went to bed, otherwise the Berrys' sheets would get ruined and, frankly, it wasn't very hygienic.

An idea occurred to Kurt. At first, he brushed it off – he was nobody's slave – but then he remembered his dream, and he felt almost as if he owed the prince this. In a strange, upside-down way.

"Where's your bathroom?" Kurt sighed, noting the two doors, on opposite walls. Prince Blaine's arm made a spastic motion towards the door on the left, so Kurt guessed that was his answer.

He tentatively entered the next room through the door – and immediately faltered in his step. Wide eyes raked every wall, every faucet, every surface: the prince's lavatory was every bit as spacious as his bedroom, the bathtub situated in the middle of the tiled floor might have been the size of a small lake, and – oh god – were those diamonds on the chandelier?

"Holy, sweet mother of polyester," Kurt murmured to himself, tentatively walking farther onto the marble floor. He wondered if he should leave his standard issue leather work boots (which were a tragedy in themselves) at the doorway, but figured it would be more disrespectful to walk barefooted and rather opted to tread carefully. The boots creaked, but left no scuff marks; the flooring still so shiny Kurt could nearly see his reflection.

Was this the life Finn and Rachel would be living if they were elected as king and queen? Kurt doubted it. Dalton seemed like it had the best of the best.

Kurt would still make sure to mooch off them, though, just in case.

Kurt pulled a cotton towel from a rack and crossed to the porcelain sinks, lined against a far wall, and quirked one of the polished brass faucets. He ran the towel under the warm water; wrung it out and went back to Blaine's bedside.

He perched himself on the edge of the bed, took a deep breath, and moved the towel to the back of Blaine's head. Blaine visibly shuddered, muscles tensing as a single droplet wound down his neck.

"Shh," Kurt murmured, carefully massaging Blaine's hair. He wasn't sure why he was being so gentle – and, sure, a part of him did want to just yank the guy's hair out. But he couldn't get that image out of his head, the one that made him want to curl up under the covers next to Blaine, and bawl his eyes out, or empty his stomach all over everything again because the picture was just so wrong.

A nightmare about a man he didn't know, a man he didn't have many reasons to even like shouldn't bother him this much.

But it did, and there was no changing the fact.

"You really should wash all this gunk out of your hair before you go to bed, you know?" he said softly. "It's gross, and unless you're using the right products, it'll mess up your hair."

Blaine's shoulders rose and dropped in a noncommittal shrug. Kurt continued to wash Blaine's hair in silence, tugging on individual locks to free them of them of the crusty gel. His fingertips grazed over the skin of Blaine's neck wherever a water drop would drip from the hair or towel; and, yes, he probably enjoyed the way it made the prince shiver and his breath stutter way too much. He was a teenage boy – more mature than most others, but still one all the same – and certain things undeniably thrilled him. You know. Kind of. Just because he wasn't exactly on Rachel Berry-prude standards, didn't mean he was some sort of Puckerman-esque sex addict.

Kurt Hummel had class, thank you very much.

Kurt lifted the towel to see Blaine's damp curls looking clean and new again. He smirked triumphantly, and pushed on Blaine's shoulder to signal that he should roll over; Blaine obliged, eyes still shut tightly against the wetness. Kurt laid the towel on top of Blaine's head, and began working the water through the mated hair. A hot drip slid down Blaine's forehead and caught on his eyelashes; he whimpered, just the slightest bit, a reluctant noise wrenched from the back of his throat.

Kurt stilled slightly. His heart hammered against his ribs.

"Why are you so tired, anyway?" he asked, continuing with this impromptu hair washing. "You strike me as one of those annoying, up-at-the-crack-of-dawn people. I would know, because I'm one of them. Not that I want to be. But, alas, beauty takes pain!"

Blaine's eyes fluttered open for a moment, just long enough to rake over Kurt's concentrated face. "Well, it certainly pays off," he muttered, closing his eyes again. He hummed – appreciatively, Kurt suspected, because he knew he was awesome at giving scalp massages.

Kurt flushed, at Blaine's words and the fact that he was causing Blaine to make those noises . . . He vaguely wondered what other sounds he could elicit from Blaine's pretty mouth . . .

But no. He so wasn't going there.

Kurt deliberately pictured Sam Evans, who was definitely (or, you know, almost positively) into the same things Kurt was into (i.e. the male anatomy), and of a similar social standing as Kurt. A servant. Not a prince.

"Thank you, but that doesn't exactly answer my question," Kurt said.

For several long moments, Blaine didn't say anything and Kurt wondered if he had fallen back asleep. But then the prince was running a hand over his face in a universal gesture of frustration, and Kurt could see the muscles in his strong jaw working as they gnashed his teeth together. His eyes fluttered open and shut, like he couldn't decide whether to glare at Kurt or just go back to sleep. He settled for something in between: eyes heavily lidded, a slit of hazel peeking through his thick lashes.

"My friend and I, we . . . had a fight, so to speak," he said slowly. "I hate fighting with him – with anyone, really, and it just upset me a lot. And when I'm upset, I practice my swordsmanship or – um."

"Or?" Kurt prodded gently.

". . . Sing," the prince admitted, a light blush coloring his neck and cheeks. "Music, it . . . it comforts me. I know it's silly and all –,"

"No," Kurt assured. He was indeed surprised by Blaine's confession, but not because he thought a prince shouldn't waste his time with singing. It just seemed impossible, otherworldly that someone so entirely different from Kurt could think something so . . . similar. "Not silly at all. Actually, it . . . makes a lot of sense to me."

Blaine allowed his eyes to drift all the way closed, a wry smirk fixed on his face. "Well, you'd one of the rarities, then." Kurt snorted darkly; Blaine didn't even know how right he was. "Anyway, I got worked up, snuck out to the fields in the middle of the night, and alternated between playing around with some offensive techniques and belting my heart out."

Kurt placed the towel down on the sheets and smoothed Blaine's curls from his forehead, almost absentminded.

"Forgive me if I'm overstepping . . . but what exactly did you and your friend fight about that put you in such a state?" A princess they both thought had pretty hair? Whose birthday celebration had been the biggest? What on earth did the nobility of Dalton fight about when it looked like they had everything and more?

"You," Blaine put it simply.

Oh. Well then.

"I'm flattered?" Kurt said/asked, laughing a little, as he tugged on Blaine's curls. Blaine swatted his hands away playfully, but caught them at the last moment and lazily pulled them to his chest.

Kurt froze, marveling at the feel of another boy's hands wrapped round his, the broad fingers, the strong grip, the calloused fingertips that Kurt was willing to bet were from years of playing a musical instrument, like the guitar. Blaine's hands were rough, but smoother than Kurt's father's – and such a simple touch from a person he barely knew thrilled Kurt and scared him and made him feel things he didn't know he could – and it was all just so weird because –

"You don't mind touching me," Kurt whispered. "Or being touched by me."

Blaine opened his eyes, looking fairly awake now. He raised his brow. "Should I mind?" he asked.

Kurt hesitated, before hurriedly shaking his head, cursing himself for even considering that there might be a valid reason for people to steer clear of him.

"No, no. It's just a bit . . . different for me, is all."

"Hmm."

Kurt kept his gaze trained on their hands, still lying innocuously against Blaine's pajama-clad chest. He could feel Blaine's heartbeat if he focused hard enough.

"Kurt. . ." Blaine's voice was tinted with concern, "have you been crying?"

The walls had been down too long, Kurt decided. And if they couldn't be salvaged, he'd just have to make some new ones.

Kurt wrenched his hands from Blaine's. He grabbed the towel, distinctly less clean now from old hair gel, and got to his feet. He took his time tossing the towel into the clothes hamper in the far corner of the room, before he finally rounded on Blaine, who was watching him bemusedly.

"Oh, so you think that just because I'm not a knight or something, I must cry all the time, is that it?" Kurt snapped, hand on his jutted hip in a Head Bitch stance he was nearly known for back home. Whenever it was directed towards Finn, he immediately apologized and began to beg forgiveness, whether he'd been in the wrong or not. It was actually quite amusing at times . . .

But Blaine was looking at Kurt with those big puppy dog eyes that just did something to Kurt's stomach, and Kurt nearly dropped the act all over again.

"What?" Blaine gasped. "No! No, I didn't mean to insinuate anything of the sort – I just – I was worried about you –,"

"Obviously," Kurt scoffed. "As you imprison me and make me wash your hair –,"

Blaine gaped. "You did that of your own accord!" He massaged his temple. "Kurt Hummel . . . I do not understand you."

Kurt's eyes most certainly did not soften at this confession, but if they had . . . well, it was only just.

"Yes, well, the sentiment's reciprocated, if it makes you feel better," he said.

They held one another's gaze for a long moment, each prodding and searching and trying to figure out who this boy was.

"You should get dressed," Kurt said at last. "Can you manage it on your own?" The remark didn't come across as snarky as he'd intended. Probably because he actually wouldn't mind poking around a prince's closet.

"I think I can," Blaine said, stepping out of him blankets and smiling far too brightly for a normal human being. "Would you please go down to the kitchens and ask the cooks for an order of eggs Benedict? And you can fix yourself whatever you'd like. I'll meet you in the dining room shortly."

It was clearly an order. But it was phrased so nicely, and Kurt couldn't figure out a way around it.

Kurt turned and walked out of the prince's room, cursing all the while what had become of him.

-X-

Even after years upon years of training for knighthood, Finn and Puck were still out of breath when they finally reached the top of the stairs. They hung over each other (in a totally non-gay way), fighting to suck air into lungs that seemed much too small.

"Oh my holy Jewish God," Puck coughed. "How many stairs were there?"

"Dunno . . ." Finn muttered, ". . . lost track around . . . fifteen . . ."

"Silence," Princess One barked, and the two boys obliged because talking took too much energy anyway.

The princess grasped a lion's head doorknocker and gave three precise knocks on the tall castle door. Immediately, the double doors flew open with a bang. Finn stumbled backwards, even though he was already too far for harm.

A small girl, whose white-blonde hair was cut in a neat bob with a tiara slightly more intricate than the other princesses' resting upon it, stood in the open doorway. Just by the expression on her face, Finn could tell there was something distinctly not normal about her.

And then Kurt's voice was ringing through his ears: "Just because someone isn't like you, doesn't mean they're not normal, Finn. And if being normal means I have to be a sweaty knight with two brain cells, whose greatest ambition in life is to 'go all the way' with his girlfriend then I'd rather be a freak!"

Finn cringed, remembering when he had made the really big mistake of saying that Kurt wasn't normal. Kurt's words had cut straight through him, and he thought they were a little harsh; Finn didn't mean to say and do and think stupid things. He just . . . did.

"Finn Hudson and Noah Puckerman?" the girl asked. Finn tried not to feel awkward at her slower way of speech. Just because she wasn't like him didn't mean she wasn't normal. "The queen will see you now."

She turned to the Princess One, Two, and Three, whose heads were all bowed as if respecting a superior.

"Well done," she said. "You may return to your posts."

"Thank you, Becky," the three murmured, and then they were flipping back down the stairs, faster than should be possible.

Finn and Puck stared after them.

"And here I was, thinking we were sort of friends," Puck sighed.

"Follow me," the girl – Becky – ordered. It was strange – how she was so tiny and innocent looking, but seemed to command respect. As she turned around and set off into the castle with a purposeful, Finn felt as if he couldn't deny her if he'd wanted to.

"So?" Puck asked. "We gonna follow her or what?"

It scared Finn that his best friend was actually asking his opinion. His fellow knights did not often respect his authority as Captain – except when the stakes were high.

Queen Sylvester knew something about Kurt – Finn's family, his brother, his friend. Kurt, who was at the bottom of the social ladder in Glee, who got pushed around by anyone and everyone, who'd never been on a boat or been to a different kingdom or anything. How could a queen know who he was, unless she'd seen him since he disappeared? Finn didn't know how or why, but she had to know something.

"Yeah," Finn said. "We follow her."

The stakes didn't get much higher than this. They couldn't possibly.

-X-

Breakfast in Dalton Castle was not normally a formal affair. But that was before there were about fifty nobles trapped in the castle by a storm that made travelling the seas much too dangerous.

Blaine would have been glad to eat with Kurt, but instead he was forced to sit stiffly diagonal from his father, who was poised at his rightful spot at the head of the long mahogany table. He kept his face stubbornly turned to his golden plate, watching his own expressionless reflection, and trying to pretend that he didn't notice several girls and women from farther down the table batting their eyelashes in his direction.

He glanced up briefly, and caught his sister's eye. Cecilia was sitting ramrod straight, smiling prettily at young men who seemed to try and flex their muscles under her watchful gaze. The princess was only fifteen and already she was scoping the field for potential suitors.

She winked at him. Just a little, a tiny spasm of a steel gray eye, but it made him feel like someone cared.

The doors at the end of the hall opened and dozens of servants flooded the room, dressed in pristine white aprons trimmed with navy, and their red caps. Each held a gleaming silver dish.

Blaine noticed Kurt nervously hovering near Sam and immediately perked up. Blaine smiled brightly and Kurt seemed to relax at the familiar face.

Kurt scurried over, dodging the throngs of servants expertly to place the dish in front of Blaine.

"You never told me I'd have to be a waiter to a bunch of snobby house guests," Kurt mumbled, as he lifted the shining lid from the platter. Not even the sight of fresh eggs Benedict could make Blaine hungry right now, though. Not when he knew Wes and David were so close and yet so far away, chatting war tactics with the other knights, and Quinn Fabray was whispering with her pseudo-sisters and their eyes kept flicking in his direction, and Kurt and Sam were being forced to wear silly uniforms and serve extravagant breakfasts to people not even bothering to spare a "Thank you."

Not when Blaine had been looking forward to sharing a meal with a maybe-civil Kurt, but now had to endure this political mess.

Not when he just really had the urge to sing.

"I didn't know," he muttered, lips close coming close to Kurt's ear when he busied himself with tucking a pristine napkin into Blaine's collar. "I really didn't, I'm sorry. My mother really just came up with the idea last night, as another way to auction me off, and didn't think to inform me."

As if on cue, Anastasia cleared her throat lightly, quirking an eyebrow at her son from across the table. No one else would notice, but Blaine knew his mother and he knew her ways to tell him that he'd had enough fun; it was time to play with the big boys now.

"You should go," Blaine said. "See you soon."

Kurt snorted in a sort of reluctant agreement and left him. Beside Blaine, Sam winked as he finished preparing Blaine's brother's dish of scrambled eggs and turkey bacon, before following Kurt's lead.

"Your servant sure is weird," Winston mumbled.

"Oh yeah?" asked Blaine. He lazily swirled his fork in hollandaise sauce. "How's that?"

"He kind of sounds like a girl."

Cecilia piped, "You shouldn't say that about people. It 's rude."

"So? He's a servant."

"That doesn't make him any less than us," Blaine snapped.

"Then why is he working for us?" Winston countered.

Blaine fingers clenched around his fork.

"Children," murmured Queen Anastasia, airy smile still in place. "Behave yourselves."

They fell silent.

"So, Blaine," began the king in a hushed voice. "I noticed you were quite friendly with Princess Fabray at your ball the other night. Before the, erm, interruption . . ."

Blaine shrugged.

"Blaine Anderson, what has gotten into you?" his mother hissed. "Have you forgotten all your etiquette?"

With a supreme force of will, Blaine forced himself to sit straighter and look more alive. "I'm sorry. I didn't sleep well," he said truthfully.

"When you are king, there will be many a restless night," said Blaine's father. "You mustn't it allow it to affect you."

Well maybe I don't want to be king. Maybe I never did.

Blaine was shocked at his own thoughts. It must've been the sleep issues, really, because – because being king wasn't an option, it was tradition for the eldest male to take over the kingdom on his eighteenth birthday – he had never questioned Dalton's traditions before, would never have dreamed of it –

"It's not fair," Winston whined, albeit quietly. "I'd make a better king than Blaine."

"Of course you would," agreed Cecilia. "I would make a better king than Blaine." She lowered her eyes to her fruit salad. "I'd make a better king than a lot of people."

"Now you are just being preposterous," King Charles snapped. "I have no doubt you will be a fine queen one day, dear, but it will not be of Dalton. As you will make a strong king, Winston. But for now, drop this nonsense and remember your manners, for we have guests . . ."

Just then, the family noticed the rest of the long table had gone quiet; all eyes were on them. And that was what it took.

As if some invisible switch had been triggered, the façade returned: Cecilia wore a pretty, just flirtatious enough to be acceptable smile; Winston's back was straight as he ate his eggs; Queen Anastasia turned to engage her neighbor – some Lady from some kingdom to the West – in a conversation that was intellectually challenging but not at all controversial; and King Charles' face shifted into calm, authoritative mode – head of the table, of the family, of the country.

It was all so predictable. Blaine could call every move before it was made.

"Please excuse us," Charles said, jovial sounding. "You know how children get!"

The parents in the room chuckled and the kids moaned good-naturedly. Blaine tried to smile.

As chatter gradually picked up again, Blaine heard a soft, "Prince Blaine?" He saw Princess Quinn leaning towards him, so he could almost see down the front of her dress – not that he was looking – but Blaine had the feeling she was an expert at this sort of pose ; it reminded him a bit of Cecilia's smile. Just scandalous enough to have you interested.

Though the only interested Blaine was in was how Quinn and her sisters were allowed to sit so near the royal family. They weren't that important, not really, not in the grand scheme of things. They were just another group of spoiled teenage girls.

"May I have a word?" Quinn continued when Blaine didn't answer immediately.

"I have matters to attend to," Blaine said shortly.

"Please, sir," she implored. "I know it was – immoral of me to make such accusations about your servant –,"

"You implied he was trying to harm a woman."

"And I shouldn't have, I understand. But I would hate for that to come between us. We got on quite well at the ball –,"

"I didn't know you at the ball."

"You don't know me now," Quinn hissed, looking a bit more like the girl he'd seen trying to turn him against Kurt.

That night at the ball, Blaine had thought he might have connected with Quinn – a clever, clearheaded woman from a powerful kingdom. He thought that maybe, if worst came to worst, they could make something work, and she could be his queen.

Then she said those things about Kurt – to Blaine's face, looking him in the eye, with Kurt by his side. And he thought she was a lying snake.

And now there was this sweet, earnest-looking girl practically begging for his forgiveness, gazing into his eyes and baring her heart – but still seeming so close to the edge.

Blaine wasn't sure if he had even seen the real Quinn Fabray yet – and wasn't sure he wanted to, no matter what his father said.

"We will not be having this conversation now," Blaine said.

Quinn looked as if she might continue the argument, blatantly ignore the prince. Was it so silly that Blaine wanted her to, just a bit? That he wanted someone to just disobey, for once? Princess Quinn Fabray was certainly volatile enough to, out of anyone Blaine had ever met.

But then she was sitting back in her seat, reunited with that ever-so-deceiving smirk, head held high as the first time he'd seen her. And Blaine was wondering why he felt so disappointed.

Busy watching Quinn reengage her sisters in light conversation, Blaine didn't notice his uncle's black eyes set on him and him alone. Edgar began to speak.

"Tell me, Blaine." Blaine tore his eyes away from Quinn to give his uncle his full attention. "How is that one wood nymph you used to fawn about – what was his name? Jeremy, wasn't it?"

Blaine's heart stopped. No, Edgar couldn't be doing this. Not here, not now, not when Blaine was so close to crumbling already.

"Jeremiah," Blaine managed to choke out.

He was barely aware of the din quieting again. All he saw was Edgar's glittering beetle eyes – and maybe Jeff and Nick's glares directed in Edgar's direction, or David's sympathetic gaze, or Thad's solemn expression.

But he most certainly didn't see Wes' head, downturned in something akin to shame.

And if he perhaps did, he most certainly did not care.

"Ah, yes, that was the name. Quite strapping young lad, wasn't he? Bone structure of an aristocrat."

"I wouldn't have noticed," Blaine forced from his abruptly parched lips.

"I remember Jeremiah!" chortled Charles. "He really was all you could talk about Blaine! You looked up to that boy like he was the sun itself."

Blaine cleared his throat, trying with all his might to loosen the knotted chords that seemed to be lacing it closed.

"Er, yes, Jeremiah and I were friends –,"

"I'd say you were more than friends," smirked Edgar.

Blaine flinched.

"Indeed, Edgar, they were almost like brothers!" Charles boomed. Blaine flinched just a little bit harder. "Couldn't find one without the other for a time." He chuckled; the guests followed suit.

"Absolutely no exaggeration," giggled Cecilia, leaning in the direction of a few handsome youths hanging on her every word. "I can tell you the most darling stories . . ."

"I don't believe that will be necessary," Blaine said through a painful smile.

"But you two were so adorable!"

"I was fifteen, not five," he pointed out. "And Jeremiah was nineteen."

"That was one handsome nymph," she sighed dreamily. "Why did you quit bringing him around again?"

"Yes, Blaine, tell us?" Edgar egged.

Blaine eye's met those of his uncles – and he saw something there, something deeper than this lighthearted, slightly nostalgic conversation: a sort of knowingness. And power. Too much power.

Uncle Edgar knew.

Blaine wasn't sure how, or to what extent, but his uncle knew and he wanted Blaine to know that he knew, that the held his nephew's fate in his twisted hands.

Blaine was being blackmailed and he didn't even know why.

"People grow apart," Blaine whispered, still staring into his uncle's eyes like a fly drawn into a spider's web. "That's how it happened for us."

Edgar smirked. The family continued to trade stories with the guests.

"You know, now that I think about it," Edgar said, loud once again, practically demanding everyone else stop their own conversations and listen to him, "Jeremiah rather resembled that new servant of yours, didn't he?"

Blaine stood. Each set of eyes on his body felt like a needle pricking skin.

He needed out. But his feet were lead, his head delirious with the echo of He knows.

Finally, his mother's mask cracked: her eyes widened, she frowned deeply. Through his haze, it brought Blaine a sort of sick sense of achievement.

"It was an honor to join you all this morning," he said, fighting with everything he had to keep his cool. His gaze fixed itself on a spot of hollandaise sauce that stained his napkin. "I have to go."

"Blaine Anderson, sit down this instant," hissed his mother, but Blaine was already walking away, leaving their gob smacked faces to gape after him in utter bewilderment.

Blaine burst from the formal dining hall – the huge mahogany doors drifted shut behind him, closing with a sound like thunder or madness, and it seemed to spur him on to the right, rather than left to his bed chambers or straight on toward the grounds. He rounded a corner and pushed through a narrow door, almost unnoticeable as it blended into the wall.

The Great Kitchen's pristine, shining countertops gleamed under the artificial light, nearly sparkling. Blaine stepped farther into the room, inhaling the smell of a fresh batch of hash browns being taken off the stove. Servants buzzed around, chitchatting and goofing off, so different from the stuffy nobility on the other side of the wall.

Sam once told Blaine that the servants always relished any chance to use the Great Kitchen. It was so much bigger than the regular kitchens and gave them space to breathe. Vaguely, Blaine thought he might have to make bigger kitchens when he became King.

"Um, excuse me?" he asked an older woman – Shelley was her name, she was on the cleaning staff – as she hustled by with a broom and dustbin. "Do you happen to know where Kurt Hummel is?"

Shelley gestured somewhere over his shoulder, not looking away from her work. "Um, I think I saw him cutting carrots with Evans."

"Thank you." Blaine just saw her glance up, eyes widening in recognition, before he walked past her.

None of the servants seemed to notice him amongst their midst, as immersed in work as they were. It was . . . nice.

He heard the tinkling laugh before he saw its source. There, at an island in the center of the room, Kurt's wrist was a blur, slapping the knife against a cutting board, chopping carrots.

"Dude, seriously," Sam was saying from Kurt's side, "you are like a freaking ninja."

"Oh, this?" Kurt smirked, swiping the carrot bits to the side with practiced flick of his knife. "This is nothing. You should see me with a couple of swords . . ."

"You? Man, I never would have guessed it!"

A blush stained Kurt's cheekbones. Blaine took that as his cue.

"Hi, guys!" he beamed, walking over to the pair.

Sam glanced up.

"Oh, hey, Blaine," he said. He did a double-take. "Blaine! What are you doing here?"

"Seriously," Kurt said as he set down his knife. "Don't you have praises to listen to others sing to you?"

Blaine was about 75 percent sure Kurt was just joking, but he frowned anyway. "They won't be singing me praises for a long while, actually. I kind of . . . stormed out of there. It was rather dramatic."

"Seriously?" Sam gaped. "Badass."

Blaine flushed at the course language – and maybe the admiration painted on Sam's face, too.

"Trust me when I say it wasn't anything to be proud of," Blaine felt the need to add.

"Anyway," he continued, fixing his gaze on Kurt, "I can't very well go back in there now, so your presence is no longer needed here. Would you care to accompany me to the grounds?"

Kurt looked as if he might protest – but then their eyes locked. And maybe he saw a little bit of Blaine's inner turmoil, or maybe the fight was dripping out of him, or maybe there was no reason at all, but he nodded.

"Fantastic!" Blaine grinned. "Do you care to leave now?"

"I guess." Kurt handed off the knife to Sam, adding a firm, "Don't try to go as fast as I did, ok?" Sam laughingly agreed.

On the trek back through the kitchen, a few women called out their goodbyes to Kurt, who waggled his fingers back and made remarks that must have been inside jokes.

Outside of the grand room, setting off to the Entrance Hall, Blaine asked, "You're making friends, then?"

"I know a fake smile when I see one, you know."

Blaine whipped his head around. Kurt was staring steadfastly ahead.

"I'm sorry, what?"

"Don't play dumb, Prince. You may be able to fool your many lackeys, or minions, or whatever it is you have, but I've been unhappy enough in my life to know when someone else is."

Blaine looked ahead again. "Oh."

There was silence for a minute, until Kurt broke it.

"Care to share?"

"It's . . . complicated," Blaine sighed. "I just feel a bit . . . trapped. Do you know how that is?"

"Blaine, look at me," Kurt said softly. Blaine's eyes flickered to him. "Look where I am. Of course I know how it feels to be trapped."

Blaine downcast his eyes, brow furrowing. He wetted his lips.

"Right, sorry, that was stupid."

"It's ok, I get it."

Did he? Did he really?

They walked into the Entrance Hall, as grand and tasteful as every other part of Dalton Castle, with its winding marble staircases, antique chandelier hanging from the patterned ceiling tiles, and extravagant stained-glass windows filtering light.

Any prince would kill to live in a place such as this.

The doors opened when Kurt and Blaine approached. They left the castle and went out onto the grounds.

The lawns were neat, manicured, and abounding with flowerbeds. Stone water fountains of dolphins, lions, and angels spewed streams of water. A stone path cut the lawns in half; it wound south, down to the main village, which just visible in all its quaintness at the base of the mountain, and the ocean just beyond that. The eastern border of the castle grounds was a thickly packed forest, and to the west were green, rolling hills.

"This looks a lot different when you're not being dragged through it against your will," Kurt remarked.

Blaine wasn't sure whether to laugh or not, so he simply said, "I've never been across the sea. Is it nice?"

"I'm not really one to ask. Before this whole debacle, I'd never really left Glee before."

"Ah." Blaine went and sat upon the edge of a nearby fountain. Kurt followed, though he kept a sizable distance between their bodies. "What's Glee like, then?"

"It's . . . nice, I guess. Not much compared to this place." He gestured with one hand around him, towards the sun, the earth, the woods. "You have the forest and the ocean, which is cool. We only have one. I love the ocean, don't get me wrong, but it can get a bit . . . dull, living on the beach. There's only so much you can do."

He looked out at the sparkling waters.

"Still, I can't imagine not seeing that every day. I always thought I might travel it one day, you know? Just take off in a boat, see where it led me . . ." He glanced at Blaine, suddenly looking self-conscious. "And here I am, shooting off my mouth."

"No, no, I don't mind!" Blaine hastened to assure. In fact, he was a bit fascinated. Kurt spoke with this sort of longing, this passion that Blaine rarely saw in his family and friends. At the very least, it distracted him from the punishment he knew was coming his way.

But the damage appeared to be done, and Kurt didn't make to speak again.

So they sat there, watching the village and the sea, the fountain water misting their necks, the quiet nearly companionable. Blaine wanted to ask Kurt why he had been crying earlier, if it had to do with feeling trapped. He didn't though. They were getting along too well.

"Hear that?" Kurt suddenly asked.

"Hear what?"

"Shh. Just listen."

Blaine kept quiet and eventually he heard the faint trill of a bird's song.

"Watch this," Kurt whispered. He let out a long, clear whistle. After a moment, the bird whistled back.

Blaine smiled.

Kurt whistled a jaunty little tune, and the bird immediately responded. They kept up the wordless conversation effortlessly. Blaine wondered what they could possibly talk about; maybe the weather, or the ocean. Maybe Kurt was continuing the story he felt he couldn't finish with Blaine.

And that's when Blaine had an idea.

"Hey!" he exclaimed. Kurt jumped.

"Do you mind?" he snapped. "I was kind of in the middle of something –,"

"Do you want to see something really cool? It's kind of deep in the forest, though."

"Blaine. I am already being ordered around this place like a pack mule, I am not walking through the dark, dangerous woods, possibly messing up my hair or getting eaten, just to see something 'really cool' –,"

"No, it's ok." Blaine jumped to his feet, grabbing Kurt's hand on the way up. Kurt went silent, gawking at their linked hands. Blaine remembered that morning, when Kurt seemed so shocked that Blaine didn't mind touching him. "Come on, I know a shortcut."

-X-

Finn shifted on the rickety stool, which was in no way built for a man of his stature. He stared longingly at the lush chair on the other side of the desk, with its royal purple cushions, and high back adorned with jewels.

"Do you think Queen Sylvester would mind if I borrowed her chair for a little bit?" Finn muttered to Puck, who sat by his side.

"Dude, we've met Queen Sylvester," Puck said, rolling his eyes. "She'd mind."

"You're right, I guess," Finn said. Still, he cast the chair his best puppy-dog eyes, the ones that always worked on Rachel and his mom, and sometimes Kurt. Apparently inanimate objects had stronger resolve, though; the chair stayed where it was.

The door at the front of the office opened just then, and the Finn and Puck flew to their feet, expecting the queen. But it was just Becky, pushing a hulking someone into the room and onto the last available stool.

"Watch it!" the young man cried, rubbing his butt. "I've got to sit on this thing."

Both Finn and Puck's jaws hit the floor.

"Karofsky?" they gasped.

David Karofsky looked up, his eyes widening in recognition.

"The queen will be with you shortly," Becky said, leaving them alone.

"Puckerman, Hudson –," Karofsky ran a hand through his tousled hair. "What are you guys doing here? Is there some sort of negotiation going on?" The boys shook their heads. "Then do you know why I'm here?" Again, they shook their heads no. "Do you at least know why you're here?"

Finn was about to tell him that they didn't know anything, when Puck said, "We came to see you actually. I don't know if you've heard, but Finn's bro is missing."

Karofsky's eyes grew twice their size. "Hummel is – but – how?"

Puck scoffed. "If we knew how, we wouldn't be here, would we? All we know is that Finn says he saw you talking to Kurt, and then Kurt's gone. Kinda suspicious, eh?"

"I didn't touch him, if that's what you're thinking!" Karofsky's voice rose near a shout.

"Whoa, whoa, calm your shit," said Puck. "No one was accusing you of anything."

"Well," Finn said diplomatically, "you kind of were accusing him –,"

BANG!

A door behind the queen's chair flew open and there, in all her six foot, blonde-haired, purple-caped glory, stood Queen Sylvester.

Finn, Puck, and Karofsky scrambled to their feet, argument long forgotten in the face of a woman that radiated such authority and power.

Finn's brown eyes locked with the queen's icy blue. His mouth ran dry, blood froze in his veins. It was like staring down the devil himself.

"Gentleman," Queen Sylvester said at last.

"My lady," the boys chorused, falling to their knees.

"Glad to see Schuester is still teaching some semblance of manners in that medieval pigsty he runs," Queen Sylvester drawled, and they heard her striding to her seat. They didn't dare raise their heads.

"Well?" Queen Sylvester said. "Are you just going to sit there like crippled baboons all day? I have better things to be doing, you know."

Muttering "No, ma'am!" and "Sorry, miss," and "Pardon us, really," they boys tripped over themselves to their stools.

As they sat, the queen remained still, staring them down. Finn wondered if she was doing this on purpose – trying to heighten the anticipation or something. Maybe she just enjoyed watching them quake.

"Kurt Hummel," she finally said. All three pairs on eyes flickered upward in surprise. "I understand he's your stepbrother, Skyscraper?"

Finn guessed she was talking to him and he nodded.

"And he just disappeared from Glee," she stated.

"Yes, Ma'am," Finn said. He didn't want to get his hopes up, but he couldn't help asking, the question almost wrenched from his throat . . . "Why, have you seen him?"

Queen Sylvester examined him over her folded fingers. Her eyes seemed to be searching his very soul.

"No," she said finally.

Finn's heart deflated as quickly as a popped balloon.

"So Karofsky was the last person seen talking to Hummel, huh?"

"Yes, Ma'am," Finn mumbled.

"But I didn't touch him, I swear!" Karofsky exclaimed. "I don't know what the heck happened to him –,"

"Stop you blubbering, it's pathetic," she snapped. "Now, what exactly were you two talking about?"

Finn leaned forward in interest. Karofsky's eyes darted to and fro, dancing around his fellow knights' and the queen's eyes. To Finn, he looked like a cornered farm animal.

"Nothing really – we were just – at the same place at the same time," Karofsky finally muttered, shrinking in on himself.

Queen Sylvester's plucked eyebrows rose into her severe hairline.

"Look," said Karofsky, voice stronger but also defensive, "I don't even know why I'm here, ok? I was starting up a training course with Captain Tenaka and the boys, and suddenly carted off by some demonic princesses. Please, just – why am I here?"

"Because I wished to speak with you," the queen simply stated. "Do you need a more valid reason, David?"

His eyes dropped. "No, Ma'am."

"Atta boy." Queen Sylvester stood from her seat and walked around the desk, behind the boys, to look at a potted plant on a shelf. It was brown, droopy, and for the first time, Finn noticed there were no windows in this room.

She carefully took a wrinkled, fallen leaf between her long fingers.

"Karofsky, you and Hummel come from very different circles, do you not?" she asked, still fixed on examining the leaf. She didn't give him a chance to answer. "What on earth would bring you to the same place at the same time?"

"He's Finn's stepbrother, I guess," Karofsky said. "When I'm dealing with Hudson, Hummel sort of comes along with the package."

"That's BS!" Puck burst. Finn shied away. An angry Puck was something no sane man wanted to deal with. "Like you don't actively seek him out."

"I don't! He gets in the way –,"

"Cut the crap, Karofsky! You push him around all the time, you get all your McKinley buddies to gang up on him and his friends – damn it, I've gotten so sick of it!"

"If you were sick of it, why didn't you say anything?" snapped Karofsky.

Puck fell silent.

Finn knew how he felt. He was ashamed, too.

Queen Sylvester suddenly said, "I'm sure Glee is full of puny wimps – hell, you're sitting with two of them – why did you single out Hummel?"

"I didn't single him out . . ." Karofsky mumbled.

The queen advanced on them. She still held the leaf in a delicate grasp.

"I can smell lies, Karofsky," she said. Her voice was more than a whisper, or maybe less; it was the air itself.

Karofsky looked terrified. Finn couldn't blame him; he felt a little short of breath himself.

"You're bluffing," Karofsky said boldly, though his voice quavered.

With just her thumb and forefinger, Sylvester crushed the dead leaf. Its remains rained down around her feet.

"Would you like to test that theory?" she asked.

Karofsky gulped.

"I can't stand him," he finally admitted. "He always walks around that place like he owns the joint – like he's so freaking proud of who – what he is and it always got so under my skin. And then he'd always be making these little snide remarks about my hair, or weight, or intelligence or something – I'm not even that dumb! Just 'cause I don't worship the dictionary like he does –,"

He was winding himself up now. Finn could tell from the rising blotches of color in his cheeks, his tensed jaw.

"And then he always dressed so weird and I just – I didn't like it! Why couldn't he at least try to be normal, like I do?"

"What do you mean, 'like you do'?" Queen Sylvester cut in.

His eyes zeroed in on her. "I – what?"

"You said that he could try to be normal, like you do. How are you abnormal?"

"I – I didn't mean it any way."

Sylvester watched him closely. "What were you talking about with him the day he disappeared?"

"It wasn't anything –,"

"You both looked really upset," Finn suddenly remembered. "I was going to go see what was going on, but something distracted me –,"

Puck coughed into his fist. Finn glared at him, oblivious to Dave's pleading gaze.

"Interesting," the queen drawled. "What got your granny panties in a twist, Karofsky? Lover's quarrel?"

Finn expected Karofsky to just scoff at such predictable needling – going the gay route was a way to get under any teenage boy's skin – but, instead, he all too visibly cringed.

"N-no!" he stuttered. But the damage was done. Queen Sylvester looked like she'd just been told King Schuester was going to stop using hair gel.

Queen Sylvester whispered, a strange gleam in those glowing eyes, "Are you dating Kurt Hummel, Mr. Karofsky?"

Finn's eyes nearly fell off his face, they widened so much.

Karofsky . . . dating . . . wha'?

"I – no, of course not!" Karofsky cried.

"Do you wish you were dating Kurt Hummel?"

"No," he said vehemently. Finn began to relax. But then –

"Have you kissed him?"

"What?" Karofsky said automatically, voice cracking.

Queen Sylvester smirked.

"I mean, no!" he corrected. "Why would we – I'm not –,"

But the queen was no longer listening. She walked back around them to her desk, purpose in each long stride.

"It was an accident!" Dave blurted. "I didn't mean to kiss him!"

Finn sat in shock. Dave Karofsky kissed Kurt? But . . . that didn't make sense. You had to be gay to kiss a boy, right?

Did that make . . . Karofsky . . .?

"Dude," Puck murmured, sounding just as tripped out as Finn felt.

"Please," Dave was whimpering. "Please just don't tell my dad."

"I find your big gay sob story sickening and irrelevant," Sylvester said matter-of-factly.

She lifted her arm then; her robe sleeve shimmed down to her elbow, revealing a thick metal band that circled her wrist. She spoke directly to it.

"Becky Jackson, come in? Yes, I have everything I need. If you would please escort these men out of my office."

"What?" Puck exclaimed. "I thought you were going to help us find Kurt!"

"Your idiotic misunderstanding is not my problem."

Finn couldn't comprehend what was happening. It was as if his brain was working even slower than usual. "But then – why did you –?"

The door behind the boys opened and before they could even turn in their seats, two teenage girls were at each knight's side, pulling his arms behind his back and forcibly lugging him to his feet.

"Ow!" Finn shrieked when a girl twisted his arm. "Watch it!"

"Get your hands off me!" Puck shouted, straining against the iron grip of the princesses. They were stronger than they looked – unbelievably so.

Karofsky tried to kick a girl's shin, but the way she held him allowed no room for struggle.

"Take them to the dungeons," Sylvester ordered.

"NO!" Finn yelled, for the first time. "You can't arrest us, we haven't done anything wrong!" Hot, indignant tears burned the back of his eyes. "This isn't right!"

With a scowl, Sylvester moved so she was right in Finn's face. He could smell her minty breath, could count every blonde eyelash above those cold, cold eyes.

"I've got a newsflash for you, Hudson," she whispered. "You're in McKinley now. This isn't Glee. Just like I'm not Will Schuester and I couldn't care less about what's right."

-X-

All the nerve endings in Kurt's entire body seemed to have regrouped in his right hand. The fingers locked with Blaine's were on fire, the strangest and most pleasant fire Kurt had ever known.

Blaine dragged him through the forest, where low-hanging tree boughs swatted at his hair and the damp soil stained his work boots. He didn't understand how the prince, whose clothes were probably worth more than the entirety of Glee, could not seem to care about the dirt.

Plus, Blaine promised a short cut. This journey was in no way short, and the only cutting being done was when a particularly jagged branch, bent at a strange angle, sliced across Kurt's cheekbone.

Kurt hissed, reaching his free hand to his face; he couldn't tell if the skin had broken. But if it left mark? Someone was going to bleed.

"Blaine," Kurt wheezed. He really needed to work out. "This is not a short cut."

"No, no, we're here," Blaine said, slowing to a stop.

Kurt looked up. Stretching out before them was a thick stone wall, overgrown with moss and vines.

"I was expecting better," Kurt confessed.

Blaine laughed as if he was telling a joke, and walked forward, releasing Kurt's hand. It felt cold all of a sudden, but still tingly.

"I found this when I was ten," Blaine said. He was examining the wall closely. "I'd been scolded badly by my mother and was so embarrassed. I ran into the forest, vowing never to return –," Kurt smiled softly. He had been that dramatic as a ten-year-old. Hell, he was that dramatic now. "– when I found the wall. It seemed very mystical to me, and also very tall – I was even shorter back then, mind you. I tried to climb it, but it was as if it wouldn't let me. I can climb almost anything, you see."

Kurt found himself hanging on Blaine's every word. "And then?"

"A palace guard found me and escorted me home," he said with a wry smile. "But the next few chances I was alone – and that wasn't very often – I snuck out to go searching for it again. I didn't find it until about the fifth or sixth time, and by then I was marking my path so I wouldn't lose it again. I tried climbing the wall . . . but instead I found," – he pushed aside a thick curtain of moss – "a door."

And there was one. Stone and blending perfectly into the wall, with a rusted knocker and a sort of quaint antiqueness to it.

"Where does it lead?" Kurt asked quietly, inching forward.

Blaine grinned; he'd probably been waiting for that question.

"Why don't I show you?"

He tugged on the knocker and the door slowly edged open. It looked like it wouldn't open all the way, leaving just enough room for a relatively thin person.

"I've been doing this for years," Blaine said, one foot through the door already. "I swear it's safe."

He disappeared entirely.

Kurt looked up at the canopy of trees. Oh what the hell, he thought and stepped through the door himself.

They were in a dank stone tunnel with a low ceiling and a narrow dirt pathway. Kurt was forced to hunch over, and even Blaine bowed his head. The moist air hung heavy over them.

Just then, the door slammed shut and Kurt and Blaine were bathed in pitch blackness.

"Blaine!" Kurt hissed. "Blaine, oh my god, I can't see, Blaine!"

A hand wrapped around his. He gripped it hard.

"Shh," whispered Blaine. "It's ok, I promise, I do this all the time."

"I swear to all things you find holy, Blaine Anderson, if I am eaten, I will personally resurrect myself and haunt you until you are driven so mad with regret that you will feed yourself to the same beast that took my life –,"

A flicker, and then Kurt could see Blaine's teasing smile, and his free hand cupping a cheap match alit with a feeble flame.

"Still believe monsters live in the dark, Kurt?" he asked.

Kurt searched for the right words. He needed to show that arrogant prince, give him a piece of what he was made of . . .

"You carry matches around with you? Is that safe?"

Lame. So, so lame.

Blaine sighed overdramatically. "I just can't win with you, can I?" He tugged Kurt's hand. "Come on."

Kurt followed dumbly, not wishing to make a greater fool of himself.

They walked along, the only sound being their breathing and the dull pad of boots on packed dirt. Blaine didn't let go of Kurt's hand once.

"Here we are," Blaine spoke at last. A door glowed in the dim firelight; it was identical to the last one – even to the point of being located on the same wall.

"Is there a door that takes you to the other side of the wall?" Kurt asked.

Blaine snuffed out the candle and let go of Kurt's hand. Kurt tried to focus on Blaine's breathing, the shuffling of the prince's feet as he braced his body to shoulder open the door – just to remind himself, in the darkness, that he wasn't alone.

"I don't know." Blaine's voice was slightly strained as he pushed. "I've never gone far enough to find out. I'm too – come on, darn it – too chicken."

The door budged, finally, and they had light again. Blaine slipped out, followed closely by Kurt.

"Ok, we are not doing that again," Kurt said, breathing in the glorious oxygen and natural sunlight. "Too creepy. Now where are . . .?"

But the question died in his throat. They were in a meadow, a beautiful meadow. The trees were thinner here, so the blue sky and bright sun were visible, and the grass between patches of dirt was long and thick, peppered with daisies. A sort of a fragile stillness hung about this place; it was as if even the wind felt improper blowing through here.

This clearing, it was . . . familiar. Kurt had seen it before. But how could he have?

"Lovely, isn't it?" Blaine asked, drinking in the sight. "I told you I like to sing, and train with my sword when I'm upset. But if I have time, which I rarely do . . . I like to come here. It sort of . . . puts everything else to shame."

"It's lovely," Kurt agreed.

"You haven't seen anything yet," Blaine said, running farther into the clearing. He gave a low whistle.

For a long minute, there was just more of the same silence. Then a bird, a yellow canary to be exact, fluttered from the leaves of a tree and landed on Blaine's shoulder.

"Hey, buddy," Blaine whispered, reaching up a single finger to stroke the bird's head feathers. "You guys are ok. It's just me."

The bird rubbed against Blaine's cheek once, before letting out series of long, high trills.

It was something from a storybook, Kurt thought as he looked around, it must have been. Something this strange and uniquely wondrous couldn't have been real.

Dozens of canaries – maybe a hundred of them in all, maybe more – were materializing on the tree branches, poking their heads from the tufts of grass, flying out of seemingly nowhere to land on Blaine. Kurt spun around, and there were more on the wall, hanging on to jutting stone bricks and loose vines. Yellow, yellow everywhere, sun drops given life through these animals, and it was – it was magical, but it wasn't; it was real, and normal, and ordinary, except not.

And then there was the music. The canaries were tweeting and trilling, each one of them holding a different melody, each melody melding into one seamless song. Kurt had thought that noise didn't belong here – but this noise, this music did. It was like the air, or the sun, or the flowers; it didn't disturb the meadow because it was the meadow.

Kurt turned again to see the birds perched on Blaine's outstretched arms; one for every inch of him, from his shoulders to his wrists. It looked like he had sprouted yellow wings of his own.

"Beautiful," Kurt murmured.

"It is, isn't it?" Blaine said. "It took me forever to get them to trust me enough to come out of hiding, let alone to be comfortable with this." He took a step and the birds scattered in all different directions, but he didn't seem bothered. "Do you want to see my favorite?"

Kurt nodded, looking up at the sky as a bird flew right over him.

"Over here."

Blaine was crouched at the base of a spruce tree. Kurt hurried over, watching the prince reach into a tuft of grass to pull from it another canary, who was already chirping indignantly and pecking at Blaine's hand.

"Shh, baby, shh," Blaine soothed, clutching the bird in his fist. "Calm down, Pav, it's only me."

The bird eventually did still in its erratic movements. It blinked those beetle black eyes up at Blaine; they stared at one another long and hard. The bird chirped again, softer, almost like a request.

Blaine unfurled his fist and the bird hopped around his palm happily.

"I nicknamed him Pavarotti," Blaine told Kurt. Kurt raised an eyebrow, and Blaine further explained, dropping his voice to a whisper, "I thought he deserved an ostentatious name. Poor guy – his wings are you clipped, you see, I'm not sure how or when it happened, they were like that when I first found him. He gets a bit pushed around by the stronger birds because of it, but he's a little star inside, I can just tell."

"I know just how you feel, little guy," Kurt said, crouching down to their level. "That's pretty much the story of my life."

The bird regarded Kurt curiously, hopping closer on Blaine's hand.

Kurt held out his finger. Pavarotti studied it closely before seeming to decide it was safe, and fluttering onto it.

"But we're gonna outshine them all, aren't we?" Kurt said seriously. "It's the little guys like us they need to watch out for."

Pavarotti tweeted again, as if to say, "Ain't that the truth."

"He likes you," said Blaine. "He's not normally so good with strangers. Well, I actually wouldn't know, seeing as you're the only person I've ever brought here. But he didn't take nearly so kindly to me."

Kurt's lips quirked. "Well that's two ways we're alike then, isn't it?"

Blaine chuckled, and Kurt found himself gland that the prince didn't take offense.

"Kurt . . ." Blaine started. "Would you . . . would you like to take Pavarotti back to the castle with us?"

Kurt turned confused eyes on him. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I'm always worried each time I leave and come back, that Pavarotti's disability will have gotten the best of him and he won't have been able to get food . . . I've played around with the idea of taking him home with me, but I know my parents would find out and my mother is not big on pets. But if you took him in, I don't think they'd notice; they don't want anything to do with you!" He beamed, then grimaced. "No offense."

"None taken," Kurt said. "But I . . . I don't know, Blaine."

He had to admit, even to himself, that thought of having someone else around was appealing. Pavarotti was only a bird . . . but Kurt would take anything to make his room less lonely at night.

"Is that even a good idea?" he asked. "I mean, Pavarotti may not be as strong as the other birds, but he's still wild. He doesn't belong cooped up in there."

"Well . . . no," Blaine agreed, giving Pavarotti a tiny nudge as the bird struggled to climb the sleeve of Kurt's shirt to his shoulder. "But he doesn't really belong here either. At least with you, he doesn't have to be alone anymore."

Kurt locked eyes with Blaine. He wondered if that was supposed to be some deep metaphor, or if he was just over thinking things, or if maybe Blaine was.

Kurt decided that, for once in his life, he didn't really care.

-X-

Across the sea, in a windowless office in a secluded castle on a high mountain, a queen who wasn't quite evil but was far from good plotted Kurt Hummel's downfall.

-X-

-X-

A/N: . . . So is this the part where I tell you I am terrible at regular updates?

I am so sorry. So, so sorry. But I am so apologetic. This is the longest I've gone without updating a story; I'm embarrassed, I'm sorry, and I'm so thankful to everyone's patience and kind/prodding words. I wish I had worked harder for anyone reading this – but, alas, the past is the past.

On another note, even in alternate universes, Blaine makes bird metaphors.

Next Chapter: A rumor is spread, and a bit of Blaine's past surfaces.