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Karl’s Boys

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"Half the fucking kingdom!"  Mikael, on top of the precarious edge of the upturned table, bottle slipping from his hand to crash on the wet floor.

"What's left of it!"  Vladimir against the wall, barely able to stand by now. "We already own half the fucking kingdom. Now we get the rest."

Josef glanced at Rikard. They'd done nothing but drink and wait for the long hours since the announcement, but neither had drunk enough vodka to be stupid. The man they were waiting for didn't take to anyone claiming a share of anything that was his, possessions or glories. Just because you ran with him didn't make you safe; far from it.

Rikard looked back, stone faced. First lessons, remembered. Don't interfere. Don't warn him to watch his tongue. If Karl's in a mood for mayhem, let it land anywhere but you and me.   Following that advice hadn't kept Josef entirely out of trouble, trouble being what Karl was after, quite often, but it had kept him here and here wasn't back in the factories or back in the army.

The small TV over the bar was showing the announcement again, repeated every few minutes between the frantically convened panels of celebrities and media experts asking each other the same dumb questions over and again. Josef picked up the vodka bottle again, took a rather more cautious swig, watching the TV pictures without much curiosity. Two people in the kingdom had answers and one of them was due into the bar any time now. He'd find out what the hell was going on then.

The boys had known for a while that something big was going down. Karl had been most pleased for the last week, with himself, with them, with business. He didn't let things slip accidentally, not Karl, but he'd hinted that very soon annoying obstacles would vanish.  Half the bloody kingdom- damn but that was a hell of a lot bigger than Josef had dreamed though. Smart motherfucker, Karl. As always.

The slam of a car door right outside brought his attention back to the room. Stefan and Gabriel had got themselves a couple of girl whores in from somewhere and were trying to persuade them to fuck each other. Mikael had fallen off the table and was lying face down in shards of broken glass, laughing. Vlad was still shouting his stupid sodding face off. Rikard was nowhere to be seen.

"Guys! He's here." Josef slid off the bar stool to face the door. Within seconds men  were jostling and swearing around him. Someone started stamping on the wooden floor, ragged then rhythmic, and Josef joined in. By the time the door opened the floor of the room was shaking under the thunder of six jackbooted heels.

Karl faced them, silent, still in his silver buttoned palace black. Josef was shoved roughly sideways as Mikael shouldered his way to the front.

"Half the fucking kingdom, man! You are fucking awesome! We took the fucking palace to the fucking cleaners this time!"

If he'd been sober the blow would have broken his nose. As it was he staggered backwards into Josef, taking them both to the floor. Josef pushed himself up, climbed onto his feet again in the silence.

"Anyone else got anything to say?" Karl's voice was harsh. "No? Get me a bloody drink then."

Josef held out the vodka bottle and Karl spun on a heel to take it and turn away. The grace of the man, always; now was not the time to think about that. Now was the time to figure out what Karl wanted and to provide it, or at least to not be in the way.  

Karl slammed the door he'd just come through. He was talking, too quiet to hear at first, then louder.

" ...going to shove that mother fucker's face so far up his scrawny royal fucking arse that he's going to eat his own stinking cowardly guts. Half the fucking kingdom."  He turned back to the waiting men. "Half the sodding kingdom and his bitch daughter! In some bloody gameshow! And what do you lot think you're doing? Is this a fucking celebration?"

Josef found himself the main object of that furious glare.  He resisted the urge to run. Someone had to answer.

"We thought this was your idea, Karl."  Silence.  "The competition. When we heard...you'd have rigged it, right?"

"Wrong." Karl's grin had too many teeth to be pleasant. "I didn't need any fucking competition. I'd got the Council by the balls, hadn't I? His Majesty had his back to the fucking wall and nowhere to run this time.  I was going to be his new son-in-law and a very small accident away from the whole bloody kingdom, so screw half of it, Josef. He thinks he can get rid of me by giving what's mine to some shit-juggling peasant, he's going to find out what happens when he pisses me off."

The door was jerked open again, the empty vodka bottle shattering on the stone step. Karl took one final glance back into the room.

"You lot are a bloody disgrace." He jerked his head. "Rikard, you look a little less rat-arsed than the others. I'll see the rest of you at the house 6am tomorrow. And you'd better be looking fucking smart, boys."

The men were still until the car engines faded. Josef shook himself into motion towards the open door. Coffee; he needed to sober up fast.

Stefan was faster, blocking the exit.

"What did you go and tell him that for, Josef?"

Still drunk, and frightened, and looking for someone to blame. Josef stopped well away, shrugged.

"I had to tell him something, didn't I?"

Someone shoved him in the back. A snarl; Vlad. "You made us look fucking stupid."

Josef turned, backing up to keep both of them in sight. "You were born stupid, Vlad."

Where were the other two? He risked a fast pivot. Mikael was behind the bar, looking for more to drink no doubt. Gabriel had his fists balled, was coming forward. Three to one.

"Tone it down, guys. You heard the man; we need to sober up or we're all going to be in the shit tomorrow."

"Tomorrow." And when Gabriel's voice had that purring tone, someone was about to bleed. "Tonight we're going to shut that talkative little trap of yours, Joe."

Karl wouldn't care if they did just that. Long fingers would drag across bruised mouth, dig down into battered flesh and he'd laugh. But tomorrow sharp didn't mean tomorrow incapacitated and he'd know who was to blame if there was anything awry in their practised formations.

Bruised was bad enough and the half-ally Josef sometimes had in Rikard wasn't here. He tried conciliatory.

"I'm sorry, OK? He was looking right at me. I didn't know what to say. Vodka, right?"

"Getting scared now, aren't you?  Come on, little faggot. Try to run." Stefan again.

Fuck. He was going to have to fight Gabriel anyway; the man liked a scrap too much to ever make peace before blood had been spilled. Vladimir would follow Stefan's lead either way, so it had been Stefan he'd been hoping to appease. Not going to happen, it seemed. Sod it then. Give Karl something else to laugh about.

He faked a cower, ducked low to pivot and swing his right fist high, hard into Gabriel's perfectly shaped mouth. For a second the pain of split skin across his knuckles from a tooth was sharp. Them he was dragged to the floor and the professional application of three sets of steel-toed boots blocked out every other physical sensation.

Josef had been involved in enough beatings on one side or the other for his reactions to be near-automatic. One arm went over his head and the other hand covered his balls. He didn't waste breath swearing or begging. Instead he gave them a fair amount of the noises they'd be wanting; gasps and grunts of pain. That bit wasn't hard at all. Less easy was throwing up right. If he got Gabriel's nice shiny leather boots dirty, this would go on half the night.

Retching a quarter bottle of vodka back onto the bar floor without splattering anyone but himself brought proceedings to a swift halt. Blame had been established, pecking order reinforced, adrenalin burned off; that was enough. Feuds weren't smart with Karl in the picture and even Vlad could understand that one, even Gabs could stop short of the carefully unspecified line.

So when Stefan stretched out a hand as his victim pulled himself painfully up onto his knees Josef wasn't entirely surprised. His first instinct was to spit on it; there had been nothing fair about the whole thing and it had fucking well hurt.  Bruises would stiffen overnight and he'd have to spend painful hours loosening up if he was going to move fast and smooth tomorrow. He has every right to be royally pissed at Stefan.

But moving fast and smooth wasn't something he just did alone. They only looked really sharp when they moved together, and Karl wanted them sharp. This competition was real trouble if it had Karl this riled. Telling Stefan to fuck off was an indulgence he might well regret when the six of them next came under pressure, and way things were looking, that could be soon.

Josef took the proffered hand, grimacing, climbed to his feet. He'd settle the score later, his way.

That night he barely slept. By 4am he'd given up and was cursing his way through a succession of stretches. No-one to disturb tonight; the room's other bunk lay empty. Rikard hadn't come home.

Twenty to six and Josef made his way quietly through the dawn mists to the back gate of Karl's place. As he walked up the long curve of the rear drive, startling a sleepy peacock or two, he could make out a black clad figure sprawling across the wide stone steps. A little closer and Josef recognised him.

Gabriel. It would have to be him this morning, and no-one else yet in sight. In the scarce few weeks he'd been here Gabriel was the one he'd managed to avoid being alone with. Gabriel with a lip puffed and scabbed this morning, watching him approach.

Josef straightened his back, didn't slow down. If Gabs wanted to make something of it in Karl's own backyard, Josef would hold his ground. He just really didn't want to have to, not with every muscle still sore as hell.

He nodded a greeting. "Gabriel." Voice steady.

Swollen mouth twisted upwards. Gabriel bent forward, pulled a knife out of his boot, tossed it into the air a couple of times. "Catch."

The throw was slow and high. Something a novice could catch, if a novice didn't think too hard about making a mistake, about the wicked edge against his fingers.

Josef wasn't a novice, not in everything. He pulled the knife out of the air, sent it back faster and lower with a snap, sent his own flying a couple of heartbeats after it. Gabriel was on his feet to catch the first and return it, and they were juggling back and forth across the ten feet between them, fast enough that Josef was sure he didn't have a flicker of attention for anything else but the flight of the knives.

He saw Gabriel's attention shift though, reacted fast enough that the third knife from the side ended up with the handle safe against his palm. Three of them then, and a pattern that shifted. The third shift was his doing, picked up with bare hesitation by the men on either side. He tried another couple of changes, picked up the speed again, felt the newcomer struggling to keep up.

A man could lose a finger, falling behind; that was enough.  All three knives fell into a controlled, noisy heap at his feet. He slid his back inside his boot. Gabriel caught his with a lopsided smile, Mikael his with a flicker of what might have been gratitude.

"Where did you learn that trick, Joe?" Stefan had been watching, with Vlad.

Josef shrugged. "My mother was a greengrocer. I've been juggling all my life."

"You're as good as Gabs." Stefan said, thoughtfully. "Much better than Mikael. Could you teach it?"

"Sure." He'd taught half the kids in the street, with purloined oranges when he could get them and bruised apples when he couldn't. "Not with knives, to start with."

"Gabs won't juggle with anything but. No-one wants to learn from him, for some reason. " Stefan nodded. "We'll work up a drill. Karl will like it, when it's with knives. Showy."

And just like that they were a unit again and this was what it felt like to belong somewhere. Josef was still plenty pissed with Stefan and the other two, but that was off duty. Right now, right here, they were all on the same side. Karl's men, and God help anyone, high or low, who crossed Karl. Anyone at all.

End of Chapter One

Chapter Text

The lawn in front of Karl's mansion was trimmed and maintained to a standard that any expensive golf club would have been proud of. Apart from the ground staff, Josef hadn't ever seen anyone so much as step on it.

"Drill? Are you sure?" Mikael sounded frankly disbelieving.

"Want to nip inside and check with him yourself, Mika? Front lawn, full drill, is what he said."

"Groundsman will shit himself."  Vladimir, with relish.

"You're sure?" Mikael asked again.

Rikard was losing patience. "Just get the sodding gear. He'll be at the window any minute and you're wasting time arguing."

The thought of the unseen observer got the group in hasty motion towards the small armoury at the back of the house. Rikard dropped into step with Josef, spoke quietly.

"So who hit Gabs last night, then?"

"I did." Josef felt a certain amount of satisfaction in the answer.

"Huh. Since you're walking stiff as a three-legged dog this morning, I'd guess that was a mistake."

Josef bristled at the implication. "Wasn't just Gabriel, was it? Things went to hell after you left. You were better off out of it this time, believe me."

Which was the closest he would get to commenting on how Rikard had spent the night. Some things they didn't talk about, though there were things that he dearly wanted to know.

Rikard hissed his disapproval. "You need to pick your fights smarter, Joe. Better still, keep your bloody head down."

"I didn't pick this one!" Josef would have elaborated but they were at the door of the armoury and men were passing armfuls of clubs and knives out to them.

They normally practised drills in the wide rear yard, out of sight of the neighbours and passing traffic. They were Karl's business, after all, and Karl's business stayed private, for all that the six men accompanied him near everywhere. Rumours of what they were abounded, of course; that was the point, but the people who knew for sure didn't talk.

Drilling on the front lawn would make things different. There would be cameras and journalists out there. Karl was always news. Six men practising synchronised assault patterns with a number of very illegal weapons in Karl's garden in front of the Kingdom's media would be front page stuff, even in a country frantically excited about the competition.

It wasn't Josef's job to worry about why Karl had ordered this. He had enough to do carrying his share of the gear out to array in neat lines next to the main flower bed.

When they were ready, Stefan came out to face the short line. "Okay, boys, here we go. Make it sharp. He's watching."  And louder, "Set."

Josef stripped his coat off with the others, acutely conscious of the red and purple bruising across most of his torso than the high waisted black trousers and suspenders did nothing to conceal. Beside him Rikard swore under his breath. " Fuck it, Gabs..." and got a hissed reprimand from Stefan.

Warm-up was painful if you had spent the previous evening being kicked, but otherwise uneventful. The handful of people behind the gate increased slowly, but it was still early morning and the avenue was quiet. On Stefan's command they paired off, switched to unarmed combat throws. No more than a curiosity to the crowd yet, Josef imagined. He had no time for them, anyway; he was too busy trying not to yelp every time his bruises came in context with Mikael or the ground. Mika was holding off a bit, making the moves look rougher than they were, with Stefan's tacit approval. Stefan must be wishing he'd left Josef well alone last night.

By the time they switched to weapons they were all sweating in the morning sunshine and there was a fairly large crowd with several unmistakable telephoto lenses. The spiked chains whirling doubtless made rather fine pictures; they used them to intimidate because they looked so good. The drills were vital though; people had a nasty habit of dying rather easily if hit in the wrong way with them. Karl didn't like unscheduled happenings.

Knife throwing. The whips that could bring a man down then take the skin off his back.  The crowd was thick now around the railings, but quiet. Two hours in and they were all still sharp, still focussed. The pain was biding its time, hidden under adrenalin; he'd go through hell later, Josef knew, tried to put it out of his mind.

Final drill. Josef glanced at Stefan, who was hesitating. The Kingdom's traditional chain and knife weapon with its swinging razor-sharp edges carried draconian penalties even for possession.  Surely the public had seen enough already for whatever purpose Karl had in mind.

The crowd was suddenly shrill and surging. Stefan, facing the house, froze for a full second then snapped out a call to attention. Josef, turning, saw the reason for the watchers' agitation. Karl, short black jacket open over a chest as bare as theirs strutting out towards them, the tangle of links and blades glinting in his hand.

They arrayed themselves in front of him, facing the crowd. Karl paused for a moment, looking slowly down the line. An eyebrow raised slightly as he reached Josef's bruises but he said nothing, moved onto the next man. Then he glanced back to Josef and jerked his head.

Josef had been learning to fight with the chain and knives in the weeks since he had arrived, one on one with Rikard, slowly, with blunted blades. The weapon he was passed was as lethally sharp as the one in Karl's hands. Graduation, then. The others spread out to leave the two of them facing each other on the trampled grass. Karl was grinning but his eyes were cold.

It started slow; step, swing, duck, circling each other inside the ring of men. Josef could hear the whistle as the knives cut through the air, his focus entirely on the other man. Faster, then; he kept up. Karl was still grinning. Faster still and the world had shrunk to nothing but the two of them. Too fast, it was getting away from him and the thought flashed through his mind that Karl intended a kill for the cameras.  With that he pulled back from Karl's swing a little too much, lost his balance and was on his back on the grass with the knives swinging down towards his heart.

They veered at the last second, hit the ground inches away from him. By the time he could breathe again Karl had moved on.  Josef propped his elbow up on the grass to catch his breath back and watch.

Anyone could hire a bunch of thugs and put them in uniform. Anyone could recruit ex-soldiers to march up and down their gravelled driveways. Other people had done both these things, thinking they were following Karl's example.  They were wrong.

Sure, the boys could be thugs, when that was wanted, and it often was. Karl had business interests after all, and people to keep in line. They could be soldiers too; run drills, handle weapons, parade up and down neat as any Kingdom squad and with considerably more discipline.

But what they were; Stefan, Mikael, Rikard, Gabriel and Vladimir- what Josef was slowly becoming, in training far harder than anything he'd undergone in the army- were dancers. They danced now with Karl, blades flying, bodies twisting, booted feet drumming. It was beautiful and lethal and God knows what the cameras were making of it all.

After what seemed an age, Mikael pulled out of the melee, collapsed on the grass next to Josef.  "Fuck, that was fast!" he gasped. One by one the others joined him, until only Stefan was left. A few more sweeps of the knives and he was backing away from Karl, hands outstretched in surrender, until he stumbled over backwards and fell.

Karl looked down at the lot of them. He seemed barely short of breath. "Get up. We're going to talk to some journalists. Be charming. Don't answer any fucking questions."  His eyes were on Josef. "None. Understand?"

Josef nodded, mouth dry. This no-one had trained him for.  He started to pull himself up, cursed and sagged back down as every muscle felt like mush. The others were all  on their feet, watching him. They'd expected him to let them down already, Josef realised; young, half-trained, untried, and already hurt at the start. They still expected him to fail. Vlad was smirking; the others just waited to see if Josef would make it to his feet.

Fuck them. He took another deep breath, forced his limbs up to hold his shaking weight.  Upright, but twenty yards or so to the gates; he had no idea how he would make it.

Mikael snorted, threw an arm across the shoulder of the men beside him. Within heartbeats all six men were in a single line advancing across the grass towards the crowd.  The solid bulk of Gabs on one side and the reassuring warmth of Rikard on the other kept Josef on his feet and moving, though now that the pain was back it wasn't easing off any and he was terrifyingly close to tears.

There were the cameras, and the journalists. Karl was laughing, rich and warm, turned round smiling to introduce them all by name.  "And this is Josef, our youngest member. We have high expectations of great things in the future from Joe."

The journalist was openly staring at his bruises. "Can I ask how you got hurt, Josef?"

That was definitely a question not to answer but no-one was jumping in to help him out. Josef swallowed. "Professional secret, I'm afraid."

"Really?" She frowned a little. "And, forgive me but...what is your profession, exactly?"

Still silence from around him. He glanced at Karl, who was apparently waiting politely for his answer. For a second he was tempted just to say "Murderer, bully, extortioner, and anything else the boss wants" just to see what would happen.  Instead he looked into the camera and said, as smoothly as he could manage, "Entertainer."  He smiled at the journalist. "I do hope that you were entertained."

Karl moved in at that point to take the focus off him.  There were more photos but no more questions to him and eventually they were allowed to escape back into the house. As the doors closed behind him and Rikard let go of his shoulder the pain and exhaustion finally took over and Josef collapsed onto the hall tiles.  Voices rose around him but he had nothing left to respond to them with; he lay on the floor, curled up in agony, and listened.

"Just bruises!" That was Vladimir, sullen. "We barely touched him."

"Stefan?"

"He wasn't hurt.  He was fine this morning; he was juggling knives with Gabs, did all the warm-ups OK, everything."

"So he's no good." Karl's voice, flat. Silence. "Come on, you're telling me he was fine this morning and after three hours drills he's passed out. That's fucking useless. Put a bullet in him and find me someone better."

Gabriel's tone was deep and uncomfortable. "He wasn't fine this morning. We beat him up rough, boss. He shouldn't have been walking today but he's an obstinate little bugger. How the hell he got through warm-ups I don't know. But he's tough all right."

"Anyone got anything to say to that?"

A long pause. Finally Stefan, reluctant. "We were a bit rough, yeah. Gabriel's right."

"Vladimir?"

"I suppose."

"In that case someone had better stop him dying on my bloody floor. I have enough on my fucking plate right now without you lot fucking up my sodding property. Understand?"

They apparently understood.

"Good. Rikard, you're in charge of him today, being as you're the only one that didn't try to kill him. Take him into the second guest room and put the TV on. I want to know everything they're saying about me and the Palace and this fucking competition."  

Karl's voice hardened, "Stefan, you and I are going to have a conversation about this right now. The rest of you clean up and wait for me. We have work to do."

 

Josef woke in a soft bed, head fuzzy from painkillers.  The TV was droning; he caught Karl's name and dragged his eyes open. For a moment the patterns on the box made no sense, and then they did. Green lawns, and figures moving.

"Is that us?"

"Yes."  That wasn't Rikard's voice. Josef turned his head, startled. The room was dark; he must have slept through into the night.

"If I'd wanted you awake earlier I've have woken you."  Karl didn't sound particularly annoyed. Josef thought he'd better sit up anyway.

"What have I missed?"

Karl flicked the TV off. "The boys have been out talent spotting. Rash of broken arms and legs among our artistic community. Lot of people taking foreign holidays at short notice.  Message is out now, loud and clear. This competition tomorrow's going to be nothing but a pile of crap."

That sounded efficient. "What happened about the drills?"

"Nothing. What they going to do, try to arrest me?  Anyway, it was all just entertainment. Remember?"

Josef swung his legs off the bed, looked at Karl's tight smile. "I'm really sorry, Karl, if I screwed up. I didn't know what to say." Again.

"You didn't screw up. You thought fast. You did fine. All of it."

Josef nodded, hugely relieved.  Karl lay back on the bed, legs crossed, hands under his head.

"Know who I bumped into today, Joe?"

"No."

"The pretty little Princess, all in pink.  She's not happy about being Daddy's prize fund, you know.  The little flower was trying to run away from home."

"Shit! Really?"   Josef had never seen pictures of the Princess anywhere but smiling at her father's side.

"Yep. Innocent like that, could have got into any sort of trouble out there.  She was lucky I found her."  Karl grinned at the ceiling.

"Was she grateful?" Running into Karl was seldom anyone's idea of good luck.

Karl laughed out loud. "Not for long. Little bitch struggled like hell. Ran straight back to Daddy again."

He rolled on one side to look at Josef.  "She's no good to me without the kingdom. I can wait. Still, it gets a man's blood up, soft little thing like that struggling in his arms."

"Yeah," Josef said, cautiously.

Karl was still lying on his side, watching Josef. "Those bruises go lower?"

Josef nodded, began to pull his leggings down, sitting on the edge of the bed. Karl reached out, smoothed his thumb across a purple hip.

"They did quite a job. You should pick your fights more carefully."

"That's what Rikard said." Josef managed to keep his voice from shaking.

"He learned everything he knows from me."  Karl's hand tightened on the bruises. "Come here."

Josef rolled back onto the bed, naked. Karl pushed him on his back, started to trace lines down his mottled torso.

"Breathe," he commanded.

Josef nodded, flushing. "Sorry.  It's just...I haven't..."

"I know that. Just do what you're told."

Josef nodded again, gratefully. He could do that.

Karl's hands were firmer now on his skin. Josef wondered if it would be more embarrassing to get hard or not. Not something he had a choice over; fingers were deftly pulling the start of a reaction out of his cock.

"OK." Karl was kneeling between his thighs, his attention nowhere near Josef's face. "You like girls, Josef?"

"I guess so. Yes."

"You work for me, you leave them alone. Understand?  You need a whore, Mikael will find you someone clean who can get you off without fucking.  Otherwise no girls."  His hands closed over Josef's balls and Joe shuddered.  

"OK," he managed.

Karl sighed, loudly. "Don't look so fucking tragic, Josef. You've got the whole damn barracks to screw around with."

Josef was startled at the thought. "They haven't..."

"You've been off-limits; that's why they haven't.  But both Gabs and Mika have been sniffing around like you were a bitch in heat, waiting for go."

Gabriel and Mikael?  Never mind Mikael. Gabs, though? Wanted him?  

Karl was laughing at him, thumbs hard against his nipples. "Up for that now, aren't you? Hot for Gabriel, I'm guessing. Like a bit of rough."  Fingers dug painfully into bruised muscle. "You're both mine, remember. Gabs can have what's left when I'm done."

He had pulled back, started to undress. "Get up. Back to the wall."

Josef could feel the cold stone against his backside. Karl was grinning at him, naked and hard. "How are you feeling?"

Josef thought about it. A little nervous, a little curious. More than a little self conscious. He believed that he was rather hoping to get off at some point, if the whole being fucked thing didn't turn out too painful.  When Karl asked for a report you gave him one, so he carefully relayed his conclusions.

It took Karl some time to stop laughing, his body shoved hard up against Josef's.  Eventually he pulled away, still grinning.

"God, Josef.  You are... They're all different in here, you know. They have fun, they play whore, they follow orders, whatever. Couple of them hate every minute.  I don't care. They all take it.  But none of them have ever been fucking 'curious'. You've got more nerve than sense, boy."

Josef could only shrug. Karl shook his head. "Let's do something about that curiosity then. On your knees."

Karl's cock tasted of nothing in particular, which was something of a relief. Giving good head turned out quite difficult. He got snapped at a couple of times, Karl's nails raking across his close shaved scalp, before he found a rhythm that made his jaw ache but seemed to be acceptable.

He had readied himself for a throatful of ejaculate, whatever that might feel like, but instead a palm against his forehead thrust him away.

"You want to come, now's the time to do it. You're going to be too fucking sore when I'm done.  And every time for a bit, till you get used to it."

Just like any other sort of training, then. The thought didn't worry Josef unduly. At least this didn't carry the risk of losing digits if you were careless.  Not that he intended to be careless, not with the boss's genitals involved.

Karl was looking impatient. Josef gestured downwards. "Should I?"

"What do you want? A fucking orchestral accompaniment? You've got until I get bored watching."

His erection seemed to like the idea of a watcher. Josef spat on his palm, reached down and started to stroke, quickly accelerating.  He was still kneeling, back on his heels with Karl's glistening damp cock at head height; if he leant forward he could drag his tongue across it.  If he had permission.  Karl was going to push that up his arse; that much he knew if the details were hazy. Gabriel wanted to do that, too; Gabs of the blue eyes and smooth skin and hard muscles, who liked blood and pain and juggling, who had kicked him over and over in the ribs and spoken up to stop Karl from having him killed.

Josef closed his eyes and thought of Gabriel until his maltreated muscles were quivering. Karl's hand had shoved his away, jerking his cock for a few seconds until the come pooled in the man's cupped palm, was transferred to coat Karl's own erection.

"Over the bed."  Snapped this time and Josef responded automatic fast, his cock still spasming.

He'd got the idea from somewhere that some sort of warm-up was required. It would certainly make sense; you didn't push muscles from cold unless you had to and there were muscles that had to stretch, quite considerably.

Karl didn't seem to think it was necessary. Rough hands pulled him apart, pinioned him to the bed and Karl just shoved.  Josef buried his head in his arms and gritted his teeth. It hurt like someone was ripping him apart but he told himself that was crap. Just pain, like everything else in the last 24 hours but at least there was a point to this.  He was Karl's man, trained and paid, and this was what Karl wanted from him.  It was just like every other physical exercise that made demands on rarely used muscles; it would hurt for a while then he'd get used to it.

Josef was pleased to find that it was the sort of pain that stopped pretty quick when Karl was done.  He's been right, then; the agony came from overstretching muscles, not tearing them.

"What the fuck are you thinking about now?" Karl had rolled them both onto the bed, facing each other.

"There could be a drill for that. Get the muscles into shape."

"A drill? For fucking?" Karl sounded incredulous.

Josef shrugged. "Overstretching muscles isn't really the best way of strengthening them.  It will work eventually but an exercise would be better."

Karl shook his head. "Go on, get out. I've got a kingdom to win here; I can't be doing with your fucking craziness."  He didn't sound annoyed, exactly.

Josef picked up his leggings, slipped them on, feeling the odd sensation of liquid dribbling down his thigh.  As he reached the door Karl spoke from the bed. "You find someone to do your drilling with, go ahead.  But not tonight. We've got a hell of a day tomorrow. Get some sleep."

Chapter Text

It was all quiet when Josef reached the room he shared with Rikard. None of the boys were yet home. He was glad of it; he was tired and sore and not up to the confrontations that were going to be necessary. Stefan and Vlad had nearly got him killed. If he let that pass it would be taken as weakness, and he knew what happened to the weakest in the pack. This particular pack wouldn't tear him apart physically; after today they would be too cautious of Karl for that, but they could make his life hell, if he let them.

He lay awake for a while, his body still protesting the various indignities that it had been put through, his mind turning everything over. At least he'd done it now, or rather Karl had. He'd been waiting for that for weeks; ever since he worked out what Karl must be doing at night with one, sometimes two of the boys at a time. Something that made Mikael bright-eyed and exuberant, but left Rikard withdrawn and foul-tempered each time his turn came around. It had been less of a deal than Josef had expected. A couple of the drills were worse. He knew his capabilities; he could learn to be competent at it, given practice.

Karl had said he could practice, if he found a partner. He'd ask Rikard, normally, but Rikard's negative feelings on the matter were quite clear. Josef didn't expect to be on good terms with either Stefan or Vlad for some time to come. That left Mikael and Gabriel.

Mika was steady, when he wasn't drinking. He was second in seniority after Stefan, an ally worth having. He wasn't vindictive, and he was as safe as any of them could be considered. He was also fit and clearly experienced and, according to Karl, interested. Mikael was the sensible choice.

Josef lay awake a little longer, rehearsing what he was going to say to Gabriel, come morning, before he finally fell asleep.

Turned out morning was too busy to tackle either Gabs or Stefan. Karl arrived at the small house they called a barracks block very early. They all tumbled out of bunks fast, trying to look wide awake.

"More breaking heads, boys." Karl had informants; had been able to sift the thousands of intended competition applicants for the handful still planning to enter who might be any good. Karl declared that he had a couple to do himself; the rest were paired off and they headed out into town with lists tucked into jacket pockets.

It was mostly easy work. Find the man or woman practising their incredible performance or putting the finishing touches to their incredible work of art. Smash up everything delicate or valuable. Rough the performer up a bit and assess his or her level of defiance, if any. That usually did it; in a couple of cases they needed to start on the family. Josef preferred not to have to beat up the wife and kids. Didn't seem fair, really, when it wasn't them causing Karl trouble. He'd rather break a couple extra bones of the guilty party instead. But Mika said it was quicker and surer and Mika was in charge.

The advantage of doing the ones at home was that Josef and Mikael could pick up breakfast along the way, which was handy because they thought they were going to be tight for time. But by the time they got down towards the end of the list they were finding empty workshops and abandoned houses, and nothing to do but break things and move on. It was in one of these last that Mikael looked sideways at Josef and started a conversation.

"Rikard says Karl was with you a while last night."

Josef ripped the stuffing out of an upholstered chair. "I guess so."

"He fuck you?"

Josef had got the distinct impression that the boys didn't talk about what Karl did. Maybe that was just Rikard. "What's it to you?"

"Just curious. He's held off a while."

Was he suggesting that Karl hadn't wanted to? That there was something wrong with.Josef?

"So what are you saying, Mika?"

Mikael laughed. "Put those prickles away, boy. Just figuring out where everyone stands."

Josef glanced over at the man chopping a cabinet apart. He might as well find out. "So where's that?"

Mikael put the short axe down. "Good question." He thought for a moment. "Rikard just does girls. So does Stefan unless he gets drunk enough to forget the difference. Vlad's a whore, but you can't stand Vlad; that's bloody obvious. So me and Gabs, if you want some."

"And if I don't?"

Mikael picked up the axe again. "You're junior. Might be wise to acquire a taste for it. Saves trouble all round."

OK. Like that. "You and Gabs going to quarrel over this, then? Or do I have to do both?"

"You don't have to do anything. Just saying there might be trouble if you don't. If you can handle that, go ahead. Rikard used to sleep with a knife under his pillow back when he was junior. He got jumped a handful of times, even so. Fought like a fucking polecat; in the end the boys gave up, let him be."

That seemed fair warning. Josef had no desire to spend his time fighting off either Mika or Gabs. He had the more serious matter of Stefan to deal with. "I could do with the practice, as it happens, and I'll take it where it's offered. Except for Vlad. I won't touch that bastard." He might have a more definite preference but he had more sense than to tell Mika that.

Mikael grinned at him. "Sounds good to me. We're done here; who's next?"

"Last one. Guy called Leonardo, couple of streets up. Making..." he peered closer at the list, "something fucking weird out of paper, far as I can tell. Should be good for a decent blaze, at least."

The decent blaze was already well underway when they got there, silhouetting Karl looking well pissed off. "Rikard let this one go."

"I swear I didn't. No-one came past me." Rikard was hot and fed-up.

"He was in there when we arrived. Think he went up the fucking chimney?"

"He didn't come past me." Rikard insisted. "Maybe he found somewhere to hide inside."

"If he did the fucker's toast now." Karl spat in the direction of the flames. "One less fucking artist. Time to go visit the palace, scare the balls off His Majesty, get our front row places for this fucking show. Champagne all round, boys."

 

Kael and the boys had been allotted front row seats, just behind the orchestra pit. They sat around in the bar, drinking the complimentary champagne, while everyone else filed into the auditorium and the broadcasters sorted out sound checks.

"How about a toast for Joe?" Mikael raised his glass in the air. "One of us now."

Glasses were raised, though Josef thought Rikard looked seriously uncomfortable.

"Why? What's he done?" Vlad, of course. Being fucking stupid. Gabriel leaned over and whispered something.

"Oh. So what's his dick like, Karl?" Vlad was staring at Josef as if he were naked. Josef sipped his champagne and resisted the temptation to floor the guy. He was going to, just not here and now.

Karl leaned forward, hand on Vlad's knee. "You'll find out. Everyone's dick ends up in your mouth eventually, doesn't it, Vladimir?" The others laughed and Vlad swore at them. Not quite stupid enough to round on Karl, not smart enough to let it go.

"So found your drilling partner yet, Josef?" Karl's teeth gleamed.

"Not yet."

To Stefan's upraised eyebrow Karl explained, "Joe wants to start a drill for fucking. Puts the rest of you slackers to shame, doesn't it?"

"Just for the muscle tone," Josef explained hastily. "Not for...you know... technique."

"Nothing wrong with my muscle tone," Gabriel said coldly. Josef didn't doubt it at all. He cursed Karl silently; this really was not the way he'd wanted to raise the subject. If he tried to justify it now they'd be further insulted.

"It was a stupid idea" he said, trying for cheerful. "Can you imagine drilling on the front lawn? The groundsman really would throw a fit."

"He'd do what he's fucking well told. I like the idea." Karl was grinning. "How about tomorrow morning, all six of you. Josef can run it."

Shit. If Karl said it he meant it. Josef could feel the tension in the room; he was in so much fucking trouble, made couple of nights ago look like nothing. They wouldn't blame Karl. Instead they'd tear Josef apart, no doubt about it. He took a breath.

"Can't be done, I'm afraid."

The silence grew even tenser. Karl was staring at him, unbelieving

"And just why can't you carry out a direct fucking order, Josef? Do tell me."

Josef's stomach was a tight knot. "Because," he stuttered over the word, tried again. "Because soon as I try the guys are going to rip my tackle off, and I can't run the fucking drill without it."

His heartbeat pounded once, twice, three times before Karl laughed. "They would at that. OK, you're excused. Don't ever tell me "no" again or I'll tear your balls off myself."

Karl gestured at a nervous man who'd just sidled in. "He's here to tell us that everyone's waiting. Since you're being diplomatic you can go clear the seats, Josef. We'll have another couple of drinks. They can wait.

 

The auditorium was packed; the row of seven empty seats conspicuous. They wouldn't do at all. Karl didn't sit with his back to strangers. Josef seized an usher by the arm, yanked him along to stand in front of the allotted row. Three front, four back, two empty rows behind and two vacant seats to each side. Block of eight by four should do it. He raised his voice, addressed the grandees.

"I'm afraid the view from this part of the seating is going to be severely restricted. This man will be finding you better alternatives. Please vacate your seats and follow him."

The usher wasn't protesting; he recognised Josef's uniform. Not everyone else did. Josef found a crowd of complainants led by a burly middle-aged man with a great deal of decoration nearly shouting in his face.

"This is a disgrace! You can tell your management that Duke Berel does not intend to be shifted around like cattle. Tell them I'm not moving! Go on, boy. Run."

"Certainly, Sir," Josef said, politely. "However I don't work for the venue. I'll pass your comment onto my employer as well, shall I?"

The nan blinked, twice, his eyes drawn down to the black Josef was wearing. The crowd behind him started thinning fast. He switched his attention to the usher. "Hurry up, man! Where are these other seats, then? Bloody inefficient..."

Josef suppressed a smile and went back to ensuring the right seats were emptied. He was just finishing directing the last couple towards the usher when a man in a suit tapped him on the arm.

"Perhaps you might be able to let your employer know that everything had been ready to go for some time now."

"Not everything," Josef pointed out. "The seating wasn't satisfactory."

The man actually hissed at him. "We have a great deal to get through. We can't wait any longer. If the King himself can make it, I'm sure Someone can manage to get from the bar to his seat in the next two minutes. Otherwise I'm afraid we'll just have to start without him."

Josef wondered if they would. This was the palace's show; it might just try it. The whole competition was the King's act of defiance, after all.

He had Karl's honour to uphold. Josef glanced around, slowly, pointedly.

"I've always wanted to see what happens if you shout 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre," he said, cheerfully. "Though really you'd need a fire first. Why don't you go and check your insurance is up to date and I'll go and see if my employer has finished his important business yet at the bar."

There was still a half bottle of champagne left. "Seating sorted." Josef announced.

"Anything else going on out there?"

"Met a man who said if you weren't there in two minutes they were starting without you."

"Huh." Karl put down his glass. "What did you say?"

"Told him to go check his fire insurance."

"Good. I'm done with this horse piss. Let's go watch the fucking show." Karl let his glass shatter on the floor. "Wouldn't want to miss anything, after all. This is going to be good."

Chapter Text

"Hey," Karl called over to the badly dressed girl caterwauling through a pop song cover. "How about you shut that godawful trap and give us a pole-dance?"

The girl looked down from the stage at them, then around in confusion.

"She's lost her pole,"  Josef suggested.

"Bring the dolly a pole, someone," Karl demanded of the audience. "Or do I have to give her one myself?" He stood up and started to unbuckle his belt.  The girl fled off the stage, much to the boys' amusement.

"Come on," Stefan prompted the lady compere. "We want a stripper next."  This idea tickled them and for the next six acts they chanted "Strip!" at the bewildered men, women and children taking to the stage.

They were having fun. By now they were the only people in the auditorium who were. Josef hadn't been surprised at the absence of anyone with a flicker of talent from the stage; they had after all been pretty comprehensive in their work. What was astonishing was the sheer quantity of crap that had stepped up to take its place.  Seemed everyone in the Kingdom wanted their three minutes on the stage.

Not one of the freaks and losers had got past the judges' initial assessment.  They at least were taking the whole thing seriously; they and the increasingly desperate Princess up in the Royal box. Josef wondered if she knew this was her father's attempt to save her from Karl.  Probably not; if she did she'd be down there exchanging vows with that guy with a rock on his head by now, not wailing and whining.  She didn't look tough enough to last five minutes in Karl's bed.

Am amateur magician next, making a white dove disappear almost competently, but then failing to find it again. "Check up your arse," Mikael suggested loudly. "Which reminds me..." He leaned over for a quiet word with Karl, who nodded. "Off for a piss," Mikael told Josef. "Coming?"

"Sure."  The steady drinking was having the usual effect.  They staggered onto the stage and across it in search of the johns.  Found one backstage, found everyone else just leaving. Josef unzipped his flies and let flow with a sigh of relief.

"Want a shag?"  Mikael had been watching him.

Josef was pleasantly drunk. Why not? "Yeah, OK,"

Mika pushed him towards one of the cubicles. "Drop your trousers, then."

Josef started pulling them down, turning to watch the other man. "What are you doing?"

"Getting some lube."  He was squeezing the soap onto his hand. "Come on, we'd better be quick."  Mikael joined Josef in the cubicle, the door banging open.

Lubricant made a difference. Josef rested his arms against the wall, spread his legs wide, squirmed as Mika's fingers pushed into him.  That felt pretty good, except for the residual soreness. Mika had noticed.

"He hurt you last night." It wasn't a question

Seemed little point in denying it. "A bit. Doesn't matter."

"I'll be careful, then.  Don't want to put you off the whole fucking thing, do I?  Be like Rikard all over again. Gabs would kill me."

His hand came round, slippery from the soap, grabbed Josef's cock, started to squeeze it.  Josef gasped slightly. That was not at all like jerking himself off, particularly with hard fingers stretching his arse.  This felt like raw sex. He liked it.

"Fuck careful," he demanded, "Just do it."  

He could hear Mika's laugh over the noise of someone walking in and leaving abruptly. "OK. Hold on."

How fucking huge was Mika’s cock? It hadn’t looked particularly big. At least the discomfort was nothing like yesterday's agony. Just large and in a odd bloody place. He had braced himself for thrusts, but Mika just stopped there.

"What are you doing?"

"Admiring the view." Josef's shirt was yanked up. "Fuck, you've a lot of bruises, you know that?"

"When I bruise someone they always bloody know it, Mika."  Gabriel's deep voice from behind. "Get on with it. Karl wants you back."

"Get out of my fucking space and give a man a little privacy then. We're not all bloody exhibitionists like you."

"Just checking him out."

"You can do that later. Go watch the fucking door, Gabs."

A grumbled retreat.  Mika was leaning forward to murmur in Josef's ear, "Next time we  do this properly, find a bed, take all night."  He was moving now inside Josef, against bruised flesh, the sensation interesting, if somewhat too painful to keep Josef hard.  Still, the heat on the back of his neck and the hand around his own cock felt pretty good. Josef thought he would probably enjoy sex with Mika, next time.

Right now Mikael was grunting in his ear, thrusts faster. Josef wondered if there was something that he should be doing but he couldn't see much scope for it. He'd ask later.

After a couple of minutes or so Mikael pulled away, breathing heavily. "Sorry about Gabs. Guy's got no fucking respect." His grip tightened. "You want...?"

Josef did, but between the alcohol and the soreness he didn't think it was going to happen. "Some time when Karl's not waiting."

"Shit, Karl.  We'd better move."

Josef followed Mikael as far as the door, where Gabriel stretched out an arm between them. "He's only after Mika right now."

Mikael turned, indignant on Josef's behalf. "Boy's had your fucking boots all over him, drilled till he keeled over and then a rough session with Karl last night. He's in no state to take the whole fucking barracks on tonight."

"Didn't stop you."

"I was careful."

"Careful. Yeah." Gabriel was unimpressed. "Maybe he wants it a bit more hot than sodding careful."

"Hey!" Josef interrupted. "Maybe he can have a fucking opinion of his own, guys."

He shifted slightly, assessing. Mika was right; he was in no condition for this. Next turn was going to hurt rather more, prolong his recovery time further and God knows when Karl might want him back in there for another go.  On the other hand- he looked straight into Gabriel's hard blue-eyed gaze- he didn't want to say no to Gabs, for reasons of politics and otherwise.

"Mika's right. I'm too sore to screw any more," he confirmed. "But you got any other ideas, I'm game."

Gabriel nodded, glanced round the men's toilets. "Not here, though.  My room, when we get back."  He strode out, leaving Josef facing a glowering Mikael.  

"Problem?"  This had better not be a bloody problem. If he'd known he was supposed to hook up with just one of them, it wouldn't have been Mika.

"Your problem, not mine.  You stupid, Joe, or do you like getting fucked about? Kid fucking gloves you get from me, and you're throwing yourself under his sodding boots."

"Hey," Josef protested, "You were the one talked about trouble if I didn't!"

"Spread your legs and bend over, sure. Anyone try to force you do anything more, they get the rest of us breathing down their necks, unless they're the boss or you fucking asked for it, which you just did. This is Gabriel we're talking about here. You think he's just going to want a kiss and a blow job before bedtime?"

"I don't know, do I? You say do everyone, then you yell at me when I'm only being fucking obliging!" The loss of his temper was, in part, the knowledge that he had, as Mika said, just signed up for an open session with the gang's resident sadist.  Not that Gabs would try anything on him, he told himself without much conviction, two day old bruises aching.

"If you won't be fucking smart about this I'm done giving you advice,"  Mikael snapped back. "You don't take better bloody care and you'll end up with Karl and Gabs riding your fucking arse together.  Want to know what they did to Vlad last year?"

"No! I'm not bloody Vladimir and I can look after myself! I don't need your nannying, Mika. Get off my fucking back!"  Josef shoved his way past the other man and stalked back across the stage, barging straight through an acapella jazz ensemble in his way.

Karl was watching him as he took his seat again, then past him to Mikael following. He leaned over to them, scowling,

"You turn up with another set of fucking bruises, Joe, I'll add to them myself.  You're causing trouble all round and I want it stopped. Understand?"

"Yes, Boss." Josef wasn't entirely sincere. He glanced over to Stefan, resolutely ignoring him, and to Vlad, grinning.  There was a bit more trouble, and Gabriel, to come.

 

The mood had soured. What they shouted up to the stage now was nastier than funny. Every so often one threat more creative than the rest would make them laugh, but they were bored with the endless succession of talentless cretins. There was some fun to be had watching the Princess crying, but not much.

Josef and Vlad were sent out to find food and some more booze. They elbowed their way to the front of a packed concession stand and waited for their burgers to be cooked.

"My turn next."

"What?"  Josef didn't think they were in a queue. They'd better not be in a fucking queue; he glared at the people beside him and they backed off a couple of steps, causing bits of the crowd behind them to squeal in the crush.

"To have you. My turn."

"When hell freezes over. Go fuck yourself, Vladimir."

"You're junior." A whine. Vlad and Gabs joined the same time, Josef remembered being told. He doubted that Gabriel had tolerated the indignities of junior status. Vlad seemed born to them.

"Fuck that. I'm told your dick's too small to stay up by itself anyway, is why you just take it up the arse."

Vlad was just too easy to wind up. He was glaring at Josef, fists clenched. "l'm going to fucking make you!"

"Yeah?"  Vlad had a few pounds on Josef and most of them were muscle, but it was a long way from knocking a man down to successfully sticking your dick in him.  "Want to try it now?"

The crowd was backing away further.  The young woman at the stand coughed loudly,

"The burgers are ready."

Josef looked up at her, astonished at the interruption.  She flashed him a grin. "Better not to fight on an empty stomach, I always think. Fourteen burgers, eight with cheese. Relishes to your left. That would have been fifty six forty but I imagine you're not intending to pay for them?"

Josef patted pockets automatically. "Got no money," he said, almost apologetically.

"Oh well. Enjoy your meal."

"Cheeky fucking bitch."  Vlad slid the knife from his boot.

"Shut the fuck up and get the food, Vlad.  You want to tell Karl why his burger is cold?"  Josef picked up the bag of vodka bottles. As Vlad turned away, grumbling, Josef looked back up at the burger lady and winked.  God, it had been a long time since a woman smiled back at him like that. Karl's black got a hell of lot of respect but not many smiles.

They fought their way back into the auditorium against weary and desperate crowds trying to get out.  Seems the show had finished.

Karl was still watching what was left of proceedings; the judges deep in conversation, the stage with the exhausted compere wandering aimlessly, the empty Royal Box. The other four men were watching Josef’s arrival. They were after the vodka, he told himself, distributed the bottles without speaking.

He slid into a seat next to Rikard, took a burger. "What's happened?"  

“Everyone in the world’s fucking pissed with you, far as I can see. Fuck knows how a nice guy like you manages it.”

“Not that. On the stage.”

"Princess vanished, then everything else started to go to hell. I think it's over."

"No competition winner, then?  Karl beat them?"

"Looks that way."  Rikard grinned at Josef through a mouthful of food. "That'll teach the bastards."

There was the King, looking like hell, talking quietly to the compere. Karl was leaning forward as if he could hear them. His Majesty finally turned to look directly at Karl.  A stag cornered by a tiger, Josef thought. All hope lost. But when the man spoke it was clear and steady.

"The competition is hereby declared..." A sudden disturbance from the wings cut him off mid-phrase.  The Princess, barefoot and mussed, dragging a man by the hand.

"What the fuck!" Karl was on his feet as the Princess dropped to her knees.  Asking- no, begging for something from the King.

The King glanced back to Karl helplessly, then shook his head at his daughter. Easy to read; whatever she wanted would anger Karl, and the King's temporary defiance was burned out.

Rikard was staring at the man. "That's the one from the house we torched. Leonardo. How the hell did he escape?"  Josef couldn't see anything special about the guy. Just a long-haired peasant with no dress sense.

The Princess was keeping on at her father. Karl had started to swear, surely loud enough to be heard onstage,  "Don't you fucking dare. She's mine! Don't you fucking dare! Not again!"

The King wasn't listening; his attention was all on the couple in front of him.  Finally he nodded, and the Princess collapsed in clear gratitude. Fuck. This was trouble. Because here was the compere, and the lights switched on again and the orchestra back and whoever this Leonardo was he was getting his three minutes after all.

Karl was sitting back in his chair, upending the vodka bottle. Calm; too calm. Josef knew real bad trouble when he saw it, and that was Karl right now.

"OK, let's see what you've got, then, Leonardo", the boss murmured, quiet enough that only the boys heard. "Bring it on."

Chapter Text

As the auditorium lights dimmed, the audience went almost silent. A single spotlight on the stage illuminated the pale figure of Leonardo, looking nervous enough to bolt, his eyes fixed somewhere above the watchers' heads.

A derisive whistle came from the other side of Karl, cut off abruptly by his sharp gesture.  Josef closed his hand around the hilt of the knife hidden under his jacket, waiting orders.

The orchestra started up, slow, quiet. Leonardo pulled himself up on his toes and for the first time Josef recognised the poise of a dancer in the awkward looking man. Hand stretched high over his head, Leonardo uncurled his fingers, the glint of something metal nestled in his palm.

The music changed, louder, more powerful, acquiring a deep steady beat. Josef glanced down at the orchestra, saw them all motionless.  On the stage the object in Leonardo's hand appeared to be growing in size; now clearly a watch face. Larger, plate size, then wheel, then filing the stage, eclipsing the man holding it.  Bloody impressive effects.

"Shut down that fucking projectionist!"

Josef was on his feet and running, feet thudding in time with the ticking, loud enough to shake the room. He took the stairs upwards past faces intent on the stage, his back to whatever they were seeing.

The first chime caught Josef unawares, nearly knocked him off his feet. He reached the top, yanked open the door to the empty projectionist's booth and then started on the doors marked "authorised persons only". The third and last opened to stairs going upwards; he took them three at a time, the music swirling around him.  As the second chime came he was standing on the wide, dark, empty roof.

The sound system had to be coming from up here. The steady ticking, the music were as loud out here as they had been inside.  But there was nothing out here except a small construction at the far end of the roof, barely visible in the grey night. Josef started to run.

Only another maintenance stairway. Josef took one last look across the roof and started down it.  Damn, the music was loud; it was hard to think at all.

At the bottom of the stairs he met Vlad, scowling.

"Nothing up there."

"Nothing down here either. Let's just take out the fucker."

"That wasn't Karl's orders," Josef pointed out.

"Fuck that. This noise is doing my head in."

"We should check back in first. He didn't say kill the guy."

Vladimir swung without any warning, smashed Josef under the chin. Josef sprawled on the floor, blinking at the blade in Vlad's hand, the face twisted in anger.

"Always do what you're told, don't you, Joe?  That's the only reason Gabriel wants you. And Mika. Everyone's favourite, aren’t you? You go crawling back to them all and tell them you've failed. I'm going to take out Karl's problem for him and then I'm going to make sure that you learn your fucking place, Junior. You won’t be so pretty for them after I'm done."

Vlad turned and pushed the door to the stage open. Green and red and gold shimmered in searing colours around him and the door swung closed, just as the third chime sounded.

Josef climbed to his feet, slowly. He needed to go after Vlad. The man had just run into what could very well be big trouble and they were a team.  He stood motionless as the beat of the clock made the corridor shudder, tick after tick. Then he turned away to find his way towards the front of house.

Brilliant figures were moving on stage as Josef came into the auditorium. He kept his eyes down, on the edge of the rows of seats on each side of him, trying to focus only on getting to Karl and making his report.

The fourth chime seemed to make the air shimmer.  Something caught at Josef's heel and he stumbled, found both his ankles fouled. He bent down to free them and smooth cables whipped up from the ground to curl around his muscled forearms, twine upwards around his neck. He tried to tear them off, felt the cool smoothness roughen, saw buds pushing out from the green tendrils, forming into leaves.

As he struggled to rip the plant from around his neck a second set of buds sprouted, opened into pale yellow and white flowers, their scent bewilderingly strong. All around him people and furniture were garlanded with flowers that bloomed and then faded, petals dropping to vanish as they reached the floor.  Berries ripened, stained his skin as he fought to free himself.  Then the green winding up his arms disintegrated all at once, the dust blown away by the icy cold wind come from nowhere to roar around the hall.  Snow; a blizzard of impossible snow that hid the stage.  Josef ploughed forward through the freezing whiteness.  Karl was there, somewhere. Karl would know what to do.

The clock chimed and he was nowhere. Nothing. Not even the tick of the clock. Nothing beneath his feet. Not cold, not hot. Only the beat of his heart, way too fast.

A sharp, familiar taste. He'd bitten his tongue when Vlad had hit him. The smell of the hall, alcohol and sweat and fast food and the last dregs of expensive deodorants. He was on the floor, lying on the steps, his hip painful where he must have fallen, the short carpet rough against his cheek. As he started to push himself upright, still blind, noise hit him in a huge incoherent wave and finally the world was back, as sharp and sudden as if he'd just opened his eyes.  He needed to get to Karl before the clock chimed again; he stumbled to the rows of seats just as the sixth bell sounded.

Karl and the boys were huddled with their heads together, blocking out the world outside. Joe poked his head into the middle and they stopped talking, stared at him.

"Report."

Josef took a deep breath, trying to ignore the clock’s pulse. "No-one out there is doing any of it. Must be on the stage.” Act like this is still a performance, still comprehensible. Karl would explain it.

Karl nodded. “It’s the clock.”

“How can it be?” Mikael protested. ‘It’s like fucking magic or something!”

“It is magic.” Stefan, solemn, but the others were derisive. “Fairy stories! No such thing!”

Karl slammed his hand onto the back of the chair and they all fell silent. “Magic, trickery, could be fucking goblins, for all I care. It’s the goddamn clock controlling it. That’s all I need to know.”

Seventh chime, and total darkness. Cries and shrieks from around the auditorium, Karl’s voice hissing “Quiet!” the tick of the clock and then a voice, booming,

“Sloth!”

Brilliant yellow flicked on all over the audience, spotlighting faces. Then darkness again.

“Envy!” Karl’s face snarling blue, and Rikard’s.

“Greed!” Just Karl, green.

“Lust!” This time Josef could feel the heat of the orange light on his face. He looked round; Gabriel, Mika, Karl.

“Gluttony!” Mika looked so indignant that Josef had to laugh.

“Wrath!” Beside him Rikard was still in darkness; the rest of them flaming red. A tug on his sleeve, and Rikard was muttering “Told you they were all pissed with you!”

“Not Karl,” he murmured back. “Guess that’s for Leonardo.”

“Pride!” Karl, of course, and Gabriel, and Stefan.

The eight chime and the lights came back.

“Wasn’t that interesting?” Karl, voice cool. “You need a few more vices, Josef. Catch the rest of us up.”

Josef shrugged. “Can’t I just have lust twice? Way things are going I’m going to need it.” What with Karl, Mika and Gabs, and even Vlad pestering... that was what was missing. Vlad wasn’t here.

The music wailed up and down the scales. Karl frowned at him. “Where’s Vladimir?”

“He said,” No help for it. “He said he was going to shut it down. He went onto the stage.”

Faces around him were serious now. Karl shook his head, “You didn’t go with him?”

“I tried to stop him. I told him it wasn’t what you said to do,” Sounded like poor excuses even to Josef himself.

“I didn’t fucking ask you if you tried to stop him. I asked you if you went with him.”

“No.” He waited.

“Why not?”

Josef had no idea what to say. “I... he knocked me down. Threatened me.”

“So?”

Not a flicker of support from the men around him.

“So...you saw it out there. Was a stupid thing for him to do. He hit me, made some nasty threats, told me to come back here, was through the stage door before I was back on my feet.”

Silence.

“If it had been one of the others, maybe I’d had followed.” Josef conceded. “But he was way out of order. Wasn’t going to risk my life for a stupid vicious bastard like that.”

Stefan shifted. “I can deal with this,” he suggested to Karl. “Later.”

Karl didn’t move his attention from Josef. “So you can screw it up further? I don’t think so.” He raised his voice, over the trills from the stage. “This isn’t a fucking schoolyard, boys. I have had enough of your fucking quarrels and petty fucking jealousies because they are getting in my way. They stop. Understand?”

His eyes were still boring into Josef as he spoke to the others. “I’ll deal with this myself, since you all appear to have acquired fucking baggage when it comes to this boy. You lay off him, and that’s an order. If you can’t work with each other you’re no fucking use to me.”

He kept Josef waiting for another three beats of the clock before he shook his head slightly. “You’d better fucking pray Vlad turns up soon. Before I have time to get round to your punishment.”

“I could go look for him,” Josef offered meekly. Because whatever was happening on that stage was less terrifying than Karl angry.

“Not worth it. Stupid wanker walks into that lot, deserves all he gets.”

Which had been Josef’s reasoning. Didn’t seem entirely fair that he was in trouble for it.

Another chime. Nine, was it, or ten? Karl again. “We’re all going to sit here and watch the rest of this sodding performance. I want to know exactly what this bloody clock does.”

It did stuff. Impossible sights, unearthly sounds. People long dead, people who had never existed. Josef watched and marvelled with the others but his thoughts kept dragging back to more mundane matters. Karl and the tone in the man’s voice when he’d said punishment. What the others would do because although Karl had said lay off this was their business and no doubt they’d make their views known. And underneath the really serious stuff, a small fret about Gabriel, and what Gabriel might want.

The final stroke of midnight and the lights came up on an exhausted, exhilarated audience. Barely a pause before the judges were acclaiming Leonardo the winner, the King and Princess cooing over him, the audience applauding until their hands must have been raw. Karl hadn’t taken his eyes from the watch in the man’s hand.

As Leonardo and his future wife left the stage hand in hand the compere was twittering inanely about holidays and memorabilia. Karl finally stood, stretched, lithe and predatory.

“Right, boys. Let’s go get them.”

They jumped over the front rail, crossed the stage. Someone tried to block Josef and he lashed out with all the night’s frustrations, felt something crack as the man stumbled to the ground. Good.

Backstage there were a couple of Royal security guards, trailing the happy threesome. Karl grabbed one around the back of the neck, swung him round and kneed him in the balls. Gabriel and Stefan were on the other one, dragging him to the ground and kicking him in the face. The two men and woman ahead of them turned round, stared at Karl in clear shock.

“Give it to me.”

Leonardo shook his head. “No,”

The King spluttered, “Karl, stop this!”

Karl smirked. Stepped forward, seized Leonardo’s wrist. “Drop it. Now.”

“No!” Leonardo tried to twist out of his grasp and Karl backhanded him over the face with his free hand. Spoke to the King. “What did you expect, your Majesty? We had an arrangement. You broke it.”

“No!” That was the Princess, flying at Karl. Josef wrapped his arms around her, dragged her off without effort; she was a tiny thing, really. The old man tried to get her off him but Rikard was there, holding him back.

Leonardo was attempting to fight now, hopelessly badly. Karl was playing with him, dancing him across the stage, a jab here, a twist of muscles there. The Princess was struggling to get to him. Josef held her tighter, his face in her hair. She was soft; he felt himself getting aroused as he pulled her against his body, her hair tickling his face. Mustn’t get distracted. Karl’s future wife was definitely off limits.

The boys were shoving the King around now, laughing as he stumbled from one to another. The Princess had finally stopped struggling, was watching Leonardo get roughed up; Josef could feel her sobs shaking her body. What the hell had her father been thinking of, going up against Karl like this? Could have got the girl killed.

Karl was finally done showing off. He smashed the bruised and battered Leonardo to the ground, prised his fingers open and took the watch. Gabs dragged the artist to one side of the stage as Karl turned the device over and over in his fingers. Then he smiled up at the TV cameras, took a stance directly in the centre of the stage and crushed the watch in strong fingers, letting the broken remnants drop.

Josef let out the breath he’d been holding. The audience gasped, the Princess whimpered and Leonardo cried out as if it had been him broken.

Karl looked up towards the judges. “I think,” he said, coolly, “you’ll decide that was the most fucking incredible thing that you have ever seen. Won’t you?”

They looked at the rule book and they listened to the King pleading with them, but Josef knew the outcome was never in any real doubt. Bruised, battered and empty handed, Leonardo was nothing any more. Karl had won everything; the Princess, half the kingdom and the whole damn game.

Chapter Text

"Negotiations" took a couple of hours. Not that much actual negotiating was happening. Karl laid down the rules, Josef and the other boys lounged around looking menacing and the Royal family fought a hopeless rearguard action until about 3am, when the King finally gave up and agreed to everything.

The Royal Wedding was scheduled for two days later. Long enough to give it a veneer of respectability; there would be time to organise bunting and silk dresses and flowers and everyone of any importance in the Kingdom would be there. Soon enough that neither the King not the Princess could have any realistic hope of reprieve. Signatures acquired on documents, official press statements made, Leonardo securely incarcerated and it was finally time to go home.

A manically high Karl led them dancing through the quiet streets, jubilant. Bins got kicked over, windows broken. Gabs skewered an unwary cat with a neat cast of his bootknife, slit its throat to stop it screaming. The town's humans had more sense than to show themselves.

Josef was tired and appallingly anxious. Breaking things was some temporary relief; he picked up a stone, took out a street light. The others joined in and for most of the half mile out so to Karl's place they took it in turns to hurl cobbles upwards, jeering each time someone- usually Stefan- missed, and leaving darkness in their wake. For a few minutes it seemed like everything might still be OK.

Then they reached the manor gates.

"Who's coming in?" Stefan asked Karl. They stayed en masse, sometimes; there was more space in Karl's spare rooms than in their own building. But though Karl wanted them a unit and close to him in daytime, the night was usually a different matter. Invites-orders- came in ones and twos.

"All of you, for the next couple of nights. Someone out there might just be desperate enough to try something. All," he paused, looked at Josef, "five of you."

The boys quietened. Mikael was standing next to Josef, shifted away.

"Get the staff to fix you some food and beds. Sleep off the vodka tomorrow morning, no drills. Tonight was some fucking weird shit, boys, but we won."

Grins back, for that. And for the promised break: Josef for one was bone-weary, and hungry with it. Karl hadn't finished, though.

"Josef. Upstairs."

He nodded, heart sinking, walked away from the others without a glance back to see if they watched him go.

Karl was a long time coming up to his room. Josef stood, shifting his feet occasionally on the thick pile carpet, looking around at the heavy brocade furnishings. Eventually the boss walked in without a glance at him, stripped his black jacket and shirt off and tossed them over a chair. Half naked, he washed his face and arms in the sink, then rolled smoothly onto the bed and contemplated Josef.

"What the fuck am I meant to do with you?"

Josef assumed an answer wasn't expected. He stood at attention, waiting.

"How long you been here now?"

"Five weeks."

"Five weeks. How many men have you killed for me?"

Josef did a quick tally. "Six on my own, another two with the others. Another two probably died later. Ten?"

"You enjoy it?"

Josef had no idea what the correct answer was, so he fell back on the truth. "I like being good at what I do. Getting more skilled- that's satisfying. Actually killing- that's work. It's not fun."

"Right." Karl kicked his boots off. "You were doing OK. You work hard, you learn fast, you follow orders, you don't lose control. I had no problem with you until two days ago. Now, I have to discipline Stefan for lying about beating you up, Vlad decides you're challenging him and he runs off and gets himself killed, Gabriel watches you like fucking Christmas has come early, and you quarrel with Mika. Mikael, for fuck's sake. No-one else gets under Mika's fucking skin, cept you. Going to pick a fight with Rikard next, collect the set?"

"I didn't pick any fights," Josef said plaintively. "Things just happened."

"What's fucking happened, Joe, is that you have made a right fucking mess of my people. Vlad wasn't the smartest fucker and he could be a vindictive son of a bitch but he knew his fucking job and he had enough fucking sense to keep in with the seniors. You capable of that, Josef?"

"I am trying. Honestly." He met Karl's flat stare.

"No, you're not. You've been stomping around full of "don't touch me" fucking righteousness since the boys laid into your precious hide."

Josef had to defend himself. "I don't want to get walked over, is all. I let it all pass, what happens next time?"

"Oh, you're getting walked over all right, Joe, and you're sulking like a bloody girl about it. You didn't watch Vlad's back and I can't trust you to watch Stefan's or Mika's. I ought to put you down now before the rot goes any further."

Which was clear enough, what stakes Josef was arguing for. He took a deep breath.

"I can fix this, Karl. Give me a chance. I was wrong, but I can fix it."

"How're you going to do that, then?" Karl's eyes were cold. Josef had no real idea.

"I guess I'll talk to them," he tried.

Karl shook his head. "No-one wants to listen to you right now."

"You could talk to them. Tell them."

"Tell them what, Josef? What's your fucking message?"

Josef tried to figure out the common thread in everything that Karl had said. "That I'm junior. That I've got respect for them. They're the pack and I'm part of it."

Karl smiled, satisfied, "Knew you were smart, when you forget to be so motherfucking stupid. Take your shirt off."

As Josef was unbuttoning the sweat stained garment Karl climbed off the bed and opened a drawer.

"Were you planning on spending the night anywhere in particular, Josef?"

"Gabs said to come to him. If I'm free, of course." He was watching the short whip now in Karl's hands, heart racing.

"You got a problem with that?"

"No."

"Good. You start off with Stefan, you go down in strict seniority order, you end up with Gabs. Turn round."

Five burning strokes laid across his bruised skin. As punishment went Josef guessed it was pretty nominal. When it was done he reached for his shirt but Karl stopped him.

"Boys should see that. I doubt if any of them have any use for your clothes tonight anyway. Tomorrow they tell me if they think you're worth keeping. You've got one night to sort this. Go on. Scat."

Two minutes later Josef was knocking on Stefan's door, heart in his mouth. Stefan pulled it open, stared at him, clearly just woken.

"What the fuck do you want, Josef?"

Josef resisted the urge to launch into an explanation. They wouldn't listen, Karl had said. He pushed past Stefan, politely, dropped to his knees on the carpet.

"You're senior, Stefan. You got a use for me, anything, tonight."

Stefan walked round behind him, silent. Eventually he spoke,

"I got worse than that from Karl, because of you."

That was not in Josef's view even remotely his fault. He stayed quiet, head bowed.

"Mind you I probably earned it. You any good at blow jobs?"

"I guess. You want?"

Stefan wrinkled his nose, shook his head. "God no! Bunch of perverts, you lot. Just checking. Get up, get out." And, as Josef climbed to his feet, "We're good."

Josef nodded, grateful.

Mikael berated him at length about the mess he'd got into. Josef listened, knees chafing on the rug, agreed. Promised to take notice next time he got good advice. Mika finally shook his head.

"Still off to Gabs tonight?"

"After Rikard, yes."

"Huh. Well, you'd better get going then. I told you we'd have a bed and the whole night next time. Don't make a liar out of me."

Rikard looked thoroughly discomforted by the whole thing. "I got no problems with us, Joe. Can I please get back to sleep now?"

The sky was light by the time Josef knocked on the last door.

"Come in." Gabs was sitting on the bed, naked. All muscle; Josef had seen it all in training, saw it afresh now. He wondered whether he should kneel. Telling Gabriel he could do what he liked seemed a little superfluous.

"You did Rikard quick." Of course the boys had been talking.

"He wanted to sleep."

"Yeah. Sounds like him. You here because Karl told you to?"

Josef straightened his spine, head up. "I said I'd come."

Blue eyes regarded him. "You did. Do I get the full grovelling act?"

"If you want."

He smiled at that, first time. "Nah. Anyone touch you tonight?"

"Other than this?" Josef reached round to brush fingertips over his inflamed back. "No."

"Good." Gabriel's hand dropped between his own legs, rubbed lightly. Josef tried not to stare.

"Juggler, huh? Most stuff's at home, but we can improvise."

Josef's mouth was dry. "OK."

Gabriel picked up his knife and ripped a strip off the sheet he was sitting on. "Here."

Josef took it, smoothed it out between thumb and finger.

"Eyes?"

Gabriel nodded.

He tied the band neatly around his head, tugging the knot tight, skin prickling. The room seemed colder now that he couldn't see. He and Gabriel were pack, he told himself.

The mouth hard on his was completely unexpected. Gabriel's hands cupped around the back of his skull, holding his head in place. He opened up to the forceful tongue, feeling the shiver down his spine, his balls tightening. He'd thought men didn't kiss each other. Neither Karl nor Mika had shown any interest in anything but their cocks. His own hands curled around the man's waist, moved lower, but Gabriel pulled away before he could reach anything interesting.

"Clothes."

Josef was rather proud of the hardness of his erection. Gabs wouldn't think him intimidated, or reluctant. Far from it. He stood blind and naked, anticipating.

A hand ran slowly up his cock, squeezing along every inch, and he suppressed a gasp.

"Not that easy." Gabriel's low voice sounded amused. The sound of a key turning; the opposite direction from the corridor, and a hint of fresh air. This room would open onto the long first floor balcony at the rear of the house. Josef tilted his head, listening to the dawn birds.

"Over here."

He headed towards the voice, hands spread in front of him. The frame of a door and the next step was out onto tiles. He lowered his hands to find the balustrade in front of him, rested his palms on the flat marble.

"You stand up on that?"

The balustrade was a good eight inches wide, and flat. Normally he could run along it. With his eyes covered... not run, but standing would be easy enough. He pulled himself up to kneel on it, not needing sight to know the blank space beneath him, then up and sideways on, his toes and the balls of his feet flexing against the cold marble.

He could hear Gabriel shift around in front of him. Warm hands touched his feet, lightly, stroked his ankles. Josef spread his arms a little wider in response. Fingers shivered up his calves, pressed harder against the inside of his thighs and he swayed slightly, caught himself. If he lost his balance Gabs would grab him. Probably. If he protested, Gabriel would stop. He really didn't want Gabriel to stop.

Because there was the touch on his balls that he'd been anticipating, the slide of fingers up his cock, dizzying up here where he couldn't afford dizziness. "Fuck" he muttered, concentrating on the marble under his feet, the tiny shifts of his weight back into alignment. He could do this, override the sensations with a juggler's focus, and he did it, right up to when Gabs abandoned the play of sure fingers in favour of an all-out assault.

"Fuck!" Breathless and overwhelmed, his focus shattered, for a second he no longer knew whether he was upright or not, just that the mouth around his cock was hot and wet and working him in exactly the right places. Another second and he'd reorientated, caught his balance again, adrenalin coursing. Knowing exactly where Gabriel's head was gave him the security of a known grab hold point; he could start to relax, really enjoy it.

His voice was almost a wail as Gabriel pulled away. "Don't stop!"

"Wait." Then footfalls away from him and silence. A couple of minutes later Gabriel's voice from behind him. "Hands behind your back."

"I can't do both," he said, very reluctantly. Blindfold, pinioned and trying to stand still; he couldn't be sure of it. He hated to say no to Gabs, particularly right now, but he wanted to fall fifteen feet blind even less.

"OK. Hands first and I'll take the blindfold off."

For a moment he thought about taking the strip off his eyes first, to be certain, but this wasn't about certainty. This was about offering his wrists to be bound behind him, rapid and forceful, with barely a couple of seconds to doubt before the band was yanked off his eyes.

Now he could see. A significant way down to the grass on one side, two feet to the tiled balcony floor on the other. He twisted round so that he could spread his feet a little, could jump forward onto the right side if necessary. Balance was more difficult than with the blindfold but at least he could see the dangers now.

Not all he could see. His own erection, flushed and damp, and Gabriel's shorter thick cock up at what from his limited experience seemed an impressive angle. Gabs was smiling, watching his look.

"What do you want me to do to you now, Joe?"

God, that voice. And that question. With the memory of the man's hot mouth still making his cock ache; the answer was obvious. Because fuck knows if it would ever get offered again.

Josef took a breath, trying not to shake. "Kiss me again."

He must have overstepped some sort of mark, because the smile instantly disappeared. Shit. It didn't get any better when Gabriel switched from scowl to snort of amusement.

"You did ask!" Josef said, indignantly.

"Fuck no, not laughing at you, man! Just remembering Mika fussing around you like one hard shag would shatter you to pieces. But you're having the time of your life, aren't you?"

Josef hadn't thought of it quite that way, having being mostly concerned with not falling off, but the man had a point. Gabriel's games might be dangerous but his touch was electric. This was better than Karl, better than Mikael. Better than women.

"Maybe," he prevaricated. "Kiss me again and I'll decide."

This time they stood together on the wide rail, Gab's fingers tight on Josef's bruised hips, his own hands still tied behind his bleeding back. The dawn had given way to proper daytime and Josef could hear a lawnmower coughing into life. He turned his head to see a bit of the lawn. No-one there, yet. Please God let the others sleep in. And Karl.

Then he forgot them, because Gabriel was kissing him again, their bodies touching everywhere from thighs to mouth, and all he wanted was more. He was pretty sure that the noises he was making were undignified, and God he wanted his hands back but everything else was close to perfect. Except for the fifteen foot drop of course. Gabs might as well have been on solid ground for all the notice he was taking of their surroundings.

"Still sore?" Gabriel had pulled back.

He wasn't going to stop now. "No. It's fine."

"Huh." Hands slid across his arse, pulled him apart. A finger pushed firmly inside him and he convulsed about the sheer agony.

"Liar. You're fucking bruised to hell, Joe. I can't believe I let fucking Mikael have you first. Fucking senior shit. I should have fought him for it."

"Yeah. Cos more fighting would have made Karl even happier." Josef commented, sourly. That finger had hurt and he didn't know if either of them were going to get off if Gabs couldn't fuck him.

Gabriel scowled at him again, fingers tightening around Josef's rear as he started rutting harder against Josef's bare stomach. "If Karl's all over your back it's your own fucking fault, Joe."

"'s Vlad's," Josef muttered. Staggered backwards, barely keeping his footing, from a shove to the chest. "Hey!"

"You wouldn't put out for him. Why he hit you." A statement.

"Evil tempered bastard. Why should I?" Another push. "Fuck, Gabriel, don't! Rikard doesn't, why the hell should I?"

Gabriel was cold. "Had been me, you'd have been bleeding. And Karl would have turned a blind eye next day too."

He shoved Josef again, backing him precariously along the balustrade."Play favourites when you've been here longer than five minutes, Joe. You don't rub anyone's fucking nose in "everyone but you" and not expect trouble. Understand?"

"Yeah." When Gabriel was pissed off, you didn't argue. Josef couldn't help a small complaint, or possibly explanation. "Wasn't like this in the Army."

"Fucking right it wasn't." This time Gabriel's hands pulled Josef back towards him. "Karl's rules; just him and us and you got no choice about him. This set-up's a world of fucking trouble if you play it stupid." His erection pushed hard into Josef's stomach. "Tris got killed back last autumn. First two replacements didn’t make the grade. You're third and you're balanced on the fucking edge. Don't expect anyone to catch you, Josef."

Josef was pushed backwards, hard. He retreated a couple of steps, was shoved again, and again, staggering back step after step, no time to regain his balance. Push after push, three or four feet every time. One foot slid over the edge of the marble and Josef's heart stopped, but Gabriel didn't; another shove to his chest and Josef twisted, trying to swivel back from the edge on his one remaining foot, toppled backwards and crashed off the railing onto the balcony floor. His shoulder hit tiles first and then the back of his head impacted with a sickening jolt. He lay still, eyes closed, half stunned.

A door sliding. "What the fuck is going on?"

"Joe fell off." Gabriel didn't sound particularly apologetic. "Got any lube, boss?"

"Josef?" Karl's voice was sharp. "Josef! He hit his head, Gabs?"

Josef dragged his eyes open. "'m OK."

He really wasn't. His shoulder, still pulled back by the rope around his wrists, hurt like hell, his head felt like his brains had been jolted out of it, and the stripes across his back were burning fierce. But if Karl thought him weak... Josef tried to roll onto his side, managed only to scrape his back further as nausea rose.

"You been trying to kill him?" The question was flat.

"Just having a bit of fun." Gabriel's hands dragged Josef over by the damaged shoulder. Josef might have passed out slightly because next thing he knew his arms were loose and the pain in his shoulder was slightly less. Shakily, he brought his hands underneath himself, pushed himself up onto his knees, then collapsed forward and threw up.

"Concussion." Karl said. "Get him inside."

"I can take him back..."

"There's a bed six feet away. Put him on it."

Bleeding into Karl's coverlet, head thudding, Josef could do little else but listen.

"You tied his fucking hands, Gabriel, got him up there. Did you fucking push him off as well?"

Gabriel's deep voice. "I wasn't going to let him fall the wrong side, Boss. Was only a couple of feet down. He landed bad, is all. Bad luck."

"What you got against him, Gabs? This about Vladimir?"

"No!" Gabriel's voice stronger, in protest. "Boy's worth a dozen of Vlad. He's just figuring things out. I was making a fucking point, is all."

"And your dick had nothing to do with it?"

Gabriel snorted. "Should have seen his. He fucking loved it. Till he hit his head. You know I always keep to the rules, Karl, but you gotta admit none of the others are much fun. I’ve been waiting for this.”

"Second time in two fucking days you've half-killed him, Gabriel. I'm on the point of getting everything I have worked for all my fucking life and you're breaking my fucking tools. I needed six of you tomorrow and now I've got four. I've got no time for this. You don't touch him again until I say otherwise."

A silence.

"You got something else to say?"

"Who screws who's always been our business, Boss." Rumbling, discontented. "Mika's had him."

"Fucking hell, Gabriel, what has got into you? You fucking arguing with me about this?" Karl’s voice held disbelief and a hint of anger.

"Just saying. Bit rough on the boy, with no-one but Mika, I got no-one to fuck but Mika too. Going to make things awkward. But you make the rules, boss."

"I'm beginning to fucking wonder if I do. Get the others in here. Now."

As the door closed Karl's face appeared over Josef. "You awake?"

"Yeah," He managed to push himself up to sit against the back of the bed.

Karl shook his head. "I am completely fucking baffled about what to do about you, Joe. What were you doing up on that fucking railing anyway?"

"We were just screwing around. Kissing, mainly."

" Really?" Karl looked sceptical. "He didn't fuck you?"

"He said I was too sore. Guess we'd have done something, but I fell."

"No wonder he's pissed. You want him to leave you alone?"

"Fuck, no!" Josef said with feeling. "I want to finish this up. Soon as my sodding head stops hurting."

Karl stared at him for a moment or two. "You made up with the others?"

"Yes."

"Mikael got anything to complain about?"

"Mika'll get what he wants. I got no problem with that."

"You got a problem with me, Joe?"

"Fuck, no. You're the boss. I'm good with whatever."

"OK. On your feet."

Josef managed that somehow against the screaming protest from the back of his skull. Karl didn't seem to mind that he was holding onto the bedpost, still naked, when the others came in.

Karl didn't give them time to ask questions. "Stefan. Josef in or out?"

Stefan looked at Josef briefly, seriously, them back to Karl. "In. But he needs to remember his place."

"Mikael?"

"In." The look he gave Josef was all worry.

"Rikard?"

"In."

"Gabriel?"

Gabriel's eyes caught Josef's, and he seemed to pause for far too long. "In. And I intend to be."

"You left him like this!" Mika snarled. "Keep your fucking perversions away from him in future, Gabs or we'll see you never get a turn."

"Boys!" Karl's voice was sharp. "I have spent far too much fucking time on this tonight already. Josef, you have a problem with any of the boys, you talk to Stefan, get it sorted. That's an order. Stefan, this is your fucking shit to deal with, not mine. Deal with it. Mika, keep your fucking nose out of Gabriel's business. Gabs, I pay Joe to work for me, not to fuck you. You do anything again that stops him working, there will be real trouble. All that understood?"

Nods all round.

"Good. Gabriel, take him back to your room. Carefully; boy's still concussed. Don't let him sleep. Get the doctor to sit in with him when you’re done. Rest of you, find some breakfast. We’ve still got some serious shit going on, remember?”

 

Josef collapsed thankfully on Gabriel’s bed. The walk down the corridor had been difficult.

“Here.” He sipped the proffered glass of water, took a deep breath. Gabriel was frowning again.

“Boss doesn’t usually change his mind that fast. What did you say?”

Josef struggled to get his thoughts together. “Said I wanted this, that’s all.”

“Huh. You look like hell. I’m not going to sit here and hold your fucking hand, you know.”

Josef managed a smile at that. “Got Mika for that.”

The frown deepened. “He’s just looking out for you.”

“I know that.” Josef was slightly surprised. “I like Mika. I just don’t need looking out for.”

“I pushed you off that rail.” Gabriel reminded him.

“I fell badly. Bad luck, you said.”

“You believe that?”

Josef tried to shrug, winced in pain. “Does it matter? I’m here.” His eyes closed, suddenly exhausted.

“Don’t sleep.” Gabriel’s weight hit the bed beside him. Josef felt too heavy to respond.

“Wake up!” A sharp pain in his neck; Gabs had bitten him.

“Ow! OK. I’m awake!” He wasn’t, not really, but maybe Gabs would let up.

“Bed’s too comfortable. Outside.”

“What?” His head hurt and he still felt sick. The bed felt like the best thing that had happened to him for ages. But Gabriel was dragging him off it, out to the balcony again. “You want me to climb up there again?” Didn’t seem like a good idea to him.

“You can’t even stand!” Gabs was scathing. “Going to be lying down.”

Josef let himself be tugged up against the balustrade, pushed to sit on it. Even in his increasingly dazed state he wasn’t sure this was a good idea. “I fall, Karl’s pissed.”

“You can’t fall. Not unless I do, and I’ve got more fucking sense than that. Lie down.”

Lying down sounded good, even on the cold hard marble, even with his back sore. Josef did so.

“Now, you awake enough to suck some dick?”

“Sure,” he said, agreeably, closed his eyes. Gabriel bit him again.

“So I’m going to have to do all the fucking work. You owe me for this, Joe. You start snoring halfway through, I will kill you.”

There was a warm body directly above him, hands pulling his knees up and apart and a hot tongue investigating his genitals. It was very pleasant, he thought, dropping back into a doze.

Fuck! His arse was on fire! A satisfied voice from down by his thighs, “Thought that would wake you. Going to keep this finger here, stop you drifting off. Any time you want to reciprocate, go ahead.”

Gabriel's heavy cock was in his face, rubbing against it, balls soft against his forehead. Gabriel's mouth had taken him in, finger twitching occasionally to keep the bruising sharp. Josef was more awake now; he tried running his tongue over what he could reach, bringing his hands round to grip the man's arse.

Grabs shifted up a little, pushing his cock into Josef's willing mouth, and yes, that was all pretty good, apart from the nausea. Josef did his best, and at the other end Gabs was doing considerably better and that finger was starting to feel pretty good. Getting close; he started bucking his hips up, hunting more friction, and Gabs responded by going harder and faster on his cock until he came in flashing lights and his head thudding.

Too faint to move, he lay there with his mouth still full of twitching flesh.

"Sod this." Gabriel pulled free, climbed over him, reinserted himself, this time with wiry hair pressed against Josef's face and thighs on either side of his head. Now every time he thrust Josef got a throatful of hard erection, which was either going to kill him off or was hot as hell or possibly both; he was out of air with the threat of vomit choking him and about to start seriously struggling when Gabs pulled back and he felt warm ejaculate across one cheek.

"For fucks sake, Gabs! Take it indoors, will you?" A voice from the lawn; Stefan, Josef thought.

"Had to keep him awake," Gabriel called back. "What's for breakfast?"

"It's all gone."

"Better fucking well not be. Down in five."

Josef had rolled off the balustrade, was throwing up the watery remains of what was left in his stomach onto the balcony. A warm hand landed on his shoulder.

"You OK?"

"Sure," he managed, retched again. "Good. Get your breakfast."

"Throwing up; that's the knock to the head." Gabriel didn't sound entirely sure of himself. Josef thought he'd better do something. He spat out the last mouthful of sick.

"Get me water?"

Gabriel fetched the glass from the bedroom.

"Thanks." He rinsed out his mouth, spat, then drank the rest and stood up, rather wobbily, wrapped his arms around Gabriel's neck and kissed him. Whoops from the lawn below; seemed the others had joined Stefan. Josef had to break for air almost immediately; gasping and dizzy, he stuck two fingers up at the spectators, felt Gabriel, pressed against him, laugh.

"Come down for breakfast, Joe. You don't want to be stuck up here with the fucking doctor all day. Boys will keep an eye on you. Can trust us."

And for the first time since he arrived, Josef thought he probably could.

Chapter Text

The barber's clippers ran swiftly over Josef's scalp. Around him the others were dressing in the formal black suits that the Kingdom's best tailors had spent the previous day fitting to them. Not quite morning dress; something of Karl's devising that showed off hard biceps and solid thighs and gave them the freedom to move if there was trouble.

They expected trouble. No-one in the Kingdom wanted this marriage, except Karl. The five of them were all there was to make sure that Karl got his bride, and his half kingdom, without a hitch.

Barber stood back. Josef ran a hand over his fuzzy scalp, nodded, and the man left them alone.

They looked good. Karl had an eye for this, as for everything else. Close shaves, high collars; not high enough to hide the discoloration on Mikael's neck, though. Mika saw him looking, grinned, knowing hand to the red mark. Had been a good night; him and Mikael, slow and experimental, until Karl had turned up looking for company, and then it had got energetic and downright filthy. He'd slept like the dead afterwards, woken to Mika's hands on him and barely ten minutes to get each other off before they needed to be down for breakfast.

Josef flashed a smile back at Mikael, looked around for his shirt.

"Here." Scooped across Gabriel's arm.

"Thanks." He stretched out a hand, paused, puzzled at the lack of response. "Gabs?" Looked straight into those brilliant eyes and his stomach turned over, heart speeding as nothing the previous night had quite made it do.

"Come here." Gabriel jerked his head. "We'll see if you dress up well, Joe."

The chatter and movement in the room had paused.

"Okay." He came up close to the other man, felt Gabriel's warm fingers pulling the black silk cloth around him, straightening out the sleeves.

"Cuff links." Gabriel turned one wrist and them then other, threading the silver delicately through the buttonholes.

Josef turned around as Gabriel held up the jacket for him, caught Mika's expression, watching them. God knows what he saw.

"There." Patted down, turned around; Gabs' eyes flickered over his face, down his body. "Looks hot, doesn't he, boys? Don't let the Princess jump your dick, Joe, or Karl'll be pissed."

Josef nodded, swallowing, tried a smile at the room. "We done here?"

"Yep. Let's go see if the blushing bridegroom's up yet." As they headed for the door Josef saw Gabriel glance over to Mikael, and what the hell that look between them meant Josef wasn't going to begin to guess.

 

There were a lot of people come to watch Karl win. None of them looked like they were going to try to stop him. The boys split up as planned; Karl and Stefan to lounge around at the altar, Gabriel and Mikael back to the palace to check the royal procession was doing what it was told, Josef and Rikard to wait at the door of the cathedral. They didn't have much to do, except to smile nicely at the latecomers, which seemed to result in a great deal of rapid scurrying.

"Think things will be different, when he's married?"

Rikard frowned, thinking. "Quieter maybe. Till he's knocked her up, anyway." His toe ground into the stone step. "Quieter would be better. Though way you're going, maybe you don't agree."

That was criticism, from Rikard.

Josef shrugged. "Karl wanted me to keep in with the boys, didn't he? I don't mind it."

"Don't bullshit me, Joe. Keeping in with Mika, maybe. And if you like what Karl does; well, luck for you, I guess, cos he'll do it anyway. But Gabriel...fuck, Joe, have you any idea what you're getting into there? The way he looked at you this morning; how you going to get out of that one without bloodshed?"

Josef felt suddenly hot; God, he was blushing! Pray Rikard didn't see that! "Maybe I don't want out. I got no problem with Gabs being around."

Rikard shook his head. "Listen, Josef. I've been here a hell of a lot longer than you, or Gabriel. I've seen the mess when things get far too fucking intense, and I'm telling you to back off Gabs. I'll tell him that too, and if he won't listen to me then the other two will tell him louder. Screw each other all you like, but stop fucking looking at each other, at least in front of Karl. He won't tolerate it; will turn bloody nasty, fast. Show some fucking sense, Joe; back off now."

For a moment Josef felt elated, then sense returned.

"It's not like that, Rik. He's just bored with Mikael, after a bit of novelty. Heard him tell Karl."

Rikard snorted, sceptical. "And what are you after, Joe?"

"Same as everyone else. Keep in with the seniors, have some fun, earn what Karl pays me. Nothing more."

He didn't find out if Rikard believed him, because the Royal procession had just come into view; outriders on horseback and then the golden coach pulled by six white horses. The crowd was cheering, that being what crowds did, however inappropriate the occasion. The coach drew up at the cathedral doors, the footman opened the golden door and the Princess emerged.

"Fucking hell! He's going to murder her!" Rikard muttered. Josef could only agree.

Karl had insisted on control over everything about this spectacle, and the bride's dress had been no exception. Josef had been there when the boss had gone through patterns and illustrations with the Kingdom's top designer. Silk and pearls, golden embroidered thread, a train a full twenty foot in length, a low cut bodice and a demure veil of the finest lace. As far as Josef could tell, his instructions had been followed to the letter. Unfortunately, Karl had somehow failed to specify one crucial detail. The dress, the veil, the train and the garb of the handmaidens currently gathering it up were all dyed deepest funereal black.

The stupid, stupid woman. Provoking Karl right now, of all times. Didn't she know what sort of hell he could make her life once he was her legal husband? Not just her; all their lives would be hell if Karl thought he'd been humiliated. Josef stepped forward, and she turned to face him, surprised.

"Get the fuck back to the Palace and change, Princess!" he snarled. "Claim the damn dress got stained, anything. He'll be pissed off but he'll wait."

Her chin went up, arrogant. "Get out of my way, thug."

"You got any idea what he'll do to you, for this?"

"He can only kill me, and that would be far better than the fate which awaits me tonight."

Josef stared at her, disbelieving. Fucking royal histrionics. Could she really be so stupid? "Of course he won't kill you. He can do a hell of a lot worse than that. The bloody marriage won't be so bad; just keep your head down, do what he says and try to keep him happy; you'll be OK. And change that fucking dress!"

She glared at him. "Run back to your master, dog, and tell him I'm not frightened by his posturing rent-boys."

Josef lost his temper at that point. He'd been trying to do the bloody girl a favour. "Yeah, well maybe you should remember that Karl's got five posturing fucking rent boys. Better hope your bed tonight is big enough, Princess."

He had the slight satisfaction of seeing her face go white before she tugged down the black veil and swept past him into the cathedral. He'd tried, most he could do. The girl would learn, soon enough.

Gabriel and Mikael had arrived in a car following the coaches. Josef waited at the entrance arch for them. "You were meant to fucking sort this sort of thing, guys! What the hell happened?"

Gabriel shrugged. "Switched on us. Neat fucking job, too. We nearly chased a girl in a white dress half way across town. " He didn't seem too bothered.

"Karl's going to be livid!"

Mikael shook his head. "Wanted the Princess here, she's here, Daddy's here, on time, everything. He'll be too busy today to get mad at us over a fucking dress."

"Yeah, right." Josef was deeply unconvinced. "We'd better get in."

The Princess was halfway up the long aisle, moving with slow, stately paces, hand in her father's hand. Karl was watching her, smiling. His nice smile, the one for show. Josef had absolutely no idea what he was thinking.

The ceremony went without a hitch. The Princess stood quiet by Karl, sang all the hymns, listened to the archbishop droning. Most of the sermons had rather more to do with Karl's new status than his actual marriage, but no-one complained.

Josef sat in the front row with the others, bored as hell. Long time since he'd last been to church; it hadn't got any more fun. Music was pretty, he supposed, although the beat underneath was a bit odd; almost sounded like the fucking clock. Karl would be pissed at that too, if he noticed.

Hard not to notice because the beat was getting louder, no longer part of the music. People were starting to look round. Karl flicked a glance at the boys; sort it. They stood up, quietly, started to spread out, hunting.

Echoes in this place were weird, but it was definitely coming from the front. Under the altar table, maybe. Josef had a seriously bad feeling about this. He made his way unobtrusively over to Gabriel.

"Where's Leonardo?"

"Chained in the palace dungeon. Checked before we left, and I've got the only fucking key. It's not him."

"Think there's another one?"

"Yeah. Better shut it down before everything goes fucking crazy again."

Too late to keep things subtle; they charged the altar, ripping the cloth off, turned the table over. Nothing, except the ticking, loud enough to be mocking. Josef glared around, trying to figure out who was to blame. Not the archbishop, who was cowering. Not the Princess, stiff and motionless. Tick, tick; he turned back to the overturned table, saw the glow above it coalescing into a clock face. Fucking hell! He sent a knife snapping through the vision, saw it flash and vanish. Larger now, the clock, and larger, and it couldn't all be happening again because Karl had broken the sodding thing; he'd seen it.

A shimmer and there were people, coming out of the face. Three astonishingly beautiful women; half naked, making for Karl. He threw himself in front of his employer and they walked straight through him. The damn ticking was deafening. They had Karl, were taking him back; Gabriel grabbed one arm, he seized the other but the women pulled like fucking carthorses and nothing was slowing them down. Karl was struggling and swearing. Mika stabbed one of them, knife went straight through, nicked Karl's arm. Three yards, two, one, and there was suddenly nothing in their hands any more, and the women were gone. Karl was outlined in the clock face, arms flailing, then was slowly, horribly pulled apart, limb from limb, head from body, until all the various body parts swirled around the clock face and everything disappeared. The ticking stopped.

Three heartbeats of silence across the whole crowded cathedral, then Stefan's voice, badly shaken. "Let's get the fuck out of here, boys! Now!"

It wasn't straightforward; there were people to fight past, doors to break down. When they finally got out of the cathedral precinct they ran through the confused crowds, heading for the town gates. Behind him Josef could hear the ugly noise of a mob forming, loud and vicious. He knew mobs; he'd organised a few. Gabriel was beside him; he had no idea where the others were. As they turned the corner onto the street with the distant gate he saw the crowd in front of it. No way out.

"In here! Here!" A door open; he recognised the woman's voice, grabbed Gabriel's sleeve and steered then both inside. The door slammed behind them.

"You can get on the roof, over the wall." The same matter of fact tone in which she'd announced the burgers ready. "Hurry; they're already outside." There was a man holding a meat cleaver in the room but he wasn't attacking or blocking their way. A small child stared at them, eyes wide.

They raced up the stairs onto the flat roof. The mob was noisy below. Josef pulled boxes and barrels to reach the wall ten foot above them, hissed for Gabs to help, but Gabriel was staring down into the street that they'd left.

"They've got the others."

"Shit!" Josef dropped a carton, took a look. There was fighting down there now and black shirts in the middle of it. One man went down, and then a second.

Gabriel turned round to the top of the staircase, where the woman held the child in her arms. Three paces and he'd seized it from her, was back at the roof edge, shouting down.

"Let them go or I'll kill the kid."

Its mother screamed. Her husband pushed past her, cleaver raised, charged towards Gabriel and Josef's knife took him in the side of the throat. Below, the crowd had quietened.

"Back off. Let them up here." Gabriel tossed the toddler into the air, caught it again by an ankle, dangled it inverted over the drop. Both woman and child seemed terrified into silence. Josef retrieved his knife from the body, wiped it clean on his shirt, automatic.

The crowd pulled away from the boys. Stefan was still on his feet, limping towards the door. The other two were motionless heaps on the cobbles.

Everything was still. Just Stefan running up the stairs.

"They'll come after us." Josef said to him.

"Paraffin in those bottles?" Josef nodded. Gallons of the stuff for the burger grill. "Tip it out. Quickly. We'll burn the fucking place." Stefan looked across at the woman. "I'd jump if I were you."

"Please don't let him kill her!"

Stefan shrugged. "Come on, Joe! Move!"

Seconds to spill the oil. Josef grabbed an open box of matches, gave Stefan a leg up onto the thick stone wall, was pulled up himself. "Gabriel!" He struck a match. "Now, Gabs!"

Gabriel tossed the child out into the crowd, turned and leaped up to meet Josef's hands. Behind him the woman threw herself off the edge screaming as flames engulfed the rooftop. They flung themselves down off the other side of the wall into the deep grass, rolled onto to their feet and ran full tilt towards the dark forest edge.

X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X X

 

He flew through the air, black space beneath him, spotlights bright around him. One, two, three and on the fourth beat his hands wrapped around warm wrists, the man's fingers solid at his own pulse points. Below him the crowd roared, the lights swung crazy patterns but all he ever had eyes for at that moment were the blue eyes watching him.

Josef twisted up onto the bar beside his catcher. "Hot tonight."

"I'm always hot."

"Talking about the fucking weather, Gabs. You're old and slow. Going to drop me one of these days."

"Got to find your replacement first, Joe. Six foot six, twenty years younger, can triple flick and give decent head; then I'll drop you."

Josef laughed, launched himself onto the trapeze again. Below the crowd shouted their fear, their approval as they did every night. No nets, no harnesses. Just him and Gabriel, up here above the world.

Afterwards he left first as usual, signed a dozen autographs "Johann", with a flourish. Gabs always stayed behind, checking the ropes, avoiding the crowds. There was Helga, the ring master waving him over to meet some overdressed dignitaries. Up here in the capital there seemed to be a different set every night to be polite to. He'd be glad to be out touring again next month for kids and peasants.

"This is Johann, half of our trapeze act. Johann, we have been honoured tonight to entertain His Majesty King Leonardo, from the Kingdom, and the Queen, with their grand nieces."

Josef didn't miss a beat, bowing politely. "Your Majesty." He couldn't quite believe this was happening. Not here, not now. No reason for the man to remember his face, surely, after all these years. Heart racing, drumming out the beat. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

"That was truly spectacular." The King smiled warmly at him, no hint of the awkward peasant Josef had remembered. No doubt he'd had a lot of practice. "We've a popular trapeze act with six men at home; the Barigas. Have you seem them?"

Josef shook his head. "I'm afraid I've never been to the Kingdom, Sire." He'd long since trained every hint of the accent from his voice.

Leonardo's attention focussed abruptly. "You're lying," he murmured, quiet enough that only Josef could hear. "The echo of my clock is in every move you made up there. Both of you; why would you lie?"

His eyes widened. "The right age; yes, I know you now. God! To stumble across you, out here! And the other one has to be Gabriel. Still together."

A dozen bodyguards scattered around the area outside the tent for the visiting monarch; Josef checked the urge to run, shook his head. "Twenty five years and a thousand miles away, Leonardo. Let it go." Fuck, please let Gabs be running by now.

The Princess- the Queen- had joined them, caught the last sentence. "Let what go?" She smiled at Josef, sedate, middle-aged. "Have we met? I thought your face seems familiar."

"I can't." Leonardo had no sympathy in his voice. "I won't. Justice doesn't grow old. Did you see the trials, Josef?"

The first had taken place while they were still running. Rikard had died back there in the street but poor fucking Mika had been scraped up from the cobbles, kept alive for just long enough to be swiftly, judicially hanged. Josef hadn't found out until weeks later.

Fifteen years later the discovery of Stefan living in the Democracy, his extradition and trial had turned out unexpectedly popular as reality TV here, a continent away from either country involved. He hadn't run nearly far enough. Josef had watched it night after night on cable, heartsick and alone; Gabriel would have nothing to do with it. The Kingdom claimed to have become morally improved in Leonardo's reign; Stefan wasn't executed, was still rotting in jail somewhere. His young and pretty wife acquired a publicist, spent a year doing the rounds of daytime TV and celebrity gameshows, married a footballer when the divorce came thorough.

"Show trials." Josef didn't look away from Leo.

"Justice done for all to see." The King licked his lips. "You weren't as complicit as the others though, were you, Josef? Barely more than a boy, abused by him yourself...if you co-operate the courts will almost certainly be lenient."

Josef had seen the evidence presented at Stefan's trial. He'd seen what Gabriel was claimed to have done in the year before he joined, had never doubted Gabs capable of it for a moment. No chance of leniency there. He wouldn't turn on his partner. He started to say so, was interrupted.

"To hell with co-operation." Josef stared at the Princess, startled. "This one was an animal, Leo. He should be put down, or at least locked away for life." Her voice was shaking with hatred.

What had he ever done to her? He'd done nothing but hold her- a sudden memory of her struggling in his arms, his unwanted erection pressing hard up against her arse. Was that it? A simple bodily reaction to condemn him? Oh God, and that fucking argument in front of the cathedral. Shit.

"This isn't the Kingdom," he snarled at her. "The Realm had no extradition treaty with you." It was why they'd settled here.

"Things are changing." Leonardo, cold. "There will be a treaty in place by the end of the year and you can be sure that it will be retrospective. Until then I'm sure the Realm can dig up enough to keep you both safe in custody for me."

He lifted a hand for his men. "Find and hold the other one."

Gabriel was still somewhere in the tent behind him, unless he'd spotted trouble already. Josef took a breath, loud as he could, "Gabs! Run!" Someone knocked him down; he stayed there, listening to the shouts from the other side of the canvas, as close as he'd come to praying since he was a child.

Then abrupt silence, and after a few heartbeats a babble of voices. A man came running back in, stopped in front of Leonardo.

"He jumped."

Josef's mind went numb. He didn't want to hear, but the man didn't shut up. "He was right up at the top; he jumped."

"Let me see him." He felt cold, hot..."Let me see him, Leo. Twenty five fucking years- I need to see him."

The King nodded. "Don't let him climb anything," he instructed. "Don't let him out of your reach. But let him see."

There was a figure in a green spangled leotard crumpled in the centre of the ring. The rigging here had been forty foot up. There was no rush. Josef walked slowly towards Gabriel, knelt down. Smoothed the fair beard, ran his fingers through the short, greying scalp hair, took up a hand still dusted with chalk, limp as Gabriel's hand had never once been in life. The blue eyes were open, empty. "You could have waited," he murmured. Louder, "You could have fucking waited for me, Gabs. I thought we were fucking pack!"

"You're the last one now." Leonardo with no hint of compassion. "The last of Karl's boys. One more trial and this is done for good."

Josef stood up, turned. The King and Queen were watching him. Stupid fucking...he and Gabs had been so sure they'd beaten them. Should have kept running. Safer if they'd split up; they'd known that, but he hadn't wanted to be on his own, and Gabs had somehow never got round to leaving him. Until now.

Long ago, a while after they'd settled in the Realm, some years before Stefan was hunted down, Josef had begun to believe that the past was dead. Irrelevant. They could just get on with their lives, now, like real people did, with no Karl over their shoulder, no killing people, not even breaking the law, just earning a living and living it. Then he'd got drunk one night after a meaningless quarrel with Gabs, ended up slouched in front of the TV watching some stupid documentary on the Kingdom. Half lies and full lies, not worth the hour of his time- he'd have not gone near it, usually- but they'd got a photo from somewhere of Mikael, after he'd been cut down. Real tasteless death porn stuff; the sort they only ever show of the bad guys. Clear in his fresh-shaven skin, the raw red abrasion of the rope and, blooming upwards into his jaw, the marks that Josef's teeth and lips had left, that one good night they'd had. Josef had known then that none of them would escape, not really, not even if they never got caught.

And now he had been caught, after all. Prison. A legal battle over extradition, to be inevitably lost, a long show trial dragging everything through the dirt again, a conviction, a sentence, life, probably, or decades at least. And all on his own. Fuck, if he'd been on that rigging he'd have jumped too. There were Realm police here now, with guns and cuffs; too late to make a break for it.

The first thing he'd learned from Karl was that entrances and exits mattered. He shook his head, slowly.

"Karl won that fucking competition, by all the rules. He should have been King. Under him the Kingdom would have flourished, become wealthy, powerful." He glared at the Princess. "And you'd be bringing your own grandchildren to the circus tonight, not someone elses'. Instead you're stuck in a barren marriage in a failing kingdom, obsessed with vengeance on straw men from your past. You think putting me on trial will give you closure? You murdered Karl and took his prize. He's going to haunt you forever. We all will."

The look on her face was something to take with him. They wanted to put him on show; he'd take the fucking platform then, tell the Kingdom some of the truths it didn't want to know. He was the last of Karl's boys, last of the pack, forever junior, but he was still a fucking wolf. Karl and the boys between them had taught him that. He'd do them all proud one last time.

Josef straightened his spine as the police cuffed him, tilted his head up. "See you in court, Princess," Goodnight, Gabriel. Night, boys. He had no need to look back at the body in the dust as they led him away.

THE END