The thing is – Niall really loves books. He loves the smell of them, leather and paper mixing together to create a scent finer than any perfume or cologne out there. He loves the feeling in the turn of a page, rigid and flexible at the same time. He loves the way an entire world can be contained between the binding – the universes, the experiences, the lives – It’s a miracle, pure and simple.
A real miracle, mind you. Not one of the manufactured miracles that have become so commonplace since the Rupture. The kind that any neighbor or coworker with a bit of magic can unleash on the world. Real miracles are pressed between pages, written in ink, transcribing souls into a way that can be consumed and layered over the reader’s, transporting them into another existence. A real miracle lets someone be a hero, no matter who they are, or how they were born, or how they’ve been classed.
No matter if they work part time in a book shop, and in a café, and in a pub, and sometimes as an odd jobs man if someone in the village needs their hob or telly repaired.
That’s why, despite the fact that he can hear Ashton wrapping up his call with Calum, and knowing what it means, Niall’s body is reluctant to unfold itself from the way he’s become wedged into the corner of a couch that sags into the ground at the slightest hint of weight and groans angrily with even a breath’s worth of movement. It’s his little hidden away bit of paradise, a place where he can put his responsibilities on hold for a little bit and sink into someone else’s miracle.
“Your girl is getting impatient.” is what Ashton says as he comes around the corner, not bothering to hide the roll of his eyes at finding Niall reading instead of doing anything that resembles actually working. “If you don’t get home soon, Cal’s going to run away with her.”
“She’d eat him alive.” Niall hums, filing away the last bit of the chapter as he slips the book in his hands shut and places it back on the shelf where someone will probably see and buy it before he gets the chance to finish it proper. “He wouldn’t stand a chance with her in anything more than little spurts.”
“I know that, and you know that, but he just refuses to know that.” Ashton snorts. “Stubbornly optimistic, that one.”
“Better get home before he learns better then, yeah?” Niall chuckles, dusting off the back of his trousers. If he’d properly cleaned, like he was supposed to have done, then it wouldn’t be a problem. The look Ashton shoots him tells him as much. In Niall’s opinion though, a good book shop should be properly dusty. It adds an air of history and mystery that just feels right.
“That would probably be best for everyone involved.” Ashton says absentmindedly, focused on filing away some new acquisitions. “I don’t think I’d like seeing how that would turn out.”
“You gonna be okay if I head out early?” Niall asks, grabbing his bag out from behind the counter.
“Not sure there’d be much difference.” Ashton scoffs. “When’s the last time you did any work around here?”
“Who came in on Sunday and sorted that big shipment you got in from that estate sale while you sat and ogled your piano player next door?” Niall asks flatly. “Two hundred books I went through, with no help from you.”
“And how many did you nick for yourself before anyone else could go through them?” Ashton fires back, not missing a beat or the empty slot on the shelf he was slipping a book into.
“The list is on your desk.” Niall shrugs. “And you know they’re mostly for Molly, not me.”
“Yeah, yeah. Go get home to your pretty, little thing and leave me to get some real work done.” Ashton waves him off.
“See you tomorrow.” Niall tosses over his shoulder as he heads towards the door.
He doesn’t hear Ashton’s likely sarcastic response, too distracted by the body he just barely manages to avoid colliding with as he steps out onto the street. It nearly sends his knee out of joint, twisting away and slipping under the arm of the tall, brunet bloke who had opened the door at the same time Niall had reached for the knob. He narrowly avoids falling face-first into the cobblestones, stopped only by a precarious grip on the handle and the quick reaction of the stranger who’d caused the incident in the first place.
Niall mumbles out a quick apology, sheepishly darting his eyes away from the sharp angles of the bloke’s face, hearing a slurred together acceptance in a deep, gravelly voice that goes in one ear and out the other as Niall turns his attention towards the path home. The stranger disappears into Ashton’s shop and out of Niall’s head, so as to spare him any further thought of his embarrassment.
It’s unusual to see someone around the village that Niall doesn’t know once they reach this time of year, but not unheard of. It’s not so unusual as to merit any consideration. After all, the town’s main source of revenue is in tourism, a bank of cabins dotted along the coastline attracting the sort of people who want to believe they like the country, because they only spend a couple of weeks there during the summer hols, in fully furnished cottages, cooing at the locals who play along with the condescension because an arsehole’s money is as good as the next person’s.
Most of the tourists have gone, though, disappearing as quickly as the leaves from the rowan trees that litter the lanes in the commercial district of the village with the first chills of autumn. Some people like that, though. There’s always a few stragglers or latecomers that like to avoid the clutter of a crowded village when they take a break for themselves from the chaos of their daily lives. People who like the solitude, who like the grey in the sky and the rush of a chilly wind pressing, cold and insistent, on the fabric of the jumpers and scarves they bundle up in.
Niall thinks, under different circumstances from the ones he’s found himself in over the course of the years in his life that have felt too few and too many all at the same time, that probably would have been him too. The sun is nice, and he’s never been one to shy away from crowds, but there’s something so free and open about a small seaside village like this once summer has faded into fall. Like the rest of the world doesn’t have to exist if you don’t think too hard about it.
Green sparks flare to life when Niall rounds a corner a few blocks from his house, quickly twisting themselves into the form of a dragon as some young bloke spots him with a grin and a bright sparkle in his eyes. A performer, trying to prolong his days of profitability in this little place before he has to move on to a bigger town, somewhere with more competition and fewer unexposed people who might be awed by his parlor tricks. He clearly thinks he can draw Niall in, the mandated beige color of his jumper a giveaway of his status and possibility as a mark.
Niall has stepped into the street before the wings can even unfurl on the creature, crossing to the other side of the road without a second thought. He has no intention of contributing to the lad’s delusions of grandeur, or encouraging him to stay in the village any longer than necessary.
“Well, fuck you too.” the lad calls after him, making Niall’s eye twitch, but eliciting no other outward response, until the added, “Fucking non-magicals.”
“You got a problem, mate?” Niall spits out harshly across the empty street, his body going rigid as he turns to glare at the lad.
“Yeah, actually, I do.” the lad says, stalking across the street. “I just tried to put on a nice show for you, and you can’t even be bothered to look. You cross the street, like I’m some kind of menace, out to hurt you. I’m just trying to make a living here, and the least you could do is appreciate it and drop a few pounds in the box.”
“I’m not interested in your show, and I don’t owe you anything.” Niall bites out.
“You say that, but I think you owe us a lot.” the lad smirks. “After all, this isn’t the S.E. You don’t live in a labor camp. We let you roam around freely. I think that deserves a bit of a tax.”
“You’re, what, nineteen? Twenty?” Niall asks, looking the guy over. “You’re young. Stupid. But I’m going to give you a chance to take that back and reform your opinion before you regret it.”
“And what’ll you do if I don’t?” the lad asks, stepping forward while the green sparks flare up again in both of his hands this time. They don’t take form, just jump around in electric arcs between his fingers, a simple shock spell. His mistake.
“Make you regret it.” Niall answers firmly, eyes locked with the kid’s.
A typical magician, the lad thinks with his magic before his head. He’s too cocky, reaching for Niall’s arm to remind him of his place, painfully. He doesn’t expect Niall to know anything about anything, because non-magicals don’t know anything in his mind. They’re laborers, commoners, inferiors. How could Niall possibly comprehend anything when he doesn’t have a spark of magic in his veins?
The real question, though, is how could this lad have survived this long while being so dense?
His hands are coated in sparks, but his clothes aren’t. His wrists and arms are covered in expensive fabric that he likely doesn’t want to char just to protect himself from someone he sees as beneath him, and that leaves him open. Niall is quick, years of training kicking his reflexes into gear as soon as he sees something coming at him. He grabs the lad’s arm after ducking under it, bringing his leg forward to sweep the kid’s out from under him.
In one fluid movement, he turns the magician’s weapon in on his own chest, connecting with the skin there and sending an electric pulse through him. He shrieks and collapses to the ground, not two seconds having passed since he decided he would teach Niall a lesson.
Niall crouches down, voice dropping low as he says, “A low-level magic user like you hasn’t got the brains or talent to be a threat to anyone. Remember that before you decide you deserve anything. And remember that there are a lot more of us than there are of you.”
The kid doesn’t respond, can’t, in his state. He’s too busy twitching and literally pissing his pants to have even heard a word Niall said. He doesn’t need to, though. Niall’s message got across just fine.
“Oh, look who decided to come home sometime tonight.” Calum scoffs as Niall makes his way into the sitting room.
“Sorry. Got a little caught up on the way home.” Niall says quietly. “Got you some muffins to take back to the shop, though.”
“You know the way to my heart.” Calum grins, catching the brown, paper sack that Niall tosses to him. “But you only get sweets when you’ve done something bad.”
“Just got into a little scuffle.” Niall shrugs, setting the bag with Molly’s favorite orange and cranberry scones on the table and toeing off his boots. “Reminded some arse that not all of us are livestock.”
“Niall.” Calum sighs out his name in a quiet reprimand. “You can’t just go around assaulting magicals.”
“’t was self-defense.” Niall mutters. “Bloke said I should pay him a tax just because I’m not in a labor camp, and tried to attack me when I told him to back off.”
“Well- I have nothing to say to that, then.” Calum hums. “We don’t all think that way, I promise.”
“I know.” Niall sighs. “I do know that. He just- Fuck, he pissed me off. But he also made the first move.”
“I’m sure he did.” Calum nods. “Let me guess, magician?”
“That bloke doing parlor tricks on Rose and Vine.” Niall tells him.
“Oh, I’ve wanted to teach him a thing or two before.” Calum smirks. “He’s gotten mouthy with Luke and Ash as well.”
“Well he’s probably waking up right about now, if you want to add in your thoughts.” Niall tells him. “I’ve got it from here. Give Luke my love. Not Ash, though. He’s been right grumpy.”
“He dropped Luke’s favorite teacup, so Luke’s been withholding contact.” Calum giggles in explanation, pushing himself up off the couch and heading for the door. “Drawn me in on it just so we can watch him twitch and take the piss out of him for it.”
“Not something I needed to know.” Niall scoffs, wrinkling his nose up.
“Don’t be bitter.” Calum hums, slipping his shoes on. “Your celibacy is showing. You know you’ve got an open invitation.”
“Shut it.” Niall groans, halfheartedly chucking a wadded-up napkin from the table at him, only to watch it flutter uselessly to the ground halfway there. “Innocent ears.”
“She’s asleep.” Calum says with a roll of his eyes.
“No, you aren’t, are you, lovebug?” Niall asks into the air, turning to look at the chunk of wall that hides the hallway from view. “You’re awake and listening to conversations you shouldn’t be, aren’t you?”
“Maybe.” comes a drawn out, high-pitched giggling response, accompanied by a head of messy hair and bright blue eyes peeking around. “How’d you know, da?”
“I always know when you’re up to no good.” Niall chuckles, opening up his arms. “Got a sense for it, I do.”
“Shit!” Calum hisses out, making Molly shriek out another giggle as she tears across the room into Niall’s waiting arms.
“Get going.” Niall says, shooting Calum a withering glare. Calum, thankfully, gives a sheepish wave to both of them and then disappears out the door, closing it behind himself. Molly settles into Niall’s lap, head resting against his chest, and he asks, “How much of that did you hear, then?”
“Just the last bit.” Molly admits, eyes already half-lidded now that she’s got her favorite pillow in the form of Niall’s body. “I have to move slow to get over there without you hearing.”
“Slowly.” Niall corrects her, shaking his head and pressing a kiss to the top of hers. “You have to move slowly.”
“What’s cell-busy?” Molly asks, grabbing the arm Niall hasn’t got around her back and pulling it closer to ask for a hug, to which Niall gladly obliges her.
“Nothing important, lovebug.” Niall chuckles. “Did you have fun with Cal?”
“Yeah.” Molly says around a yawn, fighting the steady increase of weight on her eyelids. “He helped me draw some pictures, and then we did a puzzle.”
“You’ll have to show me tomorrow.” Niall murmurs, hiding his smile in her frizzed-out hair, already a tangled mess from the ten minutes or so she spent in bed before she decided to sneak out and eavesdrop.
“Do you work tomorrow?” Molly asks, the words muffled by her own fist in front of her mouth, her go-to comfort position, even after Niall finally got her to break her thumb-sucking habit a couple years ago.
“Not until nighttime.” Niall tells her.
“Can we go to the shop and get a new book?” Molly begs.
“I just got you three new books.” Niall points out.
“I finished ‘em.” Molly tells him, making his smile grow even larger.
“Suppose we have to, then.” Niall agrees. “But now it’s time to get you to bed, lovebug.”
“I wanna sleep with you, da.” Molly says, breaking the spell of drowsiness just enough to look up at him with pleading eyes.
“How could I say no to that face?” Niall gives in, the urge to fight never crossing his mind.
“Molls.” Niall sighs, seeing the flutter of motion out of the corner of his eye while he stands at the hob, cooking eggs for their breakfast.
“I want juice.” Molly says simply, ignoring the disapproving look Niall shoots at her over his shoulder to focus on levitating her favorite teacup through the air towards herself. She hates tea, very like her mother that way, but she loves teacups, particularly the pink and gold floral one she’s got steadily moving through the open space between herself and the cabinet.
“Molls.” Niall repeats, more firmly this time. “If you want juice, you ask. You know better.”
“Nobody can see, da.” Molly replies stubbornly, fishing the teacup out of the air.
“Molly Elizabeth Horan, that’s not the point, and you know it.” Niall says through a sharp inhale. “You need to be more careful. You can’t just do whatever you want. If you do that in public-”
“Cal is magic.” Molly cuts in. “Why can he do it, and I can’t?”
“Because you’ll be taken away!” Niall snaps, shoving the pan of eggs to the back of the hob before gripping the counter to keep himself from turning around and scaring Molly with what he’s sure is a wild look in his eyes.
He can’t help it when it comes to Molly’s magic, when it comes to the possibility of her forced removal and education in some government run academy. Ever since her powers started manifesting, it’s been a constant fear, thrumming in the back of his mind and growing stronger with every display she puts on.
It has him cursing her mother nightly like a prayer, damning her magical genes for passing on, damning her for running off as soon as she could and leaving him alone, with no preparation for raising a child, let alone a magical one.
They were supposed to be in this together. That’s what they decided when a fling a few weeks old, between a first year uni student and a professor’s assistant, turned into a stick with a little pink plus on it.
Niall decided to do the right thing. Niall decided to drop out of university and get a job to support their child and try to make a proper go of it with Barbara. Things hadn’t been easy during the pregnancy, what with his parents disowning him and them not even really knowing each other at first. But they’d fallen in love over the course of those months leading up to the birth. They’d fallen in love.
That’s what Niall thought, anyways, until he woke up in the middle of the night to a screaming baby, an empty spot where Barbara was supposed to be sleeping, and a letter on her pillow that was shorter than the notes she’d leave in the margins on the papers she’d graded, explaining why she’d abandoned Niall and Molly.
It hadn’t been perfect. Niall knew it wasn’t perfect. He was young, but he wasn’t stupid. They hadn’t meant to turn into anything more than some occasional sex for stress relief. They fought pretty hard after she’d told Niall that she was pregnant, and at the same time telling him that she didn’t need for him to be involved.
Those memories haunt Niall to this day, the question of if she would still have abandoned Molly if she’d gotten what she said she wanted and Niall hadn’t been involved. That Molly could have grown up in some orphanage with nobody to love her, nobody to protect her.
She would have been adopted, without question. That’s a no brainer, considering she’s magical, and more than just a magician. Molly is a witch, and would have been taken in by a family shortly after her powers manifested around two.
Niall remembers the day clearly, couldn’t forget it if he tried.
He’d been in a mood, out of diapers and out of money and out of sanity.
When Barbara had left, she’d given one present to Molly. There was a necklace that she’d been wearing ever since Niall met her. A gold feather medallion on the end of a leather cord. She’d worn it in the class he’d accidentally sat in on for a full lesson before realizing it wasn’t even his course, too mesmerized by the girl behind the professor, eyes sharp and smart, without any questions of who really knew more, to care about the content of the lecture.
She’d worn it through their first date, when Niall had bumbled through the conversation until it became obvious that she thought he was about as bright as a blown-out lightbulb, and he’d decided to prove that, despite his non-magical status, he wasn’t a fool. She’d worn it the first time they slept together, hanging on her naked chest while Niall quaked with nerves from the first time he’d ever done more than kiss someone else.
She’d worn it through the labor, squeezing it in one hand while she nearly fractured Niall’s fingers with the other until the doctor had said that Molly would need to come out surgically.
Apparently, she’d thought it was funny to cast a spell on the necklace to make it the same for their daughter as it was for her. It couldn’t be removed from Molly’s person, at least not permanently. It could be taken off over her head, but would return to her instantly, teleporting itself onto her neck again. Niall had tried over the years to find some way to get rid of the thing, worried that it could choke her in her sleep, and also not wanting the painful reminder every day of Barbara’s disappearance, but nothing had worked.
Calum, the only magical person that Niall let know about Molly’s existence, hadn’t been able to do anything more than Niall had.
That hadn’t mattered that day, though. The necklace, dangling from Molly’s neck as Niall carried her around the room, trying to find anything he could wrap around her bum long enough to take her to the shop and beg Ashton for an advance on his pay, had caught on his arm and scratched him so hard he’d nearly dropped Molly.
He hadn’t slept in days, and hadn’t thought about the fact that the necklace would just pop back into place when he’d taken it off over her head and thrown it at the wall. He hadn’t thought about the fact that Molly wasn’t a baby anymore, and had a tenuous grasp on understanding emotions, both hers and Niall’s.
She’d started wailing, and Niall had set her down to give himself a moment to calm down, handing her a stuffed bear, her favorite toy. The necklace had popped back into existence around her neck before he could even put her down.
He’d been turned away from her, standing in the corner with the heels of his hands digging into his eyes and a wail of his own trapped in his throat, when he felt something soft rub against his back. He’d nearly jumped out of his skin at the contact, and only managed not to sprint away in complete panic because his knees had given out at the sight when he’d turned around.
Molly’s bear was nudging up against him, hovering in the air while she waved her hand at it while making the same face she had as a baby when she was letting out a particularly hard poop.
When she’d managed to grunt out, “Da, burr,” he’d known that she knew exactly what she was doing, that she had meant to do it, and that his entire world was changed with no way back.
It’s been four years since then. Four years of panicking over every use of her powers. Four years of dread coiling in his stomach at every question she had. Four years of hiding her so that she isn’t taken away from him.
“Da?” Molly asks, her voice quiet, but close, pulling Niall out of his head as a tiny hand curls into the hem of his shirt. “What do you mean?”
Niall sighs and crouches down next to her, taking her hands in his own while he looks her in the eyes and says, “If people know you have magic, they’ll take you away to somewhere I’m not allowed to go so that they can put you in a special school.”
“Why?” Molly questions, her eyes going wide.
“Because your magic makes you very special.” Niall murmurs, giving her hand a slight squeeze. “But that means that the other people who have magic too want you to think like they do. They want you to be just like them, and that means they won’t want you near me, because I’m not like them. I don’t have magic. I’m not special, and that means that they don’t think I’m good enough to be your da.”
“You’re special to me.” Molly mumbles, taking her hands out of Niall’s and slipping them around his neck to hug him tight. “And they’re stupid, because you’re the best da.”
“You can use magic here in the house, lovebug.” Niall says softly into her hair. “I won’t – I won’t yell at you for it again. I promise. I’m sorry that I did. I just need you to be careful about using it. Don’t do it when the windows are open, because someone could see. You can’t let anyone know except me, Cal, Luke and Ash. We love you, and we’ll keep you safe.”
“Okay.” Molly says, nodding against Niall’s chest. “Da?”
“Yes, lovebug?” Niall questions.
“I want to go to the café for breakfast.” Molly says, pulling back and pressing a kiss to Niall’s cheek. “Your eggs are rubbish.”
Niall can’t help but laugh before he digs his fingers into Molly’s sides and wriggles them around, making her shriek in his revenge before he agrees that muffins and cocoa would be a much better breakfast.