"I am a fellow o’ th’ strangest mind i’ th’ world. I delight in masques and revels sometimes altogether."
-William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night
Louis remembered the day of his X Factor audition with perfect clarity. He remembered carefully crafting his illusion that morning, smoothing over his fae traits with human features. He remembered the excitement of it all, the thrill of mischief, the sense of pulling one over on all of them. He remembered a surprising edge of nervousness. He remembered the queue of other auditioners, full of anxiety and hope and bubbling energy.
Most of all, though, he remembered the boredom. He never did well with boredom. As a Cait Sidhe – a cat shapeshifter – his preferred response to a boring situation was to shift into his feline form, curl up in the cosiest place he could find, and nap until something interesting happened. For auditions, though, he had been stuck in a human disguise for hours in a seemingly-endless queue. He had reconsidered his plan a dozen times during those hours. He didn’t like to back down once he’d set his mind on something, though, and he didn’t like to quit. He had made himself stick out and get through to the audition and at least try, at least see if it was really worth it.
Five years later, he was back, this time on the other side of the judge’s table. It wasn’t quite as boring as being a contestant, but it came far closer than he expected.
Most of those auditioning were pretty good – they had already been screened several times to get to this point, so few were truly atrocious. He kind of enjoyed the awful ones anyway. They’d only been allowed this far to make for entertaining TV, which was probably cruel, but, well, he was a cat. He could toy with a mouse for ages. That wasn’t nice either, but it was fun. Toying with the bad contestants was much the same.
At least the bad ones were interesting. The good ones were mostly so bland. Sure, they could sing, but there was nothing special, no spark. Yawn.
All the judges were released on a break when something on stage broke and needed fixing. This sort of thing happened a lot in show business and was yet another factor in making the day as tedious as it was. Louis went outside for a smoke. It helped to pass the time in these situations, he found.
If he were a human singer, his smoking habit would be terrible. It was fortunate that he wasn’t human. Fae healed fast and were difficult to permanently damage. He could smoke two packs a day for the next two centuries without the slightest risk of cancer or emphysema. He didn’t even have to worry about his voice. As quickly as the hot smoke could damage his throat and vocal cords, his body repaired it.
He heard a door open and turned to see Mel B slipping out to join him. She held a hand out for a cigarette and he wordlessly passed her one. She took a slow drag, then said, “Looked at your notes for the next segment yet?”
“Yeah, of course.” Much of their dialogue was left up to them, as most of what got filmed would never air anyway, but they always had to memorise some scripted banter and notes on a few contestants who have to be passed or declined. “Who’s this Styles guy? He’s got the single most enthusiastic note for the whole day. What’s the deal?”
“They said his first audition was absolutely captivating. He just blew everyone away. Like, really just on a different level from everyone else. Honestly, it’s already a done deal that he’s getting through to the main competition.”
Louis raised his eyebrows. He wasn’t sure he’d ever heard of this level of attention in someone so early on. It almost made him wonder if the guy knew Simon or something – except, of course, if Simon knew and actually liked someone, he probably wouldn’t screw them over by sticking them with an X Factor contract.
It was unusual, and unusual meant suspicious. Louis was alert and wary, waiting for this mysteriously admired contestant, and that was probably the only reason he caught on in time.
Louis was on alert from the moment that contestant number 165998 came on stage. He was certainly cute, Louis would grant that. He had thick, curly, dark brown hair, bright eyes, and a jawline worthy of a marble statue. He was still growing into himself – at 18 years old, he was gangly and moved uncertainly – but he was clearly on his way to a stunning adulthood.
Simon asked the young man about himself. What he said was nothing groundbreaking – he was from a small town, it was his second time trying out, blah blah – but he was somehow the most endearing contestant of the day. With that exquisite face, that hair, and that sweet, awkward charm, there was no question that the lad had star potential. He’d either get people swooning or wondering how they could be more like him. It was all just potential, though. Louis didn’t know why he was such a sure thing in Cowell’s book.
Then Simon told him to sing.
Harry opened his mouth and every hair on the back of Louis’ neck stood on end. He could feel magic in the air, and it wasn’t the metaphorical magic of music.
His mind raced, assessing his possibilities in a split second. Magic in song pointed to one thing: there was a fucking Siren on the stage. The best way not to get caught by a Siren’s song was to not hear it all, but in a crowded room with half a dozen cameras trained on him, Louis couldn’t just plug his ears. He thought, well shit, and whispered a hurried incantation as the first notes issued from Harry’s mouth, as the first tendrils of his spell reached for them all.
This sort of defensive magic had never been a specialty of the Cait Sidhe. They defend themselves with claws and teeth, not with spells. His only hope would be if the lad weren’t as strong in his magic as Louis. The incantation rose and broke around him, the smell of his magic, sorrel and slate, in his nose. It felt like his ears popped and his mind was entirely his own again.
He let out a long, relieved breath as he studied the young man on stage who had the audacity to try to ensorcel the X Factor panel. It was a horrifyingly bad idea. Magic would get him through auditions, yes, but it wouldn’t work on the TV audience. Louis shuddered to think at what would happen when the producers realised that Harry’s impossibly perfect singing didn’t translate out to the viewers. The havoc Harry could bring down on all of them if or when his deception was discovered was appalling to contemplate. Louis couldn’t fathom what this kid was thinking. He had a lovely enough voice that he might have gotten through on his own. Taking a risk like this was madness.
The fawning smiles on the faces of the other judges made him feel sick. Did they hear Harry’s true voice at all, or did they just hear his magic telling them that he was amazing?
Louis was shaking with fury by the time the song finished, but he kept it together and smiled politely for the cameras. He couldn’t bring himself to gush over Harry the way the others did, but he gave him a yes vote, as he had to, as he was ordered. Harry left the stage beaming, and Louis was glad that the paperwork would keep him around, because they needed to talk.
The second they got a break, Louis was off like a shot, snapping at the production staff until someone told him where to find his prey. He was in a waiting room with some other contestants. They all gawked at Louis, nervous and excited. He could already hear someone saying, “oh my god, I’m your biggest fan,” but he ignored them all to point imperiously at Harry. “Styles. Come with me, now.”
“Erm, okay,” Harry said, all wide-eyed innocence that made Louis grind his teeth.
Louis lead him into a nearby office where slammed the door before rounding on Harry, snarling in a way that was not entirely human. “What the fuck do you think you were you doing out there?”
Harry stared at him. “I was just waiting for the paperwork.”
“Oberon’s balls, what were you doing on stage.”
“S-singing? I don’t—”
“Don’t bullshit me. Look, you don’t show up to the X Factor and use magic on the judges. Do I even need to explain why that’s a bad idea? What happens when you get on telly, and everyone’s wondering why the judges are going crazy over you, because the people at home are just hearing an untrained, pretty-good singer and the judges are acting like you’re the next Adele, huh? You’re going to get yourself killed and that’s the best case scenario, because the worst case scenario is you exposing us all. So cut that shit out right now. I’m not going to let this slide.”
Harry looked scared – as he should. But then he said, “I – I don’t know what you’re talking about, at all. Is this some kind of joke, or are…” He trailed off and swallowed visibly. “Are you, like, okay?”
It was Louis’ turn to stare. Either this kid was the best liar he had ever seen, or he genuinely didn’t know what Louis was talking about. If Louis weren’t so sure of what he’d heard and felt, he would have thought he was the crazy one. “Okay, you can’t possibly be telling me you don’t understand. Are you, what, a half-blood? You can’t have magic that strong and yet not have been put to the Choice. You can’t still be riding on your baby magic to keep you safe. Who are your parents?”
Harry shook his head wildly. “I don’t know what you’re saying. Choices and magic? You’re talking crazy. I need to go back out—”
“You don’t need to lie to me. I’m not human either!” Louis grabbed his arm to hold him and dropped his illusion.
Without the human veneer, his features were sharper, his chin and cheekbones more angular, his eyes an even brighter blue. What really gave him away, though, were his pointed, fur-tufted ears, and the tabby stripes in his hair, dark brown in a lighter reddish-brown field.
Harry shrieked. It wasn’t actually very loud, but—
Louis was alone in the office. The door was closed, and there was no trace of Harry. Shaking his head to clear it of a strange fogginess, Louis realised he just got walloped by a Siren. That definitely wasn’t a Banshee scream, or people would have come running. You really couldn’t miss a Banshee’s scream. His voice had carried his Siren mojo, though, a command of let me go! that Louis hadn’t been guarding against at all.
Shit, shit, shit.
Louis could only hope that Harry was too spooked and confused to tell anyone what happened. Well, he could also hope that he didn’t lose so much time to Harry’s scream that he’d be late returning from his break. He shot off a quick text, then braced himself to go back to judging. He actually hoped that this next batch would be boring. And short. It would be a big help if they could hurry this up.
The moment his work obligations ended, Louis all but ran out the door. As his driver sped him home, Louis started making calls. First, he called his assistant to tell her to find out everything she could about Harry Styles. He’d already managed a little sneaking around to get Harry’s home address out of his files, of course, but he wanted more. Next, he called his friend Niall.
“Well, how’s my favourite human impersonator today?” Niall asked in his smooth Irish accent.
“Been better. I’ll tell you all about it when I see you. Listen, I need to get to Cheshire fast. Can you help me?”
“Oh, I should’ve fuckin’ known. Typical. People only call you when they want something.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’ll make it up to you. I promise you a pretty crazy story, if nothing else. Meet me at my flat?”
“Sure. I’ll see you there.”
When Louis got home, he found Niall in his kitchen rifling through his cupboards. He wasn’t surprised to find his friend there. Niall was a Tuatha de Dannan, the race of fae who could open magical portals from one location to another. Locked doors were no obstacle to them.
“What’s up, L,” Niall greeted him without a glance, grabbing a bag of crisps.
“Yeah, help yourself. At least give me some.”
Holding the bag out to him, Niall said, “So, what’s in Cheshire?”
“An eighteen-year-old changeling who maybe doesn’t even know he is one.”
“Yeah.” Louis shook his head. “Siren. Tried out for X Factor today and fucking ensorcelled the judges and the audience. When I confronted him after, he seemed like he genuinely had no idea what I was talking about or what he’d done.”
“How is that even possible?”
“I don’t even know. And that pisses me off. I’m thinking, he’s probably being driven home by his parents right now, so if we gate there, we can get there first and snoop around. You know, figure out which parent is one of us and ask them what the fuck they’re thinking, for starters.”
Niall frowned. “Louis – I mean, I know the curious-cat stereotype exists for a reason, but… why? This isn’t your problem.”
“He’ll get himself killed if we don’t do something. You know that.”
“It’s unfortunate, but he’s a changeling and he’s not your responsibility.” Niall shrugged.
“He’s… You know we Cait Sidhe value our changelings. We don’t treat our children as disposable, any of them. And I know he’s not one of ours, but, come on. It’s not right, Niall. He’ll die just because someone left him ignorant of what he is. I don’t like that. And honestly, I want to know how someone gets to eighteen without being caught and given the Choice. Come on, Niall. I’ll go either way, but it’ll sure be easier with you, and do you really want to miss out?”
Niall rolled his inhumanly cerulean-blue eyes. “Okay, okay. But you’re going to owe me one.”
“You’re going to have to keep up a don’t-look-here on us. I can’t go that far all at once – it’s going to take a couple hops, and I don’t know that I can keep up an illusion and take us that far. And I don’t really know where we’re going so I can’t be sure I’ll pop us out someplace uninhabited.”
“I get it. And yeah, I can do it.” Louis was no Daoine Sidhe, but for a Cait Sidhe, he was uncommonly skilled at illusions and other visual spells. Holding a don’t-look-here for as long as it took them to travel was within his capabilities.
A don’t-look-here was a wonderful trick for navigating the mortal world. It didn’t actually disguise you in any way; it just made people want to look elsewhere and not notice you. If they stepped through Niall’s portal into the middle of a town, the most perfect human illusion still wouldn’t disguise the fact that they’d appeared out of thin air. With a good don’t-look-here, they could step through that same portal wearing their own Faerie faces and no one would spare them so much as a glance.
They quickly consulted a map to plan their route. Then, making it look as easy as breathing, Niall sketched a circle in the air and a shimmering portal appeared, showing a grassy meadow. “Well, that looks all right. Shall we?”
Louis stepped through first and found himself in tall grass near a stand of trees. He could see a distant jogger, but she wasn’t even looking toward them. He waved Niall through, who stepped over and let the portal collapse with a smell of oranges and hickory, the signature of his magic. “First one down,” Louis said.
“Yep. Just give me a minute and we’ll do the next one.”
It didn’t take them more than twenty minutes to get up to the Manchester area. Once there, they consulted Louis’ phone for a more precise location and Niall conured one last portal to get them close to Harry’s home. Louis soon found himself in a narrow alley, holding the don’t-look-here while Niall wove his human disguise, muting the vivid cerulean of his eyes, blunting the tips of his ears, and hiding the ethereal beauty of his Tuatha heritage.
“You’ve got human money, right?” Niall asked.
“Yeah, of course.”
“Good.” Niall held out his palm. “Give it here. I’ll be at the pub. Come get me when you’re ready to go. Don’t take too long.”
Louis sighed, more for the sake of appearances than anything else, as he slapped a small stack of cash into Niall’s hand. “If you go home with someone again and I have to track you down, I’m going to kick your arse. Just remember that.”
Niall grinned and breezed out of the alley without another word. Left in the stillness, Louis walked further back into the alley and probed the shadows. He could tell immediately that he wouldn’t have any trouble navigating the Shadow Roads – there must have been a local King or Queen of Cats holding the shadows open.
The Shadow Roads were a route open only to the Cait Sidhe. They couldn’t take Louis thirty miles in a single step like Niall’s magic, but a brief moment on the Shadow Roads could cut out several minutes of walking. In the cover of the alley, Louis shifted into his feline form, then leapt into the shadows.
He ran through the dark and cold for the span of what would have been a few breaths, if there had been air to breathe on the Shadow Roads. He emerged in the shadow of a tree, tall and proud in the late evening late before an elegant brick house.
A quick prowl around the perimeter revealed no cars, no lights in the windows, no sounds from the house. It was certainly empty of inhabitants. Eerily, it seemed empty of magic as well. Louis couldn’t detect a single ward or the slightest whiff of enchantment. A sense of unease crawled down his back, making his fur stand on end. This was wrong. Someone playing faerie bride and hiding a changeling should have been protecting themselves and their child. It simply wasn’t possible that they’d concealed themselves for this long without putting any effort into hiding.
The lack of wards did mean that he was free to go inside and investigate the home, though. It took a blink of an eye to hop into another shadow, and just like that, he was inside what appeared to be a perfectly normal mortal home. There were all the usual accoutrements, furniture and knick-knacks and tools. It was a nice home – they weren’t on the level of wealth to which Louis had become accustomed, but they clearly weren’t poor.
The house seemed to have only three inhabitants: Harry and, presumably, his parents. There was no indication that they were anything other than human. Louis fancied he was capable of performing a very thorough search, between the dexterity of his human hands, his cat-keen eyes and nose, and his own instinct for mischief. There was nothing: no scent of magic, no carefully-hidden spider-silk garment or fae weapon. Nothing.
He was rifling through the dusty attic with increasing desperation when he heard the crunch of tires and the rumble of an engine outside. He quickly put things back in order, shifted back to his cat form, and leapt through the shadows to stand outside and watch whoever it was approach the house.
Harry got out of the car first, cloaked in the soft shimmer, only visible to fae eyes, of his human glamour. Two middle-aged people, a man and a woman, climbed out of the front doors of the car. Neither was wearing an illusion. They both seemed perfectly human to Louis’ senses.
He sat back on his haunches and started licking his paw as he considered this. Harry was unquestionably a changeling. He simply couldn’t have two fully human parents. Perhaps they were both quarter-bloods, close enough to human not to need illusions – but, no. There was no indication that they were anything other than human. Perhaps one of them was a relative or a friend. They couldn’t both be Harry’s parents.
Louis began grooming his tail and considered his next move. After a few minutes, he had a plan. He couldn’t put it into action until later, though. For the time being, he reckoned he might as well track down Niall and enjoy the local pub.
Long after dark, Louis again prowled the perimeter of the Styles home. He watched the lights blink off one by one until the only window illuminated was that of Harry’s room, just as Louis expected. Any human teenager would likely stay up later than their parents. Harry was even more of a sure thing: the vast majority of the fae were naturally nocturnal. Harry probably struggled to fall asleep on the typical mortal schedule, just as Louis did, and was probably the last one awake in his household most of the time.
Louis darted through the shadows into Harry’s wardrobe. He took a minute to prowl around it and rub his cheeks on a few things, just because it felt right to follow his feline instincts. Then he let out a piteous low meow.
Moments later, he heard rustling and murmuring from outside the doors. It only took a few more meows before the closet doors opened, revealing a confused-looking Harry. “Oh my goodness. How did you get in here?”
Harry reached out toward him. Louis arched his back and hissed. Hands off.
“Sorry! Sorry, kitty.” Harry backed away a little and looked around. “How on Earth did you get in my room? Well, okay, let’s see if we can get you outside.”
Harry went to his bedroom door and opened it, looking at Louis expectantly. Louis hopped out of the wardrobe and explored Harry’s room briefly. He’d searched the place before, of course. He just wanted to make Harry wait a little and understand that he wasn’t the boss. Harry’s whispered repetitions of “here, kitty, kitty” soon annoyed him, though, so he primly made his way out into the hall and let Harry lead him slowly downstairs.
Harry held the front door of the house open, gesturing Louis through. “There you go, kitty. Not that I object to hanging out, but you probably want to go home or whatever.”
Louis meowed and butted his head against Harry’s leg, then walked in circles around the little foyer. He needed Harry to step outside. This wouldn’t work if he just left and let Harry shut the door behind him.
“What is it, cat? Don’t you want to go outside?” Harry cajoled. “Hmm. Maybe if I put something outside for you to eat.”
That would have been a fine way to let Harry get himself outside if Louis hadn’t spotted the sudden shimmer of a portal opening at the edge of the garden.
It couldn’t have been Niall – he was stationed on the porch. It had to be someone else, someone from the Divided Courts. Some other fae must have been at the X Factor auditions, or someone nearby had felt the magic. Someone else was here – and if any of them got to Harry before Louis did, they’d kill him.
It took a split second for Louis to realise all of this and make a choice. In an instant, he was back in his humanoid form and had a hand clamped over Harry’s mouth. Cait Sidhe could move very fast when they wanted to. “Shut up, don’t say anything, I’m saving your life. Niall! Get us out of here now!”
Niall stuck his head into the doorway. “What? This isn’t the plan, what’s going on?”
A booming voice intoned, “Give us the Changeling. Unhand the one called Harry Styles, cat. This is not your place.”
All three of them jumped, heads whipping around at the figures across the garden. There were at least four of them. One of them was carrying a long sword, unsheathed, its blade catching the moonlight.
Harry tried to say something, but he was muffled by Louis’ hand. Niall wasn’t so limited. “Oh, Maeve’s arse. Those are Countess Nelvania’s colours.”
“Get us the fuck out of here, Niall!” Louis hissed.
“Shit, oh shit.” Niall lifted a hand and opened a portal. The four other fae broke into a run when they saw it.
“Go go go,” Louis said in a rush, shoving Harry through with all his might and following hot on his heels. Niall was only an instant behind them, and he dropped the portal with a soft puff of hickory and orange smell.
“We’re so screwed,” Niall said. Louis had never heard his voice go so high before. “They saw us! They know!”
“It’s fine, Ni. We’re away from them. We just have to talk to Harry and straighten things out and then, you know, he can, erm, talk to them, and it’ll be fine.”
Whatever shock Harry was under had apparently worn off, as he started to struggle violently in Louis’ arms. He wrenched his head free and shrieked, “What’s happening? You kidnapped me! Who is he? Oh my god, what are you? What just happened?”
Niall managed to get his hand over Harry’s mouth while Louis held his arms. “Please calm down. We’re only trying to help. But, Louis, look, we don’t have time to talk. They’re going to follow us any moment now. We have to go.”
“How are they going to follow us? You took us through a magic portal, remember?”
“Yeah, and magic leaves traces,” Niall said, looking at him like he was an idiot. “Okay, I guess you don’t feel it, but to me, the place where a gate’s been is like… I don’t know, like footprints on the beach? Like, it washes away eventually, but you can follow if you’re quick enough.”
Louis stared. “So we do… what, exactly?”
Niall looked around. They were in a dark little stand of trees. “Okay, we’re gonna go over there, get a little distance, go through a gate. It’ll at least take ‘em a minute to find the path. ”
A few portals later, Louis had no earthly idea where they were. Niall, out of breath, said, “That buys us a couple minutes. But they’re still going to follow, Lou. And you know what’s going to happen.”
“No. I’m not letting it.”
“Please, just stop this,” Harry said plaintively. “Please let me go.”
“I wish I could explain why that’s not a good idea, mate,” Louis said, his hands around Harry’s wrists. “Come on, Niall, think. What can we do?”
Niall frowned. “Can you take us on the Shadow Roads?”
Louis breathed in sharply. Well, that was a hell of an idea. Could he? He’d never taken one person on the Shadow Roads, let alone two. It was theoretically possible, though. It might not be for the typical Cait Sidhe, but Louis wasn’t typical. He should be able to do it.
He took several deep breaths, centring himself, feeling out the shadows. “Okay. Yeah. I can do it. Fuck. Okay. Niall, when I say go, you’re going to grab my arm and you’re going to run along with me. Don’t let go of me and don’t stop, no matter what. Hold your breath and close your eyes and don’t lose touch with me. Okay? That goes for you too, Harry.”
Harry looked at him with wide, wide green eyes. “Nooo, no no no. I don’t know what this is but I don’t, no, I can’t.”
Louis grabbed him by the nape of the neck like a kitten and looked him fiercely in the eye. “You have to. Don’t fight it. Close your eyes and your mouth.”
Harry shook his head, and Louis shook him hard. He roared with all the authority that he had, “Do it!”
Harry let out a little whimper and closed his eyes.
“Okay, Niall. Grab my arm. Get ready.”
Louis could feel his magic gathering around him, power like a wave getting ready to break.
“Oh, oak and ash, they’re coming,” Niall whispered.
Louis let go of Harry’s wrists and leaned down to scoop him up, one arm along his back and one under his knees. Thank Oberon for the strength and agility of a Cait Sidhe. Then, he ran.
The shadows were never kind, not even to their masters. They were always cold and dark; they were never a place to linger. Still, Louis had travelled the Shadow Runs enough to have a sense of familiarity. A Cait Sidhe on a royal-maintained Shadow Road was like an experienced mountaineer climbing up a well-trodden path. The going wasn’t exactly easy, but he was comfortable with the effort.
Taking two people into the shadows – one of whom was actively struggling – was an entirely different experience. It was more like bushwhacking up a steep, unmaintained, boulder-strewn path. With fifty-mile-an-hour winds. While carrying a squirmy, full-grown half-Siren who couldn’t seem to decide whether to try to bite you or just curl up into you for warmth against the freezing cold of the shadows.
Louis cradled him close, wishing he could offer comfort, but there was no air in the shadows to use to make words. All he could do was run and try to keep them all alive.
For the first few seconds, he was simply running with no goal but to get as far as he could. Then, though, he felt a pull. There was a place that called to him, a place that knew him. There was no time to question it. He switched directions abruptly. Niall pulled hard on his arm – probably stumbling – but he didn’t lose him. There were long seconds in the darkness, then, burning pain spreading through his body, his lungs and his muscles screaming for air, and then there was light.
Louis went down hard on his knees, unceremoniously dumping Harry on the dusty floor. Harry pulled his knees up and curled into a stunned ball, shivering and gasping, eyes screwed up tight.
Niall alone managed to keep his feet. He drew in a few gulping breaths before asking, “Where are we, Lou?”
Panting desperately, Louis managed to look around. It was a small room, wood-floored and wood-panelled. Junk was heaped along the walls, indiscriminate stacks of chairs and cloth and trinkets all the way up to the ceiling. One pile had recently been scattered across the floor, disturbing the ancient strata of dust. It would be a hazardous and terribly appealing place for a kitten to play, as Louis knew well from experience.
“Well, Niall, we are, erm, in my mum’s knowe.”
Niall’s eyebrows shot up. “Your mum’s knowe. You don’t say.”
“Oh, did I not mention to you that my mother happens to be the Queen of Cats around Sheffield?” Louis said. His attempt at casual air was belied by the way his voice went high and tight against his will.
“You know what, I think you may have failed to mention that one.”