"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.”
Joan, Queen of the Court of Wandering Cats, had been born Jeanne, just another kitten in the court at Dijon. Early on, she had shown unusual strength and soon displayed all the signs of being a Princess of Cats.
Most of the fae lineages worked like mortal ones did: a king or queen had a child, and that child would be king or queen after them. Simple. No guarantees that anyone involved would be smart, wise, just, or sane, but it seemed to work in the long run. Sometimes a king or queen died; sometimes they were deposed in a war or murdered; but often, power in the Divided Courts changed hands just because a King or Queen got bored. Ruling was work, after all, and there was no sense in staying in charge forever when forever was literal.
The Cait Sidhe were different. Simply being the offspring of royalty meant nothing. Being a Prince or Princess of a cat didn’t just mean you were born in a royal bed – it meant had you had unique powers and strengths, the strength that was needed to rule a race of cat-people. In theory, any Cait Sidhe could be born royal. On the flip side, Princes and Princesses usually weren’t the children of their Kings and Queens. The rulers of the Cait Sidhe didn’t produce their own heirs; they had to search for them.
When Joan was born, the court at Dijon already had a Prince. That meant one heir already to assure continuity, and one threat already to the reign of the existing King. King Archambault didn’t want her around. Instead, he’d discreetly found another Court that needed an heir and packed young Jeanne off to it.
Joan had taken the throne of her Court fifty-odd years ago – violently, as most Cait Sidhe rulers do. Since then, she’d been a good queen, firm but fair, even kind when she could get away with it. Twenty-five years ago, she’d simultaneously cemented and threatened her reign by giving birth to an unprecedented litter of five healthy kittens.
Many Cait Sidhe counted themselves lucky if they managed to produce even two kittens. Five was just showing off. If that weren’t enough, two of them had later turned out to be royal. Joan was a living legend after that, which was a pain in the neck as far as her children were concerned. Louis loved her very much, but his life would certainly be simpler if his mother weren’t the Queen. It made things complicated, and this situation was complicated enough already.
Louis’ first impulse was to just leave as if they’d never been there, but then Harry started coughing up blood.
“Oh, Oberon’s balls, did you try to breathe in on the Shadow Roads?”
Harry shrugged miserably. He coughed again and moaned, a sad, broken sound.
“I told you not to,” Louis said softly, rubbing Harry’s back and trying not to look at the spatter of blood droplets on the floor. “I’m sorry. The cold’s hurt your throat, I suppose. You’ll heal. I don’t know much about Sirens specifically, but fae in general heal more quickly than humans, so I reckon you’ll be all right soon. We should try to get you something for your throat, though… Shit.”
“There’s a healer here, right?” Niall asked.
Louis winced. “I mean, not as such. We only have Cait Sidhe in our courts, and we’re not a race with any gifts in healing magics or potions. We’re all right at stitching each other up after we fight but that’s about it. Mum should have some stuff that we’ve gotten from other courts, though. The thing is, we’re not exactly supposed to bring outsiders here, plus, I’m, er, not really supposed to just drop in either.”
“It’s complicated. Look, can you two stay here while I go get someone?”
Niall looked at Harry appraisingly. “I reckon I can handle it.”
“Harry, you should know that you literally can’t get out of here without me or Niall. We’re in… it’s sort of like another dimension. Just sit tight for a minute.” Louis patted him on the back one more time, then stood.
It took a few minutes, but eventually he found a few cats lounging in a room that looked like a turn-of-the-century pub. It probably had been one, once, before it was lost and then absorbed into the Cait Sidhe knowe. The cats all blinked at him lazily when he first appeared, then quickly snapped to more attentive postures.
“Hey, can somebody bring me one of my sisters? Find me in that junk room over by the ship’s galley. They’ll know it if you don’t. Nobody else, okay, just my sisters.”
One of the cats cocked her head at him inquisitively. One hissed. Louis rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know they’re going to kick my arse. If you bring me one of my sisters, you can probably watch.”
He turned and walked out of the room. As he did, a black cat streaked past him, darting in front of his ankles in a move that would have tripped someone who wasn’t also a feline. He rolled his eyes. Arthur had always been a shithead.
Harry didn’t look much better when Louis got back to the storage room, but at least that meant he hadn’t tried to fight Niall or anything. When Louis heard approaching footsteps, he went to meet them in the hallway. It wasn’t just one of his sisters. It was all four of them – Charlotte, Félicité, Desirée, and Fabienne – and their mother.
Joan was regal no matter what form she took. At the moment she stood on two legs. She was petite and beautiful, with long hair that grew in bands of black alternating with a slightly coppery dark brown. Her face was pale and set in a frown as she took in the scene before her. “Oh, Louis. I can’t imagine that there’s any acceptable explanation for this, but I suppose you’d better try.”
Harry tried to speak, but all he managed was a scratchy squawk followed by another coughing fit.
“What’s wrong with him?” Fabienne asked. Joan shushed her.
“Erm, okay, long story short, I discovered this 18-year-old changeling who had no idea that he even was one, and I was trying to figure out how that happened and maybe tell him some stuff, but then Countess Nelvania’s people came for him so we ran, and, er, now we’re here. I really didn’t mean to come here. I just ran, and when I came out of the Shadow Roads, here we were. I – well, Harry’s hurt now, so.”
Charlotte said, “Titania’s tits, Louis, what were you thinking?”
Joan sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Language, Charlotte. But, yes. Louis, you know you shouldn’t have brought them here.”
“And you know that I can’t give you shelter. Any of you.”
“I know,” Louis said, quieter.
“You’ve brought a fugitive into my knowe.”
Joan rolled her eyes. “Louis. You brought a fugitive into my knowe. Now, I’m not obligated to tell Countess Nelvania, but there’ll be bad blood between us if she finds out. That’s trouble that I don’t want. You have to leave before anyone sees you.”
Louis bowed his head. “Yes. I know.”
“Oh, Louis.” Joan sighed. To his surprise, she stepped forward and folded him into a tight embrace. She held him for a long time. Before finally releasing him, she whispered, “I love you very much. I’d keep you here if I could. We miss you.”
“I miss you too, Mum,” he whispered.
Stepping back, she shook her head. “You could pick up a phone once in a while, you know. Well. Desirée and Fabienne, you two guard this corridor. Don’t let anyone see them before they leave.” She moved with regal grace to exit the room, but paused at the door, looking back with a raised eyebrow. “Félicité, perhaps now is a good time for an inventory of our medicine stores. I do think we may have overcounted the supplies of that Welsh licorice root tea last time.”
As soon as Joan left, the girls crowded around, hugging Louis and peppering him with questions. Louis hugged them back gladly, but the questions were ones he had to turn aside. “I missed you all so much too, but you know I have to go. I can’t stay longer than I have to. I’ll come back to visit after I get this all sorted out, okay?”
Charlotte punched him in the shoulder. “You’d better, you idiot. This whole thing is stupid.”
“Charlotte, it’s really complicated—”
“No, I mean this whole thing where we’re all pretending you can’t come home.”
“Charlotte!” Fabienne exclaimed.
“What? It’s just us here. Oh, whatever. Fine. Let’s go to our tasks, ladies. But if we don’t see you back here soon, Louis, I’ll hunt you down and gut you myself.”
Louis laughed as Charlotte flounced out of the room. The others followed in their own ways – Fabienne frowning to herself, Desiree smiling back at him, Félicité hurrying off and turning into a cat just before she disappeared from Louis’ sight.
As soon as the door closed, Niall piped up. “What the hell was that all about? I’m trying to figure out if you’re exiled or something, and honestly, I’m at a loss.”
Louis turned to see the two of them standing, watching, one of Niall’s hands on Harry’s shoulder. Louis said, “Here, let’s sit again. Okay, so, my mum’s the queen of cats around here, obviously. I’m a prince of cats and my sister Charlotte is a princess.”
Niall frowned. “Er, just one of your sisters? Not all of them? How does that work?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s kind of hard to explain. Amongst the cats, royalty is something you’re born with, but it’s not really heritable. Like, a prince or princess could be born to any pure-blooded Cait Sidhe. It’s actually really fucking weird that my mum managed to have royal kittens.”
“Okay, but what makes you royal if not being born to a royal family?”
“Yeah, that’s the hard-to-explain part. We’re just… different. More powerful. I don’t know that I’m really supposed to tell you about all of it. Anyway, I wanted to go do my X Factor thing, and it’s – well, someone who’s the heir just leaving their court isn’t really a thing. It’s weird. Makes it look like I’m trying to take over some other throne or something. So, we kind of put it around that me and Charlotte were fighting, and so I left slash maybe I was kind of kicked out because having two heirs around was getting too messy. It works because I’m not properly exiled; I’m still claimed by Mum’s court. Otherwise the Queen of the Court of Dreaming Cats in London wouldn’t let me stay on her turf, because then I’m a threat to her throne, you know? Well, you probably don’t know, but take my word for it.”
Félicité appeared in the door, human again, carrying a cup of tea. Louis accepted it to pass off to Harry before reluctantly shooing her out. “Okay, Harry, this should help your throat. So, you drink, I’ll talk.”
He sat down heavily in front of Harry with a little sigh and let himself consider the problem, and Harry, for a moment. Harry looked very pale. His hair was a mess and he had dark, bruised-looking circles under his green eyes. He looked delicate, lovely, and young. If the world were fair, it would be in his power to give Harry a cuddle and a comfy bed to sleep in, but the Fair Folk had never lived in a fair world.
Judging from the way that Harry was glaring at him, he probably wouldn’t accept a cuddle anyway. He set the cup down on the floor with a loud clack, without drinking from it.
Niall rolled his eyes. “Oberon’s balls, we’re not trying to poison you. We could’ve killed you way before now if we wanted to.”
Harry’s eyes went wide and he made a strangled noise of protest. Louis shoved Niall. “That is not bloody helpful, Niall. Harry, again, we’re trying to help you and we’re not going to kill you. Niall, take a drink and show him it’s not poison.”
“Me? Why won’t you do it?!”
“Eh, I just don’t like how it tastes.”
“You’re so annoying,” Niall said, but he drank from the cup anyway. “It’s not that bad. Huh, and it really does feel nice on the throat. Drink up, Harry.”
Harry took a reluctant sip, then another. He cleared his throat, winced, and croaked, “Explain.”
“Yeah.” Louis nodded slowly. “We have a little time. Okay. So, you are, I’m guessing, half-Siren.”
Harry shook his head. “’m not.”
“Okay, look, we’re the experts here. Niall, he’s wearing an illusion, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Niall agreed. “Pretty good one but obviously an illusion.”
“Yep. So, one of your parents was fae. And by the way, I’m kind of confused about that because both of the people you came home with tonight were human. They weren’t both your biological parents, right?”
Harry frowned. “Dad… died.”
Louis blinked at him with wide eyes. “That’s… I want to know more about whatever happened, but I guess that’ll have to wait until sometime when you can actually speak more than two words. Huh. Okay. So your father ‘died’ and didn’t teach you what you needed to know. Probably didn’t tell his family he was off playing house with a human” Louis sighed heavily. “Well, at least that explains why you don’t know anything.
“Okay, so here’s the deal with changeling kids. Well, any fae kids, I guess. We’re all born with some instinctive magic. If you grow up in the human world, even as a baby, you put an illusion on yourself to look human. It’s not anything conscious or that you control. It just happens. But at some point your baby magic fails, and then someone’s got to actually teach you how to use your magic and what it means to be who you are. I mean, ideally that would happen before your baby magic fails, but, yeah.”
Harry glared. “Not a baby,” he said, voice slow and scratchy.
“Hush. Obviously. And it’s weird that your baby magic apparently is still working. Honestly, it’s appalling that your father never taught you anything. How old were you when he, ah, died?”
“Hm.” Louis frowned. “Shit. I wish we knew some Sirens who could actually tell you something about what it means to be a Siren, but I don’t, and anyway…”
Niall nodded slowly. “What if we took him to Zayn’s?”
Louis raised his eyebrows. “Zayn’s? Really?”
“I mean, everyone goes there.” Niall shrugged. “If we were going to just randomly find a Siren, it’d be there, right? Plus, it’s just fucking cool. If I wanted to get someone to understand how brilliant it is to be fae, that’s where I’d take them.”
“Hmm. That’s an idea.” Turning to Harry, Louis said, “Zayn’s is… basically, it’s a fae nightclub. Every kind of fae you can imagine partying it up, and the place is amazing. It’s magical. Quite literally.”
“It’s like Harry Potter crossed with Moulin Rouge,” Niall said.
Harry huffed out a little laugh and looked surprised at himself. He covered his mouth with his hand like he was trying to hide his smile and said, “Wanna go home.”
“But you kind of want to see Moulin Rouge Hogwarts, don’t you?” Niall wheedled.
Harry bit his lip and didn’t answer.
Louis sighed, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. “Harry, look. It’s your choice. I know we can’t drag you kicking and screaming into a nightclub. I’m really sorry about, like, kidnapping you in the first place. We honestly just wanted a chance to talk to you before… those other people. We’ll take you home if you insist. But please, please come to Zayn’s. Honestly, if nothing else, you’ll get to see the coolest fucking place of your entire life.”
Harry cleared his throat, then winced, rubbing at it with his hand. Softly, he said, “Those others. They sounded… scary.”
Louis and Niall exchanged an uncomfortable look.
“They’ll be waiting for me? At home?”
“I mean. Yeah,” Louis said reluctantly. “Probably.”
Louis’ heart sank. If there were any question he didn’t want to answer, it was this one.
“We can’t exactly tell you,” Niall said. “But, for the same reason as us, when it comes down to it, I suppose.”
“But. You ran away from them.” Harry grimaced and rubbed at his throat again.
“You probably shouldn’t talk so much,” Louis said.
Harry ignored him. “Bad people?”
Niall raised an eyebrow. “Not exactly. They’re just following the rules.”
Louis snorted. “Yeah. Bloody rules.”
“Cats don’t have a lot of respect for rules, but even they know the limits sometimes,” Niall said, locking eyes with Louis.
“You Tuatha are so self-righteous,” Louis said without venom. “So, Harry. Back home to your boring bed, or should we take you to the best nightclub the world has ever seen?”
The car rolled to a smooth stop. Louis vaguely noted that the driver that his assistant had called for them was very good. They couldn’t see Harry’s house yet, but they were just down the road from it.
Louis’ stomach felt like it was tying itself in knots. He’d tried, he’d tried, but here he was, delivering this young man to his death. What else could he do? Kidnap Harry forever? Keep him locked up until someone finally found him?
No. He’d taken him away, he’d talked to him. He’d tried to get him to see. It hadn’t worked.
He’d hurt him and scared him.
“It’s not right,” he whispered to Niall.
Niall put a hand on his shoulder. “You have to let him make his choice. And his Choice.”
“Fuck.” He stared at Harry in the front passenger seat, stared at the little curls against the pale skin of his neck, at the sharp angle of his jaw. He’d never even see what Harry truly looked like, and that was so not the real tragedy here, but he felt stuck on the thought like fabric snagged on a splinter.
Harry eased the door open and stepped out of the car, but he didn’t step away. He kept a hand on top of the door and turned to look back at them. He stared for a long moment, then tilted his head quizzically. His voice was hoarse when he said, “You’re really not stopping me.”
“It’s your choice, man,” Niall said.
“A bad choice,” Louis muttered. “But still yours.”
“Okay.” Harry glanced down the street, shook his head, then folded his long body back into the car and pulled the door shut. “Okay. So how far away is this Zayn’s place?”
“Wait, what,” Louis said.
Harry shrugged. “Well, now that I know you’ll really let me go, I kind of want to see it.”
“Yes!” Niall cheered. He grinned triumphantly. He had spent half the car ride talking longingly and admiringly of Zayn’s – in roundabout terms that wouldn’t raise their human driver’s suspicions, of course – while Louis had sat in sullen silence. Perhaps, Louis realised, he hadn’t just been trying to annoy Louis to death.
“Are you a genius?” Louis asked.
“Of course I am,” Niall said, patting his shoulder before leaning forward to give the driver new directions. He beamed at Harry, who shot back a timid smile in return. “Haz, we are going to blow your mind.”
It was a long car ride, and made more tedious by the fact that they couldn’t speak openly in front of their hired human driver. Louis was a bundle of nerves – worried for Harry, excited to show him around Zayn’s, afraid of what would happen if he couldn’t convince Harry of what he was.
Niall seemed cool and calm, though. “Hey, H, do you like mythology?”
Harry frowned. “Sure, I guess. Why?”
“Oh, I’ve just been reading a lot lately. Old English mythology. You know that Shakespeare didn’t just make up Titania and Oberon, right? There’d been stories about them for ages?”
That easily, he was off, rattling off as much Faerie history and lore as he could fit in under the guise of a mythology lesson. Clever, clever Niall.
Louis let his friend take over while he dealt with some e-mails on his mobile. He had to cancel the studio session and the pap walk scheduled for tomorrow. Even if this Harry situation were resolved by morning – and he doubted that – it was a sure bet that Louis wasn’t getting any sleep tonight.
He was so distracted that he didn’t hear it when Niall murmured an incantation. He only noticed it when the world around him suddenly went all muffled-sounding like he was wrapped in cotton. He lifted his head and asked, “Huh?”
“Just wanted to talk privately,” Niall said. He held his mobile out to Louis and pointed at the map on the small screen. “We’re getting close, and really we should get out about here, but I reckon your driver would find it rather strange if we just walk off into a field.”
“Well, considering it’s the middle of the night, I don’t know if there’s any place we can get dropped off that he won’t find strange.”
“I was figuring we just have him leave us at the nearest hotel, then we sneak off and I open us a door to where we need to be.”
“Ah, yeah, that works.”
It wasn’t hard to avoid notice, as it was past 4 AM, the streets deserted. Soon they were standing on a small footpath somewhere far east of London. “This isn’t a nightclub,” Harry said. His voice was still scratchy, but it was markedly improved.
“This is how we get in,” Louis said.
Harry made a show of looking around them, taking in rustling trees, the rustic footpath, the small canal lined with sparse dark cottages. There was obviously no nightclub anywhere around them.
Louis rolled his eyes and went on. “Places like this, you can’t just open a door to, or take the Shadow Roads in. Well, I think technically you might be able to, or maybe it’s warded against that, but anyway, that’s not how it’s done. Everybody walks the same road to get in. That makes sure you’re really allowed to be there.”
“It must be far,” Harry observed. “I don’t see anything around here except houses.”
Niall grinned. “It’s impossibly far, and as close as can be.”
“Come along, young Harold,” Louis laughed, clapping him on the back and setting off down the path.
He knew the way well. Down the path to the house with the ugly pink flamingo out front, left down a tiny dirt track, over the bonnet of the rusting car into the garden between the yellow cottage—
“Louis!” Harry hissed.
Louis looked back at him. “Shhh, just follow.”
“You’re in someone’s back garden, though,” Harry stage-whispered back.
“This is how it works.” Niall pushed lightly between Harry’s shoulder blades. “It’s okay. Follow the path.”
Looking very worried, Harry crept along slowly. Louis continued on his way. Into the garden, circle the fountain twice, through the gate, across the bridge over the canal, up the little hill. Touch the rosebush – he had to point that out to Harry – then walk between the oak tree and the ash tree at the top of the hill.
There was a soft pop, a sharp smell of peppermint and soap, and then he wasn’t in a country field anymore. Instead, he was in a lobby that wouldn’t have been out of place in Las Vegas. The low-ceilinged room had glossy black walls and a plush black carpet underfoot. All the furniture was white; the tables were adorned with black vases holding flowers of a deep, striped purple that were clearly not of the human world. Pixies cavorted on the flowers, leaving sparkling pixie dust all over them. Also, the receptionist was a faun with the upper body of a beautiful curvy woman and the legs of a goat.
Harry appeared behind him a moment later and immediately sucked in a dramatic gasp that made the rest of them burst out laughing. “Hey, Louis. Brought a first-timer, huh?” the faun smirked.
“Yeah, Jess, this is Harold,” Louis said, still giggling a little. He dropped his illusion, as did Niall the moment that he appeared in the room.
“You don’t need to keep your illusion up, babe,” Jess said to Harry.
“He prefers to,” Louis cut in quickly. “He’s, uh, practicing his control and varying his illusions. But honestly, he doesn’t look that different without it anyway. Changeling.”
“All right. It’s definitely a faux pas, I’ll warn you, but it’s not against the rules.” Jess wrinkled her button nose and shrugged. “Your call. Well, FYI, some ice sprites are doing ice carving in the green room, although you can’t tell it’s green because they’ve covered most of it in ice by now. There’s a body-painting-and-pixie-dust party in the Hall of Broken Mirrors, which to be honest I recommend against because you’ll be finding pixie dust on yourself for weeks but it’s been very popular so what do I know. Last time I saw Zayn he was with some people flying kites in the Sky Room. Have you filled your newbie in on the rules or shall I?”
“Nah, I’ve got him. We’ll have to make sure we say hi to Zayn. Any Merrows here today? Or Sirens?” Louis asked.
“Oh, yeah, we’ve got a whole group from the Undersea visiting today. I haven’t noticed any Sirens, though. Sometimes we get a group of them on karaoke night.”
“There’s a karaoke night?!” Niall exclaimed.
“Yeah, it’s Thursday mornings.”
Louis bit back a sigh. It was only Sunday; he doubted they could keep Harry hidden until Thursday. “Well, good to know. See you around, Jess. Let’s go in, lads.”
A door, previously invisible, opened on one of the walls. Behind it was a bouncer, a massive figure with leathery-looking skin and hands the size of dinner plates, who waved them along with as much elegance as such a creature can muster.
“This is wild,” Harry whispered as they walk down a long, intricately-tiled hallway.
Niall laughed. “You haven’t seen anything yet, mate.”
They turned a sharp corner and abruptly the hallway opened out into an absolutely massive room. Harry stopped still. Chuckling, Louis had to gently steer him out of the way. There was a calm spot nearby that was always a good place to stand for a minute and take it all in.
Harry gawked, eyes wide, mouth agape. Louis couldn’t blame him. The first visit to Zayn’s could be overwhelming for anyone, let alone for a teenager who hadn’t even known that the fae world existed until a few hours ago.
The main room of Zayn’s was massive, easily the size of a football pitch. The wall behind the long bar was covered in plants, giant red and blue flowers and little roses and twining green vines, visible going up at least thirty feet before fading into darkness. There were creatures in there, too, rose goblins and leaf sprites and pixies.
In his first glance alone, Louis spotted a dozen races of fae. Most of them looked humanoid, all with the strange beauty unique to their race. There were a few changelings in the mix, as well as some stranger sights. There was a dog who was probably actually a Cu Sidhe shapeshifter. There was a Candela with globes of light, her Merry Dancers, circling her slowly. There was a group of Coblynau, short people without the usual fae beauty, laughing together around a low table and drinking from glittering gold mugs. There was an Ellyllon flying overhead who waved at a disturbance in the air. That was probably one of the air fae from the Oversky, something he’d would probably never see outside of Zayn’s.
Then there were the outfits. There was enough modern clothing that their little party didn’t stand out too much, but most of the clientele was a bit fancier. He saw plenty of suits and party dresses, and the styles on display spanned centuries. There were also far more fanciful things: dresses made entirely of feathers, shimmering trousers heavy with jewels, earrings that held up spider-silk capes, suit jackets made of butterfly wings. Fae haute couture was impracticality at its finest.
A dance floor to one side of the room was filled with a dazzling crowd of beautiful gyrating fae. The rest of the room had a wide variety of seating that would have looked haphazard were it not all so elegant and perfectly arranged.
The so-called tower seats were always Louis’ favourite. Scattered throughout the room were little platforms, each standing on a thin curved column that at its narrowest point was barely a fingers’ width across. The single delicate support did not look like they could possibly support the platforms that held as many as a dozen people seated at tables or lounging on sofas. There was also no visible way to get up to them.
Grinning, Louis watched Harry stare as a teal-haired Daoine Sidhe approached one of the platforms and waved his fingers up at it. A narrow filament extended itself down from the platform until it touched the ground, widening and flattening slightly. The man stepped onto the little step and grabbed hold. Like the column, this strange wisp of a structure did not look capable of what it did next: it retracted slowly, lifting the Daoine Sidhe up to the platform. The thing looked precarious, but the man riding it looked stable and relaxed.
“Do you want a drink?” Louis asked.
Harry startled like he’d forgotten that anyone was with him at all. “Oh. Er, yeah, okay?”
Louis led him through the room with a hand on his shoulder. More than once, he had to stop Harry from stumbling or running into someone, as he was so busy looking around him that he was hardly paying attention to where he was going. At the bar, Louis ordered three of his favourite drink and passed the extras to Harry and Niall.
Harry gasped when he took the drink in hand. It was fizzy, yet it was precisely stratified in a rainbow of colours. “It’s so pretty,” he marvelled. “Is it alcohol? I don’t drink much.”
“Oh.” Louis hadn’t considered that. “Well, one drink won’t kill you, right? It’s my favourite. I thought you’d like it.”
Harry sipped cautiously and grinned in surprise. “It tastes so… I don’t know what that flavour even is. It’s so good, though.”
“Each colour is a different flavour. The purple’s violet.”
“Huh. Really? How does it stay separate? The bubbles should mix it.”
Niall laughed. “Harry. It’s magic.”
Harry stared at the glass in his hand. “Magic. Like… literal magic.”
“Yes, Harry. Literal magic.”
Drinks in hand, Louis and Niall ushered Harry along, slowly making their way through the maze that was Zayn’s. Harry squeaked in delight when they found the Green Room and watched the small blue-skinned ice sprites sculpting ice into fanciful forms. The strange undulations of the Red Room clearly made him uneasy; they didn’t linger long there. Louis was trying to steer him to the Water Hall when the chimes sounded.
“What’s that mean?” Harry asked.
“Ah, Maeve’s arse,” Niall swore. “It’s almost dawn. Let’s go to the stupid sunrise room.”
They turned and started walking. Harry asked, “What’s the big deal about dawn? You sound mad.”
“I mean, you know, sunrise just sucks.”
Harry just looked at them blankly.
“You know, dawn?” Louis said slowly. “When the sunrise rips all the magic out of the world? Your illusions are torn away and you feel like crap for a few minutes? I’ve been told that it’s even worse for changelings, that it’s supposed to be really painful for you. Why are you looking so confused?”
“I just have no idea what you’re talking about,” Harry said.
“Well, what happens to you at dawn, then?” Niall demanded.
“I…” Harry trailed off, frowning. “Nothing? I feel like I always sleep through it, honestly.”
“You sleep through it,” Niall said flatly.
“How…” Niall squinted at him, looking baffled.
“What about in the winter, when you’re already at school when the sun comes up?” Louis asked.
Harry shrugged. “Dunno. Some of the classrooms have really small windows, so, like, I don’t think I notice? I do fall asleep a lot in first period, but who doesn’t?”
“Have you ever actually seen the sun come up?”
“I mean, I must have, I guess. But I can’t recall ever actually seeing it. It’s always cloudy in the winter, so how would you know exactly when the sun comes up? Anyway, it’s so early. I’m still sleepy then.”
Louis shook his head. “You realise that that’s super not normal, right? This is England. Being awake when the sun comes up is pretty fucking standard in the winter. And it’s not literally always cloudy. I seriously don’t think it’s possible to never notice dawn, even if it didn’t fuck you up.”
Harry was wide-eyed. He looked flustered suddenly. “I don’t know! It’s just. It’s just how I’ve always been. I never thought about it.”
“You just get weirder and weirder,” Niall said.
They fell quiet then as more people fell in step around them, all heading in the same direction.
The sunrise room was large, as it needed to have room for as many club patrons as wished to use it, but it was a simple space. The floor was padded and scattered with cushions. It was more or less a gigantic bed. Louis and Niall quickly found an open space and sat down, gathering some cushions. Niall pulled over a big squishy block to lean against, but all Louis really needed was one pillow.
“We’re going to keep you awake,” Louis announced. “I have no idea how you could have been sleeping through sunrise your whole life, but you need to understand.”
Niall nodded. “Yeah, agreed.”
“I’ll try,” Harry said, clutching a pillow to his midsection and fidgeting with it. He looked around and added, “There’s no windows in here, though. How’ll you know?”
“We feel the sunrise. We don’t need to see it too,” Niall answered.
“I’m going to be a cat now,” Louis announced. Dawn was so much nicer to get through in a cat’s form. He slipped into his feline form and hopped onto his chosen pillow.
“Oh my god, you turned into a cat,” Harry exclaimed. “Oh my god, wait, you were the cat in my house?!”
Louis meowed irritably. He didn’t want to shift back just to explain.
Niall snickered. “Where did you think he came from?”
“I don’t know! There was a cat, and then suddenly Louis Tomlinson was in my house, and people were yelling, and then you guys were pushing me into a magic portal. A lot happened really fast. I don’t know if it makes more or less sense now that Louis was also the cat.” Harry shuffled closer and looked down at Louis curiously. “You’re a cat. How are you a cat? Do you still understand me? Can I pet you?”
Louis meowed again and butted his head against Harry’s knee.
“Did you miss that whole conversation about how we were in the Court of Cats and his mum was the Queen of Cats? Or the part where one of his sisters turned into a cat?” Niall laughed.
Harry tentatively started scratching at Louis’ ears. It felt awesome. Watching him, Harry said, “I didn’t realise the cat thing was literal. I think I did miss seeing someone turn into a cat, actually. When did that happen?”
Harry yawned suddenly. He grabbed his pillow, set it on the ground, and leaned over to curl up on his side. Louis meowed plaintively and reached out for Harry’s hand with a paw, claws extended just enough to scrape a little.
“Hey, none of that,” Niall said, poking Harry.
“I’m so sleepy, though,” Harry said, his eyes sliding closed.
“Oh, no, don’t you dare.” Niall grabbed his arm and pulled him up to sit. Harry moved like dead weight. Niall was strong and able to lift him, but Harry simply flopped against him, head lolling on Niall’s shoulder.
It was alarming. It wasn’t normal, not in the slightest. Louis sprang up and put his paw on Harry’s leg, digging his claws in. Harry didn’t react at all.
Then the sun came up.
The room filled with the sound of unhappy groans and moans. All the fur rose on Louis’ back. It hurt every time the sun ripped the magic from them. All he wanted to do was lie down and ride it out, but he forced himself to stay alert, eyes fixed on Harry. The changeling’s face twisted in pain, but he stayed perfectly silent aside from a little hitch in his breath. He was asleep. Through it all, through the pain of the dawn and Louis’ claws, through Niall shaking him and shouting in his ear, he stayed asleep. He only curled closer to Niall, as if trying to hide his face.
Louis hissed and batted at Harry’s head. He wanted to turn his head and see his face, but he couldn’t transform back into a man while sunrise was underway. Niall got the message, pulling Harry away from him with his considerable strength, just as the dawn shattered Harry’s illusion.
If the hair of his human glamour was mahogany, Harry’s real hair was driftwood. It was dominated by a pale grey-brown colour never seen on a human head, shot through with other hues of brown and grey. His real hair wasn’t as curly as his illusion; it hung in soft, impossibly glossy waves. His ears were softly pointed, the tips blunted by his human heritage. His facial features weren’t very different at all, just a little sharper, a little more refined, a touch more symmetrical – small differences that nonetheless added up to a superhuman beauty. His skin was very pale but his lips were still so very pink.
He looked fae. He looked beautiful. It shouldn’t have been striking in a room filled with inhuman beauty, but he took Louis’ breath away.
“I fucking hate that you’re a cat right now,” Niall said in a strained voice. Harry was still asleep but still struggling, trying to hide, and Niall was still holding him. He turned to someone near them and asked, “Mate, I know this is weird, but can you take a picture of him for me? Phone’s in my left pocket.”
The Daoine Sidhe he’d addressed looked baffled by the request, but the changeling next to her uncurled from his place on the floor and shuffled over to help. Once the picture was taken, Niall stopped fighting. Harry immediately sagged against him and then slid down to lay curled up on the floor, hands over his face. He was shaking.
Something clenched uncomfortably at Louis’ heart. He hopped off his cushion and pressed his body against Harry’s chest. He purred, a comforting rumble against Harry’s trembling body, and butted his head against Harry’s arm.
“How the hell has he been hiding that this whole time?” Niall marvelled.
The discomfort of dawn was gone as suddenly as it had come. Many of the assembled purebloods started making their way out, eager to return to their fun and forget that anything had ever pained them. Most of the changelings were still down, as dawn was harder on their bodies, but they would soon rise and depart, too.
A few minutes more, and Harry suddenly relaxed. His hands slid away from his face, humanity restored. One came to curl around Louis, holding him gently. A couple minutes after that, Harry woke. He blinked slowly at them, then sat up abruptly.
“Something’s wrong. I need to go,” he cried.
Niall grabbed his shoulder. “No, it’s okay. Everything’s fine.”
Harry shook his head. “No. I don’t – I don’t know why, but it feels bad. Something bad happened. It’s not safe here.”
Louis finally shifted back to his human form and put a hand on Harry’s knee. “You’re fine. Everything’s fine. Take a deep breath, Harry.”
“We did see your face,” Niall said carefully.
Harry breathed in and out, slow and shaky. “So what?”
“Your real face, without the illusion. Do you want to see?”
Niall started thumbing his phone open, though Harry was already shaking his head. “This is my face.”
“No, this is your face,” Niall said, holding the screen up for Harry to see.
Harry’s eyes settled on the screen. For a second, he was still. Then he gasped and struck out at Niall’s hand, sending his phone flying twenty feet across the room. And then he doubled over and threw up.
“Titania’s teeth,” Niall swore, flinching away.
“Oh, god, I’m sorry,” Harry moaned. “I threw up on the bed. Oh, god.”
He vomited again, a thin stream of bile laced with blood.
“Shit,” Louis muttered. “Don’t – can you make it to the loo, Harry? Let’s go get you cleaned up.”
Harry was crying quietly as Louis wrapped a hand around his shoulders and pulled him up to stand. “That wasn’t my face,” he insisted through his tears as Louis and Niall guided him through Zayn’s. “It wasn’t. It’s a trick. Why would you do that? I don’t know why you did that.”
Louis squeezed his shoulder. He had no idea what to say. “I’m sorry, Harry.”
They waited outside the bathroom while Harry went inside to wash up, sagging against the wall, tired and confused. Niall sighed, “I just don’t get why he can’t believe us.”
“Can’t, not won’t?” Louis mused. He breathed in sharply as the thought hit him. There were spells that could do that, magical compulsions that could bind someone more thoroughly than any physical chains. “Niall. A geas?”
“Shit. Do you think? Why would anyone to do that to him?”
“I have no idea, but it fits, doesn’t it? He’s not struggling to believe that fae exist, or magic, or any of the rest of it. He seems to be accepting all of this just fine. It’s only when it comes to himself that he rejects it, violently, against all evidence and logic. And he’s so distressed by it. It doesn’t feel like it’s just hard for him to accept. It feels like something’s stopping him. Right?”
Niall raked a hand through his hair. “Yeah, it does. Oberon’s balls, man, if he’s geased… how do we even start sorting that out? I don’t know how to break a fucking geas. I don’t even know how to be sure that’s what it is.”
Louis frowned to himself. “A Daoinhe Sidhe would be able to tell, right? If Liam is here…”
“Oh. Yeah, I mean, if there’s any of them we could trust, it’d be him. Do you think we can get Harry to agree to it, though?”
“Agree to what?” Harry asked.
They both jumped and turned to look at Harry. His eyes were red-rimmed and his voice was hoarse again, but he looked fairly composed.
“Let’s get a drink,” Louis said, “and we’ll explain.”
A slender Candela guided them through a perfumed chamber decorated like a stereotypical Arabian Nights fantasy and lifted a curtain for them to pass to a concealed room behind it. That room was high-ceilinged but made comfortable by plush rugs, dark wood walls, and velvet-upholstered chairs and sofas. It was luxurious yet soothing in its simplicity, and a stark contrast to the room that preceded it. There was only one person in the room, a muscular Daoine Sidhe man sitting in an armchair with a book in his lap. His eyes had the colour and metallic lustre of bronze, while his hair was a deep wine-red. He set his book aside and stood with a smile to greet them. “Louis! And Niall, too. To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“Well, if we’re getting right down to business, to this one here,” Louis said, gesturing to Harry.
“I said pleasure, not business,” Liam scolded. “Well, well, the Cait Sidhe never did grasp the finer points of manners, did you. Sit, please. Does this fellow have a name or shall I just call him ‘business’?”
Louis groaned. “You’re so proper since you inherited. You’re barely past ninety, man. Why do you act like you’re ancient?”
Harry gave a surprised squeak.
“What would you know about it?” Liam sniffed. “You’re still a child.”
“Oh, shut up.”
Liam grinned. “Sorry not sorry. Really, though, is there something serious happening?”
“Yeah. We’ve got a situation with young Harold here. Okay, introductions. Liam, Harry Styles, changeling on the run. Harry, Baronet Liam of Misty Moors. ”
“Just to be clear, Misty Moors is about two square feet that no one cares about. This is my husband’s knowe, not mine,” Liam said, directing his words at Harry. “On the run from what?”
“He’s half-Siren but he doesn’t know it. Countess Nelvania does, though. Our best guess is he’s got a geas on him preventing him from realising. We want you to ride his blood and find out. Can you?”
Liam sat back in his chair, blinking at Louis. “You came here to ask me to ride someone’s blood? Oak and ash, Louis.” His eyes cut over to Harry. “Do you understand what that means?”
Harry nodded, biting his lip.
“Well, tell me in your own words, please.”
“Er, okay. Louis said you’d.” He bounced his leg nervously. “Have to, like, cut me and drink some of my blood, but not much, and then you could tell if I have this thing, but also you’ll, like, feel my emotions and see my memories? I don’t think that makes any sense but that’s what Louis said.”
“That’s pretty much right, yes,” Liam confirmed. “In this case I’d try to avoid your memories, but what you’re thinking about and feeling in the moment or recently, I might see. It’s not something I can entirely control. The blood carries messages and Daoine Sidhe receive them. Are you all right with that?”
“It’s pretty creepy,” Harry said slowly. “But… I guess?”
“Why?” Liam pressed.
“Why do you want this? Or, why are you agreeing to this?”
“Louis and Niall think I have this curse-thingy and that I’m not human, and, like, it’s cool that I’ve gotten to see all of this, but it’s just not true. Maybe if you tell them they’re wrong, they’ll drop it.”
Liam looked Harry up and down. “Hmm. It’s not that they’ve introduced a little doubt in your mind, maybe? A little part of you wondering if they could be right that’s desperate to know?”
“I… no.” Harry said. His voice was firm, but his eyes cut away from Liam’s. His hands twitched.
“All right.” Liam pulled a small, slender knife from his boot. “Give me your hand.”
He pricked one of Harry’s fingers with the point of the knife. With his other hand, he squeezed Harry’s finger until a fat drop of blood had welled to the surface. He ran the tip of his blade through the droplet, gathering the blood, and raised it to his lips.
Louis watched curiously. He had never seen this done before. As soon as the blood crossed his lips, Liam’s eyes slid closed. His brow furrowed. His eyes moved beneath his eyelids like a man dreaming. He was like that for a time that felt like long minutes, but was probably shorter in reality.
Finally he blew out a long breath and opened his eyes. Absentmindedly he set the knife down on the table as he said, “Well, you’ve definitely got Siren blood.”
“No,” Harry protested immediately.
“And there’s definitely a geas. You don’t remember it being placed on you, so I can’t tell you much about it.”
“No, no. That’s crazy. Why should I believe you, anyway? How can you be sure?” Harry demanded.
Suddenly stern, Liam said, “I’m not wrong about this. The geas, it’s in your blood and it’s so clearly not you. It’s something foreign that’s woven through every fiber of your being. It’s unmistakable.”
“Can you tell us anything else about it?” Louis cut in. “Any way out of it? Who cast it? Anything?”
“No. Harry himself doesn’t know anything about it. I can perceive the geas, the shape of it, but that’s it.”
“Zayn might be able to help, though,” Liam said slowly.
“It’s not really for me to say. Let me go get him, all right? If he’s willing to help, we’ll be back in a few minutes.”
When Liam reached the doorway, Harry stood suddenly. “Wait – sorry, wait, can I just ask you real quick–”
The two of them stepped over to the other side of the curtain into the antechamber. Harry probably didn’t realise that Louis could hear them even from this distance with his keener senses.
“Did you, like. Pick up anything else? Erm, from my blood?” Harry asked quietly.
“You mean, personal things about you? Yes, of course. Rest assured that I won’t share it with anyone. Those are your private thoughts and memories, and I respect that.”
“Okay. Okay. Just…”
A little chuckle from Liam. “Ah, I suspect I know what you’re worried about. I won’t tell him. That’s your business.”
“All right. Okay. Thank you.”
“Oh, no,” Louis groaned.
Niall frowned. “What?”
After an uncomfortable silence, Liam said, “You should ask Louis to tell you about the ‘thank you’ thing while you’re waiting. I’ll be back soon.”
Harry was frowning when he walked back into the room. Seating himself again, he said, “Liam said I should ask you about the ‘thank you’ thing. What does that mean?”
Louis grimaced. “Er, yeah, we don’t say ‘thank you.’”
Niall added, “Nor any variations like, I appreciate that, or even a friendly little cheers or ta, really.”
Harry looked baffled. “Why?”
“It’s just a thing,” Louis said.
“When you thank someone, it means they owe you something,” Niall explained. “Nobles can thank their subjects, or you can thank someone who’s seriously in your debt, but that’s pretty much it. And even that’s kind of rude. Rubs it in, you know?”
“That makes no sense,” Harry said flatly. “Crap, so did I just seriously offend Liam?”
“Eh. He knows you think you’re human so he knows you don’t know better.”
“I am human.”
“Well, then you definitely don’t know better.”
Harry sighed and slumped back against the couch cushions. “Whatever. I’m so tired. Hey, Liam’s not actually ninety, right?”
“Well, no,” Louis admitted.
“Oh, okay. The way you said it, I really thought for a second…”
“I’m pretty sure he’s ninety-two now.”
“No.” Harry squinted at him. “You’re pulling my leg.”
Louis glanced over at Niall. Niall just shrugged. So he was going to have to break the concept of immortality to Harry. Great. He braced himself and said, “Sorry. It keeps throwing me off how little you know. Harry, we purebloods, we live forever. We can be killed, but we don’t die on our own.”
“You…” Harry blinked. “I… okay. I’m finding that hard to believe. Well, how old are you supposed to be, then?”
“Ah, we’re kids, and you’d better believe they never let us forget it,” Louis sighed. “I’m twenty-nine. So I’m actually not that much older than you probably thought I was."
“I’m twenty-seven,” Niall said.
“Huh. Okay. That’s weird, but I’m really glad that you’re not telling me that you’re secretly a thousand years old or something. That would be really weird.”
They all turned at the sound of footsteps. Liam returned hand-in-hand with a slight, ethereally beautiful man.
Louis had met Zayn a number of times over the years that he’d been frequenting the club. Every time, Zayn’s hair was different. Today it was close-cropped and black. In every other respect, he looked the same: fine-featured, stunningly beautiful, with a bronze glow to his skin that hinted at his Indian heritage. His most striking feature, though, was his eyes. They were a dark, royal purple, and they glowed with a soft internal light.
“Zayn,” Louis said warmly, standing to greet him. “Good to see you, mate.”
Zayn shook his hand with a small smile. “Likewise. I must say, you’ve brought some interesting problems into my knowe today. Hello, Niall, Harry.” He nodded to the others. “Interesting indeed. Now. Liam has explained the situation to me, and I am willing to help you. In return, I ask for your silence. Very few people here know what I can do, and I wish to keep it that way.”
“Can I ask why?” Louis said.
Zayn huffed out a laugh as he and Liam seated themselves. “Oh, my friend, it’s a very long story. Let’s just say that being able to see the connections between people isn’t always such a good thing. Like when you tell a King that his wife has a certain unsavoury connection to a supposedly-ex-lover and he decides that you should die because he wouldn’t know such a painful thing were it not for you. And then you have to flee the country, which was not an easy thing back before there were even trains, never mind such a thing as a car, let me tell you.”
“No Tuatha?” Niall asked.
“No, our court had no one with that particular lineage. Anyone with a skill for moving quickly was unwilling to help me and risk the king’s disfavour anyway. But enough of those boring old stories.”
“So you said you can see connections between people?” Louis said slowly.
“That is one of my skills, yes.”
“How does that help us?”
“Well, someone cast the geas. They must still live, else the geas would have dissolved. That means that I can follow the connection.”
“Oh,” Louis breathed. “You can tell us who they are? And where to find them?”
“Probably. There are a lot of factors. It might not be as precise or complete as you’d like,” Zayn cautioned. “But I’ll be able to tell you something.”
“How does it work? Do you need more of my blood?” Harry asked nervously.
“No,” Zayn chuckled. “I just have to look in your eyes.”
A look of relief washed over Harry’s face. “Oh. That’s easy.”
“For you, I suppose, yes. Come sit by me? Liam, please lay out the maps.”
Liam stood and started spreading maps on the coffee table.
“What are those for?” Louis asked.
“I’m not that great at geography, if I’m honest. If I have a map to reference, I do a little better at giving a location instead of just waving my hands and saying ‘they’re kind of over that way, about so far away.’”
Harry settled on the sofa by Zayn, perching awkwardly on the edge of the seat. Zayn put a finger on his chin to turn his face. He frowned as soon as they locked eyes.
“I need to be able to see your eyes, your real eyes. You must drop your illusion.”
“I’m not—” Harry began.
“He doesn’t know he’s doing it,” Louis interrupted. “He can’t control it consciously.”
“Well, that’s not going to work.” Zayn looked at Liam. “Can you break it?”
Liam studied Harry intently. “Yes, I’m sure I could.”
Harry looked uncomfortable. Impulsively, Louis crossed over to his sofa and knelt down by him, putting a hand on Harry’s knee. “It’s so important, Harry. You can do this.”
“It doesn’t feel right.”
“I know. It’ll be okay, though. Please let him try.”
Liam put a hand on Harry’s shoulder. His eyes unfocused, and for a moment, the room was still. Liam didn’t move, but from one breath to the next, Harry’s illusion fell away. For just a moment, Louis glimpsed his eyes, a vivid green tinted darker on the outer edge that made him think of malachite.
Then Harry flinched away so violently that Louis had to catch him from falling to the floor, and he gasped, “I think I’m gonna puke.”
Niall instantly sketched a small portal in the air and pulled a bucket from somewhere. He tossed it across the room to Louis, who plopped it in Harry’s lap just in time.
After retching into the bucket a few times, Harry croaked, “What just happened? That felt terrible.”
“It’s only going to take a few minutes to read your connections,” Zayn said. “You can do that, right?”
Harry drooped. “Honestly, I don’t know. I want to say I could, but I’m pretty sure I’m just going to jump away again. This is stupid anyway.”
“Harry, this is how we get answers,” Louis pleaded. “I know you’re so confused. This is the only way. Please. Look… I could hold you, if you’ll let me. I can keep you in place.”
“You’re asking me to let you hold me down and torment me,” Harry said mournfully, hugging his bucket to his stomach.
“I mean. Only because it’ll let us help you.”
Harry sighed heavily, pushing his hair back from his sweaty brow. “I hate this. Fine, okay. Fine.”
Louis gingerly climbed up onto the seat of the couch behind Harry and wrapped his arms around him. He pulled Harry back a little to lean on his chest. “Try to relax.”
Harry snorted. “Relax. Louis Tomlinson is hugging me and some elves are going to do weird things to me now. Sure, I’ll get right on that.”
“I like this sarcastic side of you, though.”
Zayn took Harry’s face in his hands. The faint glow in his eyes started to brighten.
Harry went tense and started fighting the moment that Liam started taking down his illusion. Louis’ physical strength was much greater, but even so, it was a struggle to keep him in place. Between the three of them, they kept him in place. It was awful, though. Harry struggled and gasped and gagged. It made Louis feel sick to be the cause of this changeling’s pain yet again. He tried to remind himself that he hadn’t started this, that he was trying to help, but he mostly just felt like shit.
He felt something hot and wet on his arm. He’d probably just been vomited on. Well, he probably deserved it.
Zayn’s eyes glowed brighter and brighter; his hands, too, took on a purple glow. His eyes were fixed on Harry’s for what felt like ages, but after some time his eyes started to move, tracing lines and figures that no one else could see. He glanced at the maps. One of his hands reached out, fingers doing strange complex movements in the air.
“Ah, so,” he murmured. “All right.” He blinked hard. When he opened his eyes, the light had dimmed back to its normal levels. He nodded and released Harry.
Liam, breathing hard, took a step back. Harry’s illusion snapped back into place. He leaned forward and started retching violently into the bucket while Louis rubbed his back, relieved to not be holding him down anymore.
“Please tell me that’s over,” Harry gasped before his stomach heaved again.
Zayn assured him, “It’s over. I saw enough.”
“Thank god.” Harry leaned back against Louis. “Sorry. Is that offensive?”
“It’s fine,” Louis said. He tried to ignore a strange urge to kiss Harry’s hair.
“I’m so tired.”
“You were fighting me the whole time,” Liam said quietly. “I’ll get you some water.”
“Thanks,” Harry mumbled, his eyes slipping closed. “Shit. Sorry. Not thanks.”
Louis stroked his hair. That was a little less weird than kissing him, right? Probably. Harry didn’t exactly smell lovely, but Louis just wanted to cuddle him. He tried not to think about it. “Zayn, what’d you get? Do you know who cast the geas?”
“Not exactly. It’s definitely tied to another Siren, though, and they were south of us. There’s a Siren colony down there, in the Duchy of White Cliffs,” Zayn said, gesturing at a section of the English coast on the map. “I’d start your search with them.”
“That will help,” Louis said, avoiding the forbidden “thank you.”
“I hope you get the answers you seek. Although I think you’d better wait until nightfall. This one doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere.” Zayn inclined his head toward Harry. “I have some chambers for guests. You can stay.”
“Ah, that would be nice. It’s a bit of a drive back to my flat and he’s obviously exhausted.”
“I can hear you,” Harry mumbled without opening his eyes.
“Well, you’d rather sleep here than drive two hours to my flat, right?”
“Okay, then. How about you, Niall? You’re close enough to get back home if you want to.”
“I’ll stick around,” Niall said easily. “No point going home if I’m going to be back here in a few hours, right?”
Louis smiled slowly. “So you’re coming with us tomorrow?”
“Yeah, yeah. I want to know what happens next.”
Zayn called for a servant who showed them to a hallway with half a dozen small guest rooms. Louis carried Harry in his arms like a child. It was surely a testament to how exhausted Harry was that he allowed it.
Niall nodded at him. “Need any help with him?”
Louis shook his head. “Nah. Just open a door for me and I’ll take it from there.”
“Cool. I’m knackered, man. See you in the evening.”
Niall headed off to his own chamber while Louis carried Harry into the simple room and gently set him on the bed. “Please tell me you’re awake enough to undress yourself.”
Harry cracked an eye open. “Why? Were you going to do it for me?”
“Well, I’d take your shoes off, anyway.”
“Hm.” Harry closed his eyes again. “You can do that.”
Once Louis had removed his shoes, Harry started moving to get under the covers. Louis interrupted, “You might want to at least take your shirt off.”
“Well, you’ve got sick on it.”
Harry’s eyes finally opened fully at that. He glanced down at himself in alarm. “Oh, gross.”
“I’ll try to find you a flannel.”
Luckily, there was one in the tiny attached bathroom. When Louis came back, Harry was sitting up in bed, his shirt and jeans crumpled in a heap on the floor. He took the flannel and wiped his face and neck with it, drank from the cup of water that Louis offered, and then slid down under the covers.
“Get some rest,” Louis said softly, turning off the light.
Harry looked uncertainly up at him in the semi-darkness of the room. He chewed his lip for a moment, then in a tiny voice asked, “Could you stay? I know that’s so weird, but I don’t want to be alone here. Sorry. It’s stupid.”
“Oh.” Louis walked back over and sat carefully on the edge of the bed. “No, I get it.”
“This has all just been so weird and crazy. I’m… scared.”
“Yeah, of course. Whatever you need, Harry. I can sit with you until you fall asleep, or I can be a cat and curl up by you…”
Harry sighed and closed his eyes. “Can you… would you lay down with me? The bed’s really big. I promise it won’t be weird.”
Louis blinked. Lie down with him? Get into the bed with this half-naked, emotionally distressed teenage changeling? He wasn’t at all sure Harry would be okay with this in the evening when he wasn’t half-delirious from exhaustion. But Louis had said, whatever you need.
“Okay,” he murmured. He kicked off his shoes and crawled onto the other side of the bed with all his clothes on.
Harry rolled over on his side to face toward Louis. He didn’t open his eyes or reach out to him. “Thanks. ‘s just… nice to not be alone.” He breathed in and then quietly asked, “Am I going to die?”
“No,” Louis said, quiet but firm. “I’m not going to let that happen.”
“Okay,” Harry whispered. “Okay.” And he slid off into sleep.
Louis watched him for a long, long time before sleep claimed him too.
When Louis woke, he was a cat and he was alone.
He yawned and stretched his front paws out. Strange – as a kitten, he had often shifted forms in his sleep, but it hadn’t happened in years.
From the bathroom came the sound of falling water and Harry singing softly. Louis decided to give him some privacy and go see about breakfast, Niall, and clean clothes.
When he knocked on Harry’s door fifteen minutes later with Niall at his side, they came bearing pastries, tea, and a borrowed t-shirt. Harry was shirtless when he answered the door. His eyes lit up when he saw what Louis was holding, and he waved them in. There was no table so they all sat on the floor.
“This is for you,” Louis said, holding out the shirt. Privately, he didn’t necessarily want to rush Harry putting it on, but he didn’t want him to be uncomfortable. “How’re you feeling?”
“Better.” Harry slipped the shirt over his head. “But I just realised that I should call my mum. She must be really worried. I don’t have any signal, though.”
“Yeah, your phone won’t work here. We’re not fully in the mortal world,” Niall said.
Louis nodded. “I was thinking we’d stop by my flat so I can change. You can call her from there. Niall, you mind making us a gate there? Then I’ll drive us from there.”
Harry sipped his tea. “I mean. Maybe I should just go home, though?”
“Oh, no, come on,” Niall protested. “I don’t think you even mean that. You want to get to the bottom of this as much as we do.”
“Not as much as you do, I think.” Harry laughed weakly. “I don’t know. This is all so crazy and Mum’s going to be so mad.”
“No offense, but I don’t think that’s your biggest danger right now. Anyway, if she’s going to be mad then she already is, so…” Niall pointed out.
They finished their breakfast in silence. “Well, let’s get out of here,” Louis said as soon as the last crumb was gone.
“Shouldn’t we say bye?” Harry asked.
“Eh, I checked when I went to go borrow a shirt; Liam and Zayn are still asleep. No sense waiting around for them, honestly. We’re good.”
Soon enough, they were on their way. Stopping by his flat gave Louis the opportunity to grab one of his cars, so he drove from there in his Range Rover. Harry climbed into the back row of seats to call his mother. Louis wondered if he should tell Harry that he would still be able to hear every word.
The phone rang a few times. Then a female voice came on the line yelling, “Harry Edward Styles, where have you been?!”
“I’ve been worried sick. Where are you? Are you all right?”
“I’m okay. I’m, er, with some friends? I’m really sorry, I forgot to leave a note, and then I slept all day.”
“Who are these friends?” she asked sharply. “I’ve called all of your friends, Harry, and none of them have seen you and heard from you.”
“They’re – erm, they’re… it’s just someone I met at X Factor.”
A quick intake of breath from the other end of the line. “Harry, did you run off with a boy?”
“Mum! Why would you think that!”
“Harry Edward Styles, answer the question.”
Louis glanced in the rear view mirror. He could see Harry in the back. He looked shocked, but then his face set in resolve.
“I, well, yeah. I just… Yes, I did.”
“Harry,” his mother said plaintively. “You can’t just do that. You can’t just trust someone you’ve never even met before like that. You’re only eighteen!”
“I am eighteen, though. Look, I know it was kind of crazy, but it’s all fine, okay? And I’ll be home soon.”
For a minute or two, there was no sound but deep, heavy breaths. She was obviously trying to control herself. Finally, she said, “Are you on your way home now?”
“Er, no, not yet. But soon. Maybe in the morning. Hey, I really am sorry for worrying you. I wasn’t thinking.”
“Oh, God. Please be safe, Harry. And just come home.”
“I will. Love you, Mum.”
He sighed heavily and climbed up a row of seats. “I’m going to be grounded for the rest of my life.”
Louis would count himself lucky if they kept Harry alive long enough for that to happen. He didn’t share that thought out loud. Instead, he launched into a lecture.
“So where we’re going, it’s still part of the Kingdom of Londinium, but we’re going to the Duchy of White Cliffs. Duke Mallory is your typical Daoine Sidhe. I don’t hear much about him but no one hates him. They kind of keep to themselves, I suppose. Niall, do you know anyone in that court?”
“I know a few of the Tuatha, anyway. Some distant cousin of mine lives there. I’ve only met her a couple times. They seem happy enough there.”
It took more than two hours to drive to Dover. They used the time to fill Harry in as much as they could on the bare basics of courtly manners and what to expect from visiting the Duchy. Neither of them knew much about the local politics and mores, unfortunately, but they could at least inform Harry about general cultural norms.
Presenting oneself at an unfamiliar court was always tricky. Knowes didn’t simply have front doors where anyone could just show up and knock. No, the passages to Faerie were carefully hidden and guarded. If you weren’t meant to be there, you’d never know how to find them.
From Zayn’s, they had been able to send a message with an introduction from Liam and Zayn. The two of them weren’t the most respected of nobles since their “court” was a night club, but it was better than nothing. Fortunately, they had received a response with a time and a place.
The location they’d been given was nothing remarkable: just a small-town park that was deserted at the late hour. Louis cautiously parked a little ways down the road and they walked over. In a shadowy area far from any lights, they found a tall Daoine Sidhe with electric-purple hair. He raised a hand in greeting as they approached.
“Good evening,” Louis called cautiously, slowing his pace.
The Daoine Sidhe was not alone. A half-circle of other fae stood behind him. These were no ordinary courtiers: they were warriors.
Louis could recognise a fellow fighter simply from the way they held themselves. He had been raised among a race that regularly fought physically both for fun and for real, after all. It didn’t take that level of perception to know them, though. The swords and armour were a bit of a giveaway.
This wasn’t normal. Louis had travelled the world as a pop star. In that time, he had made courtesy visits to dozens of courts. He’d never been greeted like this.
“Louis, Prince of Cats?” the White Cliffs man called.
Niall clapped a hand to Louis’ arm and hissed, “Countess Nelvania’s colours.”
Louis stopped in his tracks. Of course. The Daoine Sidhe who had greeted them was dressed in the colours of White Cliffs. The warriors behind him were dressed in a different standard altogether.
“Oak and ash,” Louis swore under his breath, taking a step back.
One of the warriors shouted, “Stop right there!”
“Shit, hold your breath, lads,” Louis gasped. He grabbed Niall’s and Harry’s hands, took a step back into the shadow of a tree, and pulled.
At least he didn’t have to take them far this time. He popped out of the shadows in the back seat of his car, the three of them falling over each other in a messy tangle. Louis scrambled out of the pile, definitely kicking one of them in the process – oh well, they’d live – and into the driver’s seat. He was peeling off down the street in record time, swearing fit to peel paint off the walls. “Sweet Titania, how the hell did they know!”
“They must be sending people out all over Britain,” Niall said, sounding stunned. “This is serious shit.”
“Okay, okay.” Louis gripped the steering wheel so hard that it creaked in protest. “How do we find these bloody Sirens?”
“Well, I have that cousin at White Cliffs. I could call her. But she hardly knows me, and she owes loyalty to her liege. If she figures out that I’m associated with this whole thing, she’ll probably tell on us.”
Louis took a few deep breaths. “Do it. I don’t see that we have any other choice. We’ll just have to move fast.”
Niall made the call. There was a bit of family small talk that had Louis grinding his teeth in impatience, but eventually he got to the point. As soon as he said his goodbyes and hung up, he said, “Pull over. I’ll take us there.”
Louis silently obeyed, stopping the car on the quiet road. There were still houses around, but the windows were mostly dark. They’d probably get away with it.
They stepped through Niall’s portal from the silent suburban street to a breezy, grass-covered hillside that smelled of the sea. Louis frowned at the empty surroundings. “Where are we going?”
Niall pointed up the hill. “Their estate should be up over that rise. This was the closest I could get. Their land is warded. I can only make a gate here, outside the edge of their territory.”
“Oh, perfect,” Louis muttered. He started trudging. The grass was tall, whipping around his knees and ankles, and the soft ground was riddled with little dips and hummocks that threatened to twist an unwary person’s ankle. “What, they don’t have a driveway we could walk up?”
“If they do, it’s hidden.”
“Wow. So welcoming. They’ll definitely be thrilled to find us on their doorstep.”
After ten minutes or so, they crested a small hill and finally saw the compound spread out a little ways back from the sea cliffs. There was a huge house, a mansion really, with modest cottages scattered around it. Louis paused to catch his breath and take stock of the scene. He brushed wind-blown hair out of his face and said, “I think we ought to go to the big house. That has to be where we’ll find the – I don’t know, clan leader, head of the family, whatever the hell they’re called.”
“I don’t want to go down there,” Harry said in a shaky voice. It was the first thing he’d said since fleeing from Countess Nelvania’s people.
Louis snapped his gaze over to Harry, who looked pale and unhappy in the moonlight. “Harry, this might be where we finally get answers.”
Harry bit his lip. “If you think they cast some bad spell on me, I don’t imagine they’re going to be happy to see me.”
“I think he’s right,” Niall interjected. “If whoever geased him is there… I don’t know that we want to bring him there until we have a better idea of what we’re dealing with.”
“So we just leave Harry here?!”
Harry’s eyes widened. “Please don’t leave me alone.”
“Well, there’s only three of us. Someone has to do something alone.”
Niall looked down at the houses spread out below them. “I’ll go. No offense, but I reckon I’m better at diplomacy than you. I’ll name-drop my cousin at the Court, make it clear that I’ve got connections and someone would notice if I went missing.”
Louis frowned. “I don’t like you going alone.”
“I’ll demand promises of hospitality. It’ll be fine,” Niall said firmly. “You two going to wait here or what?”
“I want to keep an eye on you. We’ll come a little closer and hide nearby. If something happens, maybe I can intercede.”
“Fine by me.”
There wasn’t really anything to hide them – the few trees were small and gnarled from the salt air and sea winds – so they just went along until Louis judged they were still too far to be spotted easily. He and Harry sat and watched Niall stride down the hill. He’d borrowed some of Louis’ clothes from his flat, but he’d insisted on a suit, so he cut an elegant figure. It made Louis smile. Niall had the easy confidence of youth and pure Fae blood. It made it easy to believe, for a moment, that everything would be all right.
Harry started shivering after a few minutes.
“Are you cold?”
Harry shook his head. “Not exactly. I don’t mind the cold that much. Just, um, just a bit freaked out. I mean, we’ve been running away from those people for, like, days now, and you still haven’t really told me why.”
“Harry, that’s why we’re doing all this. So you can understand. I’m sorry that it’s so complicated. It’s just the rules.”
“Screw the rules. These rules suck. It’s not fair.”
“Faerie’s not fair,” Louis said sharply. “Ah, I’m sorry. I don’t mean to snap. But it’s not fair and it won’t ever be.”
Harry sighed and fell silent. After a long moment, he asked, “Is that why you’re living as a human?”
“Not exactly.” Louis sidled a little closer, pressing his shoulder up against Harry’s. He was cold and Harry was warm. “The mortal world is just as unfair, in its way. It’s just not as honest about it. No, it’s… Faerie is wonderful, of course, but it can get a bit boring sometimes. When you have forever, there’s no rush to do anything, you know? The mortal world changes so fast. And I’m so young that Faerie treats me like a kid still, but in the mortal world, I can be an adult. It’s good fun, like, getting away with it. And it’s sort of like a gap year, except it lasts for a decade or two. Plus, you know.” Louis laughed softly. “Cats. We’re curious. And we like humans.”
“Do you?” Harry asked, sounding genuinely curious. “I’m never sure if cats like us or just put up with us, really.”
“Well, we have to keep your in your place. But the good humans give the cats food and petting and safe homes. Of course we like them. Do you like cats?”
Harry smiled. “I love cats. I mean, I like animals generally. But cats especially, yeah.”
“I knew I liked you for a reason,” Louis said, pleased. He leaned in closer, jostling Harry a little in a friendly way. “Tell me you bought my albums and you’ll be my favourite.”
“Oh, no,” Harry laughed. “I’m sorry. I did like your latest single but I didn’t buy it. I’m sorry. I’ll buy them all the moment I’m home.”
“Yeah, you’d better,” Louis said, only able to sound stern for a moment before he chuckled. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter. Ugh, it’s cold out here.”
“You’re cold?” Harry sounded confused.
“Cat, remember?” Louis said, gesturing to himself. “We like sunbeams and warm spots, not breezy fields at night.”
Harry bit his lip and ventured, “Erm, I suppose you could, like, be a cat and sit on my lap if you wanted. If that’s not weird.”
“I don’t think it’s weird. You’d be all right with that?”
“I don’t mind.”
“Hmm. Conversation versus warmth. Difficult choice. Will you keep talking to me?”
“I don’t know. Whatever. Tell me about yourself, your family, your favourite food, what you do at school. Anything. I don’t want to fall asleep.”
“I’m so boring,” Harry protested. “You’re a pop star and a cat and an elf. I’m just a student. I can’t imagine anything about my life would entertain you enough to keep you awake.”
“Don’t be like that. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t find humans sufficiently entertaining. Now, talk, or I’ll claw you,” Louis said, slipping into his cat form and hopping onto Harry’s leg.
Harry laughed. Louis settled himself along Harry’s thigh, tucking his paws up underneath his body. It wasn’t quite as comfortable as curling up in a lap, but that seemed a bit personal. He still felt much warmer and this position might keep him a bit more wakeful than the alternative, so that was all right.
He meowed into the silence. Harry chuckled again and settled a hand gently on Louis’ furred back and tentatively started talking about what he was taking at school. Louis encouraged him with occasional mews or glances, and Harry mostly continued chatting. It was oddly relaxing to listen to his slow, rambling speech, peppered with odd observations and bad jokes.
Louis wasn’t as clear on the passage of time when he was a cat, but he judged it had been about an hour by the time they finally saw Niall emerge from the house. He bowed back at the doorway; the person standing in the house bobbed a curtsy at him and shut the door.
They waited tensely as Niall walked away from the compound. As he approached them, Louis hopped off of Harry’s lap and transformed to stand on two legs. “Well?”
Niall shook his head. “Let’s walk and I’ll tell you.”
Louis grimaced, falling into step beside him. “Nothing? What happened? What’d they say?”
“So, I met with the woman in charge – they just call her ‘leader,’ by the way, but their whole group, they call a choir. Isn’t that perfect? A choir of Sirens? But I digress. Yeah, so her, the leader, and some man who seemed like some kind of second-in-command, that wasn’t really clear to me. I described everything I knew about Harry and his father, aside from the geas thing of course, but they didn’t seem to know anything. Said they hadn’t lost anyone in over a century, didn’t know of any changelings or anyone with a changeling child, et cetera. I asked if I could ask around, see if anyone in the family would have known Desmond, but they wouldn’t let me. She was pretty firm that I wasn’t talking about anyone who was part of their family, so it wasn’t their problem and I had no right to pester everyone over it.” He sighed. “I did kind of obliquely refer to Zayn’s finding spell and she said there’s another Siren family about ten miles down the coast. So, I guess we go see them. Zayn’s spell didn’t seem super precise, so maybe just ended up with the wrong Sirens.”
“Did your cousin mention this other Siren group? I mean, choir?”
“No, which is a little odd, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s a smaller group or maybe they’re just over the border in someone else’s demesne.”
“Yeah, I guess. Shit.” Louis sighed.
Anxiety clenched at his belly as they tramped together back through the fields. They didn’t have time for this kind of methodical investigation, not when Countess Nelvania’s people were around and now knew that they were in the area too.
They were perhaps a few minutes from the edge of the wards when a portal shimmered in the air in front of them.
“Oh, fuck, no,” Louis said. This was it – the Countess’ people were here for Harry, and under the wards of the Sirens’ land, they couldn’t escape.
Only the people who emerged from the gate weren’t wearing Countess Nelvania’s colours. They were dressed all in black and they were Peri.
The two Peri were small, wiry, and hauntingly beautiful with golden-skinned faces and identical black eyes. Their race was a cruel one. Though they were petite, they were vicious fighters. They were also incredibly fast. Louis could probably have fled from them long enough to get past the wards and into the shadows, but there was no way that Harry or Niall could keep up with him.
The Peri started running towards them, flowing across the ground with frightening speed, weapons already in their hands. They didn’t say a word.
He had to leave them, or he had to stand and fight. There was no question in his mind that this would be a fight. Nobody sent Peri to negotiate.
“Harry, behind me,” Louis snapped. His mouth was suddenly full of vicious teeth; long claws appeared at the tips of his fingers. He growled and flung himself at the Peri.
They honestly didn’t seem to expect him to fight back. Stupid – did they not realise they were attacking a Cait Sidhe? He raked his claws across the man’s belly, leaving four deep wounds behind. The man screamed and dropped to his knees, leaving him to focus on the woman. She had two long knives and she instantly shifted to a more cautious mode.
He wished for a weapon. He was faster and stronger than she was, but she was skilled with her blades, and they gave her a reach that he couldn’t match. He had to protect Harry, though. He had to. Harry would surely stand no chance against a Peri, and Niall wasn’t much of a fighter.
One of the blades bit into his arm. He hissed angrily, dancing back, but then she tried to dart around him toward Harry. He leapt toward her again, blocking her; he managed to claw at one of her arms but got slashed in the leg for his trouble.
He hoped desperately that Niall or Harry was up to something – running away, getting help, subduing the other Peri, something. He couldn’t look away from the Peri woman for a moment or all was lost. He thought he heard other voices behind him, but it was hard to tell through the rushing of blood in his ears, through harsh breaths and growls and the shouts of pain when one of them managed to land a blow.
His wounds were burning strangely, not the bright pain of a flesh wound but a deeper, darker sensation. Poison?
He was slowing, he realised with dawning horror. There must have been poison on the knives. Fucking Peris.
He didn’t have long to finish this. The poison was going to take him down. His limbs felt heavy and his vision was going dark at the edges. One last chance. He crouched and then he leapt. If he could just get his claws into her belly or his teeth into her throat—
He slashed at her with his fangs, but at the same time, a knife punched into his side. No, no, no.
As he fell, as the world went black around him, he thought he heard singing.
Louis woke slowly. He felt dazed and heavy, and he registered a distant surprise that he was awake at all. He’d been fairly sure that he was going to die.
His arm seemed to weigh fifty pounds, but he managed to raise it to his face and rub at his eyes. They were gummy and sticky. A little encouragement got them open, though. He blinked in the daylight, registering a white ceiling and pale green walls. There was a little painting on the wall across from him. The homey feeling suggested he was in someone’s room. This struck him as strangely funny, and he giggled.
There was a gasp off to his side. “You’re awake!”
As he turned his head, a face came swimming into his view. He managed to focus on wide green eyes and brown curls. Recognition blossomed sluggishly. “Harry. Oh, good. You’re not dead.”
“Neither are you! Oh, thank god,” Harry croaked, cradling Louis’ face in his hands.
“Was I at some point?” Louis asked, confused.
“I thought—” Harry swallowed audibly and continued in a hoarse voice, “I was so scared. I thought you’d die. There was so much blood and they couldn’t wake you up. They – you jumped right in front of them and – and I didn’t know – I couldn’t do anything.”
He leaned his forehead against Louis’, breathing harshly. A little part of Louis’ mind noted that this was strange, that this posture was intimate beyond the bounds of how well they knew each other, but the cat in him was pleased. He reached up and rubbed his knuckle under Harry’s jaw – he’d smell like Harry, then, if Harry were a cat – and he asked, because it seemed reasonable to ask, “Are you going to kiss me?”
“What?” Harry startled back, putting a few more inches of air between their faces.
“That’d be nice but only if you wanted to because you wanted to. Don’t only like me because I saved you, you know what I mean?” Louis frowned, his brain slowly straining to figure out why Harry looked so confused. “Wait, am I on drugs? And, wait, did you save me? Were you singing at some point?”
“I think they did give you something for the pain, yeah. I don’t really know what. Um, I don’t know.” Harry’s eyes skittered from him as he said, “I don’t – I didn’t do anything. I didn’t – no. I don’t really know. You should… Niall can tell you what happened.”
“Niall. Right. Shit, Niall. He’s okay, right?”
Harry nodded. “Yeah. I’ll, erm, I’ll get him? And he can tell you?”
“Sounds good,” Louis mumbled. He blinked slowly and let his eyes slide shut. “And some coffee. It’s the middle of the day, isn’t it? I’m so tired.”
“Okay,” Harry said.
There was silence for a moment, and then a brief, dry press of lips against his, so quick and light that Louis thought that maybe he’d already slipped into a dream. He cracked an eye open enough to see Harry pulling back, his face red all over, and then Harry was slipping out the door.
Louis dozed. It was probably only a few minutes later that he heard a doorknob turning and opened his eyes again. There was a tall Daoine Sidhe in the white-and-blue tabard of White Cliffs Duchy waving Niall and Harry inside and pulling the door closed.
“I have guards?” Louis mumbled.
“We all do,” Niall said. “Someone did try to kill us. Probably the Sirens whose house we’re in.”
Louis groaned. “I’m so not awake enough for this.”
Harry added, “There wasn’t coffee but I have tea. The healer gave me something she said might wake you up more, but it might also make the painkiller less effective.”
Louis considered this. “Yes, fine, I can deal with the pain. Help me sit up?”
Harry shook his head. “Um, I don’t think that’s a good idea. You kind of got stabbed in the stomach, so.”
Harry and Niall helped hold his head up enough that he could drink the rather disgusting potion, then chase it with the tea. His various pains started to make themselves known almost immediately, but it was still bearable. More importantly, he felt vastly more alert. “Okay. So what the hell happened? What’s happening now?”
“Well, you remember that gate opening and two Peri jumping out at us, right?” Niall said.
“So, you saved our arses and started fighting them, obviously. I couldn’t use my gates to do something clever, because of the wards, and I knew if I got in arm’s reach of the woman, she’d gut me like a fish. The one you took down, he was still conscious and he almost stabbed me when I tried to knock him out, so I figured, the best thing I can do is go get help, but I didn’t know if you’d last that long. So I told Harry…” Niall glanced over at the changeling. “You might want to cover your ears for this part.”
Harry immediately clapped his hands over his ears and started humming to himself.
“So I told him, I’ve got to run outside the wards so I can get help, so, sing and just focus on wanting them to hold still. Like, don’t think about doing magic or any of that, just sing and think about what you want to happen, don’t question it, just do it. And by I told him, I mean I pretty much screamed in his face and then ran for it.” Niall grimaced. “And then I hauled arse and prayed that it would work. I got out of the wards and I opened a gate back to your car – I reckoned Countess Nelvania’s people might’ve tracked us and would be waiting for us there, and if that was true then they’d be the closest warriors I could get.”
“You brought Nelvania’s people to Harry?!”
“Yep, which is the only reason you’re alive,” Niall said curtly. “When we got there, Harry was basically catatonic but still singing, and putting pressure on your terrifying abdominal wound, by the way, and the two Peri were awake and alive and just… frozen. You were passed out. Yeah, and then it was just kind of crazy from there. Nelvania’s people tied up the Peri, Harry passed out, I went and got more people from White Cliffs because obviously this was big, they took you back to the Sirens’ house to patch you up because it was close and because obviously the Sirens are involved, and here we are.”
“Oberon’s balls,” Louis breathed. “You saved us, Niall. Quick thinking. I never would’ve thought we could get Harry to do magic.”
Niall nodded. “Desperate times, I guess. Yeah.” He raked a hand through his hair. “I really thought I was going to come back to find you and Harry dead. I’m… really glad you’re alive, mate.”
“Yeah, me too.” Louis looked over at Harry and gestured at him to uncover his ears. Then he frowned. “Wait. Okay, I’m still a bit fuzzy. The Sirens are involved how?”
Niall raised an eyebrow. “Well, it’s obvious. Those Peri came out of a Tuatha gate. But we were within the Sirens’ wards. If someone opened a gate, it’s because the Sirens let them.”
“Why would they have Peri assassins on speed dial?” Louis said, exasperated at the very thought.
“I don’t know, but do you have a better explanation?”
“Oi.” Louis rubbed his forehead. The motion sent pain shooting down his arm. Right, he’d forgotten that there was a knife wound there, too. “So what now?”
“It’s a mess,” Niall said bluntly. “Countess Nelvania’s here and demanding to give Harry the Choice. I managed to get myself in a room with her and Duke Mallory, which is way above my pay grade, by the way, and said that couldn’t happen until we figured out this geas thing, and by Oberon’s grace Mallory somehow agreed with me because, well, he said, obviously there’s more going on here than we understand and he wants to get to the bottom of it.”
“So they’re getting to the bottom of it now?”
“I’m pretty sure the Countess and the Duke are sleeping. It’s the middle of the day.”
Louis squinted at him. “So why did I just take this potion to wake me up?”
“Because you wanted to know!” Niall exclaimed, throwing his hands in the air. “All right, and honestly, if you were awake, I wanted you to be filled in before things start happening once the sun goes down.”
“How do you feel, anyway?”
“Like I got hit by a truck,” Louis admitted. “Those blades were poisoned, weren’t they?”
“That’s what the healer said,” Harry remarked. He leaned closer to Louis and asked quietly, “Why did this happen? Why would anyone try to kill us?”
Louis had the presence of mind not to point out that in a way, with that geas, someone had been trying to indirectly kill Harry for years. “Why any of this? There’s something happening here that we don’t understand. I suppose there’s not much we can do at the moment with the house sleeping and guards watching us.”
“I suppose not,” Niall agreed. “Harry, you really should try to get a little sleep.”
“I slept a little,” Harry said defensively. “I was asleep when he woke up.”
“Oh, so you dozed in that chair for two seconds in between staring at Louis?”
Harry blushed. “No, that’s, that’s not, I wasn’t staring. I was just worried.”
“I’m a little hurt that you weren’t, Ni.” Louis laughed. It hurt.
“I’m not going to say I wasn’t worried, but I believed you’d be all right once the healer said so. I wasn’t the one trying to hold your guts in with my bare hands, though.”
Harry looked away sharply, his face suddenly pale.
Louis rolled his eyes at Niall. “Thanks for that.”
“Anyway. Any more questions? If not, I’ll go back to my bed. They’ve just got me in the next room over so I’ll be right nearby.”
“All right. First one up to notice anything going on gets the others up, agreed?”
Niall and Harry both nodded, and Niall showed himself out.
Harry bit his lip. “I know I’m being crazy, but. Can I stay? I’m fine in the chair.”
“Oh, you might as well. Just get on the stupid bed. It’s big enough. Just, you know, don’t jostle me.”
“I wouldn’t,” Harry said earnestly. “I’ll be really careful.”
Louis smiled tensely. “Yeah, yeah. Get the lights, would you?”
“I can’t really do anything about the sun.”
“Right.” Louis rubbed his eyes. “I guess I’m still kind of out of it. Okay, whatever, just lay down.”
Harry eased himself down onto the very edge of the bed. Louis imagined snapping at him to get closer and not be so careful, imagined throwing out an arm and pulling Harry in close. Another time, maybe, when his gut wasn’t throbbing with pain. For now, more than anything, he needed rest.
“I don’t know if you can, your throat sounds kinds of messed up, but, er, do you think you could sing to me for a minute? Something relaxing?”
“Of course,” Harry said. His voice was scratchy, but he immediately started singing. He started with a lullaby, soft and sweet. Louis closed his eyes and breathed in. It was there, the faint scent of Harry’s magic, an odd but not-unpleasant mix of geranium and vinegar. He let himself be soothed and sank into the darkness again.
He woke next to soothing darkness and voices outside the door. “H, wake up.”
“Hm?” Harry snuffled against the pillow.
“It’s night. I think people are getting up.” He winced. “And, wow, fuck, that really hurts.”
Harry’s head snapped up off the pillow. “Oh, no. I’m sorry.”
Louis breathed in through his teeth. “’S okay. Just, like, could you get the healer or something.”
Harry dashed to the door and stuck his head out, obviously talking to the guards. A few minutes later, Niall made his way into the room followed by a tall winged woman who carried a few small bottles.
“For the pain,” she said curtly, shoving one of the bottles at him. He pulled the stopper off and poured it down his throat in one go. “I need to change your dressings, and then – not that I’m a messenger, mind you, but you’re invited to break your fast with the Duke. Do you think you can sit and stand?”
“I’ll do what I have to,” Louis said, gritting his teeth and staring up at the ceiling while she pushed his shirt up and started peeling back his bandages.
“Ah, gross,” Niall said. “Harry, here, fresh clothes. Get changed and wash your face or something, at least.”
The healer was efficient – not exactly gentle, but not unkind. She made quick work of changing his bandages, treating the wounds with solutions from her various bottles and noting, “You’re going to live, obviously. This won’t be fully healed for at least a fortnight, maybe two, considering the poison. Your stomach and your leg, they’re probably vulnerable to re-opening for the next few days if you strain yourself, so, you know, don’t do that. Questions?”
“No. I am Cait Sidhe. I’ve had a few flesh wounds.”
She snorted and smoothed down the edge of a bandage. “Right, I’m sure you get gutted and poisoned all the time.”
“The poison was a new experience,” he admitted. So was the gutting, but he didn’t feel compelled to say so. He didn’t really want to think about it.
Getting dressed properly was not a fun time. At least they had a button-down shirt for him so he didn’t have to lift his arms up over his head. Still, even with help, manoeuvring his arms and legs into shirt and trousers was miserable in ways he had never imagined. Getting to breakfast was no easy feat, either. Harry wrapped an arm around him to support him as he shuffled along with tiny steps.
“I’m so sorry,” Harry whispered. “I hate that you’re hurt. This is all my fault.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Louis snapped.
Harry cringed. “I’m really sorry.”
“Lou,” Niall chided. “Sorry, H. He’s just having a hard time. You know this is all his fault actually. Don’t forget that we kidnapped you in the first place.”
“That’s what I fucking said,” Louis muttered. Niall patted him on the arm.
They paused outside of the breakfast room so Louis could suffer the indignity of having Niall pat away the sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief. “Okay, let me go now. I need to walk in on my own.”
“You don’t—” Harry began.
“Harry, let him,” Niall interrupted in a tone that brooked no argument. He opened the door and led the way in. Louis followed, holding himself up as straight as his wounds allowed. Harry didn’t touch him, but he could feel him close behind.
“Your Grace,” Niall was saying, bowing at a male Daoine Sidhe with teal hair and bright blue eyes. “And my lady,” he continued, inclining his head toward a Daoine Sidhe woman who had wavy dusty-rose hair and a distinctive sharp nose. He gestured at his friends and noted, “My companions, Louis, Prince of the Court of Wandering Cats, and Harry Styles.”
“Please sit,” Duke Mallory said. “We needn’t stand too much on ceremony here. I understand this young man to be a changeling. I won’t hold him to your standard.”
Louis immediately decided that he liked Duke Mallory. At least he was willing to insult Harry to his face rather than watching him fail at courtly manners and cutting him down with snide comments hidden under a veil of politeness. “That is generous, Your Grace.”
“Yes, well. You’ve given us a good bit of entertainment. Courtly backstabbings are rarely so literal.” He sighed, pouring himself a cup of a tea. “I only wish it had been a bit more of a challenge to resolve.”
Harry served himself a slice of quiche and wordlessly put another slice onto Louis’ plate, saving him the effort of reaching across the table, bless him. He was wide-eyed with curiosity but clearly afraid to speak.
Louis asked for him. “To resolve? So you know what happened?”
“You spilled quite a lot of your enemies’ blood,” Duke Mallory said drily. “To compel someone to provide me with their blood is not easy, but if it’s already there – well. The blood does not keep secrets from the Daoine Sidhe.”
Harry made a soft sound, a little “ah” of comprehension. Louis was glad in that moment that Harry had already had his own brush with the blood magic of the Daoine Sidhe. It would have been terribly awkward to explain at the breakfast table.
“You know who hired the Peri, then,” Niall observed.
“I do,” Mallory nodded. “All that in good time. Please, do eat. This was prepared by my personal chef. Dinner before the show, you know.”
He was an odd one and no mistake. The food was excellent, though.
Nelvania, Mallory, and Niall kept up a genteel conversation. Louis was glad. He wasn’t feeling too social, between the suspense, the pain, and the knowledge that Nelvania would already have killed Harry if she’d had the chance. He knew he wasn’t being fair – it was not her nature but the rules that were cruel, that would force her to be cruel. Still.
So he kept quiet and ate slowly with careful bites, urging his unhappy body to accept the sustenance it needed. Harry ate just as slowly. Louis could practically feel the tension in him.
Their plates were nearly empty when a door opened, a tiny Hob bowing and waving a Siren woman into the room. She had hair that reminded him of Harry’s true driftwood-coloured waves, though hers was a few shades lighter and had kelp-green streaks that matched her eyes. She was curvy and not very tall. Like any pureblood, she didn’t look a day past twenty, but she held herself with a tight dignity that suggested much older years.
She stopped still and surveyed the room with flashing eyes. “Your Grace, this is how you invite me to break my fast? To a room where everyone has already eaten, and – Maeve’s grace, with a changeling? I’d as gladly join a pig at the trough.”
Duke Mallory quirked an eyebrow. “I’m sure that could be arranged as well, Leader Demara. I would urge you to join us. We have things to discuss.”
She sniffed. “You may be my Duke, sir, but you may not compel me to accept this insult in my own home. I shall join you privately later, or you may find us in the great room.”
“I shall,” he said, inclining his head. She flounced out of the room in a swirl of seafoam-coloured skirts.
“What was that?” Nelvania laughed as soon as the door was closed.
“Well, as you saw, I did give her the opportunity to discuss this quietly, but I’m afraid that she’s now forced me to air this publicly. What a shame.”
Nelvania smirked. “Hm. Indeed.”
“Time for the show, then. Come along, young ones,” Mallory said, smiling at Louis, Harry, and Niall.
They trailed slowly behind as he made his way through the house. Harry wrapped an arm around Louis to support him.
“You don’t have to,” Louis said, teeth gritted against the pain.
“Who said I’m doing this for you?” Harry whispered back. “I’m bricking it.”
“Well, as a favour to you, then,” Louis conceded, leaning into him.
They came to a hallway lined with a dozen of Duke Mallory’s men. Mallory nodded at them all and said, “Earplugs in. If anyone starts to sing, stop them.”
Their small party walked on, soldiers falling in step behind them, through the doors and into a large room. It was a sort of living room that contained at least a dozen adults and one child who looked about ten years old, though it was anyone’s guess what their actual age was. The adults were clustered together on sofas and chairs, breaking off their conversation as Duke Mallory entered and looking up with expressions of wariness, anger, or worry.
Mallory addressed the child first. “You – if anyone’s not here, you might want to go fetch them.”
The child darted out of the room immediately.
Demara stood, her hands gripping her skirt tightly. “Fetch them for what purpose, Your Grace?”
“Well, dear Demara. As your people perhaps know, these three were attacked as they left your lands—”
“Which was not our doing,” Demara cut in, “and despite that, we’ve provided them with hospitality and healing.” Several of her compatriots nodded.
Mallory sighed. “Demara, please. Both of your agents were wounded. There was ample blood available, and blood does not lie to the Daoine Sidhe. They knew that you hired them and so, therefore, do I.”
Demara raised her chin stubbornly. “Well, and so what? No one died. There’s been no violation of the Law.”
“You sent assassins after – why in Oberon’s name would you do that?” a dark-haired woman exclaimed.
“I’m the Leader here,” Demara snapped. “I do what I must to protect this family. That’s all you need to know about it.”
“That’s not how we do things,” a male Siren protested.
“I’m the leader,” she repeated.
Mallory’s voice was low and cold when he said, “Demara. The truth of all of all of this will come out, one way or another. I suggest you do tell your cousin why you sent assassins after guests if you want any chance to justify yourself to your family. I’m sure that I won’t tell the story so sympathetically after I hear it from your blood.”
“I don’t consent to that! And you have no authority to compel it!”
“I do if you stand accused of breaking Oberon’s Law.”
“They didn’t die!”
“Your brother did.”
Demara froze. For the space of a few breaths, she was as still as a statue.
Then she said, “No.” Her voice was clear and strong, but that silence had betrayed her.
“Desmond?” someone asked. His voice cracked on the word.
“No,” Demara said again. “No, he’s lying. We haven’t seen Desmond in a few years, but that doesn’t mean he’s dead.”
“He died ten years ago,” Harry called out hoarsely.
Demara’s nostrils flared as she breathed heavily. She glared daggers at Harry and spat, “You’re filth. You’re nothing and your word is worth nothing. How dare you come into our home and tell lies.”
“Who is this boy?” someone called.
Mallory interjected, “Desmond’s son, if I’m not mistaken.”
A ripple of gasps and protests went through the room.
“Demara,” Mallory continued calmly. “Would you care to explain to your Choir why you killed your brother?”
“Damn you. Damn you all,” Demara cried. She whirled to face the gathered Sirens who were staring at her in horror. “You have to understand. He ran off with some human woman and had a changeling. But then, then, the last time I saw him, he told me that he wanted to bring the boy back here and raise him as his heir. He wanted to bring a changeling to live among us and put him above us all! I couldn’t allow that! I did this for you, all of you, to maintain our family, our way of life.”
A woman with olive skin and storm-black hair stood slowly. “Demara, what have you done?”
A blond man threw his hands in the air. “Why Desmond and not the changeling, then?”
Demara looked away. “If he’d ever found out what I’d done…”
“You only wanted to be the Leader yourself!” the dark-haired woman yelled.
Demara held her hands out. “It isn’t fair. He was going to corrupt everything. And I didn’t kill him, not really. So I caused a car accident. It’s not my fault he died.”
“You’re a fool, Demara,” Mallory said. “And you’ve broken Oberon’s Law, the one law that the father of us all left behind. You’ve taken the life of a pureblood. He has stopped his dancing because of your selfishness.”
A number of the Sirens started weeping. Some of them left the room outright. Demara stood alone, fists clenched, and pleaded, “You can’t let him take me. It wasn’t wrong. It was for all of us.”
“It was for you,” the black-haired woman spat, tears streaming down her face. “Desmond. How could you, Demara? How could you?”
Duke Mallory gestured at his soldiers, who moved to flank Demara, two of them taking her by the arm. “Will you remove the geas from the boy?”
Demara tilted her chin up. “No.”
Duke Mallory sighed. He gestured at one of his guards to remove his earplugs and instructed, “Take these ones back to their rooms. We’re taking Demara to the King’s court. The Choice will wait until this is done and the geas is lifted.”
Another pair of guards silently escorted Louis, Harry, and Niall back to the guest rooms. The three of them filed into Louis’ room, where he could finally collapse onto the bed. He hadn’t been standing long, really, but he felt exhausted, weak and sweating as he relaxed into the pillows.
“What did he mean when he said, until this is done?” Harry asked quietly.
“Until she’s been executed,” Niall answered somberly. “Her death will lift the geas.”
“They’re going to kill her?”
Niall nodded. Louis agreed on a sigh, “Yeah. That’s the punishment.”
Harry crumpled into a chair, curling up around his stomach like he was in pain. “She’s – my aunt? My aunt. They’re going to kill her? Just like that?”
“Harry, come here,” Louis said weakly.
Harry didn’t listen. He pulled his knees up to his chest and moaned. “Oh, god. She killed my dad? She killed him because of me and they all think I’m garbage.”
He started crying with heavy sobs that wracked his slender body.
Niall wrapped an arm around him. “I’m so sorry, Harry. Justice will be done, though. It’s going to be all right.” He murmured more words, rubbing Harry’s back and trying to soothe him, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. He looked at Louis with pleading eyes.
“Come over here,” Louis said again. “Come lie down.”
In the end, Niall just wrapped his arms around Harry and lifted him. He carried him to the bed and deposited him gently next to Louis. Niall curled up on one side, a hand on Harry, while Louis pulled him in with a hand on the back of his head. Harry rolled into the foetal position with his forehead up against Louis’ side and sobbed out his misery for a long, long time. Louis carded his fingers through Harry’s curls. Every wail, every sob broke his heart. He couldn’t fix it. No one could fix it.
As Harry gradually quieted, Louis fell into exhausted, pained sleep again.
“Lou, wake up,” Niall said.
Louis’ eyes fluttered open. It was still dark. “What?”
“The Sirens are going to sing. We should go watch. Come on.”
Niall helped him sit and then helped him walk with an arm around his waist. It hurt, but Louis didn’t say so. Niall seemed to be in a hurry.
As soon as he stepped out the front door, he saw them, a small group on the edge of the sea cliffs. The grassy plain between them looked a mile long. Louis wished deeply that Niall could have opened a gate. Alas, there was nothing for it but to make his slow, trudging way across the field.
The Sirens were dressed all in white or pale grey. Their garments fluttered gracefully in a sea breeze that tossed their hair around but, somehow, never into their mouths or eyes. A sandy-haired man was holding his hands with his palms toward the sky and speaking, but Louis couldn’t make out what he was saying.
He hadn’t been sure whether Harry would have been included in whatever this was. He’d scanned the tiny crowd for Harry’s mop of chocolate-brown curls; there was no sign of the changeling. Then they drew closer, and one solitary face turned to look at them, and Louis stopped breathing.
It was Harry. Louis hadn’t recognised him with his hair coloured in a variegated mix of driftwood-browns, all the colours of things of the land after they were lost at sea. His eyes were intensely, inhumanly green, and they shone wet with tears. He looked adrift.
It had happened, then. The geas was no more. Demara was dead.
He didn’t perceive that they had stopped or that Niall had let him go until Niall’s quiet incantation caught his attention. Niall was twisting some dry grass together and saying something to it, and then suddenly he wasn’t holding grass at all, but a small wicker stool. Enchanted, of course; it wouldn’t last for more than a few hours.
Niall eased him down onto the stool. He let it happen. He couldn’t look away from Harry.
They’d done it, they had bloody done it. They had saved Harry and solved the mystery. He was supposed to feel victorious, probably. He didn’t. He felt wrung-out, shaky and hollow.
Someone started singing. Harry broke his gaze, turning his attention back to the choir. It wasn’t long before he joined in. From the movement of his mouth, it was clear that he wasn’t singing the words, but he was harmonising. It looked like the most natural thing in the world, though surely he had never heard the song before. The words weren’t even in a language that Louis recognised.
It was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. A profound sadness overwhelmed him. Tears poured down his cheeks. Of course: it was a Siren song, and it was a song of mourning. His mind couldn’t understand the words, but the magic told his heart all that it needed to know. This was a eulogy, a remembrance of two people who had been beloved and important. This was a song of profound loss: the loss of lives that should have lasted forever, and the loss of trust, and of the pain of betrayal. The Sirens’ song told him of their agony more clearly than words ever could, and he wept as if the loss were his own.
By the time the song ended, the eastern horizon was growing pale. Dawn wasn’t far away now. The Sirens embraced and spoke quietly and started to move away. Most of the Sirens ignored Harry completely, but a few nodded or murmured a few words to him. A woman whose pale blonde hair was tipped with coral-pink even squeezed his hands and ended her brief speech with a hug.
Louis waited. Truly, he was too exhausted to do anything else.
Harry made his way over to them in time and sank down onto the grass in front of Louis. There were deep dark circles under his eyes, and he moved oddly, hesitantly, like he wasn’t sure how his body would respond.
Louis pinched the fabric of Harry’s loose white shirt between his fingers. “New clothes.”
Harry nodded. “My second cousin lent them to me. I have a second cousin now.”
“New hair, too,” Louis murmured, tugging gently at one of Harry’s locks.
“Yeah,” Harry said shakily. “New everything. Or, same as before, but I didn’t know. I-I know now.”
“How did it happen? Just one moment you didn’t know and the next you did?” Niall asked.
“Yeah. Just like… pop. Suddenly everything you guys had said made sense. It was crazy. I could feel the illusion I was wearing, and I let it go,” he marvelled, wide-eyed. “I’m not entirely sure how to put it back on now.”
“And the Choice?” Louis asked.
“Oh, that’s what that was. You and Niall kept saying that and I had no idea… That makes sense now. Yes, Countess Nelvania asked me if I was human or fae. And, well.” Harry rubbed at the softly pointed tip of his ear. “I mean, obviously not human, so.”
Louis closed his eyes and let the relief wash over him. He wasn’t even indignant that he had missed it. He was just so glad.
In a small voice, Harry asked, “What would have happened if I’d said human?”
“They would have killed you,” Louis said dully. “Can’t have people going around with fae powers who won’t learn how to control them.”
“So that’s why. All of this,” Harry said, looking between the two of them. “That night you took me away – Nelvania was coming to give me the Choice? And I would’ve said human. And then…”
Louis could only nod. Emotions choked him.
Harry flung himself forward, throwing an arm around each of them to hug them as best as he could. “Oh my god. I know I’m not supposed to say thank you, but, god, thank you. You saved my life.”
Louis patted his back gingerly and traded a wry smile with Niall. “Yeah.”
“As much as that weirds me out, I appreciate the sentiment,” Niall said. “But, listen, the sun’s coming up soon. Let’s get back inside.”
Harry pulled back with a frown. “Can’t we just go? It’s over now. I don’t want to be here anymore. I want to go home.”
Niall shook his head. “I don’t think it’s that simple. There are still things to figure out. Like, are you staying here? You need someone to teach you what it means to be a Siren—”
“No. No way, absolutely not. They don’t want me here and I don’t want to be here.”
“Why? They’re your family.”
“Not really.” Harry put his face in his hands and took a deep breath. “It’s all so screwed up. I guess if we can’t leave, then we’d better go back to the house. We don’t have time to deal with all of it before dawn.”
They sought their beds again. Between Louis’ physical distress and Harry’s emotional distress, they were both tired enough to sleep, even though it was barely past dawn by the time they got settled. By unspoken agreement, Harry shared Louis’ bed again.
It was broad daylight when Louis woke to the sound of feet scuffing on the floor. Harry was pacing.
Harry jumped. “Oh, jeez. I’m sorry. No, I’m not used to sleeping all day. I don’t think my body has any idea when it should be awake or asleep by now. It’s like 3 o’clock.”
“Ugh. Can you see if there’s more of that painkiller potion around?”
Harry nodded and slipped out of the room. He returned with a small vial and a pot of tea.
Louis downed the vial and relaxed back against his pillows, significantly more comfortable. “Okay, do you want to talk?”
“Oh, I mean, you should go back to sleep.”
Louis rolled his eyes. “I didn’t hear a ‘no’ in there, so. Go for it.”
Harry settled on the edge of the bed and blurted, “I can’t stay here. They think I’m worthless. And how can I blame them? Their Leader is dead because of me. My aunt is dead because of me. And—and my dad, too. He’d be alive if it weren’t for me.”
Louis grabbed his hand. “Harry, no. You didn’t ask for any of this. It’s not your fault. Demara’s the one who chose to kill someone. She broke our highest law, our one law that Oberon laid down. She had so many other options. She made her choice.”
Harry wiped tears from his cheeks. “It doesn’t feel that way. And you know they don’t feel that way. For them, I showed up and suddenly two people were dead, since they just thought my dad was, like, missing or something. And they sure don’t think that was an even trade, anyway.”
“Why do you say that?”
“They said that although my father intended to make me his heir, he didn’t actually do it, so, like, they don’t have to honour that ‘cause he didn’t make it real.” Harry sniffed. “It’s not like I want to be in charge, but, like, it’s so clear that they don’t want me here. They don’t even think I count as my dad’s son. It feels horrible.”
Louis nodded slowly. “It all went so wrong – because Demara was selfish, you get that, right? I suppose if your father had lived, you would’ve had this whole human adulthood, and then decades with him to learn what being a Siren was all about, and decades more to be in charge, centuries even, depending on when your dad stepped down.”
“Wait, what?” Harry stared at him with impossibly wide eyes. “Did you actually just say centuries? As in, hundreds of years?”
“Yeah? Oh, Oberon’s arse, I forget how little you know.” Louis rubbed his forehead. “I’m sorry. Wow, you had no idea. Yeah, changelings aren’t immortal, but that doesn’t mean you have a human lifespan. A half-blood like you? I’d think you’d have centuries to live, yeah, at least.”
“Oh my god,” Harry whispered.
“We really need to teach you how to swear like a fae.” Louis sighed heavily.
They continued to talk for hours, Harry occasionally puttering around the room or trying to build illusions. Shortly after sunset, Louis was sitting up and feeling more awake, and Harry had just managed to make his hair look short and blonde. It made Louis giggle. “That’s quite a look on you.”
“Yeah? You like it?” Harry said, simpering and pretending to pose for a selfie. They both laughed, but abruptly, Harry sobered and moved to sit on the bed again. “Hey, Louis.”
Harry blushed and looked down at the bedspread. “Erm, do you remember when you sort of asked me to kiss you? Or told me I could, or, I don’t know, really, but, like, was that just the painkillers talking, or did you actually want me to?”
Louis’ heart pounded with reckless honestly. “I did want you to. I wouldn’t have said so without the drugs, though. Bit of an awkward spot to put you in. Normally I’d try to woo a person when I wasn’t bleeding and high and half-asleep. I don’t like to shoot myself in the foot like that.”
“I did kiss you, though.” Harry smiled bashfully, still looking down.
“I mean, if you think that counts.”
“What? You don’t?”
“I’m just saying that I got more enthusiastic kisses when I was six years old,” Louis said airily. “I’m just saying I feel like it probably wasn’t your best work.”
“Hey! You were all drugged-up and stuff. I wasn’t sure if it was an okay thing to do.”
“Well, for your information, although I’m on painkillers, my mind is clear right now.”
Harry’s smile widened, and he shifted closer on the bed. “Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
“Yeah,” Louis admitted. Harry started to lean in, but Louis stopped him with a hand on his chest. Harry looked confused. Louis swallowed around the sudden tight feeling in his throat and said what he knew he needed to say. “But be sure before you do, Harry. You’ve had a hard few days. I’d understand if… Look, just, be sure. Cats, we love fast and we love deep, and. And I’m already forgetting how to say no to you.”
For the span of several breaths, they were frozen in that position. Then Harry nodded once and said, “Then don’t.” And Harry kissed him.
It was gentle and slow. Their lips moved softly against each other’s, just tasting, not asking for more. It was the most perfect thing. It was all Louis could do to keep himself upright.
There was a knock at the door.
Harry ignored it entirely. Louis didn’t exactly mind, but then there was a second knock. He knew that there were matters to deal with, matters that Harry probably wanted to avoid but that Louis just wanted settled. He pushed Harry away from him with gentle pressure and said, “Haz, love, could you get the door?”
“I don’t want to.”
“Well, one of us has to. Are you going to make me do it? Me, the guy with the massive wound?”
It was a servant sent to summon them to Duke Mallory. They dressed as hastily as they could and made their way to the rooms Mallory had claimed. He was there with Countess Nelvania and a Siren who was introduced as Leader Alvin.
Mallory was clearly ready to go, already wearing a fashionable walking coat. As soon as they were in the room, he said, “All right, let’s not tarry. All that remains at this point is to settle the question of what’s to be done about the changeling. It should fall to his father to educate him, but, well. Obviously that’s out of the question. So, what to do?”
“I don’t want to stay here,” Harry said.
“You do have family here. It’s the logical choice,” Nelvania interjected.
Harry shook his head. “I just don’t think it’s a good idea.”
Alvin looked uncomfortable. “Maybe in a decade or two, once the wound isn’t so fresh, but…”
“That’s what I thought you all would say.” Mallory clicked his tongue, disapproving, and turned to Louis. “This situation is a mess, and I’m sorry to say that it is your fault. This would all have been much simpler if you hadn’t meddled where you had no right to.”
Louis stared at him in disbelief. “And a murderess would still be on the loose.”
Mallory inclined his head, acknowledging that point, at least. “Indeed. She’s had her punishment and so, I think, shall you. The punishment should fit the crime. You took this responsibility that was not yours. So, keep it. The changeling shall remain your responsibility. You figure it out.”
“Your Grace, I’m not a Siren. I don’t even know any Sirens. I’m not the one best suited for this.”
Mallory actually rolled his eyes. “I don’t think you were the one best suited for any of this, and yet.”
“You also don’t actually have any authority over me,” Louis pointed out.
“Look. It’s simple. You take responsibility for your mess, or I give that responsibility to someone else, and you get no say at all.” Mallory cocked his head and stared him down with glittering eyes. “Your choice!”
“Louis, please,” Harry said.
“That’s what you want?”
“Yes. Please. I don’t want – whatever the other option would be.”
“Well, okay.” Louis sighed. “Okay. Yes, fine.”
Duke Mallory beamed. “Wonderful. Well, this has been a charming bit of entertainment, but I’m quite over it now. Good luck, children. Farewell!”
The Sirens let them open a portal to leave. In no time at all, they were back at Louis’ car.
Louis leaned up against the hood and said to Niall, “I can give you a lift, if you want.”
“No. I’m ready to be home. Can I talk to you privately for a moment first, though?”
“I can wait in the car,” Harry offered.
Niall smiled and nodded. He pulled Harry into a quick hug. “Be seeing you, Harry.”
“Th—I mean, yeah.” Harry laughed self-consciously. “Yeah. See you around, Niall.”
He hopped into the car while Niall and Louis walked a little ways away before the Tuatha spoke. “Hey, man, I just wanted to say that, you know, I thought you were completely crazy at the start of all this, but I’m… glad I came along. Harry would be dead if it weren’t for you. I can’t believe it was just a few days ago that I was thinking, well, it doesn’t matter, he’s mortal anyway, what difference does it make?” Niall grimaced. “That’s pretty fucked up, now that I think about it.”
“Aww, Nialler. Did you learn a valuable lesson today?”
Niall glared. “Oh, shut up.”
Louis laughed softly. “I can’t help it. I’m really pleased, though, man. And you saved my arse, so I think it’s great that you came along.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Niall smiled slowly. “Which means you owe me. You’re really properly in my debt.”
“So, thank you for bringing me,” Niall said, tasting the rare words. A baffled look crossed his face. “Wow, that feels weird to say.”
Louis pushed Niall away from him. It pulled at his wounds a bit – bad idea – but it was worth it. “Oh, fuck you. You’re going to hold this over my head forever, aren’t you?”
Niall grinned. “I’m going to thank you for every little thing, just because I can, because you owe me. And when I cash it in, whew, is it going to be worth it.”
“If this is the price for converting one of you Divided Court dicks from your bigotry, I don’t know if it was worth it.”
Niall cackled and sketched a shimmering portal in the fabric of the night. “See ya, Louis.”
“See you,” Louis said, middle fingers up.
Niall blew him a kiss, stepped through the portal, and disappeared.
Louis shook his head and walked slowly back to the car. He’d barely settled in the driver’s seat before Harry asked, “So what now?”
“Right this moment? Driving back to my place and brewing an entire bucket of coffee, probably.”
“You know what I meant.”
“Yeah.” Louis drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “There’s a lot to talk about. A lot to figure out. What we’re going to tell your mum, and what you’ll do next and where you’ll live and how we’ll get you the training you need.”
“My mum’s going to kill me. But if she doesn’t, I just want to go back to my normal life.”
Harry’s mouth twisted. “I know.”
“Hey.” Louis reached out and carded his fingers through Harry’s hair, the curly dark hair of his human illusion. Harry leaned into the touch with a little sigh as Louis went on, “It’s going to be all right. We’re going to figure it all out. I’m here to help you, okay? As much as you want me to be, I’ll be by your side.”
“Will you kiss me?”
“What, in general? Or right now?”
“Both,” Harry smiled. “But right now. Kiss me and tell me it’ll be okay? Please?”
“I can definitely do that.” Louis shifted toward Harr but stopped with a grimace. “You’re going to have to come over here, though. I can only move my upper body so much. “
Harry leaned in quickly and kissed him, tasting of tea and a hint of the sea, and Louis felt for the first time himself that it really was going to be all right.
They pulled apart with little sighs. Louis put a hand on Harry’s cheek and looked deep into his eyes. “It’s going to be okay, Harry. I mean it. Do you believe me?”
Harry smiled slowly. “You know what? I think I do.”