Actions

Work Header

Lately I've Been Taken In

Work Text:

Niall dismisses the feeling at first, the squirmy knot in the pit of his stomach. It's nerves, that's all. Nerves at playing the worst and biggest high-stakes gamble of his young life. And in any case, it's the middle of the day. He's never once during his lifetime of training known a single vampire to risk going out in public during the day. Even for the X Factor – perhaps even especially for the X Factor, because as much as vamps have this ego about them that leads to a lot of wild claims of superiority and ultimate domination (usually right before Niall drives his favourite stake through their hearts), most do tend to avoid the kind of feeding frenzy that would get their kind noticed and subsequently stamped out. So the grip in his stomach can't be his highly-tuned vampire sense acting up. Not here.

He swallows around the feeling. It doesn't go away for all of bootcamp, not even when he's put into a band and sent through to Judge's Houses.

+++

They all go to Harry's stepdad's bungalow before Spain, because Liam wants to practise singing as a group, and the others agree that it's probably a good idea, too.

They don't end up doing much singing, though. It's mostly getting a feel for how well they can exist around each other, which apparently means drinking through the cases of Carling Louis buys and running around Cheshire, wreaking havoc.

Liam doesn't drink the beer. "I've got this health thing," he explains, awkwardly, when Niall finally asks, standing in front of the open refrigerator to grab a couple more cans. "I have this really weird diet. Can't drink beer. Can't have most things, actually."

Come to think, Niall hasn't seen Liam eat much of anything in the time they've been at the bungalow. He frowns a little, mind churning, but ignores the pressing ache in his stomach and the way that Liam's face looks wan in the last light of the setting sun in favour of jumping up on Liam's back and demanding a ride back to the rest of the group.

Liam walks him back to the bonfire Harry's got going, and dumps him between Louis and Zayn.

"Oh good, you're here," Harry says, poking the fire with a terrifying-looking iron. Good heft, though. It wouldn’t kill a vamp, but it would certainly slow one down long enough for Niall to find some wood. Harry’s squeezed next to Louis, in the same lounger, and he's got a beer in hand, eyes bright. "Let's all share our deepest secrets and get to know each other better!"

Niall can sense almost everyone else tense up at the proposition, even in the flickering half-light. That sensitivity to people's reactions is thanks to his years of training in fighting and survival, that is. Reading nonverbal cues can mean the difference between life and death, where he's from. "I come from a long, long line of Irish warriors," he says, because it's technically true – every single person in his family has been brought up to rid Ireland of the vampire scourge Saint Patrick brought over to get rid of all the snakes – but it's also off-kilter enough that he's fairly certain no one will take him seriously.

He's right. "Me, too," Zayn says, and when Louis throws an empty can at him, Zayn holds his hands up defensively. "My mum's part Irish, you arse! I might be."

"I believe you, Zayn," says Niall. He has no idea whether Zayn knows Niall is telling the truth and is expressing a similar background, or whether he's latching onto a safe way of taking the piss. It's probably the latter, though. Niall knows most of the hunter lineages in Ireland, even the ones that moved out of the country over the course of the past few centuries. Malik isn’t one of them. Neither is Brannan.

"What kind of Irish warriors?" Harry asks, leaning forward in his seat, despite Louis's noise of protest. "Like, do you hate us because we're British and we oppressed you for so long?"

"What the fuck, Harry," Louis says. His hand hovers at Harry's back before he drops it back into his lap, wrapping it loosely around his sweating can of beer. "What kind of question is that?"

"I'm just wondering," Harry says, indignantly.

Niall raises his eyebrows at Harry. "Guess you'll have to figure that out," he says, leaning back in his seat. "But I've already told you my secret. I don't see anyone else offering up theirs."

"Excuse me," says Zayn, affronted. "I also told you a secret."

"You copied Niall's, that hardly counts," Louis says. "For example, a better follow-up would be, 'meeting James Corden was the best day of my life and one day I want to act in film musicals with him.' Which is mine."

"I've only got one kidney," Liam offers. He's staring distastefully at his water bottle. It's open, but it doesn't look like he's drunk any of it. Niall is fairly certain he's only seen Liam drink apricot juice the entire time they've been in the bungalow. That's weird, isn't it? Even with a kidney thing. Not that Niall knows much about kidney things; his expertise is with blood things. Specifically, vampires. So maybe apricot juice and beans is a logical diet for someone who has kidney problems.

Maybe it's none of his business.

"What a brilliant secret, Liam, thank you," says Louis. "I feel like I know you much better as a person."

"Don't be a dick, Louis," says Liam, and there's a tense silence for a moment before Harry clears his throat.

"My secret," says Harry, "is that I may be a bit of an exhibitionist."

This is the least surprising news in the world. Harry's already walked around the bungalow naked at least six times. It's been four days. "Think we've all already kinda figured that out, mate," says Niall.

"Should I have phrased it as 'my secret is that I wear clothes sometimes?'"

"Duh,," says Louis, laughing, and they settle into pinching each other or - something. Niall can't quite make it out in the flickering of the fire. He's more distracted by the look on Liam's face, anyway. It's pinched, like he's forcing himself not to look sad, or distracted, or - something.

Niall's stomach twists, but he ignores it. It's not like his stomach hasn't been twisting since this whole X Factor thing took off. He makes a little face at Liam through the flickering light and takes a pull from his can of Carling, forcing himself to settle back in his chair and join in on gently ribbing the other lads, carving out a space for all of them to fit.

+++

Niall sits bolt upright in the middle of the night. There's a lowing outside, obviously from a cow, but underneath that there's the sound of someone in pain. His stomach is clenching uncontrollably, twisting over and in on itself so violently he feels like he might be ill.

"The fuck is that?" Louis asks, sitting up next to him. "It sounds like someone's getting murdered out there."

Niall has heard what people sound like when they're dying. Granted, though, his frame of reference is primarily the way vampires shriek, high-pitched and resonant, when splintery stakes are twisting through their hearts, fraying as much tissue as possible with the force of the thrust, and the one time a vampire got to a hunter first, the wet, slick thud of it all. "Yeah," he says. "If that someone is a cow."

He rubs his stomach, and it seizes at the touch, a dull ache setting in through his entire body.

Something is out there.

"They don't usually sound like that." Harry's hair is in a frizzy nebula around his head; he runs a hand through it as he blinks sleepily and it settles down. "The cows."

"Murderer," Louis insists, jabbing Harry in the side with his pointer fingers until Harry squirms and swats at him.

Niall tunes them out. His senses are going haywire, mouth flooding with saliva and hair standing on end all over his body, the way he only gets when a vampire is inches away from attacking. There's something out there, something dark and insidious and setting all the cows on edge. At least they're shut tight indoors in the bungalow. Nothing can get in without an invite.

But that's not going to stop anyone outside from getting hurt.

Niall knows his history. He knows that incidences in Britain are far more spread out than in Ireland. There's not the same historic concentration of vampires in this part of the Isles - maybe one crèche per million people, instead of one per hundred thousand. No one in Bobby's extended network of hunters has reported any vampire activity in this part of Cheshire in decades - he asked around before Niall went.

But the thing about vamps is that those fuckers move, and Niall has a God-given task of hunting them down.

"I should probably go check it out," he says, interrupting Louis and Harry from where they're wrestling on the floor.

"We absolutely should not," says Louis. "I may have just met all of you, Niall, but I don't think getting serial killed is a great band bonding activity."

"Hey," Harry says, frowning and looking around. "Where are Liam and Zayn?"

Fuck. Fuck. Did they go outside before Niall's gut woke him up?

"Probably getting cow murdered," Niall says, distantly. He's already rising to his feet. He only has one pre-fabricated stake with him on the trip - a trusty yew, deliberately splintered, firm and easy to hold - but his training wars with not wanting to reveal his upbringing to his new bandmates if it can be avoided.

He grabs his hoodie from his suitcase and, leaning over, slips the stake in the front pocket, leaving his hand in there with it so that he can stroke the fine-grained ridges he chiselled into the sides reassuringly.

"I guess we're rescuing them, then," Louis says, loudly, to the room, but he's slipping his Toms on nonetheless as Harry goes to open the door, softly.

Niall bumps into Zayn about ten yards from the door. "Shit, mate," he whispers, harshly. "You scared me."

"Sorry," says Zayn. His arms are crossed, hands thrust under the sides of his jacket. "Couldn't sleep."

"Me neither," Niall says. "Louis and Harry are coming to investigate the serial killer in the field."

Zayn gives Niall a sharp look. "What about Liam?"

"He's not with you?" Niall asks. He wraps a hand fully around the blunt end of the stake and listens, carefully, focusing on the sounds he's spent his whole life training to hear under any level of commotion.

There's no telltale click of teeth descending or the pop-and-slurp of skin tearing as they try to get at the warm blood underneath, however faint, but he doesn't relax the hold.

"Thought he was with you guys," Zayn says, brow furrowed, as Louis and Harry pile out from the bungalow, furiously loud in their attempts to keep quiet.

"Thought he was out here," Niall says, also frowning. There's a loud noise that suddenly sweeps in from across the hedgerows, an unearthly howl. It's a cow, but Niall's never heard a cow that sounded like that before in his entire life.

Louis and Harry pull Niall and Zayn into a huddle. Niall's arm gets jarred, and he almost jabs the stake out of his pocket. His heart pounds at the thought of the others potentially seeing it. Of the questions they might ask. "D'you think we're going to get murdered tonight?" Louis asks, eyes wide. "Harry, does that happen here often?"

"Probably," Zayn says, darkly. "It does sound fucking weird out there."

"Should one of us investigate?" Harry asks. He's clinging very close to Zayn, head tucked against Louis's shoulder, arm brushing Niall's side.

"I'll do it," Niall offers, pulling back from the group.

"You can't go alone!" Louis insists.

Niall can't tell if they're actually scared, or if they're hamming it up. One thing he's learned about his new bandmates in the short time they've been together is that both Louis and Harry have an intense flair for the dramatic. One-upping each other in proclamations and declarations, followed by collapsing into laughter, seems to be of particular interest to the two of them. Louis could genuinely think there's a murderer out there, or he could just be trying to drag them all into a bout of playacting.

He decides to assume the latter. "Irish warrior, remember?" he asks, waggling his eyebrows.

"I don't like it," Harry says, brow furrowed.

Niall looks to Zayn, but Zayn doesn't say anything. He just keeps giving Niall this weirdly penetrating look. "If I don't come back in ten minutes," Niall says, finally, after weighing out how likely it is that there's a vamp in the field and how long it'll take him to take it down if there is. "Send out a search party."

"Godspeed," Louis whispers, dramatically, clapping Niall on the back, so Niall tiptoes away, just as dramatically.

As soon as he's out of sight, he goes into full stealth mode, pulling his hoodie up over his hair and taking his stake out of his pocket, holding it flat against his leg as he walks, quickly but steadily, softly, toward the hedgerow. Now that he's on the prowl, the ache in his stomach is subsiding a little, less queasy churning and more of a dull throb - not something that would get in the way of a battle, but also not something that will allow him or his body to ignore any threats.

He runs into Liam right at the edge of the bush.

"Oh, hey, Niall," Liam says, wiping the back of his hand against his leg. Niall slips his stake back into his pocket, quickly and nimbly as possible. "You hearing these sounds?"

"Yeah," Niall says. He forces himself to laugh even as his nostrils flare at the rich scent of blood on the air. Something's definitely out there. He's got to slip away and catch it. "Fuckin' wild, isn't it? Louis reckons it's a murderer."

Liam laughs a little, stilted, the way he always does when Louis comes up. "He would, wouldn't he?" he says, frowning. "Kind of does sound like one, actually."

"Yeah," Niall says, even though he disagrees. He needs to shake Liam and get out there. "I'm going to investigate."

"Is that safe?"

"You're still here," Niall points out. He stands up on his tippy toes but he can't quite see over the fence. "And I'm scrappy." He holds up his free arm, flexing for Liam.

Liam laughs again, appreciatively. "Yeah, yeah," he says, but there's still worry etched between his eyebrows. "I'm going with you."

Fuck. That wasn't the plan. "Okay," says Niall. Worst case scenario, he can push Liam out of the way and come up with some bullshit story after the threat is eliminated.

But there's nothing when they get around the bushes, nothing beyond the fence but a herd of very disgruntled cows. "Maybe it was just, like," Liam purses his lips. "Cow sex?"

Niall bends over laughing, slapping his leg with mirth that is only half-faked. He finally releases his hold on the stake. He can't smell the blood anymore, not even when he leans in close to the ground. Maybe it was all a mistake. The rancid twist in his stomach is settling back down to the dull, squirmy knot he's had since he started in on this X Factor thing. Maybe there was another hunter. Maybe the threat's gone. "Cow sex," he says, straightening up again. Nope, no blood at all on the air. The atmospheric weirdness has subsided. He'll have to call his dad about it and ask what might be up, once they've reassured the other lads that no one has been brutally murdered yet. "Classic, Liam."

Liam looks proud of himself as they go to rejoin the others, so much so that Niall spins a story about how Liam saved the entire day by scaring off the cow murderer with his valiant efforts. The shadows in the corners of Liam's face have completely subsided, and he looks fuller, more relaxed than he's been this entire retreat so far.

It's worth it.

+++

"I'm not convinced that you're telling the truth," Louis says, crossing his arms and frowning down at Liam. "Not drinking is one thing. Not eating candy is quite another."

"I'll eat apricots!"

"Apricots aren't candy," Louis says, coldly.

Something twists in Niall's heart when he watches Liam's face fall. "Shove off," he tells Louis, laughing and clapping him on the shoulder. "Liam's really just leaving more for the rest of us, aren't you, Leemo?"

"Yes," Liam says, crossing his arms. "You clearly love it so much, so I'm letting you at it."

Louis squints his eyes at Liam and takes a full handful of M&Ms, shoving them in his mouth. Some of them fall back out as he's chewing. Niall is duly impressed. "Fanks," Louis says, mouth still full.

"No problem," says Liam, wincing slightly as Louis goes for another handful before he's even swallowed.

This is probably some kind of rite-of-passage thing, Louis testing Liam before letting him into the bonds of brotherhood or whatever, so Niall doesn't intercede again.

That night, though, when Niall offers Liam an extra-rare hamburger - seemingly one of Liam's only concessions toward food that isn't ultra-healthy, Liam shakes his head. "That cow murderer turned me off beef," he jokes. "Thanks, though. I'll find something else."

Flicking through his mental notes on Liam's behaviour, Niall has to acknowledge that he hasn't seen Liam eat much of anything since that night. He hasn't even seen Liam drink his ubiquitous apricot juice. But maybe Liam's just weird about food that way, so Niall just shrugs and throws some cheese on the burger for himself. He'll keep an eye out, in case it needs to become his business, but will leave it lie for now. It's already hard to believe, but he's only known Liam - and the rest of them - for effectively just a few days. There's still room to learn.

They're all getting used to each other. Harry doesn't even protest when Niall swipes his guitar anymore, and there's a sense of calm that Niall can feel even through the clenching in his gut when they sit around the bonfire at night, debating what song to sing for their judge.

It's not that he forgets about the weirdness in the air the night the cows went wild - Niall has been trained far too well for that. It's just that it seems a little bit less important, now that everything has subsided, now that they're getting closer and closer to the competition, now that he's slotting in with his new bandmates like he's known them his whole life.

+++

When Niall was just four years old, Bobby and Maura sat him down at the kitchen table and gave him a plate full of colcannon and a sippy cup of orange juice. Niall wasn't aware of much at the time, but he was aware of how much the two of them fought. He didn't fully understand what divorce was, conceptually speaking, but Greg had assured him that their parents were probably getting one, so as he shoved handfuls of potato into his mouth, he'd half expected them to say they were getting one, whatever it was.

Instead, Maura had said, "We've decided you've got a right to know, baby," and that's when Niall learned that monsters were real and that, even though he had a penchant for talking to strangers, he absolutely shouldn't talk to the ones that didn't have reflections - that he should call for his mum or da or big brother whenever he saw one.

Bobby started training him when he turned seven. "Never use this against your classmates, Niall," he'd said, and taught Niall how to find the soft spots of a body with shards of wood, thrust, and twist to protect himself.

Niall was taught that vampires have been plaguing Ireland since Saint Patrick brought them over the sea on a bed of graveyard dirt to chase off all the snakes; and that there's a reason Dracula was written by an Irishman. He was taught that flesh heals fast around anything except splinters of wood and silver, that rupturing their stomachs weakens them as they lose the blood they've drunk, but rupturing their hearts and leaving splinters in them is the only way to keep them from coming back for more - and that cutting off their heads and burying them a certain distance from the body adds even more insurance against them coming back. He was given lessons in which woods are the best and how to carve stakes from hard versus soft woods, and then handed his first whittling knife and a pile of sticks: yew and birch, rowan and hazel, elm and willow.

"I hate that we had to tell you so young," Bobby said, as he showed Niall how to hold the knife carefully and chisel away at the sticks, making the ends as sharp and splintery as possible. "But it's getting bad here around Mullingar, and the sooner you know, the less I have to worry that something will happen to you when my back's turned. I gotta know you can fend for yourself."

When Niall was eight, he snuck out of the house behind Bobby and some of his hunter friends - Greg was supposed to be watching him, but Greg was watching porn instead. He followed his dad to the unconsecrated graveyard where a sighting had been reported before announcing himself, and ended up staking his first vamp. Bobby pushed the wood in deeper after Niall's thrust, showing Niall how to twist it to make the thing curl in on itself and lie finally, terribly still, and then told Niall to look away whilst he took care of its head. He'd hugged Niall close to him for the rest of the night, alternately telling Niall how proud he was and apologizing that Niall had to learn to hunt and kill before he could even ride a bike without training wheels.

Since then, Niall's made eighty-seven kills. His parents have both insisted that Niall make a life outside of the hunt, but he still trains for a couple hours a day, learning different fighting techniques that have made him scrappy and wiry and able to dart into a vamp's space and shove a stake between its ribs before it can get a lock on him.

"Go out and make your own life." It's what the County Westmeath cadre of hunters have insisted since that day in the cemetery, since Niall walked away with the hyperoxidised rust-brown sludge vampire blood always turns into, with time, all over his hands for the first time.

Which is why Niall tried out for the X Factor.

"The only good vamp is a dead vamp." It's the message Niall has heard, loud and clear, nearly every day since he was four years old: the haggard hunters joking, cracked skin of their hands wrapped tight around pints or cigarettes or IV bags of blood, replenishing what a mistake and a vampire took. It was embroidered on pillows and scratched into the margins of Bibles and written in his bones.

That's why he brought his stakes with him to England.

+++

The feeling in the pit of Niall's stomach starts to dissipate when he goes back home, settling into familiar old nerves in the week after they've all left the bungalow. He likes his new bandmates; they're funny, all told, and they had a right old laugh about the cow murderer and everything once all was said and done.

They've only practised Torn, like, four times, but they'll have time at their judge's house to go over it a bit more before their final audition next week. And, god, that's so close he can almost taste it.

Jittery with nerves, Niall borrows Bobby's car one night and drives out into the middens of the midlands, searching for a fight. There haven't been reports of any vampires attacks nearby, not recently, but the old chapel ruins on Knockeyon prove fruitful. Vampires are always drawn to formerly-consecrated grounds that have lost their lustre, after all. There's a young one, a true beauty with long hair that matches her red, red eyes. There's only a little bit of graveyard dirt under her claw-like nails, and she gives Niall a real challenge, darting around him as he scratches her with his stake, trying to hone in on her heart.

He gets her, in the end, held up against the rough bark of one of the old oak trees, twisting the stake as he pushes it deeper, letting the splinters twist off as he puts all his strength behind cracking her ribs and getting the slivers into her heart. His hand is slippery with the sweat of his exertion by the time he pulls the stake back out and checks to make sure her heart is well and truly punctured.

Then it's just packing the wound with more wood fragments and sawing her head off, burying it and her body thirty feet apart. He wipes the dirt and her thick, muddy blood off on his jeans and drives back home. He feels good, good enough that his dad inevitably lecturing him for going hunting solo and unannounced can't even harsh his groove.

That is, until he boots up his ancient computer when he gets home to enter the data about this kill into his hunting spreadsheet. There's an email waiting from Harry at the top of his inbox.

Harry's sent:

Hi boys!

Hope we're all really excited about Judge's Houses next week! I wonder who we'll get? Speaking of, Zayn, have you got your passport yet as we're running out of time if you haven't!

Also, I think maybe there WAS a murderer in the field! OMG. Someone did a number on Ms Garrity's best milk cow. Check it out!!! http://tinyurl.com/murdercows.

See you all so soon! I'm so excited!

Love,
Harry

Niall follows the link to a news article about an eviscerated cow. At first he's distracted by the in-depth description of the stomach, ripped to shreds, innards pulled out and chewed up, surrounding the carcass, and he doesn't even look at the pictures.

When he comes back to the article after a long dinner where Bobby lectures him on the importance of hunting safety and never, ever hunting alone when no one knows where you've gone for about forty-five minutes, though, he takes a deep breath and enlarges the photos.

The pictures show decaying wounds eating away at the cow's hide. Decaying puncture wounds that look like bite marks.

+++

Since no one knows for sure where they're headed for judge's houses until they get there, Bobby sends Niall off to the London rendezvous point with a bottle of garlic pills, as vampires hate the effects of allicin on blood quality. He can't fly internationally with a lot of stakes, particularly when he doesn't know his target destination - if it's America, he'll be fucked - so Bobby also gives him a lot of shitty wooden pencils, ones that break easily but which can be sharpened to a fine point as necessary to get the job done. They're a hunter's best friend in a tight spot.

Luckily, vampires don't seem to be a problem in Spain. Too much sun, perhaps. The food has too many allium compounds. Liam only picks at his, again, eating beans here and shellfish there but not much of any of it, but this time, Louis doesn't mock him; he also looks a little wan around the gills.

The penetrating problem in Spain, rather than sharp teeth and sharper stakes, is sea urchins. One rams Louis through the foot. Liam, making a face, carries him out of the water, carefully cradling his foot in one hand, until the others can gather around and help him limp to a car to go to hospital.

Niall walks in on Liam washing a trickle of blood off his hands in their rooms not long after. "Gross," he says, watching as Liam scrubs and scrubs at his skin until it's bright red with the friction of it all.

Liam nods, stepping back from the sink and drying his hands carefully. "I'm really weird about blood, too," he admits, finally turning to face Niall directly.

Niall doesn't correct Liam's assumption. "Didn't know his cut was that bad," he says.

"I could tell from the moment he stepped down on it," Liam laughs. Niall must give him a weird look or something, because he adds, "The way he reacted. Louis talks big but I think he's a big old softie, once you crack through his shell." With a twisted smile, he adds, "And that sea urchin certainly did."

Niall laughs along with Liam this time, dutifully. "You think he's going to be back in time to audition?"

"I hope so," Liam says, sobering up quickly. "We ought to practise our song without him, just in case."

But they all sound horrible without Louis, bad enough that they all sort of unofficially decide they can't go in front of Simon without him. Niall follows Liam as he walks off to go pace somewhere where Harry isn't sat, looking altogether far too scared for Louis's wellbeing.

"Scared we won't get through, or scared for Louis?" Niall asks Liam, because he's a mix of both, himself, and figures he'll get the most sympathy for that stance from Liam, who has clearly wanted to get through for longer than any of the rest of them.

"Can't I be both?" Liam asks, frowning, so Niall holds up his hands, defensively.

"I'm the same," he admits. God, he's so jittery. He wishes he could go kill a vampire right now, just stake one right through the heart and leave it pinned to the ground with the force of his thrust, he's that on edge. But it's the middle of the day and the sun is shining brilliantly and he hasn't got any truly useful supplies on him right now. The weird twisting in his gut must just be nerves, then. There's surely no vampires out here, not for miles.

Liam settles down a little, so Niall moves closer to him. "It's just," he says. "It would be really awful if I didn't get this a second time. But God help me, even though he clearly doesn't like me as much as the rest of you, at this point I feel like it would be really awful to get through without any of you. Even Louis."

"I like you as much as everyone," Niall says, because he can't speak for Louis about whether Liam's got him pegged right or not.

"Cheers," Liam says, rolling his eyes a little, so Niall laughs and elbows him. His stomach is still messed up, even though it's the middle of the day and he's been taking his allicin dutifully, but laughing with Liam in the sun - it settles him. Liam is quietly funny, and so fixated on winning that it helps Niall remember that sometimes, it's okay to forget about the monsters that go bump in the night. Sometimes, it's okay to be really selfish about what you want for your life. And while Niall has grown up so entrenched in hunting that he can't picture his life without it - so entrenched that he's grown dependent on it to distract him from when things get rough in his civilian life - it's not what he's always wanted to spend his whole life doing.

"I mean it," Niall says, insistently. Since he's not a fan of keeping secrets that, in the long run, don't even matter, he adds, "You make it seem more okay to want this so bad."

"Oh," Liam says, looking very pleased, yet simultaneously very uncertain about being so pleased. "Thank you?"

"C'mere," Niall says. Ignoring the eternal twisting in his stomach - the allicin should really be keeping that from happening, since it's daytime, they're by water, and he can't see any vampires within a hundred-foot radius, so it's probably just weird extra-intense nerves or, God forbid, indigestion - he tugs Liam into a side-hug. "Louis will be okay. We'll get through together."

"I hope so," Liam says, seriously.

"Well, I know so," says Niall.

And, as it turns out, he's right.

+++

Bobby goes with Niall to help him move into the X Factor house. There are always reports, throughout the hunter's network, that there are vampires in London - so many people, and so many dark corners, that a significant portion of England's limited population clusters there. There are other hunters in London, too, of course, but Bobby maintains that you can't trust anyone to save you better than you can trust yourself. So he brings falsified papers that Niall's got very bad diabetes, and they use that to get a locking minifridge installed in the room Niall's sharing with the rest of the lads in his band. Even though he's supposed to be shut into the house at nights and surrounded by cameras and people the rest of the time, they're both of them fully aware of just how badly plans can go when there's a monster around, so the fridge is stocked full of blood, in case Niall gets into a bad fight and needs to give himself an emergency IV.

Since there's a lock and Niall is the only one with the combination, he also puts all of his extra stakes and garlic pills in there, too. Less of a chance that someone will stumble across them that way. Less of a chance for weird questions that way.

He keeps his favourite stake strapped to the inside of his left trousers leg at all times, the loose folds of his bottoms hiding it easily, the false pockets he's got cut into all of his jeans and trousers and everything making it easily accessible in a fight. Everything else - except for the silver crucifix he wears under his shirt - goes beneath his bed.

A part of Niall doesn't want to even have to remember that all that stuff is there, or that he might need it. Despite the reports of London attacks, there really aren't that many vampires in England anymore. They've been hunted down, or they've stolen enough of their own graveyard dirt to travel across the ocean to better lands, with less media attention and more limited exposure to hunters. It would be so nice to forget about it all and take a break for as long as this X Factor ride will take him.

But the competition is stressful enough that, realistically, he'll go looking for a fight before one ever comes to him. So he endures his dad's murmurs of warning as he gives Niall a hug and heads off back to the motherland, before launching himself into a giant band cuddle and demanding, loudly, that they go out and get a McDonalds for dinner.

And so he settles back in with his band. Niall's grown fastidious with his belongings, careful to have a place for everything and keep everything in its place - sometimes, being quick on the draw can mean the difference between life or death; if not for him, then for a vampire and whatever target it may set. The rest of the lads seem to be a messy bunch, though, and to blend in, Niall has to bite back his instinct, which is to keep everything in the room sorted and out of the way. Harry fusses for a few days, trying to keep Louis's stuff from drowning out the floor around their bunk bed, before he gives up.

Niall pops another garlic pill and chases it with a Tums and reaches under his bed, past the mess, to make sure his belongings haven't shifted enough that muscle memory will hurt him, if push comes to shove.

They're fooling around one day in between filming another bit with the Sainsbury's Big Night In cooks and bricking it over how rehearsals for their very first live show are going when Louis flops back on the floor, rolling away from where Harry and Zayn were trying to tickle him into submission.

Niall is sitting on the edge of the fray with Liam. They're pressed tight together, side by side, because Liam still isn't quite sure how to integrate himself in with the group, socially, and Niall has far too much training in deadly force and fighting and not enough in playacting at wrestling to feel comfortable with risking joining in. "Can't believe we've been to Simon Cowell's office, lads," he says, flinging a friendly arm around Liam's shoulders and pretending he can't feel the way Liam twitches, then sighs and settles into Niall's touch.

"I know," Harry agrees, crawling back over to Louis and trying to jam his fingers into Louis's armpits and dig another giggle out. "How sick is this?"

"Stop," Louis whines, slapping at Harry's hands. "Zayn, save me!"

"Save yourself," Zayn says, complacently, and sneaking a hand over to stroke, light and fast, up the bottom of Louis's foot when he's distracted by fending off Harry.

Louis twitches away from the both of them. "I reckon Simon's a vampire, actually," he says, rolling up into a sitting position and drawing his knees up against his chest. He wraps his arms around them, scooting as far back as he can in the process so that he's just out of Harry and Zayn's gasp again.

Niall freezes at Louis's words, and his arm must clench around Liam's shoulders when he does, because Liam jerks violently against his arm in the same moment.

"A vampire, huh?" Zayn says. His voice is careful in a way Niall wouldn't have expected from anyone in this house, almost like he's heard enough stories to know that vampires aren't just jokes. Niall shoots a glance his way, but Zayn's face is inscrutable. "How d'you figure?"

"You know how his blinds are always closed in that giant office of his even though he's got massive windows?" Louis says. "And he only comes here at night. No traveling outside during the day, our Simon. Plus only someone who's been dead for a million years would think that his sense of style is cool."

Niall flicks through the possibilities in his mind, quick as he can, and discards Louis's theory just as quickly. Even if Louis seriously knew that vampires actually are real, even though Niall's been maybe vaguely sensing one since he started this X Factor journey, it doesn't add up. Simon ate a lot of garlicky mussels outside in the noon sun in Spain. No vampire could stomach any part of that, beyond the iron-rich mussels, and only those if they had a very particular sort of preparation.

"A vampire," Harry says, laughing so hard that his face starts to turn red. God, that's an embarrassing reaction to such a mediocre joke. Niall feels a little bad for him. "Classic, Lou."

"Yeah," Liam says, loudly. His laugh is short and stilted, and it's clear to Niall that he's trying to find a way to integrate himself into the group a little better. "Vampires aren't even real."

Louis gives him a quelling sort of look. "I know that, Liam," he says. "That's why it's funny."

Niall's stomach churns a little. He's pretty sure that it's from the way that Liam's face goes carefully blank at Louis's words, since the house doors are locked up tight and there's security posted outside and altogether there is very little likelihood that a vampire walked inside just then. He reaches into his pocket and dry-swallows another allicin tablet, anyway. Just in case. He's lucky that none of the lads seem to have a very good idea of what diabetes means, precisely; they don't question all the pills he's always taking.

"You feeling okay?" Liam asks, brow furrowed.

It makes sense that he'd be the one to notice at all, anyway, what with his kidney and his own weird diet stuff. "Just fine," he tells Liam, smiling reassuringly. Glancing over at Louis and Harry, who are now trying out impressions of what they think Vampire Simon Cowell would look like - and getting pretty much literally everything about vampires wrong in the process - he adds, "And you?"

"I'm good," Liam says, a little tersely.

Niall faces him head on. "Good," he says, and doesn't bother to hide the hint of challenge from his voice.

Liam winces and draws back. "Mate, what on earth did you eat today to make your breath that rancid?" he asks, and then winces. "I mean - I'm sorry, I —"

"No, you're fine," Niall says, pulling his arm back from around Liam and hugging it to his front. "Sorry. I'll go brush my teeth."

When he comes back out again, Liam's moved into the main room of the house. Niall follows him and sits down next to him, perching on the arm of the big old chair Liam's claimed as his own. "Louis does like you," he says, reassuringly. "He's just… you know, he's got his own way of showing it."

"Thanks," says Liam, kind of impatiently. He takes a deep breath, then lets it go. "I mean, I know he does." He frowns. "I know I don't play around like the rest of you guys do, but I just. I don't want anyone to get hurt."

"Ooh, Payno, are you terribly strong, then?" Niall asks. He doesn't point out that he doesn't roughhouse with the others, either. He knows he looks like he's just a little slip of the lad, his ropy muscles hidden under the folds of his baggy jeans and t-shirts. But he's snapped vampire's necks before with the force of the way that he wraps his legs around their heads, pushing with his foot to keep their teeth away from any of his flesh. Human bones are brittler. He's been told his whole life to never fight anyone, not even a bully, on account of the damage he can do, unless he's sparring with another hunter who knows how to dodge his attacks.

Liam smiles, a little reluctantly. "You know me," he says. "I've had boxing lessons. I'm a right terror."

Niall's heart goes out to him and his bluster, his bravery. "They get that, you know?" he says. "They know you're a fighter. They respect that."

"Don't much care whether people respect it," says Liam. It is abundantly clear that he is lying. "As long as we get through."

"There's other ways to play around, yeah?" says Niall, He nudges Liam's knee with his foot. "You know?"

"I used to be convinced that monsters would get me in the middle of the night and take me away," Liam confesses, in a rush, in a whisper. "Like, I know that vampires are, you know—"

"Not real," Niall supplies. His tongue feels thick in this mouth, catching on the lie as he forces it out.

Liam laughs, but it's more of a huff of breath than anything. "Yeah," he says. "But like, when I was a kid — you know, what if they got me anyway? You know? And even though I'm older now and know better, it's still not funny."

"If you tell Louis that, he'll understand," Niall says. He's pretty sure it's true. He's pretty good at reading people, and he's pretty sure Louis keeps poking at Liam's fragile shell because he wants Liam to let go a little bit, let loose and have fun. Meet him in the middle instead of focusing on the music all the time. It may not be as conducive to winning, but it certainly would make the experience more… enjoyable, maybe.

"Yeah, but," Liam says, and shrugs helplessly.

Oh. "He won't use it against you," Niall says, as reassuringly as he can. "At least, I'm pretty sure he won't." When Liam's face doesn't clear, he adds, "Or you could always change the topic to, you know, something you find funny, instead."

"But what if what I think is funny is something that he doesn't?" Liam asks. He twists a little, lowers his voice even more. No one else is in the main room with them — it's well late — but the house is full of people who they're competing against, and a couple of them would likely use any kind of fractious band business against them. Katie Waissel definitely would, at least. "Like, I think he feels a little out of his element with all the music stuff. Do you get that impression?"

Niall raises his eyebrows, despite himself. He hadn't, actually, for all that he's generally good at reading people. But it makes a lot of sense. "Now that you mention it, yeah."

"So like, I want to offer to like, work with him on that, but what if he takes it the wrong way?" Liam blurts. "I don't want anyone to feel like they don't fit in with the band."

The 'else' goes unsaid, but Niall doesn't let it stay that way.

"You do fit in, Payno," he says. "You've got the best voice of all of us, we all know it."

"Yeah, but we're a band, aren't we?" Liam says. "Our voices should be equally represented. I don't want you all to resent me for being given the first verse all the time." He frowns. "I want to fit in socially too, you know?"

Niall's heart aches. At least it's a change-up from his stomach aching all the time. "You do," he says, reassuringly, and then amends it to: "You will."

"I guess," Liam sighs, and he pushes himself up out of the chair. "I'm going to get some more apricot juice. Want anything?"

"You and that apricot juice," Niall says, more gentle than teasing. Perhaps ribbing Liam nicely will help him acclimate to the group better.

"I've got an iron deficiency," Liam says, uncomfortably. "Because of my kidneys. It helps with that."

"I suppose it would, at that," Niall says. He pauses, then, still careful, says, "You with your iron deficiency and me with my asthma… we're a right pair, aren't we?"

"That we are," says Liam, but he still looks more uncomfortable than relieved.

Niall frowns, thinking back to Liam's odd and oddly-infrequent meal choices. "Is it - do you eat less around us because you're concerned about what we'll think of your dietary needs?" he asks.

Liam laughs. There's a hint of humour to it, which sends a stronger-than-expected blast of relief through Niall. "You could say that," he says.

"Well, I've got an iron constitution," says Niall. "If you ever want to have company when you eat. Even if it's something really gross, like bull testicles."

An odd look crosses Liam's face, but it's quickly replaced by a genuine grin. "I'll keep that in mind, mate, cheers."

"Anytime," Niall tells him. He waggles his eyebrows. "Why don't you get your iron-rich apricot juice and bring it back up to our room? We can work on integrating you in the group again."

"I'd like that," says Liam. He sounds almost shy about it, and Niall's heart twinges at the thought in a way that he's not used to. It's not that he doesn't generally care for people; it's that he's had to learn to be hard, in his line of work.

But that's what he's here for, isn't it? New experiences. Recognizing different dreams. Feeling soft in response to a new bandmate and, tentatively, new friend, also being soft, instead of just acting soft when the situation demands it. It's so… weird-different, but not weird-bad, to be in a place where he can allow himself to be genuinely open and present and warm instead of hyperfocusing on potential dangers and just pretending to be friendly to fit in around other people, without fearing that it'll lead to someone human dying

He just can't let his concern cloud his focus on the competition, particularly when something is still telling him that there's something malicious close by. No one in the house has made his vampire senses go haywire — and Simon Cowell hasn't, either, no matter what jokes Louis may make — but there's something not-quite-right going on, and it's his sworn duty to protect the humans around here from whatever it may be.

Just gotta protect everyone in this place from whatever evil may be lurking about whilst also fighting against them to get my name out there in the music business. Simple, he thinks to himself, as he watches Liam come back from the kitchen, juice in hand, and follows him up the stairs.

+++

Liam sounds truly dreadful the morning of their first live show. There's no strength behind his singing, and the rest of them are flagging behind him, unable to find their voices when he's not guiding them through Viva la Vida.

"Harry could take lead?" Louis suggests, helplessly, when they're huddled up off to the side backstage, trying not to hear how great Aiden's run-through is sounding.

"Harry could bloody well not," says Harry. Liam may sound sick, but Harry looks it, face pale, sweat beading out on his brow.

"It's not my favourite song," Zayn admits. "But if you need me to, Liam, I'll practise taking first verse and see how it sounds?"

Niall catches Louis's eye, and they share a grimace at the way the others are now debating the relative merits of Liam still trying to take the lead versus letting Zayn try it, or making Harry do it. Niall happens to love Coldplay, and he'd be happy to take lead on it, but he's not about to nominate himself if no one else is going to do it. It's already been made perfectly clear to the entire band that Savan Kotecha is obsessed with Liam's vocal prowess and Harry and Zayn's raw talent. He hasn't had much to say about Niall and Louis, yet.

It doesn't feel great, but Niall has soothed himself with the knowledge that he can rip the head off a supernaturally strong undead being with his bare hands when push comes to shove. Plus, empirical evidence suggests that he's not a bad singer; he's made it this far, and people who've heard him back home all have great things to say.

Louis edges over until he's stood next to Niall and knocks their shoulders together. "Happy to provide backup with you no matter who takes lead," he whispers, and Niall has to clap his hands over his mouth to push back a nervous laugh.

"Right there with you, Lou," he says, and relaxes a little with his next breath. They'll sort it out. They've got to.

But the looks on the faces of his other bandmates - they're still panicked. "Do you need an antibiotic?" Harry is asking Liam, frowning. "Is it your kidneys? Do you need coffee? Something for energy?"

Liam frowns. "Maybe I've got low blood sugar," he says. Even when he's just talking, he sounds weak. "I've got - maybe I'll have a juice and see what happens, but you lot have got to keep practising just in case."

Niall catches Liam a few hours later, after they've worked out a sub-par alternative arrangement. His stomach is in knots again, as bad as it gets when there's a vampire feeding half a block away, but by now, with all these false starts he's had on the X Factor thus far, he's pretty sure it's just nerves about the competition. Zayn is fine as lead, but his timing is weird and he keeps trying to do different cool things with his voice every run-through and the rest of them can't quite keep track.

Liam's eyes are closed, but his cheeks are a little pinker. He's sat against a wall in one of the labyrinthine halls backstage, head tilted back against it, a box of cranberry juice with a single drop hovering at the tip of the straw cradled loosely in one hand.

"All right?" Niall asks him, crouching down next to him.

Liam smiles, but keeps his eyes shut. "Yeah," he says. There's more strength behind his words already. "Loads better. Rustle up the boys so we can practise again?"

As Niall watches, Liam brings the juice box back up to his mouth and searches for the straw with his tongue. His cheeks hollow as he sucks the dregs, noisily, into his mouth.

It takes Niall a moment to draw himself away and go find the rest of the band.

They sound fucking great on the next three run-throughs. Liam goes to nap on a couch in one of the rooms, and Harry goes to stress-puke into a bin, and Louis follows him to make sure he comes out the other end alright, and Niall is left twiddling his thumbs with Zayn.

"Sounding good there, Nialler," Zayn says, albeit a little awkwardly.

The absurdity of the situation strikes Niall square in the chest. He's one of the most promising young hunters in all of Ireland. At just barely seventeen years old, there's more blood on his hands and graveyard dirt under his nails than there is inside all of his competition, combined. He knows, in equal measures, what it sounds like when sinews split and bones crack and flesh tears mightily under the knife and the stake, and what it sounds like when he's sat alone in a room, singing to himself while he whittles another weapon. He knows the dizzying pull of blood as a vampire tries to drain it from his body and the push of the intravenous needle when he has to top up to survive till the next morning.

A singing competition should be nothing, compared to that. The high-stakes drama of Liam's whatever and deciding who should take his place, if it came down to it, shouldn't even ping on his radar. Not after he's seen hunters die around him, saved one from being turned after she'd been drained too far to ever survive by slitting her throat and letting her spill the last of her human blood before the vampire could get her mouth on its veins.

And yet his blood is pounding in his ears like he's narrowly escaped from a tryst with a sucker with his life, trying to make smalltalk with a normal human who he'll need to learn to rely on as dearly as he does his hunting family, if he wants to make it in this competition.

"Cheers, Zayn," he says, wiping the sweat that's gathered on his hands over the course of the day off on his jeans. "You sounded great too, of course. Even if you don't like the song."

Zayn half-smiles at that. "It's okay, I guess," he says, and knocks his shoulder against Niall's. "It's fun with you lot."

Niall takes a deep breath, lets it go slowly. He knows, from smell and feel and sight, how vampire blood is different from human blood. He can tell whether one is about to attack or retreat to reassess the situation based on the shift of its weight on its feet and the click of its jaw as it opens or closes its mouth.

It's time to learn what a cheering crowd looks like behind the glare of the spotlight, what it's like to share singing in a battle rather than stakes. "We're going to smash it," he tells Zayn, and does his best to believe his own words.

+++

It all goes to shit just over a minute into their song. Niall's sung his tiny little solo (and smashed it, in his own opinion) and they're doing their sub-dancing line shuffle as they sing the ohs. Niall is walking toward Liam when Liam glances up and meets his eyes.

Sweet, soft Liam who wants so much from the X Factor that he internalises all of Louis's off-the-cuff jokes and twists them into defensiveness, who bristles at tiny slights and sings like he has something to prove, who Niall has begun to think of as a real, potential friend has eyes that are, undeniably, a dull red.

Niall's stomach drops.

It could just be the stage lights, he tells himself, desperately, because he's seen Liam outside in the sunlight and he's been fine. A little subdued, maybe, but definitely physically intact. He's watched Liam eat —

nothing whatsoever with garlic in it at all.

Still, Niall glances to his other side, quick as a wink. Harry's eyes are their normal grey-green. Zayn's eyes, which are just as brown as Liam's normally, haven't gone red in the lights, either.

He forces a smile back onto his face and forces another long oh out of his mouth, squeezing his stomach around the words and trying not to physically vomit as everything about Liam's behaviour that he's been cataloguing but not critically analysing falls terribly into place. He doesn't even notice that he's gone off-beat until Liam taps his shoulder.

Niall stiffens, the relative merits of trying to use his microphone as a stake running through his mind in case Liam moves in for the attack, but Liam just gestures at him to get back on track with the rest of them. So Niall throws himself back into the song, bouncing around on the balls of his feet, trying not to think about whether he's given Savan justification to not put him on any more solos for the rest of their season — if, in fact, they'll have more opportunities to sing after this. It's possible he'll not be able to perform like this after he buries the head of his friend — no, his monstrous bandmate — a good twenty feet from his body. It's possible that this is the beginning of the end of his non-start of a career in the music industry.

He grits his teeth and smiles through the judges' feedback without hearing a single word of it.

+++

By the time they get back to the house at the end of the night, Niall is a ball of anxiety and nerves, and very little of it has to do with the potential response the British and Irish public will have to their performance. He lies in his bed as the lads and the vampire around him fall asleep, favourite stake clutched under his hoodie, running his thumb over and over the rough blunt end of it, running through everything he knows, over and over again.

He keeps worrying at the red flash of Liam's eyes like a popcorn kernel stuck, aching, between his teeth. Specifically, he's trying to come up with reasonable alternate explanations besides his bandmate being one of the very things Niall has sworn to kill on sight for the good of all humanity. But the evidence he's been writing off as show-related anxiety for so long - the twist of his stomach whenever Liam is around, the way Liam stiffened when Louis started cracking wise about vampires in the house the other day, Liam's weird diet, the fucking murder cow at Harry's bungalow...

It all adds up to a truly wretched and heinous equation, the sum of which is Niall staking Liam in the heart and burying him in pieces under consecrated ground.

A tiny, bitter part of him is tempted to let it lie at least until the competition is over, but he can't lie to himself that the point of that would be waiting for the intense scrutiny of being on the X Factor to pass. To give him a chance to get away with what uninformed civilians would undoubtedly see as murder, in the unlikely event that they ever found Liam's remains.

The problem is that Niall knows Liam. He likes Liam, for the most part. He's never had a conversation with a vampire before that lasted longer than the space between the first and last blow of a fight. He can't picture Liam with his teeth fully engorged and embedded in the flesh of some hapless victim. Liam's diet seems almost… vegetarian, for a vampire, photographs of the bite marks in the flank of that rotting cow in Cheshire aside.

But he can't let that lull him into a false sense of security. He can't let that keep him from doing the job that needs to be done. Liam is probably just very, very good at covering up his human victims.

Niall just needs to clear his head, shake off his resentment that his one attempt to do what he wants with his life instead of what he's been training for is heading inexorably toward such a cataclysmic end. Then, maybe, he can work out a solution that won't land him in jail.

He rolls out of bed, shoving his feet into his sturdiest and quietest pair of shoes. A quick and carefully-quiet reach into his blood fridge for a few better weapons later, he tucks everything into the front pocket of his jacket and tiptoes out the door.

Louis lifts his head right before Niall manages to slip it closed again. "Nialler?" he asks, blinking blearily at the tiny patch of light coming through from the hallway. "What's up?"

Niall freezes. "I'm homesick, me," he says, finally. "Calling me dad to catch up."

Louis nods and faceplants back into bed, and Niall speeds out of the house and sneaks down past the security at the end of the lane.

London is loud and busy, even at this time of night, but the moon is barely a sliver in the sky. Niall walks away from the thick of the lights and the noise for an hour or so, through a bunch of mostly-empty parks, some with the odd soul that he hurries past, until he stumbles on one with loads of dark trees and deep shadows and an area where his stomach cramps up so bad as he walks past that he almost doubles over with the pain of it.

This vampire wears the body of a man, long and gaunt and practically albino in the light of a flickering streetlamp half a field away. His nails are cracked and filthy in a way that lets Niall know that this one is old and smart enough to have ready access to his graveyard dirt. This fight would be a struggle even with multiple hunters on deck.

Briefly, the thought crosses Niall's mind that if he dies at the hands of this monster, no one will be able to spread the warning about Liam Payne, and he'll have failed his most fundamental objective as a hunter. But then the vampire slinks forward and Niall is forced to spring into action.

He surprises it, he thinks, when he runs straight at it, consecrated silver knife anointed with allicin held straight out in front of him, and it almost gives him an edge. But the vampire must be starved for blood. Niall rams the knife into its stomach and pulls hard, enough pressure to eviscerate a normal human. There's smears of dark on the blade when it comes free, and the vampire's intestines bulge forward, but no blood seeps from the wound even though Niall is nearly-positive he got the stomach on the first try.

Vampires that haven't got any amount of blood left lingering in their stomachs from their last feed may be slightly slower and weaker from their hunger, but they're also more impervious to the traditional ways of stopping a vampire via emptying its stomach long enough to get the upper hand.

"God help me," Niall prays, as if God might possibly listening, and then: "Saint Patrick protect me" because that's perhaps more likely to work for him, and then he's dodging the vampire as it reaches out to grab for his shoulder.

He's lucky for a second, the vampire missing his shoulder, but then it swings back and gets the hair on his head and pulls up, strength from its age despite its hunger great enough to hold Niall aloft and out, away from its body.

"Just my luck," it says, voice sibilant and deep as its teeth slides to their fullest extension. "Hunter for dinner, and I am so very hungry."

Niall reaches up with his empty hand and grabs onto the vampire's arm, holds himself up so that his hair doesn't pull free by the roots. He can't reach forward with the arm holding the knife without risking harm to himself, so instead he kicks out, aiming his feet up and hard at the vampire's gaping belly wound. "Couldn't keep me down if you tried," he points out - even though the stomach cut didn't stop it in its tracks, there's no way it could hold fresh blood - and swings his leg back again, kicking forward harder. He catches the vampire on the thigh, hard enough that it shrieks and lets him go. He's protected from landing flat on his arse by just his own hold on the vampire's hand, but his grip slips and he tumbles down, stumbling and almost falling anyway. The grace of God (or Saint Patrick?) is the only thing that keeps him from stabbing himself with his silver knife.

The vampire screeches, diving for him, and he nearly drops everything he's holding as he stops trying to stumble back to his feet, and throws himself to the ground anyway and rolls to avoid the vampire's grab.

He wishes, abstractly, that he'd crossed a stream in the park, but if the vampire has its graveyard dirt actually in its possession, that wouldn't help very much. Short of that, consecrated water would do in a pinch but the inconvenience of carrying and using it outweighs the benefits it has for slowing down a monster like this.

Graveyard dirt.

Dirt.

Wait.

Niall digs the blade of his knife into the ground and flings the silty soil up at the vampire's eye. It hisses and staggers back, giving him enough time to grab for his stakes instead of the knife. Wincing inwardly, he lets the knife fall to the ground and tries to remember where it lands. If he gets out of this alive, he'll want to come back for it, but a vampire this empty of blood couldn't possibly be completely stopped by common cuts, even for a consecrated silver blade coated in pure allicin like his is. He's got to go for broke.

"Come at me," he screams at the thing, and walks backward until he bumps against a tree.

He uses it for leverage as the vampire descends, puncturing its skin wherever he can with the soft-wood stake in his left hand. Those stakes splinter easily, and the vampire gets more and more annoyed, slapping at the places on its flesh where Niall manages to twist the stake enough to deposit a few shreds of wood.

Still, it lands a few blows on Niall as well, only some of which he manages to deflect. A particularly powerful blow to his shoulder renders Niall's left arm numb and largely useless, and, sensing an advantage, the vampire lunches forward, teeth fully bared.

Niall lets it, wincing as it sinks its bite into his upper arm. His stomach rolls and turns over with the first pull of blood through his veins, but the vampire was desperate enough to land a bite anywhere, and it missed any major artery.

Plus, it's still got the stomach cut, so it's not like Niall's blood will particularly help it.

Still, he's only got a finite supply of it, so he has to work fast.

By allowing the vampire access to his arm, he's got it distracted and in a position where it doesn't realise his right hand - and the hardwood stake within it - is still free. With every ounce of his steadily-dwindling strength and energy, Niall rams his favourite stake into the vampire's heart, twisting it slowly so the splintery sides rip off and shred the meat of the ventricles.

In the blessed moment when the vampire's teeth unlatch from the flesh of his bum arm, Niall nearly cheers. Instead, he shoves it off him as best he can and, leaving the stake firmly rammed into its chest, goes scrambling for his trusty knife.

It's hard to sever the head of a vampire when you've only got one arm that works reliably, and the sludgy traces of blood left in its veins get all over Niall's pyjamas as he saws through its spinal column. There's no way he'll be able to drag its body to consecrated ground, not in enough time to get back to the house before anyone wakes up, and the park is missing any handy open graves, so he writes off his favourite stake as a loss and leaves it embedded fully in the vampire's heart.

To hedge his bets, he completes the evisceration of the thing, pulling its stomach and intestines out of its body, trying gamely all the while not to vomit, and pushes the body under some bushes. Being on post-hunt autopilot helps a lot. He's got a mental checklist of everything he's got to accomplish that's been drilled into his head for over ten years now; panic and any kind of reaction to blood loss or other effects of the fight can set in once everything else is sorted.

His dad gave him the number of some London-based hunters. While his phone is a little filthy from where blood — both the wet, warm stuff leeching slowly from the wound on his shoulder and the thick sludge from inside the vampire - has seeped into the fabric of his jacket pocket, it's still fully functional, and he texts the number the location of the body. Removing head n guts, he adds. Need body coverup tho.

He shoves his knife in the waistband of his trousers and painfully tugs his jacket off, balling it around the head. The viscera he dumps into a fast-moving stream at the far edge of the park. Praying that, against all odds, CCTV won't catch onto what's in the package under his arm, he limps back toward the house.

There's an old Anglican cathedral with a graveyard adjacent less than a kilometre from the house. When Niall first moved into the house, he had explored everything around it on foot to create a mental map in case of an emergency. That the latch on the gates to the little cemetery is broken was one of the first things he'd made note of. It's too bad it's not a Saint Patrick's, Niall thinks; experience has taught him that most churches dedicated to him (or, occasionally, Saints Christopher and Blaise) have a vampire hunter on staff in some capacity, ready and able to help keep a monster from rising again.

But consecrated ground is consecrated ground. The gate creaks when he pushes on it but it doesn't stick, and he's able to shove his way into the little graveyard. It's old enough that any fresh-turned dirt could well be noticed, but it's far riskier still to leave the severed head aboveground, so Niall goes into the far corner and uses his knife to loosen the dirt there.

It takes a while, but he digs a hole deep enough to shove the vampire's severed head inside. He unwraps it from his hoodie and regards it, silently, before taking his softwood stake and shoving it into the vampire's mouth. That this may keep the head pinned to the ground is likely just urban legend, but he likes to hedge his bets.

His jacket is filthy, a total write-off, so he wraps the head back up in it and shoves the whole mess into the consecrated soil and covers everything up as best he can.

Everything ticked off his mental checklist, Niall limps back to the X Factor house. The further he gets from his duties, the more everything comes flooding back: the wretched ache in his shoulder, bruise undeniably forming under the puncture wounds from the vampire's teeth, the scrapes and knocks he gathered as he wrestled with the beast in the park, the blood smeared all over his t-shirt and jeans and skin. Liam, hopefully still asleep in Niall's bedroom, teeth fully sheathed and not itching to hunt so soon after what Niall can only assume was a juice box full of human blood, even if Niall comes in, rank with the smell of the blood.

Liam, Niall's bandmate and never his friend, who Niall will likely have to kill as soon as he recovers from his fight tonight.

Liam, who Niall liked and now has to write off forever, in the most literal of senses.

Liam, who will likely wake up as soon as he smells the blood all over Niall's clothes and body — if Niall is lucky enough to get past everyone else in the house unseen. God, he wasn't even thinking when he ran out spoiling for a fight. How on earth is he going to get past anyone when he looks like this? He'll be found out and kicked off the show and Liam will figure it out and get the jump on anyone Niall sends his way from whatever prison they put him in.

Sure enough, as Niall sneaks back past security at the edge of the property and goes up the long, dark drive back to the house, there's a light on at the side door he'd left unlocked behind him. He freezes at the sight, running through options — can he sneak in through a basement window? — when the door swings open.

Zayn, of all people, tiptoes out, a dark package of something wedged under one arm. He waves at Niall with his other one, gesturing him closer.

Niall doesn't move. He doesn't want anyone to see him like this - not least because he looks like he just murdered someone which, in a way, isn't wrong - but he especially doesn't want one of his bandmates seeing him like this.

But Zayn waves again, more insistently, and when Niall still stays still, he rolls his shoulders impatiently and comes darting down to where Niall's at. At this point, Niall is achy enough from the fight and the blood loss that he can't stumble back and run off before Zayn reaches him, so instead he starts running through a list of excuses. Being attacked by a coyote whilst on a midnight wander is the best thing he can come up with, given the circumstances, and he straightens up as Zayn approaches and quickly rehearses the lie.

But Zayn doesn't even mention Niall's appearance. "Took you long enough," is all he says, casting a quick glance up and down Niall's body. The only sign he gives that he's noticed the state Niall is in is the tiny little line that appears between his eyebrows, then smooths over almost immediately. "You know Mary's alarm is going to go off any minute, yeah?"

"I lost track of time," says Niall, dazedly.

"You've lost a fair bit more than that, I reckon," says Zayn, casting a critical glance over Niall's mess of a body. He pulls the bundle out from under his arm. It's a change of clothes, right down to Niall's boxers. "Think we can sneak you up to the shower if you want to risk it, or else there's a garden hose behind the house if you'd rather."

"Wait," says Niall. "I don't —"

"Did you finish it?" Zayn interrupts. "Or is it going to follow the smell of your blood back to the house and kill us all within the week?"

Zayn… knows? Niall blinks, but answers the question at hand. "It's spread out over half of West London, mate, I doubt it'll come for us."

"Just the one?"

"I hope so," says Niall. He debates mentioning Liam, but his tongue feels heavy in his mouth at the thought of it, so he swallows the words back down. "Think we're safe for now."

Zayn just nods. "You're a mess," he says. "I hope you've got an excuse."

"Coyote attack," Niall says, following Zayn as he leads the way to the garden hose.

Zayn snorts. "That's terrible," he says, but his tone is approving, and he's smiling as he turns the full frigid blast of water straight onto Niall's chest.

+++

When Niall wakes up in the morning, he's a mess of aches and scrapes and bruises, and all the boys have already left the room save for Liam, who is lying sideways in his bed and staring in Niall's direction.

Niall tenses. There's no way of knowing how old Liam is, really. He must not be freshly turned, since he seems like he can last for a while without feeding, but he was also on an earlier season of the X Factor and he definitely looked younger then. If he's very recently a vampire, then he'll be easier to defeat if he attacks Niall now; it always takes monsters a few years to adjust to the changes in their circulatory systems and grow into their new strengths.

Surreptitiously, Niall tries to move his left arm. It responds to his commands, so he decides that as long as he can roll over and reach the silver knife he'd bundled under his bed when he and Zayn slipped back into the room, he can probably survive, or at least hold out until someone hears them and comes into the room and distracts Liam long enough for Niall to make the kill. He hates to involve civilians like that, but if that's what's necessary to get through the day —

But Liam doesn't spring at him. He just smiles cheerfully when Niall shifts in bed and says, "Did you get enough rest, then? Zayn said you were out on the phone with your dad till about four in the morning."

Niall frowns, searching Liam's face for the faintest hint of the guile so common to his kind. He comes up with nothing, though. "Longest I've gone without seeing him," he says, easily enough. It's not a lie, even if the implication of homesickness he's left Liam with is.

"I know what you mean," Liam says, rolling onto his back, arms folded behind his head, which is resting in the cradle of his hands.

"Are you feeling better?" Niall asks, carefully. "You took quite the turn yesterday."

"Yeah, reckon I just needed that juice, cheers," says Liam.

There's no hesitation in his voice. Niall wonders how he missed the fact that Liam is an accomplished liar. "What are you still hanging out in here for, then?"

Liam pauses. He's far enough away, and facing the ceiling, so Niall can't quite make out the look on his face, but from all the cataloguing he's done of Liam's microexpressions in the time they've known each other, he'd place money on Liam licking his lips thoughtfully right about now. "Louis and Harry were being very… well, exactly what you'd expect, at breakfast," he says, finally. "And after Zayn said what he did about your phone call, I wanted to make sure that you weren't alone when you woke up. In case you needed company."

"Thanks," says Niall. He props himself up on one arm, wondering if that's a lie, too. If Liam could smell the blood on him even though he'd spent fifteen minutes under the hose buck naked in front of Zayn, trying to get the last of it scrubbed off. Even though Zayn had thrown his nasty clothes in the bin before they went back inside, too. If that's keeping him here. "You know you're going to have to sort things out with Louis, right?" he adds, like he'll be able to let Liam live long enough for it to be a true concern. "If we're going to make this band thing work."

"I know," Liam says with a groan. "I'll try, I promise. Just… just not until after we know if we've got through the first week, you know?"

"We will," says Niall, even though he couldn't reliably report anything that happened during the show the previous night if you paid him a million pounds to do it.

"I think so, too," says Liam, and his voice is so full of hope that Niall's body aches with it.

Oh, wait. That's the vampire thing. Never mind.

"So then by this time next week," says Niall, trying not to think about when he'll have to shove a stake deep into Liam's heart and pack the wound with splinters. "You and Louis will be best mates."

Liam laughs, a little bitterly. "Sure," he says. "Sounds great."

"Good."

"Good," Liam echoes. He pauses, then says. "Actually, Niall - I wanted to check. Are we okay?"

"Of course," says Niall, heart suddenly pounding. He clears his throat so that his voice doesn't sound so high-pitched. "Why wouldn't we be?"

"I mean, after I corrected your rhythm last night," says Liam. "Like, it was essential to the performance in the moment, but…" He trails off.

"But?" Niall prompts, when it's clear Liam isn't going to add anything else.

"But I think you're my best mate here," Liam says, all in a rush. "Like, I really like spending time with you. And I don't want to hurt our friendship."

Niall's heart twinges. He'd thought the same not even a full day ago, but. He can't be friends with Liam, not anymore, not now that he has the knowledge he does. He can't befriend a monster. Even if Liam is the nicest vampire in the world (oxymoron though that is), he can't befriend someone he'll end up killing. Or someone who he'll lead another hunter to, should he fail to bring himself to kill Liam with his own two hands.

He clears his throat. "I think," he says, slowly. "If Louis found out that you were placing friendship at an equal level to your chances at getting through, he'd treat you a lot more nicely."

"Does that mean — what does that mean?"

"That didn't change anything," Niall promises. "You bringing me back on tempo — we're fine, Liam. I like you too."

And that's the rub of it all.

+++

Niall doesn't manage to corner Zayn alone until after they get put through to the next round, and by the time he does snag him aside and ask for a stroll around the yard whilst the others go inside the house to celebrate in a big old group, he's a mess of emotions. Primarily: elation, at the success of their performance; dread, at everything else.

Zayn half-nods, like he's been expecting this, and they go down round the back of the property and sit under a tree together.

"You never said, last night," Niall says, after they've sat in silence for a good few minutes. "How did you know I'm a hunter? Where I went?"

"I didn't," Zayn says, half-shrugging. "I mean, I wondered, after what you said in the bungalow about your family's warrior ways and everything that happened the night with the cow, but I still would have believed that you were actually talking to your dad if I hadn't heard the stakes rattling about in that fridge of yours when you opened it up. Nice touch, by the way."

"Cheers, it was Bobby's idea," says Niall. "You could tell just from the sound?"

"I mean, it definitely sounded wooden," says Zayn. "Which doesn't make sense for someone that's got diabetes. So I picked the lock after you went."

Ah. "That would do it, then," says Niall, grudgingly impressed — and alarmed. He's got a lot of blood in that thing. "Did any of the other lads see you open it?"

Zayn pauses, tilting his head and studying Niall for a long moment. "I don't think so," he says. "Is there reason to be concerned if they had?"

Niall takes a deep breath, ready to spill the beans about Liam, but when he opens his mouth, what comes out is: "Be a lot to explain to someone who doesn't know about that kind of thing, wouldn't it?"

"Suppose so," says Zayn.

"You knew straight away, though," Niall continues, figuring that it's best to keep addressing matters head-on. "Are you a hunter, too, then?"

Zayn, however, shakes his head. "I mean," he says. "Mum's nana was. I wasn't kidding about also having Irish warrior blood in me back at the bungalow either, you know."

"And she told you about it?"

"She came over from Ireland to escape the scourge," Zayn says. "There's not as many vampires over here, you know. She wanted a safer life. She wanted her daughter to escape the training." He pauses. "I'm actually impressed that you managed to find one last night. Unless - did someone ask you to help out?"

Niall can't compute this information. He can't quite fit two and two together. At no point in his training did anyone tell him 'you can stop and not be a hunter!' — even when he decided to go for the X Factor and carve a new path for himself, it was with the understanding that he'd have to drop everything and do battle whenever the need arose. Every message he got about making his way safely forward assumed he'd be hunting even whilst making a name for himself separately from his primary job. To just walk away from it all and decide to call it quits… it's unheard of. "No one called me," he says. "Last night. I had this feeling and I needed to fight."

Zayn nods at that. "I get them too, you know," he says. "A couple generations isn't enough to make those cramps go away completely." He plucks a blade of grass from the ground and starts shredding it between his fingers. "There was one that night, right? At the bungalow. It ate the cow."

"Yeah," says Niall. "It was gone by the time I got out there, though." He pauses. If Zayn knows about Liam, maybe he can help Niall sort out a plan. Tentatively, he asks, "Have you sensed one since?"

But Zayn shakes his head. "Have you?"

"I mean, obviously," says Niall, gesturing toward the house, as if to suggest the hose.

"Then maybe my family's senses are dying out." Zayn doesn't look entirely displeased at the thought.

"Maybe I've just been trained to use mine since I was a kid," Niall counters.

"You're still a kid," says Zayn, pointedly. He frowns. "Suppose I get why great-grandma didn't want to raise her family back around the rest of those hunters in Ireland."

Niall wants to fight him on that point — Bobby didn't want to have to teach him, but he did; in case the local vampires learned the hunting families and tried to attack him to get at his parents. It's not like there was a choice in the matter. Plus, Niall's one of the youngest in the cadre; his generation's senses are sharper than any before, and it would be irresponsible to throw that all away. Right?

He bites down on his arguments and changes the subject, instead. "So you don't know how to fight them, then."

"I mean, I know conceptually what will kill a vampire," says Zayn. "The wood and the beheading and consecrated ground and shit, and like, how they can only cross running water if they've got dirt from their own grave with them. But if one came at me right now, I don't think I could kill it by myself, no."

"Does that, you know. Bother you?"

"Not with you around," Zayn jokes, slinging an arm around Niall's shoulders. He shrugs. "I eat a lot of garlic and wear silver jewellery that this imam me dad knows blessed. I can sense when to avoid certain places and things. Reckon I'm okay."

Niall wonders what it's like, to be that confident that you'll escape a vampire. He's killed, or helped to kill, eighty-nine vampires as of last night and he still has nightmares of losing all of his blood in a fight and dying before he's twenty. Of needing to kill himself to keep from becoming the monster he's dedicated most of his life to hunting. And yet he also can't imagine sensing a vampire down a path and not running straight-away to destroy it.

He twitches, shakes off his unpleasant thoughts. "Thanks for helping me out last night, then."

"Yeah," says Zayn. "About that. If you've got to go and fight another one, let me know first, okay? Even if you're going with another hunter. Just in case, yeah?"

"You sound like me dad," says Niall, but warmth spreads through him at Zayn's concern. "Fine, though."

"Thanks," says Zayn. He stretches his legs out in front of him. "Now, I like being out here away from all the noise in there quite a bit, but I reckon we should go celebrate with everyone a bit before bed. What do you say?"

"Suppose that's a good idea," Niall says, and lets Zayn get to his feet first and pull him up. His joints are still aching a little from the fight, and all the information he's got from this conversation is thick and twisty in his mind. It'll take some time to pick through it all and sort out his feelings on everything. Particularly since he's also got to sort through everything he knows about Liam, too.

But with every step they take toward the house, he tries to let it all go, a little, at least for now.

+++

Liam is laughing, sunlight gilding his throat as he throws his head back. He's never laughed this explosively before, not in front of the band, but Harry is on a tear, upping his antics and jokes with every guffaw that Liam lets out.

A week ago, Niall would have been charmed, pleased that Liam is getting along with Harry (and, by inevitable extension, Louis) instead of clinging just to him and Zayn. He'd feel warmth spreading through his chest at the way Liam's face is turning red, hair falling very inelegantly into Liam's face when he doubles over and slaps his knees.

Now, though, Niall can't look away from the sun splashed over Liam's face.

He shouldn't be able to tolerate it. Niall's never known a vampire to last in the daylight without the last of the blood in them curdling and rendering them all but statues, unable to move, unable to even breathe. Even vampires who have their graveyard dirt in their shoes or the linings of their pockets or a necklace — or all three — can't withstand the sun.

Niall wants to believe that this precludes Liam from being a vampire, but he's learned, when contradictions arise, to believe that a vampire can overcome previously-thought truths about their kind, rather than entertaining the possibility that someone may not be a monster.

Liam's eyes look nice and normal now. Warm, even, crinkled as they are from his laughter. Niall's stomach turns at the sight and, without a word, he heads back into the house.

+++

He meets his dad's hunter connection at the cathedral where he buried the vampire's head after Wednesday night services have cleared out.

"Fuck me," he says, when he slides into the back pew next to the massive man who's wearing a jacket baggy and unseasonal enough to stow an entire arsenal of knives and stakes. Bobby had mentioned the name of the hunter before, but Niall had been more focused on the schedule he'd been given for the first week of live shows at the time. "Didn't realise you were famous."

"Wouldn't call meself famous, really," says Niall Breslin off the Blizzards. "Niall, right? I'm Bressie."

"You're a musician," says Niall. "And a hunter?"

"You could say that," says Bressie. "I'm more of a hunter than a musician, if I'm honest. I had to make a choice eventually. But I did manage to keep up with the band for a while."

Niall doesn't want to think about choices, not right now. He'll have to end up being a hunter, too, more likely than not. It's not like killing Liam will be conducive to a long-lasting music career. "I see," he says.

"Strength and determination," Bressie says, knocking his shoulder against Niall's. It's part of the hunter's creed, and Niall nods at the reminder of his sworn duty. "The head's in the cemetery?"

"Buried deep," Niall confirms. "You, um. You took care of the body?"

"Nice exsanguination and disembowelment," Bressie says, approvingly. "I packed everything up with mulch and buried it deep, too."

"Thanks," says Niall, relieved. "Couldn't begin to move it myself after it got me arm."

"Yeah," says Bressie. "Why were you hunting alone, though? Your dad says that you know better than that.."

Niall takes a deep breath. If he tells Bressie about Liam, the decision will be out of his hands. Someone else can take him down — Niall won't have to do it. The competition will be over, though, and Niall will go back to Mullingar and continue hunting down the monsters that haunt the Midlands, unless he lucks out from his one performance and the fallout of reports that Liam Payne has disappeared, or died, or whatever story they'll spin once he's gone, and gets the opportunity to go places with his music.

It's his job to report that kind of thing. Bressie's right, he shouldn't go into a hunt alone — he knows better. Even if the hunt is targeting someone he could have counted as a friend. Especially since the hunt is targeting someone he once counted as a friend. He can tell Bressie that there's a vampire in the house and they can kill it and Niall won't have to worry about any of it anymore.

He opens his mouth to tell the truth, but what comes out is only part of the story. "Got real worked up during the performance," he says. "I had to, you know. Let off some steam. Be useful."

"You know you can call me up for that," says Bressie. He pauses. "I get it, though. I've been there meself, after a performance on a talkshow and whatnot." He reaches over and pats Niall's shoulder. "You were real good on the show, too, mate."

Warmth floods through Niall. He was good at taking down the vampire and at performing, and an expert at both things said as much, too. "Cheers," he says. He pauses, tells himself sternly that he needs to let Bressie know about Liam, and, pulling his hands into fists tight enough that his short nails bite into the flesh of his palms, says, "One of me bandmates —"

Bressie gives Niall a look that Niall can only begin to understand as 'soft.' He twists in his seat so that he can look at Niall more directly, eyes crinkled at the edges. "Yeah?" he asks; the tone of his voice is warm, too.

"He's, um," Niall says. His hands are aching. This is the right choice, he tells himself. He's been training his whole life to make decisions like this. It should be easy. There's no world in which a vampire walking the streets unscathed is worth Niall's musical career. There's no world in which Niall should be friendly with a vampire. Liam being able to go out in the sun like he does probably means that he's stronger than all the vampires Niall's fought before. He's probably only eating all the iron-rich foods in the house to throw people off his scent. He's probably the biggest scourge Niall could ever come across.

When he sings, sometimes he closes his eyes and puts a hand on his heart and takes a moment to listen to how the rest of them sound around him. When he laughs, he always looks surprised, like he, too, was trained to laugh exclusively to blend in socially and doesn't expect for it to just overtake him like that. When he smiles, it makes Niall feel —

— he feels —

"My bandmate," Niall repeats, clearing this throat. His heart is pounding: another thing that sets him apart from Liam. "Knows about vampires, Bres. But he's not a hunter."

Bressie frowns. "How do you know? Is he—"

"He saw me come back," Niall says. He feels vomit welling up in the back of his throat. He's got to a point where he can watch any number of untold horrors happen to a human-shaped body without incident, but lying like this, even if it's literally only a lie by omission — it goes against the core of his truest nature. He swallows it down and adds, "He knew before he saw me."

"Oh, one of them, then," Bressie says, nodding. "Did he leave training?"

"His great-grandmother did," says Niall. He hadn't known that rejecting training was a thing, much less common knowledge. He takes a deep breath, releases it slowly into the silence that's fallen between them. "Didn't realise that was allowed."

It's a while before Bressie speaks, and he sounds somewhat distant when he does. "Some people make that choice, too." He frowns, and shakes himself. "Could be good for you, then. You know, having someone who knows where you are?"

The 'in case something happens to you' goes unsaid, and it rankles with Niall. "Suppose," he says.

"Well, then." Bressie slaps his hands on his knees. "I'll walk you back to that giant mansion the X Factor calls a house?"

A hundred excuses flit through Niall's head at Bressie's likely response to sensing Liam, but every single one of them ends with him protecting a vampire so that he can get a little further in a stupid singing competition. He bites them all down, every single one. "Cheers," he says, grimly.

They swing through the little graveyard on the way out, and Bressie claps Niall on the back at how well he's concealed the vampire's severed head. Niall's dread grows with every step, but Bressie's expression doesn't change when they get to the house.

The band are all in their bedroom, and everyone but Liam is drinking bottles of lemonade and eating popcorn that someone's tipped m&ms into.

"How was church?" Zayn asks, with a significant sort of lift to his eyebrows.

"Good, yeah," Niall says. "This is my mate Bressie; dad introduced us."

Everyone scrambles a little when they realise Niall isn't alone. "You lads, so fresh-faced," says Bressie, as Harry drags himself into a seated position a few respectful inches away from Louis. "Make me miss my band."

That sets Liam off, and Niall watches, heart in his throat, as Bressie answers his many questions about being in a band and why they broke up (the set of Louis's jaw steely behind him).

Niall walks Bressie to the front door after he's met everyone. "So," he says, fully expecting Bressie to set a plan for killing Liam.

But Bressie, though his brow is furrowed, doesn't look unduly upset. "Look," he says. "Dunno where it's coming from, but I'm getting a bit of a monster vibe here. It's not strong, but it's definitely present."

"Yeah," says Niall, honestly. "I've felt it too."

Bressie nods. "You'll let me know when you sort it out if you need help?"

Niall should come clean now. He has literally no good reason to be circumspect. The memory of Liam laughing in the sunshine flashes through his head. "I will," he promises, a lie.

"Good," says Bressie, and then he's gone.

Niall's heart is still pounding.

+++

Out of everything Niall expects from the coming days, a stalemate isn't one of them. He tells himself that the second the band slips up in their performances, he'll make his move on Liam. He tells himself that it's good to keep watching Liam and gathering intel on his strengths and weaknesses. He promises Zayn not to go off after any vampires in broader London unless he's asked for help specifically by Bressie.

He works out in the mini-gym in the basement of the house every night after everyone else is asleep, practicing falls and attacks and parries till sweat pours off his body and he can't help but collapse into sleep. During the days, he goes where the show points him and laughs, dutifully, loudly, feigning exuberance when anyone tells a joke. He sucks it up when they're sent through crowds, trying to ignore the way that the cluster of people overstimulate all of his tightly-honed senses in a scary, overwhelming way, even more than being around Liam does, and he sings when they're put in rehearsal rooms and on stages.

One Direction make it through My Life Would Suck Without You successfully, despite Harry's nerves, and Diva Fever and Storm go home. Zayn jumps up onto Niall's back, and Harry pulls Louis and Liam in for a massive hug, and Niall shouts for joy even as he keeps an eye on Liam in case Liam loses it and tries something right there on stage.

As they celebrate getting put through for a second time in their room that night, Niall tries to not let himself get too caught up in the success. Liam is dancing in the middle of the room, resplendent with joy, blatantly thrilled that the others are laughing and shouting along with him.

When Niall kills him, he won't be just ending his own chances at success in the music industry.

Some people leave hunting, he tells himself, relieved that his family isn't in London for the weekend in the off-chance they'd be able to read the thought on his face.

But those people probably don't let vampires walk away unchecked when they come across one.

So Niall sings, and laughs, and watches Liam.

Zayn corners him in the gym the night after a frenzied trip to Topshop, where Niall shrank away from the crowd and tried not to bump into Liam all the while. "Niall," he says, carefully.

Niall stops punching the bag hanging from the ceiling, reaching forward to stabilise it. "Yeah?"

"Jesus, you're sweaty," says Zayn with great distaste, casting a cursory glance over Niall. "I, uh. Just wanted to say. If you have other secrets, too, you can tell me."

Liam. The thought of sharing the burden of his knowledge sounds fantastic to Niall, but he'd never want to put anyone else into the position he's in, either. "What kinds of secrets?"

Zayn sits down on the bench by the free weights. "Like, I'm not trying to imply anything one way or another," he says, carefully. "But um. I've seen the way you are around Liam."

"Oh," Niall says. He's long understood that Zayn is more observant, more perceptive than the average wannabe popstar. He wonders if this is any of Zayn's latent, unexplored monster-hunting talent, whether Zayn got the sense something's up with Liam and noticed Niall also noticing it. A small tendril of hope curls its way through his body. Being able to talk through his conundrum without necessarily leaping into killing Liam immediately thereafter… perhaps that's what Niall needs. Allowing the hope to colour his voice, he says, "So you've noticed?"

Zayn huffs out a laugh. "Yeah, mate, I've noticed." He scratches his head, looking down at his lap and then back up at Niall, earnestly. "I just want you to know. I know what some people say about this sort of thing, but. My aunt's a lesbian, and I - anyway. I don't have a problem with it if you like him. You can talk to me about it if you want."

Niall watches Zayn talk, abject horror washing over him with Zayn's words. "I'm not -" he says, carefully, when it's clear Zayn isn't going to fumble through any more of his well-intentioned speech. "I don't - Even if I did —"

"It's okay," Zayn says. "Either way. I just wanted you to know."

"You've got the wrong idea of it," Niall says, blankly. His head feels full of cotton-wool, so shocked he is by the direction this conversation has taken. Like, he's never gone out with anyone, what with the demands of a hunting schedule, and he's never spared much energy for sorting through who he would go out with if he did have the time. "I don't — I don't feel that way about Liam."

"My bad," says Zayn. His tone is still careful. "I didn't mean to offend."

Niall bites his lip, and sits down against the wall, looking up at Zayn. He stays quiet for a long moment, listening, but the house is silent around them; there's no indication that anyone might be listening in. "I do watch Liam closely," he allows. "And I can see how you would think - what you do. But it's not that."

"Is it because you're worried about his fit in the band, socially?" Zayn asks. "I thought things were getting better."

"No, I think they are," says Niall. He wishes that could be the end of it - the band getting along like happy families, being excited just to progress in the competition… hell, he'd even take having feelings for Liam Payne instead of this endless turmoil about his duty warring with his desires.

"Then what is it?" Zayn frowns. "It can't be that Liam's a vampire."

Niall blinks up at him. He must lose control of his facial expression - or else the blankness of his face must be particularly telling - because Zayn starts shaking his head.

"No, I've definitely seen him outside, Niall, there's no way. I've seen him eat human foods."

"Iron-rich human foods?" Niall says. He takes a deep breath, surprised at the way that his hands are trembling. He balls them into fists and shoves them in his lap. "Seen his eyes go all red after sucking down a juice box full of blood? He's a vampire, Zayn."

"So that's why you went hunting after our first performance," Zayn says. He closes his eyes, then blinks them open again. "You're sure?"

"The eyes don't lie," says Niall. "Even if I can't figure out how he can go outside."

Zayn curses, soft and violent. "You - do you have to kill him, then?"

Niall shrugs one shoulder, carefully. "Never got the opportunity to get to know one before," he says. "Haven't seen Liam eat anyone yet." What he means is: If I have to.

Zayn nods. "What if we had him sign a contract? Y'know, not to suck any of us. Or our fans. Or anyone. He probably didn't kill anyone to get that juice box, right?"

"Can't trust a vampire," Niall says, but he feels a tendril of doubt. Liam seems very sincere, even for a human.

It's probably a trick.

"So you'll have to kill him." Zayn stands up and strides over to pummel the punching bag. It takes Niall a moment to realise that he's crying.

"He'd be my ninetieth," says Niall. He pushes himself up off the ground and walks over to put a hand, tentative, on Zayn's shoulder. He's not the best at giving genuine comfort, but he's faked it before and it seemed to work well enough. Maybe it'll work better since Zayn's acting the way Niall feels inside. "Zayn, I don't know if I can go through with it."

Zayn freezes. "But you can't let a vampire walk free," he says. It isn't a question, but it sounds like one anyway.

"Might have to outsource," says Niall. He can't picture his dad or Bressie ripping Liam's head from his neck and burying them thirty feet apart in a consecrated graveyard, but he'll have to get used to the thought. "I've never — I didn't know vampires could be so nice."

"I can't picture Liam as a murdering monster," Zayn agrees. He looks shellshocked, and for some reason, that makes Niall feel better. Makes him feel a little less alone, at least.

"Sorry for springing all this on you," he says, anyway. As out of sorts as he is about all this, he's at least grown up in the world of hunting instead of just adjacent to it. He's a thousand times more prepared to think about someone he knows dying brutally than Zayn probably is.

"Do you know when you're going to do it?" Zayn asks, sounding for all the world like he hopes Niall never does.

Niall can relate. "I've always been taught that it's safer for civilians if they don't know," Niall says. "Keep untrained people from thinking they can fight one unprepared and seeking out dangerous situations, or whatever. So like, after we're out of the public eye, I guess."

Zayn nods, grimly. "Just let me know, okay? Keep me in the loop."

"I will," says Niall. Cognizant of the fact that the mood in the room is near-fatalistic, he adds, "If I ever fall for a guy, you'll be the first to know."

"Cheers, Niall, sounds good," Zayn says. It doesn't sound like his mood's been improved at all.

Niall goes up to bed with Zayn when he leaves. He hasn't exhausted himself physically, but the fight's drained out of him just the same.

When he dreams that night about kissing a faceless monster, the vampire's teeth descending through his lips and pinning his mouth shut, though, he decides to reject sleep altogether in the future.

+++

Niall is nearly positive they're going to go out when they change songs the same day as the third-week performances, but Nobody Knows goes off without a hitch.

He stares at his twitter account in dread after they've all waved goodbye to John. He's gained nearly three hundred followers during the weekend alone, and while, in the grand scheme of things, it's not nearly as many as people like Justin Bieber and Katy Perry probably get in a single hour, there's a strong possibility that at least half of these new followers will stay on for months, even years, beyond One Direction getting voted off the X Factor.

If they do. Niall feels like a traitor to huntingkind, but he still wants to win. Even if winning means going to jail for a hundred years once he kills Liam. Even if - even worse - winning means allowing a vampire to wander around the country unchecked. If they make it through another three weeks, they'll be put on the X Factor Live tour. There's so many dark spaces in all the cities they'd visit for Liam to strike and feed, and even though he'd be the one doing it, the blood of his crimes would be on Niall's hands for letting him walk free.

"Has anyone ever let a vampire go for any reason?" he asks his dad during a phone call the next morning. "Or, like. Are there any vampires who aren't evil?"

"I haven't heard of any," Bobby says. "Why? Did something happen?"

Niall assumes that his dad and Bressie have shared notes on his little hunt two weeks ago. "Just wondering 'cause of something Zayn told me," he lies.

Bobby pauses. "You'd tell me if something were wrong, right?" he asks.

"You're the first one I'll go to if I need it," Niall promises, and tries to convince himself that this, at least, isn't a lie.

He asks Zayn to create a diversion and sneaks off to the library when the film crew is slowly making their way through the house that afternoon, but neither Google nor any historic tomes provide clarity on whether real vampires can survive without human blood — much less stick to an oath to avoid it.

+++

The way Niall sees it, he has four options:
  1. Do his duty and kill Liam James Payne in cold blood.
  2. Break every oath he's sworn and let Liam live - at least, for the foreseeable future.
  3. Seek out any experts on vampire lore — not just hunters — and interrogate them about his options before making any actual decisions.
  4. Confront Liam about Niall's knowledge, warn him about his impending demise, and see what he has to say for himself.

Given that vampires obviously can't be trusted, Niall doesn't put much stock into the last option. On the other hand, if he's up-front with Liam, he could gain invaluable and potentially-honest information about vampires who are able to withstand the strength of the sunlight, and who are - apparently - capable of taking in iron and other essential nutrients through sources besides blood.

And then Liam runs afoul of an amp backstage at a Tinie Tempah gig and trips, crash-landing into a pile of metal supports. The others freeze at the noise, and Louis, big brother that he is, rushes to Liam's side unthinkingly to let Liam hold his hand and squeeze with the pain.

Niall hangs back, feeling through his pockets for the cheap but sharp wood pencil he keeps with him at all times, watching everyone and everything warily. It feels like time slows down and everything is stretched out and far away: Louis, kneeling next to Liam and bending over him, frowning; Harry, leaning over to peer at Liam's face, stabilizing himself with one hand on Louis's shoulder; Zayn, holding himself free of a potential fight zone, a very careful look on his face as he watches Niall instead of Liam.

No one but Niall is paying attention to Liam's leg. From the severity of the rip in his jeans, chances are good that, if he were a human, he'd be bleeding copiously from his shin right about now, but nothing is staining the denim.

Niall's heart sinks. Even though he's known the truth about Liam for nearly three weeks now, it's hard to be confronted with it.

Time speeds up again as stagehands fly over, concerned, and Liam clearly doesn't poise to lash out in the sort of attack that Niall has learned to expect from an injured vampire. He shoves in to take Louis's place and help one stagehand guide Liam out of the venue and to a waiting car, letting Liam lean on him as they limp along. He doesn't let go of his pencil the entire time, and when they get to the car, he wedges himself in the seat next to Liam, poised in just the way that he can twist and slam the pencil straight through to Liam's heart if Liam starts to go blood-desperate on the drive back to the house.

By the time they get home, Louis's mood has turned boisterous, and he solicits Harry's help to go make Liam a "feel-better" snack.

Zayn hovers in the doorway. "Do you need help?" he asks, tone neutral enough that the question lends itself to multiple possible interpretations.

Niall makes a snap decision. "I've got Payno," he tells Zayn. "Why don't you go keep Louis and Harry on task? Make sure they don't go outside of Liam's weird diet. We'll be fine for twenty minutes." He adds emphasis to the words, hoping Zayn takes them to mean that Zayn should keep the others away for a bit, but also that he has no plans of preemptively killing Liam while the rest of them are out. Unless Liam attacks first, but that goes without saying.

Zayn nods, pats Liam gingerly on the shoulder, and heads off.

"Thanks, mate," Liam says. His face is a little flush, which strikes Niall as a bit odd for a vampire. "How'd you know I'd want some quiet?"

"Just a hunch," Niall says. His priority had been getting everyone away from Liam for their own safety rather than any particular consideration for Liam's needs, but he supposes that he's glad that Liam's read the situation as Niall being thoughtful. "Mind if I take a look? I'm good at patching things up, me."

Liam frowns, suddenly hesitant. "I - don't think that's such a great idea, Nialler. I got pretty sliced up. It could be gross."

"I don't mind. Iron stomach."

Liam snorts. Niall hadn't initially noticed the irony in his statement, and he's fairly certain Liam wouldn't expect him to be aware of it in any case, but he waggles his eyebrows at Liam anyway. "But really," says Liam. "I don't need you to patch me up. Give me some cranberry juice and I'll be fine."

"I already saw the rip in your jeans," Niall says, trying to look very neutral at the thought of Liam drinking another one of those blood-boxes in front of him. Casually, he adds. "Didn't notice blood, though, so surely it can't be too bad."

The flush in Liam's cheeks drains away. "You shouldn't be touching my blood anyway," he says. His mouth works for a moment. Carefully, he adds, "It's not safe."

Niall wonders if Liam has said this to people before. He's never met a vampire who was shy about getting its blood on a human, since the lot of them seem to be fairly preoccupied with retaining any kind of numbers advantage (enough to survive the hunters, but not so many that there's a shortage of human blood), but then again, he usually doesn't stop the vampire for a chat before launching into the fight. He wonders if Liam pretends to have HIV — if that's an ethically acceptable lie, if it keeps more vampires from being made. Wonders why Liam would even be reluctant to expose Niall to his blood in the first place.

Not that just the simple blending of blood is enough to make a vampire. It has to be a full transfer. Historically, vampire would force humans to suck their own blood back out of the vampire's veins to complete the change, but some more recent converts have wised up lately and started using needles to get the job done. It's easier, particularly when the victim is fighting back, to just inject blood right into the veins instead of holding a human mouth to a gaping wound long enough for the transformation to take hold.

Liam blinks up at Niall, watching him just as carefully as Niall is watching Liam. "Don't you want to know why my blood isn't safe to touch?" he asks, eventually. "I would."

Niall worries at his lower lip. He runs through his list of options again: kill Liam, allow Liam to continue lying, confront Liam. "Are you going to tell me it's the HIV?" he asks. Liam's eyes widen with surprise, and Niall looks away. "Never figured you for a liar."

"Why on earth would you call me that?"

Niall presses his mouth into a flat line and takes a deep breath. He sits down on the edge of Liam's bed, an arms-length away from Liam. Hopefully, the advantage will be on his side, since Liam's legs are tucked behind Niall, and Niall's feet are flat on the floor. "So you should probably know," he says, pulling the pencil free from his pocket and gripping it like a dagger. "I have a history of killing vampires."

Liam freezes. He's paler than Niall has ever seen him, and that's including the day of the first live shows. "So you should probably know," he says. "I'm not really a vampire."

Niall fingers the slick wood of his pencil, bringing his hand up and out so that Liam can see that it's there. "Again," he says. "I really did never figure you for a liar. I saw your eyes after you drank that blood, Liam. I saw how you sliced your leg and didn't bleed today."

Liam pushes himself up into a seated position, holding Niall's gaze the entire time – slowly, no sudden movements. Niall is stupidly grateful for it, that he doesn't have to swing into action yet. "I'm not a proper one anyway," he says, carefully. "Never actually died, you see."

Niall moves his hand until he's pressing the pencil lightly against Liam's chest. "Impossible."

Liam doesn't knock Niall's hand away, but he does hold himself very, very still. "It was the blood transfusions," he says. "When I was sick as a baby. I didn't lose enough of my own blood to die, but I did get enough of some vampire's to turn, sort of." He pauses, holding both his hands up in the air. "I've never actively drunk from a human being."

"You drained the cow in Cheshire," Niall accuses.

"A cow isn't a person," Liam counters. "I didn't have any cranberry juice boxes with me." He pauses. "When Louis cut his foot on that urchin, I didn't drink from him even though I could smell it."

"Oh, so I should trust that you're a good vampire because you didn't happen to murder your bandmate?" Niall asks, deliberately ignoring any irony in the statement.

"Not a vampire," Liam says. "You can ask my mom, if you want. We can call her right now. Just... please don't kill me."

"That goes against everything I've ever learned," says Niall. Now that he's got his pencil pressed right over Liam's heart, it would be so easy to twist it in. He could do his sworn duty.

They're so dreadfully close that he can feel Liam's breath puff, hotly, over his cheek. He tries to remember if he's ever known a vampire to breathe before.

"You're a hunter, then?" Liam asks.

"I've done in eighty-nine of your kind," Niall tells him, and tries not to feel proud at the impressed look that crosses Liam's face. The only pride he should be taking from interacting with a vampire is the sense of accomplishment that accompanies finishing a job. "You'll be my ninetieth, I guess."

"I think I might become a vampire if I die," Liam says. "Are you really going to kill me twice?"

"If I rip your head off, I'll only have to kill you the once," Niall says. His stomach rolls with the words, and he looks away again. The pencil in his hand slips a little in the sweat of his grip.

When he looks back at Liam, there are tears in Liam's eyes.

Niall's never known a vampire to cry before. He'd always vaguely imagined that it was impossible or that, if they did, their tears would be blood. But Liam's seem to be plain old saltwater.

Steadfast, Niall looks away again. This could just be a manipulation.

"I really, really don't want to die," says Liam. His tone is earnest. "I don't want to be a vampire either. Or a half-vampire. There's no cure, though. We've looked. I don't even have graveyard dirt that I can use to protect myself."

"But you flew to Spain," says Niall. No vampire can cross running water without graveyard dirt, much less an entire ocean. That was Saint Patrick's entire thing; legend has it that he lined his boat with soil from an entire cemetery to bring monsters to Ireland. Niall doesn't get it. He'd just let the snakes be and leave the vampires in England.

"Yeah, and it felt awful. But I'm not a full vampire."

That would explain so many of the discrepancies, but Niall isn't ready to trust the word of a vampire.

He wonders, though, if it might be worth it, keeping Liam alive, just to be able to get some insight into how vampires work. He tries to picture the faces of the hunters back home - not just his mum and dad, but every single one in County Westmeath - if he said that he let a vampire (or, if Liam is to believed, and Niall isn't convinced that he is, a half-vampire) walk free for any amount of time.

When it's clear that Niall isn't convinced, Liam switches to a new tactic. "I'm not saying that I know what your priorities are," he says. "But I want this so badly that even if I died and became a full vampire tomorrow, I wouldn't feed on any person in case someone found out and I got booted off the X Factor."

When Niall looks over, Liam's eyes are as full with raw ambition as Niall's ever seen. He's seen it before, once or twice, maybe, before Liam figured out that Louis was a little wary of how badly Liam wanted to win. That Louis suspected Liam would drop the band in a second if it meant he could get ahead. "I figured," he tells Liam. Liam may be a lying monster, but Niall would bet his best stake on Liam being honest right now.

"I think you want it as bad as I do," says Liam, carefully.

"I do," Niall says. He sighs. "I know if I kill you, this is all over. It's just that with my training - even letting you live as long as I have is a betrayal."

To his shock, Liam starts to laugh. "Sorry, mate," he says, and then cringes once he realises that he's called Niall a friend. "I just - we're sat here, calmly talking about you literally killing me. It's ridiculous."

Niall's heart twinges. "Almost as ridiculous as being on the X Factor, huh."

"That is the truth," Liam says. He holds his fist up for a bump, frowns down at it, and shoves it into his lap. "Sorry."

God. Niall feels bad for a vampire. Half-vampire. Granted, the vampire is also Liam, but that really shouldn't make a difference.

He thinks, again, about all the information he could get from Liam. Thinks about how it would feel to win the X Factor. If they win, there's no way that he could kill Liam without people finding out, but before he knew that Liam was a monster, winning was all that he wanted. He fiddles with the pencil in his hand, feeling the weight of it, picturing the series of moves he'd have to make to get the advantage on Liam now.

"If it makes a difference," Liam says, quietly, "I really don't want to die."

"It shouldn't make a difference," Niall tells him. The problem is, it almost does.

"What if we told all the lads?" Liam asks. He looks terrified of the thought of doing that, but he sets his jaw, serious. "They could all keep an eye on me."

"And you wouldn't just eat them to keep them quiet," Niall says. It's not in disbelief - it's with the dawning understanding that maybe, just maybe, Liam wants to win more than he wants to eat people. Kind of like Niall might want to win more than he wants to fulfil his sworn duty by killing Liam.

"Of course not," Liam says, looking horrified. "You probably won't believe this, but I've never had blood from a living human that I know. I mean, once, but it was an accident; Andy got a scrape when we were kids and I got some on my hand." He looks a little haunted at the thought, like maybe things almost got out of hand. Like maybe he learned some kind of lesson from it. "It's all been donation bags and fucking apricot juice. I hate apricots, Niall. I hate them so much."

Niall wants so badly to believe Liam that he nearly convinces himself that Liam is telling the truth. Briefly, he contemplates making a point of rejecting everything Liam says out of hand. Instead, he says, "Zayn already knows."

Liam looks upset, for a moment, then nods. "What does he say?"

"To let him know when I decide to kill you," Niall says, and forces himself not to look away when Liam clenches his eyes shut.

"Can we make an agreement?" Liam asks. "I really, really want to live, and I really, really want to win. Can you just let me do that? And if I ever die and turn, or like, hurt anyone, I'll come straight to you and ask you to behead me right there."

"I suppose that's reasonable," Niall says. He's not convinced at all, but he really does want to win. He'll just have to literally never leave Liam's side while he's still alive in exchange, or something.

Relief floods Liam's features. Niall can't relate. "Thank you."

Niall glances down at Liam's leg. "I expect you'll want blood to help with that now," he says. "You can't have mine."

"I'd never ask for it," Liam says, putting both hands up, palms out, defensively. "I have an emergency juice box under my bed, just pass it over and I'll be fine."

"Should we wrap up your leg first?" Niall asks, thinking over what he knows about eviscerating vampires and how it can slow them down; about how they need the blood in their stomachs to work its way through their veins so they can survive. "Will the blood come out of your veins?"

"Not till I digest it," Liam says. "If then."

Niall nods. Feeling like a traitor every step of the way, he goes to get the blood box and hands it to Liam. "Shall I keep the lads out of the room for a little while while you, uh. Have this?"

"Please," Liam says, making a grateful face at Niall, so Niall leaves the room.

He stops in the loo to throw up before making his way downstairs.

+++

Liam clearly doesn't know how to act around Niall anymore. He acts wary when they're hanging out together in a group, and avoids being alone with Niall if he can help it.

To be fair, Niall doesn't know how to act normal around Liam, either. He throws himself into everything the X Factor pushes their way, keeping one eye on Liam all the while.

Liam, who is pushing himself into Louis's orbit more and more. It's funny, in a dismal sort of way; Louis clearly doesn't quite know what to make of the fact that Liam no longer seems to care much whether Louis likes him or not, and completely refuses to take Louis's occasionally-sharply worded retorts to some of his off-the-cuff comments about the band to heart anymore. Niall would be proud of Liam three weeks ago.

He's still kind of proud of Liam, even knowing why Liam's acting this way. Even knowing that Liam's a vampire. Half-vampire. Whatever.

Niall watches Liam tuck his head against Harry's shoulder, laughing, and draws his hands into fists. He's used to being on the outside looking in while faking insider status — that's the lot of a kid who's also a hunter. He's not use this sense of confusion and jealousy, though. Liam's not in any kind of attack stance; he's genuinely just getting along with the band.

Liam looks up and catches Niall's eye and has the decency to look faintly apologetic about it all. Niall rubs at the back of his neck, which is hot, and looks away. There's a spider crawling on the wall by his bunk, and he squashes it with his thumb, wiping the dead spider goop off onto his jeans.

He should stay and keep an eye on things. He should do his due diligence as a hunter, as much as possible after all the concessions he's already made. Liam turns away, focusing his attention on Louis.

"Going to the gym," Niall says, abruptly, and shoves his way out of the room.

+++

Because fate is a cruel mistress, Wardrobe and Makeup have got the "best idea ever, lads, truly inspired" for One Direction's Halloween performance of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

"Vampires are just so hot right now," Julia explains, thumbing through some photos from the set of Eclipse. "So dreamy, you know? Perfect for a band of young heartthrobs!"

Harry is all about it. Louis seems cautiously optimistic. Zayn makes a strangled sound at the announcement, and when Niall looks over, it looks like Zayn doesn't know whether he's about to laugh or cry.

"Never really got the appeal, me," says Niall, refusing to look at Liam.

"I dunno," says Liam. "Robert Pattinson's supposed to be hot, right?" He leans against the makeup table. "Julia, can you make me look like Edward Cullen?"

"I'll do my best, love," she promises.

"I like Jacob better, myself," says Harry. "Less creepy, you know."

"Of course you do," Louis says, indulgently. He pats Harry on the head, and then scritches at his scalp with his fingertips. "You're like a puppy yourself."

Niall accidentally catches Liam's eyes in the mirror. Steeling himself, he makes a face at Liam - a kind of are you hearing this too? expression - and tilts his head at Louis and Harry.

Liam's eyes go round for a second, and then they crinkle at the corners. "Have you got any werewolf makeup?" he asks Julia, who shakes her head apologetically.

"I'm more of a Buffy kind of guy, myself," Niall adds. "What if instead of giving me fangs or bite-marks or whatever, you give me a stake?"

"I've got a stake you can use," Zayn says, with a lewd gesture toward his crotch and the faintest warning-shake of his head.

In the end, they all look very flashy and very undead and very much nothing at all like actual vampires. "I vant to suck your blood," Harry says, affecting an accent that Niall can't begin to parse. He holds his arms out and lumbers toward Niall.

"My blood tastes awful," Niall says, pushing Harry away the second his outstretched hands brush against Niall's chest. "Promise."

"Do you think Simon requested this on account of he's definitely absolutely a vampire and this is even more proof?" Louis asks, slinging an arm around Harry's shoulders and shoving his face away before Harry can latch onto Louis's neck. Niall still can't figure out if their thing is playacting or a massive, weeks-long bout of foreplay.

"It checks out," Zayn says, solemnly, catching first Niall's eye, and then Liam's.

Liam remains quiet throughout the exchange, holding himself carefully off to the side, even sidestepping neatly out of the way after Harry launches away from Louis's side and toward Liam. Niall's heart lurches at how much care he's taking, and he has to lecture himself sternly to keep from feeling overly appreciative that Liam isn't crossing any basic boundaries.

He's the only one who seems to feel that way, though. "You're all being very weird," Louis says. "Vampires are kind of lame but this is all in good fun." He pauses, and casts a dismissive glance over at Liam, looking up and down his body. "Thought you were becoming fun now."

"Harsh," Zayn says, softly.

"Sorry," says Louis. At least it sounds a little apologetic. "Just meant we should all loosen up a little. Shall we smash this, then, fellow creatures of the night?"

So they go out and they smash it and when they get back to the house, Niall spends a full half hour under the spray of the shower, washing every bit of the vampire make-up off his face. The only person who takes longer than him is Liam.

+++

The show winds on, and One Direction keep getting through to the next round. During every performance, Niall feels like he's too big for his own skin; like he could fly if only he could jump just a little bit higher. Like the entire world is at his fingertips, and nothing bad could ever happen if he left hunting to make a real go at singing. He's felt pride in himself before; confidence in his ability to hold his own against a monster and come out on top; conviction that he's not half-bad at singing. On stage, with the boys surrounding him as they sing as bravely and capably as they know how, he learns the buoyancy of true, exhilarating joy, blood thrumming through his veins so strongly that he can feel his heartbeat in his fingertips, a staccato beat underscoring every note he sings. It's not just that he wants to get through, it's that he genuinely loves every active moment of it, enough that he's flooded with guilt about it when the performances are over.

When he's not on stage, singing with his band, the thrill from the constant ringing in his ears from the cheers of the crowd sinks into Niall's bones, and he feels twitchy with it. There are actual girls telling him they actually love him every time he walks out of the X Factor house. It adds to his exhaustion instead of tempering it, though, the way they reach for him and his senses go haywire every time he goes to greet some. His Twitter account swells by a thousand followers, and a thousand more.

The other lads lap it all up, so Niall throws himself into their revelries, laughing at the crowds even as he tenses, muscles coiled up, on the verge of fight-or-flight whenever they're surrounded. He goes down to the edge of the fenced-off areas that surround the contestants much of the time to sign the slips of paper the girls on the other side pass through, and he laughs and jokes and flirts with them as he passes his actual autographs back. He forces himself to look away from how Liam is doing the same, and then always, always glances back, watches Liam's mouth as he smiles, and checks for teeth.

Bressie puts out a call for a hunting assist from others in London on a chilly, drizzly afternoon in late October. Niall tells Zayn that he's got duties to fulfil and asks Zayn to keep an eye on Liam. Anticipation riding low in his stomach, Niall limbers up in the gym, shaking out his arms and legs and stretching his muscles, ready for a fight, and then he suits up: hoodie with a pocket loose enough to stash multiple stakes in; his consecrated silver crucifix around his neck and slipped under his shirt (the silver and consecration significantly more effective at keeping vampires at bay than the shape of the necklace); shoes with good tread that don't weigh his feet down. A fight's what he needs. A ninetieth kill so that a round-number spot isn't waiting for Liam to fill it. That'll stop the churning in his brain, if not the ever-present ache in his stomach.

He slips out of the house and past security as before, and sneaks onto the tube without effort. But before he even reaches the stop Bressie specified in his text, Niall is identified by three separate fans, and when he gets off the train, there's four more waiting. One of them follows him as he tries to duck out of the station alone, to no avail.

He goes into a Sainsbury's and fills a basket with dried apricots and iron-fortified juice. The girl is hovering at the till, fiddling with the wrapper of an aero bar, when he goes to pay for the food with some emergency cash he's carried with him. Disappointment curdling in his veins, Niall takes out his phone and texts Bressie: got recognised. Can't come without risking civilians. :(

Alright chief keep em safe, Bressie replies. Got another friend coming round to help, should be fine.

Niall shoulders the bag of foods he's bringing back home to his half-vampire bandmate instead of killing another scourge off entirely. Biting his lip, he sends a quick Be safe xx and shoves his phone into the pocket of his jeans, more aggressively than is strictly necessary. The stakes in his front pouch-pocket clatter with the force of his thrust, and he freezes, placing a hand on his stomach to quiet them down.

It's not that Niall is itching for a fight, or that wants to go out and kill things in his downtime, per se. It's that he doesn't quite know how to relax if he's not relying on the muscle memory of the arc of his arm as he swings a stake toward a vampire's chest, or the clench and jerk of his thighs as he wraps them around a vampire's body to give himself the leverage he needs to behead it. It's that he's got a vampire under his nose nearly 24/7 and he's already committed to doing nothing about it, yet, and that sets him perilously on edge in a way he can't hope to address with anything but a hunt.

He doesn't even bother locking his stakes back into his minifridge when he gets back to the house. He just takes his hoodie off and bundles everything under the bed and goes sulkily downstairs to shove the apricots and juice at Liam and then pound his aggressions out on the punching bag in the in-house gym.

+++

Liam licks his lips, staring Niall down. His tongue catches on the sharp points of his elongated teeth, and his mouth curls into a smirk. He looks taller in this light, with more obvious muscles and shorter hair than Niall's used to seeing. There's a smudge of red on his chin, and when he wipes at it with the back of his hand, it smears even more.

Niall's mouth floods with saliva at the rust-copper stench of blood on Liam's breath as he slouches ever-closer, gait loose, like he's unafraid of Niall and unafraid of any consequences for breaking his pact. Frantic, Niall pats himself for a stake, or a silver guitar wire, or anything that can give him the upper hand, but his pockets are mostly empty, and the only pencil he has is mechanical, not wooden.

Fuck.

He scrambles back against the wall, trying to put distance between him and Liam. "You promised," he says, desperately, and when Liam's smile widens, he adds, "Are you going to kill me too, then?"

Liam nods, and opens his mouth. "Let him sleep," he says, in Louis's voice. Niall hadn't known that vampires were particularly good at imitations; that's been widely understood to be a myth for centuries. "Poor guy's seemed so exhausted and on edge lately."

"Yeah," says Liam's voice, from far to the right of Liam's actual body. "But he'll be upset, won't he? If he wakes up and finds we've let him nap so long."

Niall shakes his head, frantically. "What's going on?" he asks, blinking.

His equilibrium shifts, and there's a sudden light behind his eyelids. "You're fine," Zayn says, quietly. "It's just a dream."

Niall blinks again. Slowly, the room comes into focus. Liam isn't in front of him anymore; he's off to the side, wearing a soft flannel shirt instead of the tight t-shirt he'd been in moments ago. His face is clean of any signs of blood. Still, Niall lets himself shiver, just once. "What are you — I mean —"

"There was a spider in the kitchen," says Harry, darkly. "So we came back upstairs to escape it."

"I caught it and put it outside!" Liam says, defensively. "It's not there anymore."

"The only good spider is a dead spider," Harry insists. He flings himself onto Niall's bunk, narrowly missing hitting Niall in the head with his flailing limbs, and curls up, tucking his head against Niall's shoulder. Niall has to force himself to relax, holding himself carefully so that Harry doesn't cotton on to how tense he feels. "Sorry we woke you up, Nialler."

"You're fine," Niall says. He glances back at Liam one more time to make sure the blood really isn't there. "I'm feeling rested already anyway."

"You're clearly not," Louis says, crossing his arms. "I know the show is a lot, but Nialler, you have to make sure you take care of yourself. Where would we be without you?"

At the mercy of Liam Payne, Niall thinks, and nods. He can sleep with one eye open, he supposes, but Louis has a point. It might just be his bone-deep exhaustion speaking, but he's no help to anyone if he's too tired to fight Liam, or if he's too tired to sing.

+++

When he wakes up again, dawn is just starting to peep through their windows, and Harry is cursing loudly on the floor next to Niall's bunk.

"Haz?" Niall asks, frowning. "All right?"

"Why the fuck do you have a giant knife under your bed?" Harry demands. "I was looking for my phone, and —"

He holds up his hand. There's a line of dark across his palm. It takes about three seconds for Niall to realise that it's blood, and half a second more for him to notice that Liam is standing stock-still against the opposite wall, physically holding himself back, mouth open. It's still fairly dark in the room, but Niall is convinced he can make out the edge of a tooth pressed against Liam's lower lip.

"Zayn," Niall says, loudly. Zayn mumbles a nonsense reply, and his sheets crinkle as he turns over in his sleep. "Zayn Malik, wake up and help Harry, he's cut his hand."

"Harry's done what?" Louis asks, yawning widely as he sits up in bed. "Oi, Styles, are you okay?"

Harry replies, a note of true pain colouring his voice, but Niall tunes him out, pushing his blankets gently out of the way as he watches Liam clench his hands into fists and set his mouth firmly shut, lips a tiny dark line in the predawn grey filling the room.

"Liam," Niall says, softly.

Liam's eyes jerk to his. His chest heaves with a breath, and then, slowly, he covers his mouth with one hand.

"Zayn," Niall repeats, as loud as he dares, given that other acts are sleeping in rooms right by theirs. "Wake up." When Zayn fails to respond, Niall swings his legs over the edge of his bunk, careful not to hit Harry. "Lou, there's a first aid kit in the kitchen; why don't you take Harry down there and get him patched up?"

"Why don't you?" Louis grumps, but he climbs out of his bed anyway and goes to cradle Harry's hands in his own.

"Liam, can you hear me?" Niall asks, once Louis and Harry are upright and heading toward the door. He's fairly certain Liam's senses are all heightened now, with the stench of blood filling the air, but it's possible that he's concentrating so hard on not attacking that he can't pay attention to anything else.

Liam stumbles forward a step, and Niall's instincts overtake him.

He springs into action, leaping across the room and slamming into Liam, knocking them both heavily on the ground. Liam responds instinctively, grappling for Niall's arms, trying to wrestle them down, but Niall twists out of his grip and rolls away, moving fast enough that Liam can't easily use the weight of his own body to overtake him. He flings his arm out, grasping for a stake, or a pencil, or the knife that cut Harry, or anything, but he's misjudged his angle and all he comes up with are a pair of Louis's dirty pants.

Vampire smell is strong, though, so Niall uses them as the weapon they are, and flings them at Liam's face. Liam curses, voice more of a roar than anything else, and bats them aside.

He's only distracted for about two seconds, but Niall's worked with slimmer windows of time than that. He presses his advantage, straddling Liam's chest with his knees pinning Liam's arms against his side, and getting a hand under Liam's chin. Sitting back hard where Liam's ribcage meets his stomach and squeezing his thighs to thoroughly immobilised Liam's arms, Niall pushes his hand forward. His thumb is firm against Liam's pulse point, fingers pressed hard against the other side of Liam's neck; the webbing of his hand bites into the flesh of Liam's throat. He can feel Liam try and fail to swallow. He can feel Liam's sluggish heartbeat coming every few seconds - faster than any vampire Niall has known, but far, far slower than any human's would be.

It settles him, a little, reassures him that he's done the right thing, not killing Liam straightaway.

Still, he doesn't move from pinning Liam to the floor, pushing Liam's head far enough back that his eyes are watering and he's gasping for air. Liam screws his eyes shut, and then opens them again, watching Niall carefully. There's fear in there, and a hint of surprise and awe, like Niall's impressed him with his fighting.

Liam isn't struggling to get free, for all that he's gulping against the hold Niall has on his neck. He's just - lying there, chest rising and falling under Niall's arse, for a few beats. When he wets his lips, Niall doesn't see any hint of fangs.

Before Niall has the chance to let Liam go free, someone's grabbing his shoulder and hauling him back, and he's too shocked to stop it. He falls back against the floor, hitting it hard enough to knock the wind from his lungs.

"What the fuck is going on here?" Louis demands, standing over Niall, arms akimbo. "Liam, are you alright?"

"Fine," Liam says, slowly easing himself up onto his elbows. His voice sounds raspy, and when Niall looks at him, he's staring right back. "No harm done."

Louis frowns, crouching over to help Liam sit up, wrapping his arm around the small of Liam's back and shooting a glare at Niall. "He looked like he was going to kill you!"

"He probably was," Zayn chimes in, voice thick with sleep. Niall glances over at his bed; Zayn is peering over the edge, hair messy from sleep. "Niall's a madman like that."

"Now you wake up," Niall complains.

"Couldn't sleep through that ruckus," Zayn says, putting a hand on his stomach. "What the fuck, by the way." He sits up further and takes in the tableaux below him. "Where's Harry?"

"He cut his hand on some knife under Niall's bed," Louis says. He's still glaring at Niall. "Which is another thing Niall is going to have to address."

"Oh," Zayn says, understanding colouring his voice. "Well, this is a right mess."

"I'll say," Louis agrees, fervently.

Not as fervently as he would if he actually knew what the fuck was going on, though. Niall runs through several possible scenarios: coming clean, and potentially putting Louis and Harry at risk from other monsters out there. Not coming clean, and leaving Harry and Louis at potential risk from Liam, should he ever lose his control. Coming clean and ruining the band, or coming clean and saving the band. "I need to talk to Liam," he says.

Louis tightens his arm around Liam's back. "Not alone, you don't."

Liam laughs a little. He looks very conflicted: still shocked from Harry's cut and Niall's attack, pleased at the unconditional care that Louis is displaying toward him now, though maybe a little scared that the goodwill will go away if the truth comes out. "Go check and make sure Harry hasn't botched up bandaging his hand," he says. "We'll be fine."

Louis looks around the room suspiciously. "Zayn, you'll keep an eye on them?"

"I promise," says Zayn, looking very much like he wishes he were anywhere else but in this room at this moment.

"I expect answers when I get back," Louis says, sternly. It's clear he's serious, not just affecting his tone, and Niall and Liam exchange another look.

Once Louis has extricated himself and left the room again, Niall makes a face. "Sorry," he says, albeit begrudgingly. "I thought—"

"No, I understand," says Liam. He pauses. "Do you keep your knife out because of me?"

Niall considers lying, then nods. "Just in case."

Liam nods, too. "I understand," he says again. It's clear he doesn't like it, the way his lips thin and he shrugs, awkwardly. "Anyway, I wouldn't have eaten Harry, but it was surprising to wake up to the smell of his blood, so. Uh. I don't blame you. Good to know you're quick on the trigger, in case—"

"Yeah," Zayn echoes, from his bunk. "Really fucking alarming too, though, not going to lie."

Niall laughs, even though it's not particularly funny, and finds that he can't stop laughing. "Sorry," he says, trying to catch his breath in between bursts of laughter. "It's just—"

"I know," Liam says. He's smiling faintly, eyes crinkled at the corners. "It's a little bloody ridiculous, isn't it?"

"Bloody," Niall repeats, and his laughter grows so hysterical that he can hardly catch his breath.

It's weird, and he's able to recognise, analytically, that it's weird, even as he's gasping for air. He doesn't usually laugh like this, not from the belly, not for real. And this might just be an anxious response to the entire living-with-a-half-vampire situation building up and bursting out, but still. It's good to not pretend, for once, and he finds himself laughing harder when he goes to wipe away tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes.

Still, there's business to attend to before Louis and Harry return, and he's got to get himself sorted out to attend to it in time. "Sorry," he gasps, trying to calm himself down. "Sorry. I know we've got a conundrum."

"We have to tell them," says Liam, grimly. "Even if they kick me out of the band. They deserve to know, and I wouldn't want them to get the wrong idea about you."

"But we can't kick you out," says Niall. "I can't keep watch on you if you get kicked out."

"Also your voice is an integral part of our sound," Zayn adds, pointedly, waggling his eyebrows at Niall in an attempt to communicate something Niall can't quite read.

"I have gone seventeen years without eating someone," Liam points out. "Not even a little bit. I might have the teeth, kind of, but they've never punctured human flesh."

"Oh, and that's so reassuring," Niall says, rolling his eyes. He's still got the urge to giggle, and he can't quite tamp it down. He takes a deep breath. "If you really want to tell them, we can tell them, but it is quite dangerous for civilians to have the truth."

"If I die and turn it'll be even more dangerous if they don't know how to stop me," Liam points out, and Niall has to concede that he has a point.

"So we tell them," Zayn says, with finality.

"We tell them," Niall agrees, trying very hard not to sound reluctant.

"This should go well," says Liam, shaking his head. "At least we don't perform for two more days now."

"Ever the pragmatist," Niall says, rolling his eyes. He's still feeling a little guilty and sharp inside, though, so he kicks out his foot to nudge it, gently, apologetically, against Liam's thigh. Liam smiles down at it, and wraps his hand briefly, warmly, around Niall's ankle. He squeezes gently, and then releases it.

Niall's stomach squirms with the touch, but it's not in the way he's used to feeling when a vampire's bare skin is against his, so he discards the feeling and waits for the rest of the band to return.

+++

Liam takes point on the explanation. "The thing is," he tells Harry and Louis, who are sat on Louis's bunk together, Harry's bandaged hand tucked around Louis's arm. "Vampires are real, and I got a blood transfusion as a kid for my kidneys that was, you know. Vampire blood."

"Halloween is over," Harry says. "We took off our vampire makeup after Total Eclipse of the Heart." There's a warning note in his voice, like he's not in the mood for any jokes. Louis covers Harry's hand on his arm with his own, and rubs his thumb over the back of it until Harry slouches a little bit further into his side.

"I'm not joking," Liam says, carefully. "I'm a half-vampire. Niall found out during our first performance, because when I drink blood, my eyes go red."

"Prove it," Louis says, frowning deeply. He tugs Harry even closer into his side. "I don't believe you. Give me proof."

"Don't give them proof," Niall says, immediately. "It's not safe."

"Wait," Harry says, eyes wide. "Does that mean - was Liam going to try and suck my blood when I cut myself?" Reproachfully, he adds, "Not that I believe you."

"How does Niall know about red eyes?" Louis adds.

"Niall's been a hunter for ten years," says Niall. "Niall's killed eighty-nine vampires so far." But Harry and Louis are still stony-faced and sceptical, so he sighs. "Look, I don't have diabetes," he says, and goes to unlock his minifridge. He lets the door swing open, and takes out the dozens of stakes and the bags of his own blood. "I just need the blood in case a vampire starts to drain me, so that I can replenish safely without turning."

"That's a lot of blood," Liam says, scooting back away from the contents of the fridge.

"There's a lot of vampires out there," Niall says. He pushes it all back in and closes the door again. After a moment of indecision, he decides not to lock the door. He runs the risk of Liam drinking his blood, but locking and unlocking it all the time is such a hassle, and now that the truth is out, there's really no other point to keeping it closed.

"Wow," says Louis, looking between the two of them. "You're really serious." He scowls. "Why does Zayn know, then? Is Zayn a werewolf?"

"Don't be ridiculous, werewolves aren't real," Zayn says. He pauses, and frowns suddenly. "I think."

"Never heard of 'em," Niall says, and Liam nods his agreement. It strikes Niall then, how odd it is that he and Liam are on the same side of things for the first time since the first live show. It's almost nice, but he can't afford to let himself dwell on the feeling.

"Anyway, great-Nana hunted," Zayn tells them. "I've heard stories. Helped Nialler here when he came back from a hunt a few weeks ago, and that's when he started to tell me everything."

"It's really dangerous for civilians to know about vampires," Niall adds. "You can't go searching any of them out. It takes years of training to be able to kill one."

"If I die," Liam says. "I might turn. Completely. So Nialler's keeping an eye out on me. And now you know: if I kick the bucket, get the hell away."

"You realise this sounds totally ridiculous," Harry says. His injured hand twitches. "But. Is the knife for vampires, then?"

"It's silver and it's consecrated," Niall confirms. "It wouldn't kill a vampire outright, but it would slow one down."

"Right," says Louis. He looks - angry, almost? "So if Liam dies, he goes full vamp, and yet Niall was trying to kill him not twenty minutes ago? It doesn't add up."

"It's instinct," Niall explains, but Louis is shaking his head again, holding a hand up to stop Niall from talking any more.

"If what you're all saying is true, Liam, who has admitted to drinking blood as a half-vampire, whatever that is, can resist his instinct and not immediately eat me and Harry when we get hurt, but you can't stop yourself from trying to kill him."

When Louis puts it that way… Niall stares down at his lap. There's a thread working free from the cuff of his jeans, and he picks at it for a moment. "My instincts have saved me more than once," he says, eventually.

"I really don't blame him," Liam adds. "Vampires are… horrifying."

"I won't have you saying such things about a friend of mine," Louis says, fiercely. "You promise not to kill and eat anyone, right?"

"I've avoided it so far," Liam says. "I can't promise anything, but I do plan to continue avoiding it for the foreseeable future."

"Good," Louis says. "Thank you for telling me the truth, as fucking weird as it is. Your word is good enough for me."

"Niall, do you promise not to kill Liam?" Harry chimes in. He releases his grip on Louis's arm and rubs at the cut at his hand with his thumb.

I can't, Niall thinks. "As long as he doesn't eat anyone," he says.

"And you're both dedicated to continuing with the band?"

That's an easier question to answer. "Absolutely," Niall says, fervently, as Liam nods vigorously next to him.

"Right," says Harry. "I'm going to get some more sleep, then. We can deal with the rest of this when I wake up. Louis?"

Louis nods, and gives Liam and Niall both one more warning look before letting Harry curl up on his bunk. He lies down next to him and puts an arm protectively over Harry's side.

Zayn takes the opportunity to go back to sleep, too, but Niall is too worked up to go back to bed, so he heads out, intent on losing himself to a good hour of mindless television downstairs.

Liam follows him. "That went well," he says, optimistically.

"They didn't kick us out," Niall agrees. He pauses, and sighs. If they're both sticking around for awhile, he can try to work back to having a friendship with Liam again. If duty calls for him to kill Liam later on, at least he can rest assured that his instincts will do half the job for him. "Shall we drink the fridge dry of apricot juice?"

Liam looks startled, then relieved, then hopeful. "I'd like that," he says, quietly, an odd little smile playing around his lips. "I'd really, really like that."

+++

Somehow, Niall hadn't predicted the ceaseless questions, but it feels like everywhere he turns for the next two weeks, Harry or Louis - or, even worse, both - are there with another thing they want to know about vampires, and hunting, and what it means for the band.

It's not that Niall blames them. It's just that he's never had to introduce anyone to the idea of monsters before, and he's underprepared.

"So, wait," Harry says, frowning, one day as they're sitting in the X Factor kitchen. It feels more cavernous than ever, now that nearly everyone's moved out of the house. They have their pick of rooms, now, no longer forced to crowd together in five bunks in one room.

No one's left, though. Ever since the revelation, they've been clinging more and more tightly together. Louis still watches Niall suspiciously when he thinks he's not looking, almost like Niall's the one to be afraid of. Like Liam's the victim, and Niall is his predator.

He doesn't get it. Sure, Liam didn't ask to become a - what he is - but Niall suspects very few vampires do. They're still dangerous. They still indiscriminately slaughter humans for food whenever they need it, and they must be stopped. Just because Liam is half-human, too, and has spent so much of his life trying to keep it that way, doesn't mean he shouldn't be watched. Niall was born into the hunting life, and he never had a real choice about it, either.

Abruptly, Niall realises he's spent the past few minutes rhapsodizing to himself instead of carrying on his conversation with Harry. "What's that?"

"I asked why you're here, if your main duty is to like, kill people."

Niall's heart thuds in his chest, and his stomach clenches. "I don't kill people," he hisses. "I hunt vampires. There's a difference."

"Okay," Harry says, doubtfully. "So then why did you audition for the X Factor? Not that I don't love you being in the band. Just wondering."

"I love singing," Niall says. He sighs, and folds his arms on the great island in the middle of the kitchen, and rests his forehead on them. "I really - I have to do that. I want to do this."

Harry nods, thoughtfully, and then he's leaning over and draping himself all across Niall's back. It's a testament to Niall's time spent practising normalcy that he doesn't flinch at the sudden weight. "So just like us, then?" he mumbles.

"Just like you," Niall admits.

Harry and Louis are a lot less confrontational toward him, after that.

+++

Niall's never actually seen Liam's teeth fully descended, before. He's been present at times they must have engorged; Liam's confirmed that it's impossible to drink blood without his fangs descending, even as a half-vampire, and that sometimes if the smell of blood in a small, enclosed space is thick enough, his fangs will descend anyway. "Like an unwelcomed hard-on," he'd laughed, when the topic came up.

"Can you get hard if you haven't eaten recently?" Niall had asked, because he'd always kind of wondered, given what he knew about vampires, but Liam had changed the subject.

When Matt Cardle slices his upper arm clean open on a protruding nail in the green room backstage when they're in final rehearsals pre-finale, Niall watches Liam's teeth slide free from their sheaths and sit, huge and obvious, poking past his lip even when he tries to close his mouth.

"Liam," Niall says, quietly, poised to spring into action. He doesn't leap immediately at Liam; he's learned his lesson on that front, but he still reaches for his wooden pencil just in case, still shifts on the couch they've been sitting on, trying to find some calm before the storm, until he's practically sitting on Liam's lap, ready to push Liam back and hold him still.

"No, it's okay," Liam says. His voice is distorted by the teeth, and he half-lisps, half-slurs around them. "It'll be fine, it's just a reaction. I don't know how to stop it." But his pupils are shrinking and his nostrils are flaring as he takes in the scent of blood, even though Matt is rushing out of the room. Niall is close enough that he can make out the tiny string of drool making its way slowly down one incisor. It's hard to drag his eyes away.

A few people start walking in while Liam's pupils are still pinpricks and his teeth are still firmly, obviously denting his plush lower lip, talking loudly about getting the nail out of the wall. "Liam?" Cheryl says, from somewhere behind the two of them. "Are you okay? You look—"

Niall doesn't think, beyond the sudden flash of panic in Liam's eyes that's a direct mirror to the way his heart leaps and drops at the thought of someone finding out their secret. He reaches up to cover Liam's mouth with a hand, quickly registers that as a weird decision for anyone who doesn't know what he's trying to hide, and replaces his hand with his mouth.

It doesn't even occur to Niall that he is, effectively, kissing Liam till his lips are pressed firmly against Liam's teeth. His stomach is churning in triple-time, being this close to a vampire, flipping over itself and making him feel incredibly, overwhelmingly lightheaded in the process, even after he pushes back the sudden memory of his nightmare of Liam's teeth sinking through his own lips, pinning him there, drinking the blood from his mouth.

Behind the teeth, Liam's lips are soft. Warmer than Niall would have expected, from someone who still needs to drink blood to remain fully-functioning; he half-thought all of Liam's extremities would be freezing.

"We'll just give you some time to yourselves, then," says Dannii, sounding deeply amused, and there's the sound of footsteps receding and the door opening and closing.

When Niall pulls away, a thread of the spit from Liam's fang stretches between them, and breaks.

He and Liam stare at each other in silence. Slowly, Liam's teeth recede back into their sockets, Liam's face screwing up as they do, almost like it's incredibly painful for him.

Liam closes his eyes, and Niall licks his lips, and the moment is broken.

"Think anyone figured it out?" Niall asks, eventually, sliding back and sitting down, heavily, next to Liam, and glancing over at him.

"If they figured anything out," says Liam, one corner of his mouth drawing up. "I don't think it's that I'm a vampire. Half. Whatever."

+++

They don't talk about it.

One Direction lose the X Factor, but even before Niall has time to unpack his conflicting feelings about it — mourning what failed to be, interspersed with the sorrow-tinged relief that the need to make a decision between hunting and singing has been taken away from him — they're shuffled into Simon's office and handed contracts.

To be honest, this gives Niall pause. It gives all of them pause. "Can we look over this, the five of us?" Louis asks Simon, hand hovering over the papers. "Just the five of us?"

Simon purses his lips. "It'd be better to go over it with your lawyers," he says.

Niall just stares at Simon in disbelief. "We don't have any lawyers," he points out.

"I'll send one in," Simon promises, and leaves them to their discussion.

"I want this," Harry says, immediately, as soon as Simon is gone. "I won't lie. I really want this."

"Me, too," Liam says. He glances between them. "I'm scared of hurting you guys, though. And there are all these other things. If we ever want to tour overseas it will be really hard for me to fly over the oceans."

"Unless we find your sire's grave," Niall says, automatically. "Isn't there a chance the graveyard dirt from the vampire who donated its blood to you might also work for you?"

"That's the hope," Liam says. "But it's impossible. There's no way of knowing who did it, or if it was just once vampire, or if it'll even work. Trust me. My family's been looking my whole life."

"I think it's worth the risk," Zayn says. "For me, at least. If it is for you. Doing this."

"Yeah, I," Louis says, and shakes his head. "I like you lot. I like performing. I'm in."

Niall looks from boy to boy. They want it, so they're in. Like it's that simple. "It's that simple?"

"It's that simple," Zayn says, catching Niall's eye and holding his gaze for a long moment.

Niall thinks over the next few years of his life. About balancing his duties as a hunter with his duties as a singer, if they happen to make it.

About how everything falls away when he's on stage, even more than it does when he's hunting. There's no real need to constantly be thinking ten moves ahead when he's performing like he does when he's fighting.

About the fierce look in Liam's red eyes when he's on the blood to stay strong, and singing his heart out.

"Alright, then," he says. "Let's give it a shot."

+++

Packing up to go home is… weird. Niall boxes up his blood packets, half to donate to hospitals around London, half to go back to Ireland with him. He's an X Factor finalist/loser. He's a hunter who keeps failing to kill the monster closest to him. He's the hunter who doesn't want to kill the vampire closest to him.

He's the hunter who didn't win the X Factor, sitting on his bunk for the last time, a duffel bag full of stakes and shoes open on the floor at his feet, with the half-vampire he keeps not killing sitting on the bed next to him, watching him load his bag with things that could destroy him.

"I have something to say to you," Liam says, abruptly, when Niall's just about to lean over and zip the bag closed.

Niall half-turns on the bed, drawing one leg up under him, the other solidly on the floor. It strikes him that it's not a good position for leaping up and attacking anything, but he doesn't adjust the way he's sitting. "What's that?"

"I like the band," Liam says. "I'm really glad that you, you know. Didn't murder me and bury my body across three churchyards in West London, or whatever."

"Don't mention it," Niall says, only half-joking. "I mean it."

Liam — bold Liam — rolls his eyes at Niall. "I'm trying to be sincere here, you arse," he says.

Liam's getting braver in his interpersonal interactions. Niall feels a twinge of pride at that, tempered by the regret of their respective stations in life, and how they've got in the way of the fledgling friendship he and Liam had been forming back at the start of everything. "Fine," he says, rolling his eyes back at Liam. It is, he thinks, only partly an affectation. "Go on."

"I just wanted to say that, like." Liam screws up his face. "I know this is weird, you know, that I'm one death away from fully turning, probably, and you've dedicated your entire life to killing every vampire you come across, but like - I was always scared of what I am, you know? Scared to be around people, in case I hurt them." He breaks off for a moment and shakes his head a little. Quieter, he adds, "I try really hard not to hurt people."

"I know," Niall says, just as quietly. It's not a lie, either; he's slowly come to accept that Liam tries very, very hard to squash that part of his nature down. It's a little alarming, because if he ever breaks his control, there's no telling what could result. It's also more than a little bit impressive.

"Anyway," Liam says. He rolls his eyes again, but this time, it's more self-deprecating. "I didn't have a lot of friends, growing up. I didn't want to, you know. Hurt anyone. So I just didn't do a lot of playing with anyone." He glances down to his hands, which are fisted into the sheets still on Niall's bunk, and then back up at Niall's face. "I was really wary about going into a band for the same reason, you know? But like, even though you probably want to kill me most of the time... " He trails off, and Niall waits, expectant, until Liam gives this awkward half-laugh and shakes his head. "I was waiting for you to deny it."

"I only think about killing you some of the time," Niall says, honestly. "Less and less each day."

"Well, at least there's that," Liam says. He smiles, though, tremulously. "Anyway, it's reassuring in a way, you know? I can't hurt you because you can stop me from hurting you. So. Not to sound like a total loser, but I'm glad that I could finally make a real friend."

A foreign warmth spreads through Niall's chest. "Damn it, Liam," he says. "I really resent that you got me to like you."

"I'd say I'm sorry, but that would be a lie," says Liam. The smile on his face grows, and it tugs at Niall's heart.

Niall sighs, thinking back to all the lectures Bobby used to give him about being careful with his strength, and only letting it free among hunters or vampires, not civilians. How he always had to hold himself separate from the roughhousing on the playground as a kid, no matter how fun it looked. How he's never had a genuine, fully openly honest friendship with anyone. "I grew up around hunters," he says, finally. "Most of 'em were a lot older than me. I know what you mean."

Liam grins outright. "Are you saying that I'm your friend, too?" he asks.

"I guess," Niall says. The long-suffering note in his voice is an affectation, but it's underscored by honesty. "God forbid."

"Cheers for that, then," Liam says, but he looks well pleased.

The warmth in Niall's chest isn't going away, so he decides to poke at it a little, and leans forward to tug Liam into a full-frontal hug. It's a bear hug, tight and close and long, and Niall's heart twinges at the thought of not seeing Liam for the next two weeks.

It doesn't register as anxiety that Liam will snap, and the blood of his kills will be on Niall's hands. It registers as sadness that he won't be seeing Liam's messy bedhead of a morning, or hearing the way he sings in the shower, or watching how he plays with his lower lip, thumbing over it again and again as he thinks.

A lip that Niall has now felt against his own, underneath Liam's fangs though it was.

Understanding washes over Niall slowly, and his first instinct is to chastise himself. For someone whose survival is often predicated on his ability to pick up on infinitesimally small cues and integrate and analyse them at lightning-speed, he's certainly been shit at interrogating the different ways his stomach has clenched over the past few months, at disentangling his vampire-proximity senses from anything else.

"Fuck," he says, fervently.

"What's that?"

"Nothing," says Niall. He's spent so much time watching Liam so closely, spending every waking second with him to keep an eye on him, that keeping tabs on Liam has become important to him in a different way. "Zayn was right about something, that's all."

At least he can rest assured that he's likely the first hunter to develop feelings for a vampire. If that's even what's going on; he could just be excited by the flush of friendship. Even if it is for something - someone - that he may have to someday kill.

"Well, we can't have that," Liam jokes, patting Niall on the shoulder. "Do you need any help packing anything else up, by the way? I'm all set, and I know Bobby's set on you leaving first thing."

"It's all things that could kill you," Niall says. "I've got it. But thanks."

"Anytime," Liam says, and this time, when Niall's stomach clenches at the sight of the crooked smile Liam offers up, he doesn't try to analyse it at all.

+++

It's really easy for Niall to listen to his dad tell him that, what with the scrutiny on every member of One Direction following the X Factor, he doesn't want Niall going off and hunting anything during his incredibly-brief Christmas break.

Bobby might find it suspicious that Niall just nods and packs his stakes away without fighting him the entire way, but if he does, he doesn't give any indication of it, just smiles and invites Niall along to a quick practise spar "Far away from any vampires or prying eyes."

Being home after everything is incredibly fucking weird. When Niall walks down the street, people recognise him as more than just Horan's kid. The County Westmeath cadre of hunters are ecstatic for Niall, calling him over for pints and stories about his X Factor journey so that his quick visit home becomes a whirlwind of activity.

A whirlwind with no actual fighting, because not a single one of the hunters tags Niall in for a fight, not even when a new crèche is identified out Longford way. Niall whittles stakes, digging his consecrated silver knife deep into the softwood and scraping away at the hardwood, slivering splinters into the sides and dropping them in holy water before packing them in easily-accessible bags for the hunters that do go, and waits at home with Greg's girlfriend for everyone to get home. He helps bandage Maura's forearm up from where the edge of a monster's teeth have grazed her, and sits vigil over Connor while he's hooked up to an IV of his own blood, praying that none of the vampire blood smudged on his cheek got into his mouth, and celebrates with the rest of the hunters when Connor pulls through.

It rankles, a little, the fact that people are hunting without him and he's just sat at home unable to make sure no one gets hurt. But it's also kind of a relief to be able to sit with his thoughts and unpack what, precisely, he's going to do about his Liam situation.

The day before he's set to return to England to start working on their first album(!!!) and then launch into rehearsals for the X Factor Live tour immediately thereafter, he takes Bobby aside. "I have something to tell you," he says, closing the door between them and the hunters relaxing over beers in the living room in front of the television. "About, you know. Vampire hunting."

"Yeah, I'm very proud of you for staying at home this winter," Bobby says. "I know it must be hard, especially for someone as talented as you are at killing those monsters, but it's helped to keep a lot of people safe from the secret."

Niall wonders if that's true; if knowledge might enable people to arm themselves better against the menace. He's been told his entire life that if people find out, they might take matters in their own hands and, given their lack of training, get themselves turned. But what if that's not true?

"About that," he says, putting the muddle of thoughts aside for the moment. "Do you know what happens if someone's given vampire blood but not drained of their own?"

Bobby frowns. "I imagine it would kill you outright," he says. "Or… maybe you'd turn anyway? Are you okay? Did something happen?"

Shaking his head, Niall presses his lips together. "Did you know that vampires in England did a thing about twenty years ago where they donated their blood at hospitals? Just like they were a normal person trying to help out, except—"

"Except they were recruiting," Bobby says. "Since they're so limited over in England. They were trying to swell their numbers." He shakes his head. "It makes sense, I guess, but I hadn't heard of it. Surely we'd know if there were suddenly a lot more vampires over there? Even twenty years ago."

Niall shakes his head again. "That's the thing," he says. "If you're given vampire blood and you haven't lost enough of your own, you don't die. You just, I dunno. Half-turn. Maybe they'll turn completely if they die. I don't know."

"Did Bressie tell you this?" The look on Bobby's face clearly says and why didn't he tell me?

"Dad," Niall says. He takes a deep breath, and wipes his hands off on the rough denim covering his knees. His palms are sweaty. Too slick to hold a stake reliably, his hunter brain tells him, but he puts that thought aside, too. "I want to start by saying that I am taking personal responsibility for this. You can't kill him."

A dark look flashes across Bobby's eyes, and then it's gone. "Niall, son," he says, warningly.

"It's Liam," Niall blurts. "His eyes went red. He has fangs. He can stand in sunlight, though, and he can survive on, like, iron-rich foods for a while, too. Without drinking blood." He pauses, then delivers the most damning of his information. "He knows about me. About us."

Bobby's lips thin until they're just a tight little line, the knuckles of the fist in his lap white. "How," he says.

"All the lads know too, now," Niall says. "They walked in on me nearly killing Liam one day when Harry cut himself in our room."

"Was Liam about to—" Bobby starts, but Niall shakes his head emphatically.

"I was worried, but no. He's had really good control so far," he says. "He's never eaten a person before. Which, like, low bar, but."

Bobby nods, slowly. "But you'd be able to kill him if it came to it?" he says.

Even though Niall has been thinking about this very topic for nearly two and a half months now, he gives the question the due consideration it deserves. He's not as certain as he used to be, now that he's caught himself wondering what Liam's lips feel like when there's no fangs there. Now that he's watched Liam so closely for so long that he's cycled around from fantasizing about the ways he could gain the upper hand in a fight to fantasizing about getting the upper hand in less dire circumstances.

Kissing. He's cycled around to kissing.

That said, his instincts are nearly impossible to overcome at the best of times, and if he was put back into that green room with Liam's fangs out and Matt's arm bleeding in front of them, he's not sure whether he'd default to trying to subdue Liam with a stake or with his mouth. "Yes," he promises. "I'd be able to kill him."

"Because if you couldn't, I'd have to kill him right now." Bobby looks regretful as he says it. "No matter how much attention you boys are getting right now. No matter that he's part of your band. Someone's got to, and if you can't, I'd need to take care of it straight away."

 

"I promise," Niall insists. "Between me and Zayn, we can get the job done. If Liam eats anyone, or if he turns the rest of the way — Dad, I can do it."

"I'll be keeping an eye on him," Bobby says. He pauses. "Does he give you information? About vampires?"

"He does," Niall says, and forces himself to match the feral grin that spreads across his dad's face with one of his own. "Not about where they are, but how they function. How he's the same and how he's different." He pauses. "We could probably use the information to find more people like him, if there are more. Keep tabs on them, too."

Bobby nods. "Good work, kid," he says, and chucks his knuckles gently against Niall's cheek. "Keep an eye out, yeah? And maybe—" He pauses, glancing at the door. "Let's keep this between the two of us, okay? Don't tell the others."

"I can do that, too," Niall says.

When he goes to bed that night, he tosses and turns in bed for nearly an hour. Part of it is nerves; the tour is a big deal, and he hasn’t got the first idea of how anything will shape up beyond that. They’ve got their contracts signed and squared away, but the future is one giant question mark that Niall hasn’t even begin to truly suss out.

The rest of it is that the longer Niall spends picturing how he’d get the drop on Liam if push comes to shove, the less he can see a clear way through it. He sees himself losing now, sometimes, bleeding out into Liam’s mouth, body broken in a hundred different places. Worse than that, he sometimes also sees himself giving up and giving in and letting Liam walk away scott-free, graveyard dirt under his nails and eyes a deep, vibrant red.

“It’s just one good thrust. That’s all,” he tells himself, and tries to believe it.

+++

Niall arrives in Brighton to little fanfare. Louis and Zayn are already there, and Harry and Liam arrive a little after Niall does.

Liam looks instantly on edge. "It's not that we're this close to the water," he confides in Niall. "Even though I don't love the thought of getting into all that. It's just, you know. Band stuff, not vampire stuff."

"Dunno what's going to happen," Niall agrees, nodding.

Liam nods, and knocks their shoulders together agreeably, then frowns. "Is that okay?" he asks.

Niall's heart is pounding, and his stomach is turning over, and it's only partly because Liam is half-undead. In response, he presses his shoulder back against Liam's and lets it rest there. "Just fine," he says, and pauses, considering his options. Eventually, staring out across the water, he adds, "Told my dad about you."

Beside him, Liam freezes, tense against Niall's side. "You did," he says, evenly.

"He wanted to make sure I could get the job done if I need to," says Niall. "So, you know, don't go full vamp or like, eat anyone. Killing monsters is easy but I wouldn't want to kill a friend."

Liam peers at him for a long moment. "I think this is you being nice," he says. "And considerate."

"I'm very socially capable," Niall tells him, a little defensively. His interactions with other people may be mostly fabricated, on his part, but he does a good job at it. People often tell him he's openly friendly and happy-go-lucky, neither of which is actually true. "No one generally thinks I'm weird or violent or anything. Just you and the rest of the lads."

"Because we've all seen you get violent," Liam points out. "With me."

"You have a point," Niall says, grudgingly. "What I'm trying to say is, I don't want to have to get violent with you again in the future."

"But you will if I lose control," Liam says, to confirm.

Niall shrugs unhappily. "I have to," he says. "It's not like I've got an option here."

Liam sighs. "I think I appreciate it," he says, eventually. "I don't think my family would be willing to do it, you know, if I turned, but I don't want to be the kind of person who, you know, drinks people's blood and kills them, either."

"There's this play I read for school," Niall says. "Used the phrase 'diametrically opposed absolutes.'" He turns to Liam and waggles his eyebrows, and it's at least 70% natural reaction instead of carefully calculated social decision. "What else are diametrically opposed absolute mates good for but to rip your head from your body if you go too far?"

Liam looks decidedly queasy at that one. "Let's go find the rest of the lads," he says. "Might as well learn our song options, get started on tackling our future."

Niall watches him turn away, and then grabs his arm. "Hey," he says, when Liam pauses. "I know this is really fucking weird, alright? It is for me, too. Maybe even more weird, I dunno, I don't want to have to kill you probably just as much as you don't want me to kill you, but if I did, you'd be dead and I'd have to live with the guilt, me."

"Not helping," Liam points out.

"Anyway, I'm just saying. I'm sorry it's weird. I didn't want you to not know that my dad knows, but as far as I'm concerned, we can talk about nothing but the music and whatever else. How it feels to be in this band. You know? Instead of the vampire stuff."

"I guess it is nice to not have to keep it a secret," Liam allows. He casts a glance over Niall. "I meant what I said before Christmas too, yeah? It's nice that I can be myself with you and not worry that you'll get hurt."

Something inside Niall settles a little, at that. He grins at Liam. "Let's go lay down some tracks with the lads, then."

+++

LA is brilliantly sunny and close to the water.

It's disorienting, going to so many places in such a short time-span. Brighton was a three-day blip; London was a longer, more disorienting blip. Without the X Factor house as home base, Niall had to learn new streets and escape routes under the watchful eyes of their fledgling fanbase even as he had to reconcile himself to the knowledge that he'd likely never be able to use the knowledge he was gaining about his surroundings.

Liam is wan in LA, sucking down juice boxes of blood nearly every day. "I don't like it," he tells the rest of the lads, sunglasses on to hide the redness in his eyes. "Makes me feel weird to have this much blood in my system. But this much sun is — it's hard to get around, is all."

He rallies, though, pulling the blinds in studios and executive conference rooms and speaking enthusiastically about the sound One Direction want to achieve. Louis interjects liberally, drawing lines and boundaries that Niall would've never thought to articulate, and insisting that the band have time to talk through important decisions before coming to consensus with their label.

Niall has never been shy about confrontation but his experience with it is primarily physical in nature. The band debrief and collectively vote on every decision they're handed - and some that they're not - and Louis in particular fights tooth and nail to maintain their ability to do that.

It takes Niall a few days, but he catches onto the fact that Louis is also carefully building in wiggle room to protect all of them as much as possible, if something dire and befanged were to happen. It's weird, to think of someone as knowing the truth about vampires, and subtly working to protect both the secret and the general population of the band's fans without being a hunter. It's even weirder to think of Louis as being a terror in a boardroom — to see Louis acting so quietly kindly toward Niall for the first time since he and Liam fought.

It's nice, though.

Cher Lloyd is there in LA, too, staying in the same hotel as the band and darting in and out of meetings in the same halls. Niall catches her in the kitchenette of some studio in the middle of the studio when he's on tea duty for the band.

They've exhausted small talk about how conversations are going, and what kinds of songs they're set to record, and how being in LA is so different to being in London, and they're still waiting for the kettle to boil because American kettles are, apparently, fucking shite.

"D'you mind if I ask a question?" Cher asks, prodding at the cord on the kettle like maybe realigning the electric flow will make it work faster.

"I'll have to ask the lads if you want to collaborate on a song," Niall tells her, even though he thinks it would be sick, personally.

Cher laughs, rolling her eyes, "Not that," she says. "Just — Rebecca told me about that kiss. Are you and Liam a thing, then?"

Niall recalls, distantly, some bits on the Xtra Factor that implied Liam and Cher might become an item. He hadn't realised there was any truth behind it. He tries to picture what that relationship would look like: known half-vampire Liam Payne with unsuspecting human Cher Lloyd.

He can't fathom it, and anxiety spikes up his spine when he prods at the idea. He tells himself it's because he can't be sure that Liam would be safe in a relationship for a civilian. "He's not available, if that's what you're asking," he snaps.

"It was just a question," Cher says, defensively, and they stand in stony silence for the three minutes it takes the kettle to finally boil.

Niall dwells on the question through the rest of their meetings that day, and through dinner, and back at the hotel, when he sits alone in the room he'd insisted that he and Liam share so that he could keep an eye on him.

Liam comes in eventually, hair wet from the pool - standing water doesn't affect him like running water - and collapses onto his bed. Rolling over to face Niall, he says, "Why does Cher think me and you are going out?"

"I dunno," Niall says. "Probably from how I hid your fangs at the finale."

"Makes sense, I suppose," Liam says, shrugging. "That was quick thinking. Does she think we're still an item, then?"

"Why?" Niall asks. He takes a breath, and takes it back a notch. "I mean, does it really matter? We know we're not."

There's a long pause, and then Liam says, "I guess it doesn't."

"Have you ever had a human girlfriend?" Niall asks. "Does that work? I'd be scared of biting her in the middle of, you know."

"I've never had a girlfriend, no," Liam says. Niall can't read the weird inflection in his voice. "But I like to think I'd be able to avoid biting anyone I go out with." He pauses. "Have you?"

"Bitten anyone?" Niall asks, blithely. "No." He makes a face. "And hunting doesn't really give you enough time for a relationship, I guess."

"Guess that's another way you and me are similar, then," Liam says. He tries a smile. "The full hunter and the half-vampire. Twins."

"Sounds like a trashy tv show," Niall says, smiling back.

"That, too," says Liam, and he pushes himself up. "Off to the shower, then." He glances at Niall, like he's trying to read him, and adds, "Boyfriend."

"Oh, fuck off," says Niall, and he gives Liam the two-fingered salute. It doesn't stop his heart from leaping at the word, but he thinks maybe it does distract well enough from his blush.

+++

Being back in England for X Factor Live rehearsals is, bizarrely, like a return to normal. The building is full of familiar faces and voices, and One Direction are set back on performing the old standards from the show instead of any of the new songs they've been toying with and recording across the globe.

Practising Total Eclipse of the Heart doesn't get any less weird, no matter how many times they run through it. Now that everyone knows about Liam, and about Niall, that song is an exercise in not meeting anyone else's eyes for a full three minutes. They're not even in sparkly vampire makeup anymore, but still, the memories linger.

They're riding back to the hotel in a black cab late on the fourth night of rehearsals, deep in a discussion on how it might feel to properly tour, to have fans show up all across Britain and Ireland to see them and hear them perform - well, and to hear Matt Cardle and Rebecca Ferguson too, at least - when Niall feels a lightning bolt of pain and nausea lance through him.

He shouts, doubling over across his seatbelt, trying very hard not to vomit as the rest of the lads look at him in consternation.

Well. Harry and Louis are looking at him in consternation. Zayn looks mildly uncomfortable, and even though Liam's brow is furrowed, it seems to be with understanding.

"All right, Nialler?" Louis asks, reaching forward to place his hand on the small of his back. "Was it the prawns at craft services?"

Liam watches Niall for a long moment before registering that Niall's not likely to respond. "It's not that," he says, lowly.

"Tell the driver to stop," Niall says, as he finds his voice. It's been so long since he felt a vampire actively feeding on a human person in his proximity that he nearly forgot how devastating a warning sign it is. When no one rushes to comply, he barks out, "Now!"

"This isn't your job right now," Zayn reminds Niall. "Your job is to keep it secret."

"My job is to fucking not let someone die or worse when I can stop it," Niall argues. He doesn't have his knife on him, and his only stake is at the hotel because he's an idiot, but he has his necklace and several pencils. It'll have to do. "Stop the car."

The taxi pulls over after Harry shouts some bullshit at the driver, and Niall is stumbling out. "Tell them I'm nauseous," he says. "Tell them I'm walking it off. I'll meet you at the hotel."

Liam climbs out after him. "You're never going alone," he says, obstinately, before Niall can even open his mouth again to protest. "Don't think I don't know what weaponry you currently have on hand, Niall. I keep an eye on these types of things. I'm strong. I'm fast. I can help."

"I better not have to fight you, too," Niall snaps, and then they're off running behind the chippie on the corner, where some drunk girl is swaying, pale - nearly lifelessly so - within the hold of a truly voluptuous vampire.

Niall takes a split second to get a handle on the situation, looking at the way the vampire's knuckles are clean, but her nails are dirty as they come; the way she's got a faint flush to her cheeks from the blood already coursing through her system.

"I know you won't trust me with her, so help the girl first," Liam says, and takes a running leap at the vampire, pinning her back against the wall and struggling to keep her there.

Niall rushes forward and grabs the girl, helping her stumble out of the alley. "Can you hear me?" he asks her, desperately, feeling for a pulse.

It's there, but it's thready and weak. She just moans in response to his question, and his heart thuds in response.

"Did you drink any of her blood?" he asks, shoving a finger into the girl's mouth and feeling around. He really, really doesn't want to have to kill a human before she can go all vamp-y because he was too late to stop her from feeding.

When he takes his hand out and holds it up to the weak light trailing in from the street, his finger just has spit on it, and none of it red. Thank fuck.

He pulls the hood of his jacket up and helps the girl inside the chippie. "Call 999," he shouts, affecting a Welsh accent to try and maintain any shred of anonymity. "This girl's been attacked."

He rushes back out before anyone has a chance to apprehend him.

Liam is struggling with the vampire when Niall gets back outside. She's clearly stronger than he is, and more used to fighting other people, and he's holding on for dear life, trying to keep her head away from him.

He's not obviously about to die, though, so Niall takes another moment to prepare himself, taking a shitty pencil into each hand and holding them into a cross shape.

It's not consecrated, and Niall doesn't have the waters and oils necessary to fully anoint and consecrate it in the makeshift way he's learned in Ireland - most hunters there follow Catholic rites, which involve a priest, but any religion will do in a pinch - but he mutters the prayers anyway as he advances, locking his elbows and holding his shitty wooden pencil cross in front of him.

He honestly doesn't think about the implications of his weapon on Liam until Liam shrinks back from the cross, too, in a way that has the vampire stilling in shock and staring at Liam. Niall's heart drops, and he has to adjust his grip on the pencils to keep them in place. Intently, he continues muttering prayers, shifting the angle of his arms so the cross is directed more squarely at the full vampire than at Liam.

"You would fight your own kind?" she murmurs, voice throaty and thick. It's one of the only times Niall's heard a vampire actually speak mid-fight; usually, they just screech, otherworldly weird and ear-shatteringly loud. "You reek of human."

"I'm not one of you yet," Liam says, bravely, shoving her closer to Niall even as he tries to shrink away from the cross.

She hisses, baring her fangs at Niall. "You're one of the Januarius initiative," she marvels at Liam. "I can speed your shift, you know."

Niall glances at Liam, who looks just as shocked as Niall feels. "I don't want that," Liam tells her, carefully.

The vampire draws herself up fully. "You don't think you do," she says, taking a slow step toward Liam. "You just don't know yet. How beautiful it is. The rush of blood through your teeth when you're dead."

Niall lets her take another step toward Liam, and another, and when he's determined that her attention is fully locked onto Liam, he takes his running leap, jumping onto her back and wrapping his legs tight around her waist, holding on tight as he brings his arms around her front and stabs with the pencils as hard as he can.

He misses her heart with the first one, and she yells, voice working back into the animalistic screech he's more familiar with, grabbing at his legs and trying to dislodge him.

Bravely, Liam comes rushing back, yanking on her arm enough to destabilise her and nearly knocking Niall off her back in the process. He rallies, though, shoving the next pencil in, two inches to the left.

This time, it reaches her heart. She stiffens, dropping down to her knees. Niall jumps free as soon as he unlatches his legs, and Liam attempts to catch him. He misses, though, and Niall goes thudding into Liam's side, knocking them both to the broken pavement of the alley.

It takes him a moment to catch his breath, partly from the shock of the force of hitting the ground, and partly because of how he's stretched out over Liam's front, pressed against him in all the wrong places. It's inappropriate, to feel the way Liam's chest rises and falls underneath him and think of anything but finishing the vampire off, but here he is.

The thrill of a fight always did leave adrenalin pumping through Niall's system.

"We've got to behead her," he tells Liam, watching to make sure that the pencil is deep enough and she doesn't try to stagger to her feet again. "Before emergency services get here for the girl in the chippie."

"I don't know how you plan to do that with a single pencil," Liam says, quietly, looking away from Niall's face.

Niall wants Liam to look straight at him. "We each take a side and pull," he suggests; he's done it before, when he was angry enough at a vampire for getting the better of one of his hunting partners, but it's incredibly difficult and incredibly messy.

It works, and Liam stares at him, horrified. "You're - my god," he says. "You're serious."

"It's the only real option," Niall points out. Now that he's got Liam's attention, he wishes the look on Liam's face were less disgusted. It's a fact of life. Vampires need to be put down. Half-vampires can stay, maybe, for a little while; perhaps watching a vampire be totally decimated will help Liam stay in line.

Liam shivers. "If you say so," he says, doubtfully.

Impossibly, the thought of kissing Liam as a means to soften him up passes through Niall's head. He nearly goes through with it, too, swaying closer and closer before forcing himself up. "I can do her head," he says. "If you've got her legs"

"Jesus," Liam says, climbing to his feet, too. "This isn't what I signed up for, when I went on the X Factor." But he grabs the vampire's legs, and steps between them, holding hard onto the vampire's hips as Niall gets a hold of her head and jerks her head around, fast and hard and sure.

They both hear the sound of bones breaking, vividly, as her skin pulls and her neck snaps. The muscle doesn't tear free, though; Niall's adrenalin has died down a little too much for that level of strength, and Liam seems more disgusted than committed to putting the vampire down permanently, so Niall casts about for a solution.

Liam drops the legs to the ground and walks over to a trash can, where he is quietly and violently ill. When he steps back, he knocks into another trash can, and the metal lid clatters off.

"That's it," Niall says, pointing at the lid. "Them lids are sharp at the edges, right? Pass it over."

"Can't we just dump her in a river or something," Liam says, weakly. When he wipes his mouth off, the back of his hand comes away red.

Niall ignores it. He'd know if Liam killed someone. "It's risky," he says.

"Text your friend," Liam says. "There's no way you'll get her head off before other people show up and we end up arrested."

"If you're trying to let her survive," Niall starts, but Liam holds his hands up, shaking his head.

"Promise I'm not," he says. "I'm trying to let us get through to the tour."

Niall nods. Internal decapitation is better than nothing, he supposes. To be safe, though, he steps on her chest and uses the leverage to pull the mis-aimed pencil free, then shoves it back into her heart a few inches away from the other pencil. Hopefully Bressie will find the body before a non-hunter does. There are always media frenzies when exsanguinated severed bodies are found, about what kind of monster could do such a thing; nine times out of ten, it's a vampire that a hunter didn't have enough time to bury. At least in those cases, there's less of a risk of the monster healing if some unwitting soul removes the splinter detritus packing the chest wounds.

He only hopes the decapitation, incomplete though it may be, is enough.

As they drag the vampire's body to a fast-paced stream two kilometres out of the way back to the hotel, Niall allows himself to feel relief, even buoyancy. "This was kill number ninety," he tells Liam. He realises that he sounds downright cheerful even as he speaks, but doesn't bother moderating his tone.

Liam looks less pleased. "So?"

"So ninety is a really round number," Niall says. "You wouldn't be an insignificant number ninety-three or anything. You'd be a milestone number. Ninety's out of the way now."

Liam drops the vampire's arm, and Niall stumbles with the added weight. "What the fuck kind of thing is that to say?" he demands. "Who even - oh my god, you're so fucked up."

"I know symbology isn't real," Niall says, frowning. "But it would be anticlimactic if you weren't a big number. I'm just really glad ninety is out of the way, is all." He glances down at the vampire. "I can get her myself if you're unable to help, but since you're here you might as well be useful."

Liam squints at him, carefully. "I think you're actually trying to be nice," he says, eventually, leaning down and picking his half of the dead vampire up again. "I think that you're relieved, and you're trying to be reassuring."

"Look, this is new to me, okay?" Niall says. He takes a deep breath, and hoists the vampire along for another few steps before admitting, "I've never had a half-vampire friend before. I don't know how to, you know. Deal with it."

"Just don't kill nine more vampires then, I guess," Liam says. The resentment in his voice is clear. "Wouldn't want to be lucky number one hundred."

"I've offended you," Niall acknowledges, because ignoring it is clearly not working. "But you terrify me, Liam."

"I don't see why," Liam says, petulantly. "You killed her really easily, and she was loads stronger than I am."

"I don't - " Niall breaks off, because there's a concrete barrier in the way of the stream, and he has to climb over it and let Liam push the body up so that Niall can guide it down. When Liam's hoisted himself over the barrier, too, Niall starts again. "I don't want to hurt you," he says. "Back there, you know, with the cross? I didn't even think about how it would slow you down. What if she'd got to you?"

"You do a fucking awful job of showing it," Liam says. He's whispering, voice harsh, like he wants to yell but he doesn't' want to draw attention to them. "You're so cold, you know? You just - you killed her like it was nothing, and then you tried to pull her head off with your bare hands, and it clearly didn't even phase you."

"It'll phase me if she rises up again," Niall says, bitterly, as they trip the last few metres to the stream's edge. He looks around for splinters, or a discarded knife, or anything, and comes up with a glass bottle. Grimly, he uses it to slit her stomach open, blood pooling out onto the bank of the stream. "She nearly killed that girl before we got there."

Liam's quiet for a moment, watching Niall carefully, so Niall takes advantage of the lull to push the vampire's body into the stream and text Bressie. When he shoves his phone back into his pocket, Liam is frowning. "You care about the human victims," he says. He doesn't phrase it like a question, but it still sounds like one to Niall.

"I care about the human victims," Niall agrees. "I care about them staying human and I care about them staying alive, and I care about protecting humanity from more people dying."

"Okay," Liam says. "So it's about protecting people and not about defeating vampires? Because you have a clear tally of how many vampires you've killed, and I've never heard you mention how many people you've saved."

"There's no good equation for that," Niall says. He debates mentioning his spreadsheet, that lists his kills and the casualties he avoids, or fails to avoid, but decides against it. "I've stopped about half of them in the act, though."

"And the ones who were just walking around?"

"Would surely kill again, and soon," Niall says. "Preventative measures."

Liam curses softly. "I get it, I guess," he says, and turns around and starts walking back toward the hotel. "But it's still fucked up."

"I'm scared of needing to hurt you," Niall tells him. He's not convinced that it's enough to reassure Liam, but it's the truth, and it's worth a shot. "I really don't want to have to do that."

"I don't, either, don't you see?" Liam asks. He climbs over the concrete partition without offering to help Niall over. Whatever. Niall doesn't need the help. He can scramble over on his own accord. "I didn't ask to be part monster."

 

"Thank God for that," Niall says, going for a joke.

The joke falls flat. "You've killed ninety more things than I have in my life," says Liam. "When you didn't have to."

"You just said they're monsters," Niall protests. He figures that arguing he doesn't have a choice, either, would fall flat, even if it feels desperately like the truth. "I've saved people."

"You act so normal," Liam says. "Or, like. You used to. But you don't even feel weird about the deaths, do you? Monster or no, that's fucked up. It's fucked up that you're okay with just pulling heads off bodies and carrying them to a river to dump them in. Don't bother lying to me that it does bother you, either; I've had to put on an act of normalcy my whole life, and now that I know you have, too, I can see right through it."

"You're right," Niall says, finally. "Is that what you want to hear? I've been hunting vampires since I was eight years old. It does fuck me up when humans die but when I kill a monster it's just a job well done." He wraps his arms around himself, putting the memory of the time he had to slit a hunter's throat to keep her from turning out of his mind. Now that the thrill of the fight is fading from him, the winter cold is more noticeable again. "I have nightmares about losing a fight, if that helps. I know what it feels like to have the blood sucked from me. I know what I'm saving people from."

"I don't know if that helps or not," Liam says, honestly. "If you're that remorseless about killing vampires, why do you worry so much about hurting me, then?"

Niall's stomach sinks, or maybe it's his heart. Maybe it's both. It's nothing like his internal vampire warning system. "I thought - we're friends, right?"

"I'd like to be," says Liam. "In that I think it would be nice, to be totally honest about my history with someone who'd maybe understand it. But it's hard when I can't stop thinking about you murdering me."

"I don't want to murder you," Niall returns. "I just said that."

"Why not?" Liam demands. He pulls to a stop, crosses his arms and faces Niall down. They're drawing closer to the hotel. It's probably a good idea to keep the fight far away from any potential screaming crowds that might overhear, so Niall stops, too. "What if you knew you could definitely save a lot of humans by killing me now? In case you're not around when I go the rest of the way, and I lose sight of my ideals. I don't know what it's like to be a full vampire. Maybe you lot are right and it's not just about survival. Maybe they just don't care about human life. Maybe I'll stop caring, when I die and come back."

"That's a lot of maybes," Niall says, uncomfortably. He knows Liam is right, but he doesn't want him to be.

"You've killed at least forty-five vampires on the basis of maybes," Liam points out. "So why don't you extend that to me?"

"You were less opposed to the idea of me killing you when we were in LA," Niall points out.

Liam scowls. "I hadn't seen you in action, and that's beside the point." He raises his eyebrows at Niall. "What, besides the human heartbeat, makes me so special? Why does the thought of hurting me scare you so much?"

Niall sighs. It feels good to do that, so he takes another deep breath and lets it out slowly. "I don't want to fight," he says, closing his eyes and inhaling. "Give me a second."

"You were fine with fighting for the past hour," Liam points out, obstinately. Niall can hear his foot tapping on the pavement, too, but he doesn't say another word, so Niall focuses on letting calm settle over him before he replies.

"I'm going to be honest with you," he says, eventually. "I'm scared of you, but not because you're a vampire. Half-vampire. Whatever. I'm scared of you because of what it means." He takes another deep breath, and forces himself to uncross his arms. "I have to be able to kill you if you turn, to keep my dad from killing you preemptively. I had to tell him, so he didn't find out accidentally and take matters into his own hands. But I want the band to work out."

"Oh, so you're keeping me alive for the band?" Liam asks. Niall opens his eyes, expecting a frown, but Liam's face has softened somewhat. "Sorry, it's just. You scare me, too. I really don't want to die." He tries for a smile. It looks like a grimace. "Not just because I don't know for sure what will happen if you kill me as a half-human."

Niall clenches his hands into fists and slowly relaxes them. Honesty, he reminds himself. "I'm keeping you alive for selfish reasons, yeah," he tells Liam. "I like you, you arse."

"Does it kill you to admit you see me as a friend?" Liam asks, carefully.

Niall rolls his eyes. "That's not how I mean it."

"Oh," says Liam. "Well, then."

"And it's not just because I keep thinking that if you lose control I'd be able to stop you," Niall adds. He looks at Liam, then looks away. "Sorry if I made things weird."

"No weirder than telling me the millions of ways you'd murder me," Liam says, with a great deal of forced cheer. There's a long pause, and then Liam's touching Niall's cheek, hesitantly, careful not to get his fingers too close to Niall's neck. "Hey. Nialler. Look at me."

Niall glances up. The dim light coming from the streetlamps cuts across Liam's face, setting it half in shadow. The angles of his face are stark, nearly haunting. His teeth glint when he smiles, tentative, but they rest in a flat line inside his mouth.

It occurs to Niall that he didn't once check to see if Liam's fangs descended during the fight. The thought should alarm him — and it does, in a distant sort of way — but as fucked-up as it may be, it also settles Niall. Like maybe he can turn off the violence around Liam and just coexist someday.

"I like you too," Liam says, carefully. "I've liked you since the first week." He pauses. "The constant threats on my life are a little off-putting, but I was still so relieved when I learned that you knew about me. Felt weird before, like I was lying to you."

If anything, this unsettles Niall. A crush on a half-vampire, he could maybe handle. A reciprocated crush sounds like a world of difficulty, though. "So what are we going to do about it?" he asks. "Given, you know. What we are. Who we are."

Liam grins. "Are you calling me a person, Niall Horan?"

"I guess so, Liam Payne," Niall says. He shakes his head. "And like, there's also the band. So it could be diff—"

Liam darts in, quicker than most humans could, and presses his lips against Niall's before Niall can finish his sentence. His mouth is closed, tight, and Niall is grateful for the gesture.

Chaste as it is, being kissed by Liam - and kissing him back - warms Niall to his core.

They're on a street corner, though, several blocks from the X Factor hotel, and this isn't a sustainable use of space. As if by agreement, they break apart slowly and mosey back to their home base, walking closely enough together that their hands brush with every step. It sends a thrill through Niall, and he breaks out in gooseflesh with the soft little touches.

It's a nice digression from his usual state of gut-wrenching agony.

"I do have to say," Niall says, as they draw up to the doors. "It's a little alarming that you'd develop feelings for someone who behaves so violently toward you."

"Too soon," says Liam. His tone is grim, but he knocks his knuckles against Niall's arm, gently, as he reaches around Niall to push the door open and shuffle them inside.

+++

"Did you hear what she said?" Liam asks, sitting down next to Niall on the bench outside the loos at the rehearsal space and inching closer until his side is pressed against Niall's.

Niall swallows hard. "Pardon?"

"The, uh." Liam glances around and lowers his voice. "Vampire. Last night. The January thing."

Niall wracks his brain. Mostly what he remembers from last night is Liam's kiss, and the way they kissed again when they got back to their room, a soft, wet slide of their lips, cool from the mint of their toothpaste, before they got into their separate beds. He's got an exasperated text on his phone from Bressie confirming that he doesn't need to bother remembering anything else. "Januarius?"

"That's it," says Liam. "What do you think she meant?"

"Dunno," says Niall. Carefully, he leans against Liam, tilting his head a little so he can still see Liam's face. "Do you want me to ask my dad?"

Liam looks uncertain for a long moment. "I think yes," he says, eventually. "What if it's important?"

Bobby's first question, when he answers his phone, is "Those lads of yours keeping their heads on straight?"

Niall tries not to think about the way Liam's lips feel. That's not very straight. "Yeah, yeah," he says. "Got number ninety last night. Felt it mid-feed, so I had to." He pauses. "Liam helped."

"Did he, now?" Bobby sounds surprised. "Well, then."

"She recognised his kind," Niall continues, doggedly. Next to him, Liam tenses, so Niall puts a hand on Liam's knee. "Dad, have you heard of the Januarius initiative?"

"Can't say that I have," says Bobby, after a prolonged moment. Faint rustling sounds come across the phone, like he's flipping through pages of a book. "But you know your saints, right?"

"I know the relevant ones," says Niall. "Patrick and Christopher and Blaise and them."

"Januarius is the one with the blood," Bobby says. "Says here that he was beheaded. Some lady saved his blood before he died in some vial, and it liquefies a couple of times a year."

Niall's heart drops. "Do you reckon —"

"Sounds like a vampire to me," Bobby agrees. "The stuff with taking the blood out—"

"Liam's transfusion," Niall breathes. He squeezes Liam's knee.

"There's probably a lot of them out there," says Bobby, resignedly. "I'm sorry, son, I'll have to put the word out."

"I understand," says Niall. He'd do the same, if he didn't know Liam. "But like, tell them to ask around, yeah? No use killing anyone unless we have to."

"We may have to."

"Yeah, but." Niall takes a deep breath and thinks back to all the conversations he and Liam have had over the past month. "It's worth learning more if we can first, yeah?"

"I'll tell the others to ask around then, when they can," Bobby promises. "I can't guarantee anything, though."

"I know," Niall says with a sigh. "Thanks, Dad."

Bobby rings off, and Niall twists around to Liam. "We're going to ask questions," he promises. "We'll find a church of Saint Januarius and see if they know anything."

"Okay," says Liam, grimly. He pauses, then adds, "I'm going with you whenever you hunt from now on, if you think you can keep from staking me. So I can ask other vampires what they know, too."

The thought of that unsettles Niall. "It's a risk," he says. "Putting yourself in that kind of position again and again. You could get hurt. A lot of them might be feeding, too. Which could be… distracting. For you."

"I can trick them by pretending to be one of them, maybe," says Liam. "Help you get the drop on them."

"No," Niall says, immediately. He can probably avoid killing Liam if Liam is positioning himself as an enemy - Niall is nothing if not disciplined when it comes to fighting - but he doesn't want to risk it. "There's too many variables in that kind of situation."

"Alright then," says Liam, and they fall silent, sitting together alone with their thoughts, until the rest of the lads come stumbling backstage to find them.

+++

Touring with the other X Factor contestants is, in a word, magical. The adrenalin that courses through Niall on stage is stronger than anything he felt during live shows, but instead of sending him into a tailspin of seeing everything like he does a battlefield, marking the locations and movements of everyone around him on a second-to-second basis, the joy of performing makes him nearly forget about the things that go bump in the night.

When he's singing, he can forget the red of Liam's eyes when he's on the blood. When they're on stage, Niall can look at Liam and watch him grin without seeing fangs. When One Direction are performing, he can begin to understand how Zayn's great-grandmum got out of the hunting business.

Of course, when he comes offstage, the adrenalin keeps lighting him up even as the thrill of the stage starts to fade, and he starts itching for a stake and his knife to take the edge off.

"If me and you are going to hunt together," Niall says, coming off the stage in Nottingham one night, veins humming with another show well-performed, "We've got to know how we fight together."

"What?" Liam asks, the triumphant smile on his face dimming for a split second before coming back full force.

"I'm saying fight me, Payno," Niall says. He shifts his weight to the balls of his feet and bounces on them once. Anything to take this edge off without scaring the band. Anything to find a way to balance his training with his love for performing. "Without getting all fang-y and bloodlust-y. And I'll fight you without trying to kill you even once. And once we can do that, we can, you know."

"Figure out the Januarius stuff," Liam says, looking truly excited now. "All right, then."

So at their hotel that night, they tell the lads they'll be doing vampire hunting training stuff instead of joining them in the room Louis, Harry, and Zayn are sharing for a film. In their room, they push the beds apart and stand facing each other.

"I should put all weapons out of reach," Niall says, eventually, because if one is within reach, even as analytical as he gets during a fight, half of winning is assessing the situation and half of it is a set of trained responses to different stimuli, so ingrained he doesn't know he could turn them off if he tried.

"Everything but those guns," Liam jokes, nodding at Niall's arms, and Niall grins at him, pleasantly surprised.

"The guns are here to stay," he agrees, taking every wooden and silver item out of his pockets and placing them out of the way, but still within reach.

He leaves his necklace on. If everything goes to shit and Liam goes full monster, it's a small measure of protection that will hopefully afford him enough time to get to a makeshift stake.

"Ready?" he asks.

"You start," Liam tells him, so Niall leaps at Liam's back, wrapping his arms and legs both around Liam, tightly, trying to keep him from working his hands free and grabbing him.

Liam staggers backward and falls against the bed, crushing Niall against it and knocking the wind out of him. Niall bites down on the instinct to engineer a twist of his body that will leave Liam with broken ribs — or, at the very least, torn muscles — and shoves at Liam instead, scrambling to get out from under him and regain the upper hand.

They're fairly evenly matched at the moment, Niall notes, distantly, as they wrestle their way to the floor. He's holding back, trying to keep from putting all his fatal strength behind his punches and grabs. He wonders if Liam is holding back, too.

Liam gets the drop on him, pinning Niall's hands over his head on the floor and holding Niall's legs down by straddling Niall's thighs, squeezing in tight and leaning forward, and Niall's mind goes blank.

He's not used to fighting on a hard floor. Usually, there's the give of dirt underneath him, and he can scramble and push himself up, rolling the monster over and pinning it down instead just long enough to get a stake to its heart and push down. When he rocks up on the hotel room floor, though, Liam just settles down more squarely on top of him, and Niall stays caught, prone, between a metaphorical rock and a hard place.

Different strategies flit through Niall's mind, fast and furious, one right after another, but most of them require lethal actions to accomplish and Niall's got to learn to not kill Liam if they end up in a fight.

At least, not unless Liam turns. Belatedly, Niall hopes that Liam won't learn Niall's moves so well that he can evade him when push comes to shove.

He strains to get free once more, dragging his arms down hard enough that Liam's grip shifts, slightly, faltering just enough that Niall can work one wrist free. Reaching up to shove Liam's chest and get Liam as far away from him as possible, he finds himself tangling his fingers in the neckline of Liam's t-shirt and dragging him down instead.

"What's this move?" Liam asks, breathlessly, frowning slightly, when his face is a scant inch away from Niall's. "Seems ineffective."

"I'll show you ineffective," Niall says, and surges up one more time.

His intent is honestly to switch their positions and claim victory, but he didn't bet on Liam leaning down as Niall pushed himself upward, and their mouths hit each other hard enough for their teeth to knock together painfully.

And then they're kissing as desperately as they were fighting, almost like they're both set on soothing the reverberations of their toothy encounters. It's not the chaste press of lips on lips that Niall's grown somewhat accustomed to, either. He runs his tongue along the seam of Liam's mouth until it parts, and then along the edge of Liam's teeth. They're resting in a flat line, fangs firmly in their sheaths, and the knowledge that Liam isn't about to bite Niall bubbles through his veins.

With abandon, he shoves his tongue into Liam's mouth.

He's never kissed anyone like this before, and he's not certain he's doing it right, but the taste of apricot and rust in Liam's mouth is intoxicating, and soft wet give of it is exhilarating, and Niall can't get enough of it. Liam doesn't seem opposed, either, fingers tightening around Niall's remaining wrist as he slowly settles his body down on top of Niall's, tongue stroking against Niall's in a heady, slick slide.

Minutes, or maybe hours, or maybe just seconds later, Liam pulls away, a string of spit connecting their mouths until it breaks and drops down onto Niall's lips. "Well," he says, voice rough.

"Well," Niall agrees, letting Liam help him up and move them over to one of the beds they'd shoved unceremoniously against the wall. They sit down next to each other, sides pressed tight together. "That was —"

"Fun," says Liam, with conviction. "We should do that again."

Niall nods. "How does, um. Right now sound?"

Liam grins, his straight line of teeth glinting in the lamplight as he does. "I could be convinced," he says, putting a careful hand on Niall's knee and leaning in for another kiss.

+++

"What can you tell us about the cult of Januarius?" Niall asks, crossing his arms. His stake is easy in his grip, and he's poised to leap forward and slam it home, but this vampire, too, is shocked by Liam's presence and isn't actively attacking them.

"Aren't you them boys from that band?" the monster asks, frowning between the two of them.

It's their first time hunting since they got back to London after the tour. It's been astonishingly easy to settle into their new lives, setting up home in the flats they've all rented and getting thrust into the hubbub of studios for recording and appearances to raise their name brand and trips from radio station to tv interview to photo op to advertise their stuff.

Easy to get distracted from going out in the dead of night, armed to the teeth and hunting down something that bites. But Niall supposes he needed that much time to practise fighting Liam without them killing each other to be comfortable jumping into another fight with him. So while he's gone out with the LIC - a group of Irish hunters based in London that Bressie introduced him to - a few times, he hasn't hunted since that day in Surrey.

It feels weird, going months without killing a monster, but he's had dry spells before, too. Granted, they've historically been associated with him recuperating from massive hunting injuries — the time he irreparably fucked up his knee and been put out of commission for nearly a year springs to mind — but the knowledge that he was just biding time placates him.

The vampire, in the end, doesn't yield a lot of particularly useful information beyond denying that the cult of Januarius was, in fact, a cult, but rather a casual initiative spread across the dark and monstrous underbelly of Britain, but Niall and Liam dispatch it efficiently and without hurting each other at all.

When they're smeared with blood and ichor and Niall is packing the chest cavity with splinters and mulch and Liam is digging a hole for its head a safe twenty metres from where they plan to bury the body, Niall allows the sense of accomplishment to flood through him. We made it, he thinks. No one has caught them, yet, and the vampire is neatly dispatched without great incident, and even though they didn't find out anything particularly useful, they did learn that more than one vampire knows about the Januarius thing, at least a little bit.

Ninety-one he thinks, as they turn to go, but he doesn't mention it to Liam.

+++

"D'you reckon," Liam asks, half-sitting up abruptly enough that his forehead cracks against Niall's elbow. Niall makes a soft noise of protest. Liam's head had been so warm in his lap from where he'd been lying down, talking some shit with Louis about tracklist decisions for their first album. Niall isn't exactly sure what; he'd checked out about thirty minutes ago, googling all he could about St Januarius on his phone with one hand.

His other hand, he realises as it slips down with Liam's movement, has been resting on Liam's chest. Right over his heart, in fact, Niall's fingertips pressed against Liam's chest so he could feel the slow beat of it.

That's — disturbing, probably. Niall jerks his hand away, uncertain if he was seeking the human or reminding himself of where he'll have to point the stake to put Liam down, eventually. He scratches his head with it, and scoots a little bit further away from where Liam is now sitting up completely.

But Liam is looking at him expectantly, like he was talking to Niall and not Louis.

"What?"

"I asked if you thought we could find a cure," Liam says. He nods at Niall's hand. "I know you're doing research. You've got that scary murder-look on your face when you're thinking about vampires."

"To be fair, he also gets that look when he's thinking about the time Wagner ate his leftovers," Harry pipes up, grinning.

"Which is why we don't let Niall alone with Wagner," Louis adds. "Preventing murder, we are."

Niall shifts, uncomfortably, and shoves his phone in his pocket. He wouldn't kill a person. Just because he doesn't like Wagner doesn't mean he'd cross that line and become a killer. If Wagner had broken into Niall's blood bag supply and drunk it dry, that would be a different story, because that would mean Wagner was a vampire.

He doesn't bother correcting the others, though. He's sick to death of them all offering their opinions about what if vampires deserve to live, and can they really be all that bad. They don't, and they are, end of. Harry and Louis just haven't got the right perspective on the situation. "I dunno of any cure, mate," he tells Liam. "Once the transfer is complete, it's locked in, as far as I know."

"Yeah, but what if, like." Liam shrugs. "I mean, I guess I got blood transfusions after that first one and it didn't push all the vampire blood out of me, so maybe a reverse transfer wouldn't work. But maybe there's a way to stop it." He looks so, so hopeful. Niall locks his fingers together and keeps his hands firmly in his lap.

"Maybe," he says, weakly. His dad hasn't figured anything out, in the months he and the rest of the cadre (with their profoundly limited information) have been searching for answers. Liam's family hasn't figured anything out, either, and they've had sixteen years to search for a cure.

But Liam's family aren't hunters; they probably don't know where to look.

But, a tiny, insidious voice says. They do have a half-vampire son. They've probably looked quite hard.

Niall closes his eyes, and remembers the way it feels to kiss Liam, to feel his warm flesh and beating heart under his fingertips, and thinks about what it must take for a family to put forth so much effort to help someone who is — or who could quite easily become — a monster. He wonders what his family would have done, if he'd got an accidental vampire blood transfusion.

He remembers the way it felt to see the flesh split and the bright red wet blood spill when he had to kill Alice. How frantic he felt, and how rushed. There were three other hunters with them, her sister included, but he was the closest to her when the vampire caught her and drained her and forced its blood into her veins, and he had to race the toxin to her heart. Had to kill her before she could turn.

How he threw up on her body, after, and her sister was ashen-faced but didn't fault Niall for her death. "I'm glad you reached her first," she'd said, her scant relief that it hadn't had to be her left unspoken.

Who would have reached me first, if I'd got Liam's transfusion? the cruel voice in Niall's head asks.

Niall bolts from the couch and stumbles into the bathroom, chest heaving. He stares at himself in the mirror. He's visibly pale and clammy, and his veins stand out in his skin, pulsing with human blood. When he presses a hand to his heart, he can feel it beat, and rapidly. There's the acid taste of vomit in the back of his throat, and he heaves once, but when he sucks down a few deep and ragged breaths, the taste subsides.

He turns on the sink and cups his hands under the tap. When he drinks the lukewarm water, it's metallic, like blood, and he has to swallow around the taste several times to keep from heaving again.

He lets the water grow cold, and splashes it on his face, and when he leaves the bathroom, Liam is waiting by the door. "Are you alright?" he asks, frowning.

"It's a myth," Niall says, ignoring the question. "That if you kill your sire, you'll stop being a vampire. That's been proven. And we don't know if the dirt from your sire's grave will be as helpful as dirt from your own grave. Which," he adds, in a high-pitched voice. "You thankfully don't have!"

"Are you saying we should stop looking?" Liam asks, putting a hand up between them, like he's instinctively telling Niall to stop talking.

Niall shakes his head, eyes searching Liam's face. His worried expression. The way his eyes are so warm, and brown; the way his skin is still flush with some degree of vitality. Even with the alien blood Niall knows is sludging through his veins, Liam is reassuring enough that Niall can feel himself relax, slightly. "I'm saying we should see if it helps, anyway." He sets his jaw and nods, more to himself than to Liam. Niall would bet the world there's no cure, but he doesn't want to say so out loud and make it real. If there's a cure, he won't have to kill Liam. He won't have to watch Liam die. "I'm saying we try to get that graveyard dirt, just in case. I'm saying we demand to know if your sire has any idea of any kind of cure. And then we stop them from ever making another thing like you again."

"Another thing like me," Liam says, hurt flashing over his face. "Oh."

"No, Liam, that's not what —" Niall shakes his head vigorously, instinctively reaching out and grabbing Liam's shoulder to keep him from going away. But Liam hasn't moved an inch, so Niall takes a deep, shaky breath. "You can't help being what you are. But there's so much unknown, and I'm sure it's caused you a world of heartbreak already." Imploringly, he adds, "I don't want you to have to go through this. If there's a cure, I want to find it. But —"

"If there's not, no one else should have to go through it, either?" Liam suggests. He looks like he's swallowed something terrible.

"Yes," Niall says. He pauses. "I didn't mean to call you a thing."

Liam doesn't look convinced, but he also doesn't press the issue. "I wouldn't want anyone else to go through it, either," he says. "So we keep looking?"

Niall nods. "We keep looking."

+++

"Do you think it would help?" Liam asks, a few weeks later, as they're sat outside the recording studio, catching some sun. Niall keeps watching Liam's skin, illuminated by the red-gold glow of the way the light looks on him as it sets. Liam isn't being affected by the sunlight. He's safe. "If I let your, what is it. Cadre? Run tests on my blood?"

"Absolutely not," Niall says, without even thinking. He's pretty sure his dad is still the only one who knows the whole truth. His dad agreed to let Liam live; Niall isn't going to delude himself into expecting everyone else he knows to put their faith into the words of someone they'd see as a monster. He pauses. "To what end?"

"Dunno," Liam says. "Even if it doesn't help me, you could figure out some new things about vampires, or half-vampires, or something, maybe."

One of the LIC has a doctor for a girlfriend, Niall remembers. She could — but it would be unsafe, unless she had certain protections. He's not sure whether Dougie has told his girlfriend the truth about the world or not. "Maybe."

"Maybe you could find out, you know. If we really will turn when we die."

When Niall looks up at Liam again, Liam is fidgeting with the hem of his shirt. It's crumpled up from the strength of his fingers, like he balled it up straight out of the wash and let it dry like that. "The full vamps who know about your kind seem to think you will," he points out.

"I just really want to be cured," Liam says. It's clear that he's trying to sound brave and nonchalant, but his voice breaks on the last word. "I just want to be totally human."

"I don't know of any vampires who want to be human," Niall offers. It's the most reassuring thing he can think of. "Wanting to be human seems to be a pretty human trait."

Liam doesn't look particularly cheered up by that, though. "Wanting different blood in my veins doesn't have a great amount to do with the type of blood that's in there," he points out. "It's like, someone with cancer could say they don't want to be sick anymore, but that doesn't make them automatically healthy."

Niall regards Liam for a long moment, trying to parse out if there's any meaning underlying his words. "We could see if the differences in your blood may lead to you dying earlier, or later?" he says, though he's not certain there's any way to tell for sure without a larger population of half-vamps to study.

"That's not —" Liam starts. He shakes his head. "I'm going to go see if they need me inside yet."

The sun feels colder after Liam's gone, somehow. Niall shivers and pulls his hoodie tighter around himself.

+++

One Direction is nearly late to their first show playing What Makes You Beautiful live for the first time because the LIC calls Niall up and asks for his help breaking up a nest they've found in an abandoned rail station in Tottenham.

Niall hangs up the phone and goes into the studio, where the rest of the lads are laying down finishing touches on one of the final tracks for their first album, and gives them the news.

"I know we're making it look as if we're not making it on Red or Black? in time as a bit of a gag," Louis says, his lips a thin, stern line across his face. "But if we're actually late, or if you're not there, that's just not on."

"How bad is the nest?" Harry asks, coming over to stand next to Niall and nudging at him with his shoulder. "Like, can the LIC handle it on their own? Or are you terribly necessary?"

"Bres made it sound bad," Niall says, but the truth of it is, every vampire is bad. The more there are, the more confusing and frantic the fights get. When Alice died, that was when a good portion of the Mullingar cadre was working together to bust up a nest. The vampires were put down eventually, but at what cost?

So he should go. He should fight with the rest of the LIC to help contain the threat. His family's been fighting vampires for so many generations that jumping in is literally in his genes; as a member of the youngest generation of the oldest lines of Irish hunters, he's better equipped than pretty much anyone else to help in a fight against vampires.

That's as close to a God-given directive as you can get, probably.

"I think they need me," he says, after a long, terrible pause from everyone in the band. Another pause, even more awful, follows, as Harry and Louis exchange glances, and try to catch the eyes of Zayn and Liam - to seek confirmation for Niall's claims?

Zayn is the first to engage, and gives Niall a long, inscrutable look. "Do they?"

"It's my job-"

"So is this band," Louis says, with a finality that Niall doesn't expect. "This band is your actual job, and you committed to this band. You committed, Niall. We didn't make you commit. You chose to apply to X Factor, and you said yes when they put us all together, and you said yes when Simon offered us that contract." He takes a deep breath, and Niall only catches the way it shivers in Louis's throat because he's hyperfocused on Louis's face. "So are you going to say yes to being with us, or are you going to say yes to the LIC?"

"I — it doesn't have to be a choice between the two," Niall says, gaping at Louis. For all the contingencies he'd been expecting, or worried about, this had never factored in. He hadn't thought it would be his band to give him any ultimatum. He's let himself relax around them; has let them know him in a way no one else — not even the County Westmeath cadre — has ever done before, he—

"A lot of the time, maybe you can manage to fit both in," Louis allows, crossing his arms defensively in front of himself. "But right now, you demonstrably cannot. And so you have to pick one." He pauses, looks to Zayn and Harry and Liam, and nods to himself. "I can't speak for the other lads, but as far as I'm concerned, the LIC will still be there after tonight."

"Are you implying you won't be?"

"Niall," says Harry. He's chalky under the remnants of his summer tan. "You have to realise, it won't be just us who notices if you're not there. And it won't affect just you if we all decide to stay back to hide the fact that you're gone."

Bressie chose the LIC over his band. Zayn's grandmother left Ireland completely, and didn't join up with any hunters once she made her way to Yorkshire. Niall was sort of hoping he could be the one to successfully straddle the line, particularly since it's so blurred already, what with Liam's status.

Niall's stomach roils, and for once, he knows it's not because Liam is standing off to the side, watching him silently, anxiously. "This may seem easy to you," he spits, trying to grasp hold onto a ledge he hadn't realised he was approaching, trying to keep from falling completely into a trap he hadn't realised he was walking into quite yet. "But it it's not." He swallows, and his throat aches around it. "What if I don't go, and people die?"

"What if you do go and people die? What if you don't go and everything's fine?"

Niall had expected Zayn, of all of them, to understand his quandary. "It's not that easy," he says again, because if the LIC don't go tonight and the vampires kill someone, that's a black mark on them. If the LIC go tonight and the fight doesn't go well, that's on Niall.

If he goes with the LIC, and the band suffers, that's on Niall, too.

"Anyway," says Louis, acerbically. "We're meant to be on our way already to the show, so I guess it doesn't matter in the end. We're already going to be late."

Liam is still quiet. Niall isn't sure whether he should be reassured that Liam, who cares the most obviously and loudly about the band, isn't chiming in, or whether that's the most damning condemnation of all.

"I have to make a call," says Niall, breaking away from the group and heading to the loo.

He takes two minutes just to breathe, watching himself in the mirror until he's calmed himself down enough to think through the problem. And the crux of everything is that he needs all the facts to make an informed decision. If the nest is large enough or old enough, he's got to go fight; there's no other option. Even if it costs him the band, at least he'll have saved lives. But if it's smaller, or younger, then the rest of the LIC can probably handle the fight without him and he can put off making any final decisions for a little while longer.

His fingers are sweaty as he dials the phone, he notes with a distant sort of surprise. He wipes his free hand off on his jeans as Bressie answers.

"Bres, what if I can't make it tonight?" he asks, with no lead-up. "How bad is it?"

Bressie is quiet for a long moment. "I won't lie to you, chief," he says, eventually. "It's not great. But Niall, we've been fighting as a cadre without you for a while now and we've made it through all right. And there are other fringe hunters we can call on if things get really bad."

"It's just, we've got our first live performance of our own music tonight," Niall says. "And the lads gave me a bit of an ultimatum. But I know that it's very important to stop the monsters, and I'm good at it, and—"

"Niall," Bressie interrupts. The tone of his voice is impossibly kind, and it makes Niall's heart ache, a little. There's not a lot of kindness in this line of work he realises, and then feels like a traitor for thinking as much. "Please don't take this the wrong way, but don't make your part in all this more important than it needs to be." He pauses. "It's easy to get caught up in this lifestyle. Lord knows most of us do. But you're young, chief, and you've already given a great service to the world. You've killed, what, nearly a hundred vampires so far and you don't turn eighteen for another few weeks?"

"Three days," Niall says. "My birthday's in three days."

"Well, come around later this week, after your show and our fight, and we'll celebrate our win and yours."

That — Bressie's planning for the future beyond the hunt — does it. "I don't have to choose yet?"

"Choosing to keep your options open by performing doesn't mean you can't make a different choice later on," Bressie says. "It also doesn't mean you need to make a different choice later on." He pauses. "The Blizzards didn't know what to make of my hunting, either. It's a scary world we live in, and for people who don't grow up in the fight — or who aren't forced into it because monsters attack their loved ones — it can be really hard to wrap your mind about how scary the world really is. Your boys may not understand the stakes, really, but you should cherish them for it. Not fault them."

"I wouldn't," Niall protests, even as a little poisonous, angry knot in his chest dissolves with Bressie's words.

"I'll call you after the fight, yeah?" Bressie asks. "You can tell me how the performance went, and I'll tell you about all the heads we buried."

Niall can handle that. "Okay," he says. "Thanks, Bressie."

"You know no one will blame you for not doing literally everything," Bressie says. "You're already doing just what you can, and that's enough."

"If you say so," says Niall, and rings off.

When Niall slips out from the bathroom, Liam is waiting in the hall. He raises an eyebrow, expectantly.

"I'm going to the bloody performance," Niall tells him, still a little irritated by how quiet Liam's been about it all. "Bressie said to stop trying to make my job be taking on everything by myself."

"That would be nice," Liam says, neutrally. "You're not the only hunter out there, but you are the only Niall Horan off One Direction out there."

"But hunting is-"

"Important," says Liam. He takes a step forward, reaching out to touch Niall's waist gently. "I know." He pauses. "I reckon Louis just thinks you're treating the band as an experiment, instead of an important job in its own right."

"If the band were just an experiment I would have stopped long ago," Niall says, fiercely.

"Tell him that," Liam says, shrugging. He squints at Niall, moving even closer and cupping Niall's jaw in one hand. "You're dealing with even more than you're letting on to us, aren't you?"

"What do you mean?"

"It can't be easy," Liam says. "To wrap your head around me, I mean. What I mean to what you know about the world. Sometimes when you're being awful, I think it's just because you're starting to think through the implications and reacting to your training and what — what I am." He frowns slightly, thick brows furrowed with determination. "It can't be easy to, you know. Be with me. With all that going on."

Liam's right, but the complications are less that Niall kisses a half-vampire sometimes and more that he genuinely likes Liam. That he genuinely wants to spend time with him. That sometimes, when his stomach gets tied up in knots, he suspects that it's as much to do with the swelling and softening of his feelings toward Liam as it is the blood Liam's cursed to have in his veins.

When Niall kisses Liam, everything makes sense. It's just when he stops that the problems — the confusion and the nagging thoughts — start to well up.

He thinks about Louis, so angry (hurt, a tiny voice in the back of his head supplies. Worried) just a few minutes earlier. How Zayn and Harry both stood with Louis. How Bressie told him to make himself less important to the fight in his own mind. How Liam has monster blood in him, but wants to be clean and whole and human.

How he doesn't know that he could kill Liam, if Liam turned the rest of the way, but that he needs to find a way to do it anyway when the situation arises. Every time he kisses Liam, his certainty that he can do his job weakens, but every day he spends with Liam without kissing him has the same effect, too.

"It does complicate some things," Niall admits. "But-"

"But?"

"I don't know that the complications are bad," Niall admits. It's his deepest secret, and one he's still almost not ready to admit to himself. So, to push past thinking about the implications, he reaches up and kisses Liam again. Right there in the hallway to the bathroom in their studio, when there's doubtlessly a car waiting to take them and the rest of the band to the show. The show, in the opposite direction of the Tottenham nest and the LIC.

Liam's hands tighten on Niall's waist, and Niall licks into Liam's mouth. When he runs his tongue over the ridge of Liam's teeth, there are no sharp points, and when he bites Liam's lower lip, Liam lets him and doesn't bite back.

Niall's heart is pounding by the time he pulls away. He wonders if the sluggish beat of Liam's own has sped up in a way that's meaningful to a half-vampire. He wonders if it makes Liam feel more human.

Liam's told him that he can be cruel, when he's thinking like a hunter, so he doesn't ask. Instead, he just hopes.

"Wow," Liam says, a tiny smile playing around his lips. "I really wish Louis wouldn't kill us if we were any later than we already are."

"It'd certainly take some of the burden off me," Niall jokes, and then winces. So much for not sounding like an arse.

But Liam doesn't make a comment. He just gives Niall a funny little penetrating sort of look, weird enough that Niall starts to wonder if vampires have mind-reading powers. "I'll bet," he murmurs, eventually, taking Niall's hand boldly in his own and starting to lead him out of the studios. "Let's go smash it."

+++

They don't smash it, because Harry's too nervous and tensions are high enough in the band without the added pressure of performing live, but when Bressie calls Niall at four the next morning, there's a heavy dose of relief in his voice. "They're gone," he says. "And we're all fine."

"Then I'll see you at my birthday party," Niall says, with finality, and tries to turn off the part of his brain that's just started saying even though he wasn't needed in the fight, the performance was bad enough that he wasted an opportunity to learn more about Januarius.

Bressie was so understanding and kind last night. Niall wonders if telling him the truth about Liam would turn out okay. Maybe Bressie wouldn't behead first and ask questions later. Maybe Bressie could kill Liam if he turns, so Niall doesn't have to. Maybe Bressie could help them look for Liam's sire…

But there are too many risks there. The only benefit Niall can really work out, with respect to telling Bressie, is that Bressie sometimes comes and hangs out, which means that Bressie is much more likely than anyone in Niall's cadre back in Mullingar to find out the truth about Liam. It could be important to tell him, even just to get in front of the news before he can work it out on his own and attack without having all the information.

It's late. Niall makes a mental note to talk to Liam about looping Bressie, who will definitely see them both at Niall's birthday party, in on Liam's status. He'll let Liam make this decision here.

+++

"Yes," Liam says, not even ten seconds after Niall finishes asking the question. "Absolutely. We should tell him together, and then he can help us work out some kind of solution. He can get his friend to test my blood, or he can ask around about Januarius."

"Are you sure?" Niall asks, touching the back of Liam's hand and meeting his eyes, urgently. "I don't think he'd kill you on sight, but there really is no guarantee, how he'll react."

"Will it ruin your relationship with him?" Liam asks.

Niall doesn't know, so he just shrugs. "It all depends on how he reacts, doesn't it?"

"It's just, he seems like a good resource for you here," says Liam. "I wouldn't want to get in the way of that, with my… affliction."

Niall had been thinking more along the lines that if Bressie murdered Liam in front of him, they'd have problems. He hadn't been considering what would happen if Bressie just thought less of him, after hearing the news. "If he's a good resource, he'll still be a good resource after we tell him," he says, with a conviction that he does not feel.

Which is how they end up taking Bressie aside, in a private room at Niall's heavily-populated birthday party. Hard to kill someone when you're surrounded by so many people, it is. Even if that someone is - in Bressie's eyes, potentially - a monster.

"What's this, then?" Bressie asks, when Niall closes the door behind the three of them. He glances between Niall and Liam, a suspicious look on his face. Like maybe he knows what's coming, but he's surprised that it's happening. "Have you got something to tell me?"

"I'm, uh. Not quite human, sir," says Liam, with no preamble.

Bressie blinks, and blinks again. This — was not the news he was expecting? "Beg pardon?"

"Have you heard of the Januarius initiative?" Niall asks. He steps forward, so that he's standing mostly between Bressie and Liam, and tries not to think about how he's positioning himself squarely as the first line of defence between a hunter and his prey.

Fame does change a person, he thinks, with a dark sort of humour.

"The Januarius — like the saint?" Bressie frowns, the lines in his forehead etched deep with shadow. "The vampire saint?"

"That's more than Bobby knew off the top of his head," Niall says, inanely. "That's the one."

"As far as I can tell," Liam interjects, stepping to the side so he can face Bressie head-on. It's all Niall can do not to move in front of him again. "A bunch of bloodsuckers did a donation drive a hospitals about, oh, eighteen years ago. Tests don't screen for vampirism, you see, and anyone who got a transfusion was at risk."

"But - if people didn't lose blood first…"

"They'd become a half-vampire," says Liam. He takes a deep breath, clenching his hands into fists and then slowly relaxing them. "Sensitive to the traditional things, but not dead. They need iron, but it doesn't have to come exclusively from human blood."

"You seem to know a lot about these things, lad," says Bressie. From his expression, Niall is pretty sure that he's worked it out.

"I was very sick as a baby, sir," says Liam.

It's years of training that allow Niall to catch the way that Bressie's slightest of shifts have left him primed, coiled to defend himself should Liam come at him. Bressie's eyes flick to Niall and hold his gaze for five endless seconds; Niall meets his look head-on and Bressie glances away and doesn't move into an attack stance. "You've aged normally."

"Bobby thinks he'll turn if he dies," Niall offers.

"So Bobby Horan knows," Bressie says. It's not that he relaxes at the news, particularly, but his stance loosens infinitesimally.

"He made Niall promise to kill me if I die," Liam says, with a shockingly bitter tone.

Bressie nods, brow still furrowed. "Aye, that makes sense."

"I thought you wanted to be put down if you turn," Niall says, turning to face Liam.

"I do," Liam says. His voice is still tight, impatient, and he stares directly back at Niall for the space of several breaths, like he's waiting for Niall to catch on to something, before turning back to Bressie. "We want to find the vampire whose blood I got as a baby."

"Killing your sire isn't a cure for vampirism," Bressie says, immediately.

"Yeah, I told him that," Niall says, frowning. He's glad Bres isn't jumping right into murdering Liam, obviously he is, but he's feeling particularly off-kilter about this whole exchange in a way he hadn't expected.

"But we figure he — or she — might have answers to other things," Liam says. "We really don't know if it's just dying that will make me turn, or if it's dying in a particular way, or if something else can set it off." He pauses. "We just didn't want you to figure out about me and think we were trying to hide anything from you."

"I appreciate that, lad," Bressie says. "Suppose I can ask around a bit. I have friends at some of the churches in London who might be inclined to help you search. Ask questions before stabbing, and that."

"I was thinking, too, that you could run tests on me," Liam says, chin jutting forward, bravely. "My blood. It might help you learn more about vampires. And other people like me."

Bressie's face softens, and for the briefest, fleeting second, he looks impossibly sad. "We can talk more about it later," he promises. "Doesn't sound like the most festive conversation for celebrating a birthday, though." He gives Niall a significant look. "You should get back to all your guests, chief. They're here to see you."

"You won't kill Liam though, right, Bres?" Niall asks. He watches Bressie's face, tries to read the truth in his expression. "He's not a killer, you know." The 'yet' goes unsaid. "There's no reason to kill him."

The sadness flickers across Bressie's face again. "No, lad, I won't be killing him," he says. "It's not my jurisdiction." He pauses, then nods firmly, once. "I'll distract the others if they start asking questions," he says. "Laura in particular can be a bit stake-happy, so it's best the rest don't know."

"Thank you," Liam says, relief palpable in his voice, as Niall moves forward to pull Bressie into a tight, grateful hug.

+++

“So you’re carrying about with our Liam,” Louis says, flinging himself down next to Niall on the couch. When Niall looks over, Louis is watching him, eyes sharp.

Niall doesn’t see the point of lying if Louis has already got it figured out. “Suppose,” he says.

“Are you sure that’s the best idea?” Louis asks.

“Why, for the sake of the band?” Niall asks. He knows it’s a deliberately obtuse question, but he hopes that it isn’t actually one anyway.

“We threw the sake of the band right out when we went on with it anyway, even after we found out he’s part vampire and you’re his sworn hunter or whatever,” says Louis, impatiently. “I mean that it doesn’t seem good for Liam to go out with someone who talks about killing him all the time.”

Niall’s willing to concede that, but he thought he’d been getting better about it. “You say that like he couldn’t kill all of us easily, if he turned,” he points out.

“See, that’s the thing,” says Louis. “I don’t think he could. And the fact that you don’t see it is what worries me.”

“Right, because I’m trained to stop him if he tries,” says Niall, trying to sound reassuring. He has been trained. He can stop Liam, and he doesn't want Louis to worry that he'd fall short when push came to shove just because he's getting off with Liam now, while Liam's part-human still. “I know that, Louis.”

Louis gives him a long, inscrutable look. Finally, he says “That’s not what I meant, Nialler.” He slaps his hands down on his knees, and pushes himself up. “And you should know that.”

He’s gone before Niall can ask for any more clarification, and Niall presses his knuckles against the mark Liam had left on his neck the night before — mouth only, no teeth — as he tries to process it.

+++

Microphones fit in Niall's hand just as well as stakes, is the thing. Even if the pressure to make a decision between singing and fighting isn't exactly looming, he still feels the pressure every time he steps into the studio, or goes on a stage, or cleans and purifies his weapons, or watches Liam sucking one of his bloody juice boxes.

He can find soft, vulnerable tissue with his stakes, can grip his knives in any of a number of ways and use that grip to part flesh in one strike. Even when he's not actively fighting, he'll run through fighting patterns on his own; the muscle memory allows him to dance through jabs and hacks and slices. Even when there's no one fighting him, and he's alone in his room, he can link every single movement to a blow he's landed on a monster in the past. When his eyes are closed, he can lunge out and remember the horror of the first time he sliced through a starving monster, and no blood spilled out. Fighting is second nature to him, and even when he practises fighting with Liam, it takes more effort to remind himself not to land a fatal blow than it does to match Liam move for move.

Even when the fighting turns, almost inevitably, to kissing, Niall has to consciously de-escalate his moves to keep from pushing Liam against a wall and using his advantage to snap Liam's neck.

But it's not like he can choose fighting just because he's so good at it. He's always been good at affecting social pleasantries, particularly with people who don't know his more violent side as intimately as his family or the band, and he finds he's very good at entertaining the radio hosts and hordes of girls who are catching onto the band. The rush that he gets from singing is, in some ways, even more overpowering than the feeling he gets when he finishes burying a kill. If he's going with things he's good at, being in a boyband is right up there with hunting.

Sometimes, he has nightmares of fans who also happen to be vampires. Of going to sign autographs by some studio door, and his stomach clenching from the proximity to monsters. Of teeth sliding into place, of the crowd of innocent girls falling victim to the vampire in their midst. Of Niall's worlds clashing horribly together as he's forced to step in and kill the bloodthirsty fan. Or, even worse, of a vampire in the crowd, close enough and hungry enough that he can feel it whilst he's on stage, but it gets away before he can get off stage, and when it makes its next kill, he hasn't done a single thing to stop it.

He goes to Zayn. "Did your great-grandmother tell you how she stopped feeling guilty?" he asks. "When she left hunting."

Zayn frowns at Niall, flicking over the sparkwheel of his lighter again and again. "I don't know that the guilt ever stopped," he says, finally. "Just became a little offset by her relief, you know. That she wasn't bringing her family up in terror. That she moved away from the worst of it."

Niall curses. "That's what I was afraid of," he says. He can remember each and every one of his kills individually, in every gory detail. He's been hunting monsters for ten years. When other kids were joining football teams and running drills back in school, he was learning where to aim his stakes and how much force is needed to break skin with a piece of wood. He knows his generation has got better instincts than any other hunters that came before. He can't imagine giving it up, and he can't let himself imagine what it would be like if he'd never started his training.

Zayn is still watching Niall. "I'm not going to tell you it's all going to be okay," he says, after a long moment. "Or that we'll necessarily respond well to the choices you feel the need to make. But you can talk to us about what's going on in that head of yours, if it helps you work things out."

Niall thinks of the look Louis's had on his face, the past few times they've talked about anything outside the band. The way it feels to kiss Liam, and the way it felt when Liam told him that he's awful sometimes. "Everyone?" he asks. "Or just you?"

"Definitely me," Zayn says. He pauses. "But I think Louis and Harry might be good, too, as they're much farther outside of this than the rest of us. Everyone else you're close to is pretty heavily biased toward, you know. Killing vampires."

"I'll think about it," Niall says; it's the only promise he knows he can keep.

+++

Niall finds that performing always, always leaves him keyed up and itching for a kill. He also finds that going for a kill isn't always an option. Britain really does have fewer vampires than Ireland, and they're not due to go to Ireland till after Christmas.

Plus, sometimes, when he's about to go for his duffel of stakes and knives, one of the other lads will pop up and ask him for a game of Fifa or a few beers before bed, and the one time Niall makes noises about having other plans, Louis gets a terrible and disappointed look on his face.

Niall hates that look.

The lads do understand, though, when Niall tells him he wants to find a cure for Liam, particularly when Liam backs him up with his great earnest eyes.

In Wolverhampton, Liam has his parents bring out all the research they've done to try and figure out who donated the transfusion that started to turn Liam. It's meticulously documented, with some notes highlighted in fading yellow; others pages are marked up with coloured flags.

"Can I send this to some mates?" Niall asks, glancing over the materials.

Liam's mum looks uncertain. "What sort of mates?" she asks, rather severely.

"Ones who know about Liam and won't hurt him," Niall says, thinking of Bressie, and Liam's dad supposes it's alright, so Niall takes photos of every page and texts them over to Bressie.

In Bournemouth, Niall switches into trackies and goes off to Liam's hotel room, all set to go through the email Bressie'd sent in response. But Liam pops in the shower to wash off the sweat of the performance first, and when he comes back into the room, he's just wearing boxers.

Niall's seen him naked before. They've lived together in the X Factor house, and it's impossible to do the photoshoots and live in small spaces together whilst on tour without getting the occasional eyeful. And they've certainly got carried enough away while kissing that their shirts have ended up tangled up across the room, hands shoved down the backs of pants. But Liam's skin is glistening a bit from the shower, and he's got the rosiest glow to his chest.

Realistically, Niall knows this means Liam had one of his blood boxes before the show, and the blood is flowing through his veins a little more quickly than usual. Realistically, he knows that this is horrifying news.

But Liam looks so, so lovely and so terribly alive.

"Come here," Niall says, before Liam can bend over to get a shirt out of his suitcase.

"Did Bressie send something else?" Liam asks, frowning, as he crosses quickly to where Niall is sat on the bed.

"No, I just," Niall says, and stands up so abruptly he almost knocks into Liam, and pulls him in for a fierce kiss.

They're so careful not to get too carried away, usually. They've discussed it, and they're both petrified of Liam's teeth slipping out if he gets too into it. Plus, Liam's confessed, it can be difficult for him to get hard if he's gone a while just eating his iron-rich foods and not supplementing them with blood.

Three minutes into kissing Liam, still riding the high off the concert, Niall's slipping his hand down the front of Liam's boxers. Liam's cock is pleasantly warm, and pulsing with the blood Liam swallowed before the concert, still a little shower-damp to the touch. The skin of it is velvety, and it swells at Niall's touch

He's a monster Niall tells himself, and guides Liam's hand down to where his own erection is pushing out the front of his joggers.

"Are you sure?" Liam asks, running his tongue obviously over his teeth, but Niall can't see fangs, and he nods.

"Please," he says, reaching up for another kiss. Liam's brushed his teeth, too; any lingering taste of his pre-concert blood is covered up by mint. Liam stretches out over him, pressing him against the bed, and rolls his hips against Niall. Their wrists bump together, and Niall gives Liam's dick one good stroke before moving both of his hands around to cup Liam's bum, and pull him in closer.

"Hang on," Liam says, pulling the waistband of Niall's bottoms down. "Let me—"

"Yeah," says Niall, wiggling to help Liam get his bottoms down around his ankles, and dragging Liam's boxers off while he's at it. "Yeah, that's - that's it."

Liam hitches his leg up between Niall's thighs, and Niall strains against him. Everything feels hotter when they've got their cocks nudged up against each other's hips. That, too, is probably due to the blood Liam's had, but now, in this moment, Niall feels as if the ends justify the means. He pulls Liam into an openmouthed, sloppy kiss, rutting up against him.

He'd known this would feel good. He didn't know it would feel this good.

He catches Liam's wrist in one hand, pulling it besides their heads, and feels the thrum of Liam's pulse against his fingertips as he squirms, desperately seeking the friction of Liam's hip against his dick, the damp drag of Liam's cockhead against his own skin. Liam's moves are just as frantic as Niall feels, and when he slips up and worries at Niall's lips with flat teeth, Niall feels a rush of heat flash through his entire body.

"Shit," he gasps, sucking Liam's lower lip into his mouth and biting down hard . He's not sure if he's signalling his pleasure or a warning; at the moment, it doesn't seem to matter which it is.

"Niall," Liam cries, reaching with his free hand to bring Niall's spare hand back against his arse, holding Niall's wrist there until Niall has no choice but to dig his fingers into the meat of it, pulling Liam impossibly, ecstatically closer.

Coming feels almost more like an afterthought, a flood of pleasure and a relaxing of muscles Niall hadn't realised were coiled tight. It's more satisfying than landing a successful hit, more exhilarating than felling a vampire in under ten minutes, more rejuvenating than burying a head on consecrated ground with no injuries of your own to speak of. There's wet between him and Liam and it's not from blood, and for a few blissful moments, that feels like the only thing that matters.

Liam brushes Niall's sweaty hair back with one hand and presses a damp kiss to the corner of his mouth. "Alright, Nialler?"

"I like you so, so much," Niall whispers, like the secret it should be. Even with the truth hanging between them, it's the calmest he's felt in months.

+++

They do it again after the next show, and Niall barely even feels the itch under his skin telling him to hunt.

+++

Bressie's email had been about uncovering a list of places where blood was donated and sent to the hospital Liam kept going to as a baby, his resources as a well-connected hunter having got him significantly further than Liam's parents, so new to the truth of the world, have ever been able to go. Haven't heard of activity in most of these places for decades, Bressie had mentioned.

Niall still finds himself going for long walks after shows in areas named on the list, Liam at his side. It's less satisfying than sex, particularly when nothing turns up for their efforts.

Liam also is excellent for taking the edge off when Niall is geared up for a fight, and fails to find one.

"In Ireland, you can't swing a stake around without hitting a monster," Niall tells Liam one day, when they've offset their abortive adrenalin by getting naked together against the hotel room door. "Weird to go looking for one and not even finding any."

"Dunno," Liam says, looking down at where Niall's cock is already stirring again. "Could swing that stake around and hit one right now, I reckon."

Niall stares at Liam for a prolonged moment, and then kisses away his urge to burst into laughter, and tries not to worry about how he's supplanting his own innate lethality with inconvenient feelings, or about how he's not convinced it's a bad thing. Louis has been softer around Niall, lately, and Harry's been acting as if he never stopped being his open, easy self in front of him. Zayn's eyes don't shine with quiet approval the way they do when he looks at the others in the band - he's too watchful for that - but he takes to reminding Niall that Niall can talk to him less frequently than usual.

Is this what balance feels like? Niall wonders. It feels totally foreign to everything he's known before. It's — nice, almost. Less fraught, at least. When Niall takes nights off, now, he feels slightly less like he's wasting his time.

+++

"Pub night," Harry says, firmly, when they come off the stage in Blackpool, even though he's still seventeen for another few weeks. "Lads?"

"Pub night," Louis agrees, slinging an arm around Harry's shoulder. He gives a mock glare at Niall and Liam. "No weaselling out for secret sexy meetings, you two."

"Twist my arm, why don't you," Niall says, rolling his eyes. Liam hasn't had blood for about a week; there's no way he could get properly hard without a top-up at this point, no matter how many oysters he's sucked down. That doesn't bear announcing, though, so Niall lets the others drag him away for pints.

He doesn't drink enough to get drunk, but he does drink enough to get distracted, so when his stomach cramps as they all stumble, laughing, toward the beach, he writes it off as the well questionable chips Louis'd insisted they all eat as a bonding experience, "But not you, Liam, if you can't process it properly."

That is, until Liam doubles over nearly in half. "Feel weird," he gasps, clutching at the sleeve of Niall's coat. When Niall looks over, Liam's teeth have descended from their sheaths. They're glistening with saliva, and he's gone whiter than he should, given how recently he's had blood. It's the first time he's seen Liam fully vamped out without feeding, or being around someone with an open, bleeding wound, and it's even more disconcerting than he'd half-expected. "Niall, my stomach…"

The warmth of the beer drains out of Niall's body and is quickly replaced by the icy air surrounding them. "Payno, what's going on?" he asks, quickly going to grip both of Liam's wrists. It's partly to support him, keep him upright, but it's also to hold him at a safe distance from the rest of the lads.

"Feel like I'm going to be sick," Liam says, retching a little. "I'm so - queasy, and achy, and—"

The hairs on the back of Liam's hands are stood straight up, surrounded by gooseflesh. Niall didn't know Liam's skin could do that. He looks, for all the world, as if he feels like Niall does when —

when —

when Niall is sensing a vampire feeding close by him.

"Have you ever felt like this around another vampire?" Niall demands, hands gripping so tightly into Liam's wrists that his knuckles are turning white.

"Never," Liam says. He still looks haggard, but now that the initial shock of his feeling is fading, he starts to straighten up. The tips of his fangs dent his lower lip, and even though Niall is intimately familiar with how plush and warm it can be, it looks foreign in the half-light from the moon. Foreign, and horrifying.

There was no mention of blood donated from Blackpool, but Niall knows as well as anyone that monsters can move around easily, as long as it's not across moving water or consecrated down. They're so close to the sea that he hadn't expected any vampires around, but — "Could it be a Januarius thing? Could it be—"

"My sire," Liam rasps. His eyes are so dark against the white of his face.

Resolve shudders through Niall, and he does a mental inventory of what he's got on him.

It's not much. It basically amounts to a few toothpicks from dinner. It might be better than the alternative — the risk of losing track of this vamp if he takes the time to go back to his room and arm up.

He can't make this decision alone. "What do you think?" he asks Liam.

Liam runs his tongue over his teeth. It catches on the sharp points. "Let's do it," he says, grimly.

"Zayn, get the lads out of here," Niall says, without looking away from Liam.

"You're not prepared," Zayn says, without much heat to it. He reaches into the pocket of his leather jacket. "Take my knife."

If it's not consecrated, a pocket knife won't do much. Niall takes it just the same; when he flicks the blade out, there's a silvermaker's mark along the dull edge. "God bless your grandmother and her wisdom," he says, reverently. Even if it's not consecrated, silver will do a far sight better than regular old steel.

"I got you, bro," Zayn says, shrugging and gesturing for Harry and Louis to follow.

"Hold on," says Harry, and holds out his little container of leftovers. "Will my garlic linguini help?"

It won't make any appreciable difference, particularly since any effect it may have will disadvantage Liam nearly as much as the vampire, but the gesture is oddly touching. "Cheers," Niall says, accepting the box.

"Alright, let's go," Louis says, impatiently, before pausing and glancing between Niall and Liam. "Be careful," he adds. "Take care of each other, okay?"

"Promise," Niall says, and loosens his grip on Liam's wrists as they rush away. "You ready for this?"

"No," Liam admits, blunt as ever. "Let's do it."

The monster — Liam's sire — is loitering behind a train stop by some steps down to the beach. The only streetlight is flickering, off more frequently than it is on. There's a smear of blood by its mouth.

Niall slips Zayn's knife into his pocket and thumbs along the side of the blade. "Evening," he calls, with a bravery he doesn't feel.

The vampire pauses, and straightens. It's wearing a shapeless, thick coat, and Niall can't tell from its greasy length of hair whether it has a particular gender. Not that it matters. It's done too much damage in its time; it won't survive the night.

He only hopes Liam's on the same page.

"It's the funniest thing," Liam adds. He sounds almost lively, like the proximity doesn't bother him anymore. Niall glances at him, then looks away. The black in Liam's eyes is drowning out any trace of colour. They're so dark and horrible that Niall almost misses the red glint of fresh blood. "I've always wanted to find the donor whose blood saved my life when I was a baby, and here you are when I wasn't even looking!"

"You're one of my Januarius progeny," the vampire says. Its voice is throaty, nearly mesmerising. "But you still smell of human."

"I haven't died yet," Liam says, modestly.

"I can help with that, lad," it promises, and slowly starts to move closer to them. "If you like."

"I think I'm okay for now," says Liam. "I'm enjoying, you know. Not being dead."

"Are you," the monster says. "Well. I suppose you don't know enough to think otherwise, yet." It pauses, tilts its head. Its eyes are so very, deeply red. "You know there's no alternative, right, boy?"

It's only because Niall's so used to watching Liam so closely that he sees something shatter in Liam's expression. "Never trust a vamp," he whispers; it's all he can think of to say.

Liam shoots Niall a dark look. "Niall," he says: a warning, a plea.

"Ah, you've brought a human with you," the vampire says, looking Niall over, its gaze at once dismissive and hungry. "That's pleasant."

"Is it?" Niall asks, louder this time, looking again to Liam.

Liam nods at him, ever so slightly, and Niall jumps at the creature, drawing Zayn's knife out of his pocket as he leaps.

He lands a glancing blow on its neck: enough to part flesh, but not enough to draw any of the sludge crawling through its veins. It hisses, and swats at him, and Niall's vision goes dim. He feels himself fall, almost as if from a distance. The only thing that he knows is the weight of Zayn's pocket knife is still tight in his grip.

By the time he manages to pull himself back to his senses, Liam and the vampire are locked in a death grip. The vampire's coat is off and so is Liam's, abandoned by the side of the building. Liam's teeth are still fully out, and he's snarling, clawing at the vampire's flesh with his short nails, fighting with all he's got to keep his flesh away from its teeth.

They've practised fighting together, in between getting distracted by each other's physicality in a different sense, but in the few vampires they've fought together Niall hasn't been quite so worried about the outcome. Sure, he knows the risks of hunting, intimately and since childhood. He knows the complications of fighting alongside Liam, that his usual tricks for survival will result in Liam being slowed down. So far, that hasn't ended up being as much as a problem as it could.

Liam fighting his sire is, in a word, rough. Niall watches them struggle for thirty seconds, or thirty years, or somewhere in between, until he's relatively confident that he has a sense for how the monster moves.

Then he takes Harry's garlic linguini and throws it in the vampire's face. Even if it doesn't accomplish anything on an allicin level, it's a perplexing move, and a confused vampire is a vampire that isn't trying to actively kill you for at least a three-second window.

It makes a face and pauses, and that's enough for Niall to come at it from the side and slice through the flesh on the side of its ribcage, up toward where its arm is raised to attack Liam. It fumbles its hold, and Liam uses the leverage to twist away.

I wish I had a stake is running through Niall's head, again and again. Blackpool, useless city that it is, isn't even growing any trees this close to the beach. There's just the wood slats boarding up a shack halfway down the stairs to the sand, and that's too far away to run and grab a board to use.

Instead, he loops the silver chain of his consecrated crucifix around his hand. Taking it off his neck could be his greatest mistake, but he needs all the advantage he can get, and he yanks it till it breaks and he can brandish it in the monster's face, close enough and fierce enough for it to burn and force the vamp to shy away from it.

"Knife," Liam shouts, holding out his hand.

"It's silver," Niall yells back, trying to slice something a little more debilitating on the vampire's body.

"I'll deal," Liam says, and Niall curses before tossing it over.

Liam's scream when it touches his hand is earsplitting, loud enough that it's bound to draw the attention of people still about in the city, but he holds gamely on and darts in enough to slice through his sire's abdomen, spilling the blood pooling in its stomach across the pavement and Niall's shoes.

The vampire freezes and then rounds on Liam, a feral look in its eyes. As Niall watches, it yanks Liam's body up to its mouth, and bites into the fleshy meat of Liam's upper arm, ripping through the sleeve of his shirt. Blood follows its mouth, spreading slow and thick through the fabric of Liam's top.

Liam goes pale, and the vampire cackles. "I'll teach you the glory of immortality, boy," it says, diving in for another bite.

It's not drinking. Why is it not drinking? Vampires always drink, even if the blood will fall from their stomachs. Niall doesn't understand, until the vamp goes in for a third bite in yet another location, and it becomes stunningly, horrifyingly obvious that it's trying to bleed Liam out.

To turn him.

With a guttural yell, pulled deep from somewhere inside Niall that he wasn't even aware existed, Niall leaps through the air and lands on the vampire's back. It's a sloppy jump, and he kicks Liam in the side as he lands, but the force of it separates Liam from the vampire's grip.

Niall doesn't watch the way Liam falls to the ground. He can't. He won't.

He wraps his legs around the vampire's lacerated torso and his arms around the vampire's disgusting bloody head, and twists with all of his might. The vampire's teeth scratch his arm, and he can feel it sucking what little blood it can get from so small a cut, and he twists harder, wedging his crucifix against the skin of the vampire's neck.

Liam is so, so still. Niall doesn't want to have to kill his best friend — his boyfriend? — tonight, too. Liam has to survive the blood loss.

His sire has to die.

Drawing on a well of strength Niall thought he was past using, he relaxes and twists sharply, shoulders and hips jerking in opposite directions.

There's a snap, and a pop, and a truly sickening crunch, and the vampire falls to its knees, landing half on top of Liam, trapping Niall's bum knee as it lists over to the side.

Shaking, Niall extricates himself and reaches for Liam's hand. It's still clenched tightly around the knife, which has burned halfway through his flesh. Gingerly, Niall pulls it away, and starts grimly hacking at the skin of the vampire's neck.

Once the flesh has been severed, its spinal cord separates easily. Usually, Niall would feel a grim sort of satisfaction at his skill at internal decapitations, but right now he's too worried to be relieved.

He uses what little reserves of strength he has left and throws the head firmly into high tide, then stabs through the vampire's sternum, deep enough that he can pack the vampire's heart with his dinner toothpicks.

The authorities will find Liam's sire. There's no way Niall is going to take the time to bury it, not when Liam is still crumpled on the ground.

"Liam," he says, hoarsely, kneeling next to Liam and carefully laying him back. There's so much blood gathering around Liam's arm, and without even thinking about it, Niall takes off his coat and strips off his t-shirt. He cuts it into haphazard slices - it doesn't matter that Zayn's knife is covered in vampire blood; Liam's already been infected with it - and wraps the strips tight around Liam's bicep, trying to slow the bleeding as much as possible.

The flow is slow, but Niall isn't sure if that's because he's lost so much or because it's naturally sluggish. He crosses himself, and offers up a prayer to St. Patrick, and squeezes Liam's shoulder. "Payno, please wake up. Please be alive."

Liam's eyelashes flutter. Don't be dead, Niall prays, and, heedless of the frigid winter air off the ocean, strokes Liam's hair back.

There's a loud wail noise in the distance. A siren. Fuck. They've been heard, of course they've been heard; someone will be coming to investigate.

Niall finds a whole new reserve of strength. He gathers his coat, and Liam's coat, and lays them out, rolling Liam on top of them. Then, sirens growing ever-closer, he pauses.

Liam's sire is suspiciously close to the sea. He'll have graveyard dirt on him. Niall reaches over the headless body of the creature, and finds a vial attached to a cord dangling off the stump of its neck, down against its torso. He pockets it, and then takes the monster's shoes, for good measure. The dirt will either be in the necklace or the soles of its shoes.

Then, Niall picks Liam up and staggers down the stairs to where the high tide is lapping against the seawall.

Liam groans his protest, and Niall presses the vial against Liam's bare skin. He doesn't have enough flexibility at the moment to get the shoes against Liam, so he hopes the necklace is enough. Stumbling with every other step, Niall makes his way as quickly as possible down the beach, under one of Blackpool's millions of piers, and on until he finds a public loo, boarded up for winter time.

He drops Liam into the surf and breaks the lock. When he turns to drag Liam inside, Liam is half-sitting, half-slumped into the sand. "Nialler," he says, weakly.

Niall is so relieved - and worried - that he nearly collapses. "Liam," he says. "How are you feeling?"

"Not undead yet," Liam says, and coughs. He shivers. "Maybe soon."

"No," Niall says. Promises. Swears. "No, you're going to survive."

"Going to need blood to replenish," Liam points out. "Don't have a box. Can we get home?"

"Police are going to be too close to escape without cleaning up," Niall says. "Can you get inside here with me? Can you move?"

Liam looks doubtful, but he manages to crawl into the loo, where he collapses on the floor again. "Don't want you to have to kill me," he explains to Niall, once Niall is inside and has wedged the door closed behind them.

"Don't want to have to kill you," Niall says, sitting down on the disgusting floor next to Liam and kissing him — with relief, with fear. With love.

It's as cold inside as it is outside; the bathrooms have absolutely no insulation. Niall drapes the coats more firmly around Liam, heedless of his own bare chest, and then gets up to get them a drink of water.

But the taps are shut off, too. There's no water, and there's no blood, and it's freezing cold, and Liam's bleeding through his improvised bandages. Niall hasn't even begun to wrap up his cuts, he's been so distracted, and there's a smear of his own blood across his skin.

His own blood.

He's got blood.

The second rule of vampire hunting is to not help a vampire. To not give it the strength of your lifeblood. (The first rule is to not let its own blood pass your lips, and the third is to end your own life before you can turn.)

Liam's not a vampire. Not yet. Surely there's a sub-clause that you can give your own blood to prevent someone from turning. Niall's certainly given himself enough IVs of his own blood after a fight to replenish a supply a vampire got its teeth on. It's not the same thing as drinking blood, but in taking in his own human blood, Niall was treating himself every single one of those times.

Liam can't die. Niall can't kill him. This is just Niall treating himself again.

He makes a choice.

"Drink me," he tells Liam.

"Niall, no," Liam says, holding a hand out, weakly, stop. "I told you. I've never fed live, not from a person, I can't—"

"I can't lose you," Niall snaps, and to his horror, he realises there are tears in his eyes. "Liam, please."

"I don't want to do this," says Liam. "Not to you. Not to anyone. If I did this — I just, I can't have you look at me like you do, after you know what I've done."

"Liam, I'm saying I want you to," Niall says. And he holds out his arm, the scratch Liam's sire made with his teeth right in front of Liam's face. "Please. Just enough so that we can get back to the hotel. Please."

"Niall," Liam says, but his teeth are sliding back out of their sheaths, and his head is swaying closer to the smear of blood on Niall's forearm.

"Promise," Niall says. "Free pass. We'll forget it ever happened."

He knows what it feels like. The tear of vampire teeth. What it feels like to have blood taken, forcibly, from his body into the cold wet mouth of a monster. The way it feels like it tugs at his entire self from the inside out.

Liam's teeth are sharp, and they hurt. But once he's made his cut and withdrawn his fangs, his mouth is warm and soft against the skin of Niall's arm, and he sucks gently, tongue lapping every bit of blood that beads to the surface up. The rhythm of his careful sucks, followed by him licking wetly over the wounds, is practically sensual in effect. When Niall's head starts spinning, he thinks that it's not due entirely to the blood loss.

With half-lidded eyes, he notes the change, how Liam's cheeks go from pallid to rosy, how he goes from leaning his entire weight against Niall's side to sitting up on his own steam. How the pulls of blood from Niall's body into his mouth get stronger, and his tongue gets warmer, both from Niall's blood and Liam's circulation.

Eventually, Liam pulls his head away from Niall's arm, sharply. His teeth are still pointed, digging into the flesh of his lower lip. Niall's blood is smeared all around his mouth, like a macabre, badly-applied lipstick. "You shouldn't have done that," he whispers. "I shouldn't have done that. You shouldn't have let me."

"I don't care," Niall says, brazenly. "You're alive." And he kisses Liam, fangs and blood be damned. This, too, feels like making a choice.

He's still cognizant of the cold, but it seems like a distant sort of concern. More important is Liam, warm and solid and alive beneath him as he kisses him, licks into his mouth, gets his tongue and lips scratched by Liam's fangs. When he pulls away, Liam's eyes are red, but when he puts a hand to Liam's heart, it beats under his palm.

He looks Liam in his red eyes, and doesn't look away. "I love you," he tells him; it feels more like breaking a rule than giving up his own blood to protect Liam.

Liam looks, for a long moment, like he's going to protest. But then: "I love you too," he says, and he licks his lips of any lingering blood.

His teeth recede back into their sheaths, and then he kisses Niall again, deep, exploring, chasing — something. Niall isn't sure what, but he loves it, how hot he feels all over despite the chill on his skin.

"I want you," he says, fumbling with the button on Liam's jeans. There's blood running all down his arm. The blood from Liam's wound is clotting, bandages sticky with it, but it's damp enough - and Niall has enough presence of mind - that he keeps his own cut held as far away from Liam's as he physically can while still trying to shove his hands down the front of Liam's pants and get a hand around Liam's dick.

Liam seems just as frantic, ripping the denim of Niall's jeans to get through them. That took a lot of strength Niall thinks, then discards the thought, more intent on the feeling of Liam's hand, slick from where it brushed against the blood leeching slowly still from where he bit into Niall's arm, wrapping around Niall's cock.

It's rushed and messy, and the bathroom floor doesn't bear thinking about, but the heat swells inside Niall like it always does with Liam. It's weird, to think about how Liam is hard with Niall's own blood - how their hands are also functionally lubed up with Niall's blood - but Liam's cock feels as good in Niall's hand as it always does, so Niall puts all thoughts of blood and vampires and violence out of his head and allows himself to get lost in the warmth of Liam's mouth, and the tight grip Liam has on his cock.

It takes him a few minutes to come back to himself once he's spent, and when he does, he's shivering. Liam passes him his coat. "So," he says. "How are we going to get out of here? I expect the shores swarming with police, and we're both covered in blood and injuries."

"We wait it out?" Niall suggests.

"You're too cold for that," Liam says. Niall notices that he's not counting himself in that number, and doesn't mention it. "Popstars gone wild?"

"We'll have to go into the water to get as clean as we can," Niall says, with great regret. It's cold enough for snow out there. "Act really drunk."

Liam shudders. "Don't like oceans," he points out.

"That reminds me," Niall says. He finds Liam's sire's shoes and necklace and passes them over. "Bound to be graveyard dirt in one of these things."

Liam stares at Niall for a long moment, and then kisses him once, quick, hard. "I love you," he says. Grimacing, he pulls off his own shoes and ties the filthy ones his sire had on over his socks, then loops the necklace on. "Ocean it is."

+++

Miraculously, they make it back to the hotel. Niall goes straight to his blood supply and gives himself an IV — Liam didn't take a dangerous amount, but he took enough that it's probably not a bad idea.

When he's done, he hands the rest of the bag to Liam. "Put it in one of your boxes," he says, and then: "Don't mention it. Please."

The next morning, the bag, as full as it was when Niall gave it over, is in the rubbish bin in the bathroom. Niall doesn't mention it, and Liam doesn't either. At breakfast, Niall gives Zayn his carefully-cleaned pocket knife back. Louis gives Niall and Liam a long, assessing look, and then just passes the toast.

And life goes on.

+++

Bressie's doctor friend confirms that there's no cure to the problems with Liam's blood, but the graveyard dirt Liam's sire was wearing goes a long way toward making transoceanic flights significantly more bearable for Liam.

But still: "I don't think I want to go hunting with you anymore," says Liam, a few months after they killed his sire.

"I don't think I want to go hunting again anytime soon," says Niall, thinking of the way it felt to see Liam crumpled on the ground like that.

It feels like less of a choice than kissing his own blood off Liam's mouth in that beachside bathroom. And even if it were a choice, the records One Direction start breaking left and right — breaking America, going so high up the charts so quickly — would soften the blow of the decision.

Things change. One Direction tours the world and plays the Olympics Closing ceremony. They win VMAs. They record a new album. Niall has known for a while that his senses, honed on fighting vampires for years, on spying tiny little movements and noise and reacting accordingly, can become quickly overwhelmed in crowds, but learns that the effect doesn't go away with time, and starts bringing up claustrophobia in interviews to try and circumvent being overstimulated in his day job as much as possible.

Things stay the same. The LIC find a vampire nest the night before One Direction play iTunes Music Festival at the Roundhouse theatre, and Niall goes with them to put it down. He goes home to Ireland and sneaks out with the cadre and kills a few more. He's still good at it. He still likes it.

But sometimes, now, he doesn't like that he likes it.

He kisses Liam more and more, and sometimes reminds him that he loves him. On days that Liam drinks those blood boxes of his, they have sex. Louis relaxes around Niall, stops trying to protect Harry as much, pulls Liam into a closer friendship, and Liam grins through it.

Niall watches him grin. He learns the shifts of colour in Liam's eyes, and which ones means he needs to top up on blood, and which ones means he's likely had enough. He learns how much stink of blood on the air Liam can tolerate before his teeth descend, and they work on raising Liam's tolerance.

Liam watches Niall right back. The way Niall moves when he slips back into their flat after a fight he hadn't quite intended to go on when they'd left that morning. The way he stretches in their bed in the sunlight, reaching across to touch Liam's chest, and the little vial of graveyard dirt nestled on it. The way Niall's kept his consecrated silver crucifix on, despite everything. Even though it hurts Liam, sometimes, because Niall may not be talking about how much he wants to kill Liam out loud anymore but that doesn't mean he's forgot the risks.

Niall flies home for the funeral of a fallen hunter, and joins the cadre on exacting revenge on the nest that led to her death, and doesn't flinch at the soft rust stench of blood blanketing the de-consecrated ground of the church ruins they holed up in. Dozens of people died there, but they've been avenged. It doesn't make things better, but it keeps them from getting worse.

That's life, for a hunter: keeping the monsters at bay, trying to prevent future misery even when things are already terrible. Niall's boyband side experiences ebullience, and meteoric rise; his hunter side lies in wait, and anticipation, always watching for the shadow with sharp teeth that shifts in his peripheral vision.

Sometimes he can sense that Liam is teetering on the edge. That's life, too; the part where his hunting side and his boyband side intersect. It happens rarely on stage, or in interviews, but it does happen. When Liam's eyes flash dark and he licks his teeth, Niall will grab whatever silver is handy — often a spoon, and Liam comes to hate Niall's silver spoons — and wave it warningly at Liam. Or if there's more than one, he'll form a cross, and whisper the Lord's prayer, and send a silent supplication to St. Patrick, and hope the warning is enough to call Liam down from roughhousing.

The other lads get the hang of it, too. Louis won't let Niall tell him how to kill a vampire, but Harry takes Niall aside grimly one day and asks for the major bullet points. Zayn doesn't have to ask.

Harry and Louis get in a fight about it, but Louis wears the unadorned consecrated silver chain Harry presses into his hand anyway, mouth twisted in silent distaste. Harry gets a cross-shaped necklace that he asks Niall to have a priest consecrate, and then he gets one blessed silver ring, and then another, and never touches Liam with that hand.

Things change, and they don't: another album, another tour, another dead vampire. Another record broken.

One hundred thirteen, Niall thinks, and washes his hands, and gets ready to head in to the studio.

+++

"I can't get over how mad it is that we're touring America again," Niall confesses, fresh off the exhilaration of ballroom dancing with Harry on stage during the Twitter questions. He hasn't had a kill in over a month, and he doesn't miss it.

Still, he knows he'll be ready when the next vampire comes around.

Liam is quiet, watching the way Niall's shirt rides up when he's reaching for the toothpaste. There's a healing scratch on his hip from a particularly rambunctious game of one-on-one footie with Louis. "Liam? You okay?"

Liam blinks, and looks up at Niall. "I've got something to tell you," he confesses. "I know we said we wouldn't talk about it. I know it's been a year and half."

A chill floods through Niall, despite the heat of America in the summer. It's not just from the air-con, he knows; they tend to leave it off because Liam runs cold when he's not on the blood.

He tries not to remember that night.

As light as possible, he says. "What's up, then?"

A look of deeply intense regret settles on Liam's face; he doesn't blink it away. "Sometimes," he says, and swallow. "It's been over a year, but sometimes I can't do anything but think about it. The taste of your blood. How it felt to drink fresh from someone." He forces himself to meet Niall's horrified gaze. "From you."

Blood pounds in Niall's ears, heavy and quick. Human. For the first time in at least eight months, Niall feels like the only human in the room. He opens his mouth to tell Liam that he wishes he didn't have this information. But instead: "I love you," he says, and steps forward. Puts a hand on Liam's chest and feels for his heartbeat, so he can remind himself that it's there. "Liam, I love you."

"I love you too," Liam says, miserably. "You shouldn't, though."

"You can't turn," Niall says, even though they both know Liam is going to, eventually, one day. Niall's pretty sure that since Liam's already got vampire blood in him — since it's already reached his heart — there won't even be that five-minute latency to behead him before he turns completely, once he dies. "You can't, because I wouldn't be able to kill you."

There. He's put his most horrible truth out there, between them, to match Liam's.

He's pretty sure neither of them feel particularly better for it.

"You can't tell anyone else that," Liam says, eyes wide. His hand comes up and covers the one Niall has pressed against his chest, and pulls it tighter. Liam's heart beats, three times in one minute. They're still and silent long enough for Niall to count. By now, Niall knows that this means Liam's heart is racing.

"I won't," Niall promises. "You can't tell anyone else yours, either."

"Of course," Liam says. He releases Niall's hand, and Niall lets it fall. "I just couldn't keep it from you any longer."

Niall nods once, seriously. He wets his lips. "I'm quitting hunting," he says, and only knows it for the obvious lie that it is once he's already finished saying it.

Liam clearly believes Niall precisely as much as Niall believes Niall, but he doesn't call Niall on the lie. Instead, he shakes his head. "You promised," he says. "I think it's fucked up that everyone put the burden of killing me on you, when I turn, but you promised. If I turn, you have to kill me." He looks at Niall, brown eyes huge. There's not a single trace of blood behind them - rather than shining red, they shine wet, on the verge of tears. "Please, Nialler. I think of drinking your blood so fucking often, and I hate myself for it. I don't want to be the kind of monster that thinks about it and doesn't care."

What if you become the kind of monster that does care, after so long in this limbo? Niall wants to ask, but that kind of thought is treasonous on the deepest sort of level. "You'll be my very last kill, then," he promises.

He's not sure whether or not that one is a lie, even after he's said it.

Liam gives him a long, searching look. "Okay, then," he says. "If you say so."

Niall doesn't reiterate himself. He's not comfortable reinforcing a promise he's not sure he'll ever keep.

He wraps his arms around Liam — strong, from playing guitar and running around stage and snapping the necks of beings that were once human and driving wooden stakes through flesh and bone, deep into their hearts — and pulls him in for a kiss.