Once upon a time there was a selfish and spoiled prince. He had been indulged throughout his entire life: anything he could think of he could want and everything he wanted he could have. This did not only extend to objects but to people.
The prince often wanted people. He liked to hurt them, to chase his pleasure with them as they struggled and cried. His servants, he believed, existed solely to serve his will. Many of his servants left, unwilling to work for such a monster, but the nearby village was poor. It was full of desperate people looking for work.
Andrew was not desperate when he took a job working for the baker in the kitchens, he was not desperate when he somehow caught the prince's eye, he was not desperate when the prince started forcing him into his bed.
No, he wasn't desperate until his brother took a position at the prince's castle against Andrew's advice. The prince's eyes had lit up with unholy glee as soon as he spied Aaron and that was when Andrew became desperate.
He went into the eastern woods, a place that he had been warned away from his entire life. The woods were not quite right. They were full of magic and beings that would trick and ensnare bypassers. Andrew didn't care. He was searching for someone in particular. Rumours spoke of a fae queen who would provide what you needed as long as you were willing to pay for it. Andrew was willing to do anything to keep the prince away from his brother.
He did not know the way to the glade where the fae queen lived, just that it was purported that anyone could find her if they had need of her. It didn't take long before he stumbled into a clearing.
The fae queen was much less beautiful than he had expected; in fact she was very plain. However, her eyes were shrewd and intelligent and they seemed to see right through him.
"I can feel your need," she said. "Why did you seek me out?"
"I need to be strong," he replied.
"Why do you need to be strong, dear heart?"
He briefly considered lying but dismissed the idea almost immediately. "I need to be strong enough to kill the prince before he can harm my brother."
She stood and walked over to him, seeming to glide across the grass. "And will you pay the price for this?"
He met her eyes defiantly. "I will pay any price to keep him safe."
"Very well," she said, and reached out to touch his forehead.
It felt like liquid fire raced through him from where she made contact. He screamed as his bones snapped and broke and his insides rearranged themselves. It seemed to last years but it was probably only a couple minutes before he came back to himself, panting raggedly.
He stared down at his hands - paws, now, with shaggy brown hair and razor sharp claws - and shifted his jaw to get used to the extra teeth. He stood, now towering over the fae queen.
"The price you pay is this," she said, "in this form you must stay until someone sees the truth of you. Until someone looks at you and sees a protector instead of a beast and loves you for who you are. Once that occurs your debt will be paid."
Andrew nodded his large shaggy head with difficulty, knowing that he was stuck in this form for good. He didn't care. Saving Aaron was worth it.
The prince's death was met with universal jubilation - although celebrations were muted so as not to be unseemly. The only person who mourned his death was his mother, an Enchantress of some power, who stormed into the castle.
She gathered the servants in the foyer and stood on the grand stairwell to pass judgment upon them.
"You will all be punished," she said severely.
"We didn't do anything!" someone argued.
"Exactly," replied the Enchantress. "You did nothing as a beast murdered my son. You stood around like furniture." The gleam in her eyes turned wicked as she raised her arm. "And that's what you all shall be. As long as that beast exists you will stay here and be what you are: stupid, useless, furniture."
She brought her arm down sharply and the servants all screamed in pain as her spell caused them to transform. Before she left she cast other spells: spells to obscure the castle and keep it secluded, spells to unstick it from the normal passage of time, spells to preserve it in its current state.
She was unaware of the price that Andrew had to pay and that she had unwittingly tied her curse into his. Nobody but Andrew knew that the spell could be broken. If they had they wouldn't have had hope, anyway.
For who could ever see him as anything except a beast?
Some years later
Neil woke in the dark as he usually did. He had trained himself to rise in the wee hours of the morning. The sourdough loaves that had been left to rise overnight had to be baked and they needed to prepare the baguettes and various rolls and other pastries for the morning rush. If Neil didn't wake at the proper time then they'd miss out on business and have to face disappointed villagers. Kevin, notoriously bad at mornings, wouldn't get up on time and he'd be insufferable and grumpy throughout the entire day. Sleeping in wasn't something Neil could afford to do.
He got up, stretched and dressed quickly in the darkness. Entering Kevin's room, he grabbed his ankle, and yanked him out of his warm bedding and onto the floor with a thump. Ignoring his brother's unhappy grumbling he went down into the bakery to light the gas ovens. He took their old, dented kettle and a bucket out to the pump in the back and filled both with cool, clear water. The kettle he placed on the hob to boil and the bucket he carried up to their small living space where he looked in on Kevin again.
He was still lying on the floor. "You have three minutes or I'll dump the wash water on you," Neil warned, filling the wash basin in Kevin's room.
Returning to his room he filled his own wash basin and performed his morning ablutions. He dumped the dirty water out the window, took the empty bucket, and returned to the bakery which had warmed up in his absence. He measured out the tea leaves (Kevin always insisted on English breakfast tea, despite the fact that as an Irishman he hated the English on principle, often decrying Neil's own heritage) and poured the boiling water over them.
Kevin stumbled into the room, blinking sleepily, just as the tea was finished steeping. He filled a metal mug with tea and gulped it down.
"You're going to scald your throat," chided Neil, sipping his tea like a proper Englishman.
Kevin just grunted and refilled his mug. "I want to make currant buns today. How are our stores doing?"
"So-so," said Neil. "We're running low on a couple things. We'll have to send Maurice to market again soon."
"That boy is unreliable," sniffed Kevin. "There's always items missing from our orders."
"Unless you want to go yourself you'll have to keep putting up with him," said Neil. He moved to start preparing last night's loaves for the ovens. "There's no one else in the village to hire."
Kevin grimaced but didn't argue.
They quietly set about their morning tasks; Kevin preparing the buns and fancier pastries while Neil took care of the baguettes. Neil let the familiar rhythm of kneading the dough calm him. It had been Kayleigh, Kevin's mother, who had taught him to make bread.
"You are so restless, a leanbh," she had said in her lilting Irish accent. "Come and put that energy to use."
When Neil had been a small child his mother, Mary, became fed up with his father's cruelty. She had taken Neil and left England for the continent, leaving everything they had ever known behind. They had lived for a time in Germany before settling in France where they had met Kayleigh and Kevin.
Kayleigh had left her small Irish town when she found herself pregnant and unwed. Knowing that her child would face a lifetime of prejudice she moved to Paris where she passed herself off as a young widow.
When Mary had met her she'd been enchanted and they'd fallen in love. Mary was still legally married so they couldn't wed and living together while unmarried was frowned upon. They hid their relationship so that no one would question when the two 'widows' decided to move in together to create a home for their sons. They had complemented each other well: both of them had a iron core of determination and resilience but Mary's fierceness was tempered by Kayleigh's sweetness. The boys had adored both of them and had been devastated when illness had crept into their happy home on shadowed feet and taken both Mary and Kayleigh away with it.
Kevin's grief had fueled his passion and he'd been accepted into Paris' premier academy for the culinary arts. An accident in the kitchen had left him with a shattered hand and shattered dreams. Neil was not sure what would have become of them but for the correspondence of their old school friend, Jean Moreau. He wrote them often. In one of his letters he wrote that he had returned to the village of his mother, near the German border, and that the town's baker had recently died, leaving the village without a bakery. Jean knew that Kevin and Neil excelled at baking and were currently without work. He implored his dear friends to come and save him from eating the subpar baked goods that his housekeeper provided.
Kevin sneered at the prospect of living in a tiny village as a common baker selling the same old bread and rolls everyday when he had once been on his way to being a respected pastry chef, but Neil prevailed on him to accept Jean's request. It had been three years since they'd come to this poor provincial town and they'd made a life here. Maybe it wasn't the most exciting but Neil was proud of what they had accomplished and happy with their success.
"Marie, the baguettes are ready!" Kevin called to the young woman who operated their shop for them in the mornings when they were busy baking.
"Monsieur Neil," said Marie hesitantly when she came back into the kitchen, "Monsieur Moriyama is out front. I told him you were occupied but he is insisting on speaking with you."
The only dark spot in their lives was Riko Moriyama. He'd arrived in town several months earlier, and had quickly become obsessed with Neil. He was now demanding Neil's hand in marriage. Though Neil declined his request (loudly and often) he had not yet given up his pursuit.
Kevin's face twisted in anger. "Marie, the baguettes! Hurry up!" he said sharply.
"It's alright, Marie," said Neil quietly. "I'll speak with him."
"Why can't he leave you alone?" complained Kevin.
"Because he thinks he's important and he's never heard the word 'no' before," replied Neil, removing his apron and hanging it on its hook. He walked into the front of their bakery to find Riko waiting for him, looking triumphant.
"I'm busy, Riko," said Neil.
"And yet you came when I called like a good, obedient wife," sneered Riko.
"Only to tell you to get the hell out of my shop."
"I'll teach you manners once we're married."
"Which will be never," said Neil. "Get out."
"You know, back in London I knew a man called Nathan Wesninski," said Riko conversationally. Neil's heart stopped. "You look like him."
"I don't know what you're talking about," lied Neil.
"I think you do," replied Riko. "If you continue to deny me what I want maybe I'll write him a letter about my fascinating fiance."
"Oh, are you engaged?" asked Neil. "I'm surprised; I can't imagine anyone agreeing to marry you."
Riko's face flushed in anger. "I will have you," he said. "I knew from the moment I saw you that you belonged to me."
"And I knew from the moment you first spoke to me that you're delusional. Get out of here before I get a fire poker and make you leave."
"Do it," said Riko with a sneer. "I dare you. I'll teach you not to raise a hand against me."
"I'm not afraid of you."
"You'll learn," said Riko, turning to leave. "I'll stop at nothing to have you. Remember that."
Neil breathed in shakily and returned to the kitchen.
Kevin was hovering by the door. "What if he writes to your father?"
"He won't," said Neil, with a confidence he didn't feel. "It was an empty threat."
"He's getting worse. What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," said Neil helplessly.
"I said I don't know, Kevin," snapped Neil.
Jean came by in the afternoon to dine with them.
"I hear you have refused Riko again," he said to Neil.
Neil sighed. "Does it count as a refusal if he didn't actually ask me anything?"
"You have to be careful," warned Jean. "Everyone here thinks he is gracious and charming. In public opinion you are being cruel and unjust to refuse his suit."
"What would you have me do?" asked Neil. "Marry him?"
"Of course not," sniffed Jean. "But you'll have to do something. I heard him conspiring with Maurice to interfere with your market shipments. He's planning on hurting your business, hoping to make you desperate enough to turn to him for help."
"What are we going to do?" asked Kevin.
"I suppose murder's off the table?" Neil double-checked.
Kevin looked at him askance, but Jean just shrugged. "Unfortunately, yes," he said.
"Then maybe I should leave," suggested Neil.
"What? No!" exclaimed Kevin. "You can't leave me!"
"Not permanently," said Neil. "If I'm away for a couple months then he'll have no reason to go after the bakery and maybe he'll give up if I'm not in his direct sight."
"The idea has merit," said Jean thoughtfully.
"You can't leave me," repeated Kevin. "Who will wake me up in the mornings?"
"You know, as an adult, you could probably do that yourself," said Neil dryly. "Invest in an alarm clock; there's a clockmaker in the village."
"But I can't do everything alone!" protested Kevin.
"Yes you can," said Neil. "You'll have to make fewer things; you won't be able to make as many fancy pastries as you currently do. Marie can help with keeping track of the inventory and Jean can help with the accounts. It'll only be for a couple months while I try to come up with a more permanent solution."
"That doesn't sound like murder's off the table," muttered Kevin.
"Where will you go?" asked Jean.
"There's a small German town on the other side of the western forest," said Neil. "They have a fair-sized market that I've visited a couple times. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to find temporary employment there. Plus I can bring back some of their rye flour and we can make pumpernickel."
Kevin nodded. "That's good. If Riko does find out where you've gone he won't want to follow because he doesn't speak the language."
"Those woods are cursed," said Jean. "I wouldn't go into them if I were you."
"I've been through there before," said Neil with an eyeroll.
"I'm just saying that odd things happen in that forest: people disappearing and then reappearing years later without knowing that time has passed, people's remains showing up in odd places, distant howls and snarling."
Kevin went pale.
"Stop scaring Kevin," Neil scolded. "I'd much rather face whatever's in that supposedly-haunted forest than remain here with Riko."
Once he had a plan Neil set about implementing it as quickly as possible. The next morning, once his baguettes were in the ovens, he made his rounds to the nearby shops. While buying supplies for his trip, he also let all his neighbours know that he'd been called out of town on urgent business and asked them to keep an eye on Kevin for him.
His last stop was at the butcher. The butcher's daughter, Thea, was a stout, generously-muscled woman. She and Kevin had been circling each other for the past few years.
"You'll have to look after Kevin while I'm gone," he wheedled her. "You know that he needs a competent person overseeing him."
"And you'd class yourself as competent?" she asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Certainly not," he replied. "Kevin and I put together make one semi-functional human being. He's going to be lost without me."
"In all honesty, he does need someone to remind him when mealtimes are," he continued.
"Fine," she said. "I'll make sure he doesn't starve."
Neil was hoping that setting them up to share meals might move their relationship forward.
Kevin was unhappy about Neil's imminent departure and had been in a strop all day. He was showing his worry and care for Neil by being rude and condescending, which Neil actually appreciated. He was much less likely to miss his brother with Kevin acting that way.
He saddled up their old half-blind horse, Philippe, and turned to Kevin.
"Try not to worry; I'll be back before you know it."
"Be safe," replied Kevin. "I'll never forgive you if something happens to you."
Neil hugged him and mounted, directing his horse toward the forest. He didn't leave town by the main road not wanting anyone to see which way he was headed. A couple hours later that proved to have been a stupid choice as his path still hadn't connected the the main road like he had been expecting. It had grown darker earlier than it should have and the trees were crowding close, like they were reaching out for him. A wolf's howl echoed in the distance and he felt like he was being watched.
"God damned Jean Moreau and his cursed forest," he muttered. "He's going to be all smug if I live to tell him about this."
He noticed an offshoot of the path he was on, leading in the direction that he thought the road lay. It was a short path that led him into the courtyard of a giant, foreboding, dilapidated castle.
"Oh, a spooky abandoned castle appearing from nowhere, that's not worrying at all," he said, stroking Philippe's neck. "Kevin can never, ever know about this." He shivered; the late-autumn day had grown cool as it grew dark. He could smell a frost on the air.
Before he could spur his horse away from the unnerving environs a loud snap echoed nearby, followed by a blood-curdling howl. His horse reared in fright, throwing him off and galloping away in a panic.
Neil had the air knocked out of him. He lay on the ground, dazedly staring up at the stars despite the fact that he had not been travelling long enough for the sun to have set. He wondered if he was about to be eaten by whatever creature had emitted that howl, which seemed like an ignoble end. He could hear nothing moving in the darkness, not even the sound of his horse fleeing farther away.
He sat up and gathered his cloak around him, taking in his surroundings. There were two options as far as he could tell: either he stayed here where he'd probably be mauled or freeze to death or he sought shelter in the ominous and clearly haunted castle. Neither particularly appealed to him but likely death trumped certain death so he gingerly pulled himself to his feet.
He grimaced in pain: he had injured one of his ankles in the fall. It was unlikely that he'd be able to make the trek back to his village even if he managed to survive the night. He limped his way across the courtyard and up to the large, ornate, wooden doors of the castle. He knocked with the side of his fist, pounding as hard as possible. The door opened with a loud creak, swinging inwards to reveal a lavish marble foyer with intricate and expensive-looking decorations. He'd expected everything to be coated in a thick layer of dust and cobwebs, befitting the castle's general air of neglect, but the room appeared to have been cleaned recently.
"Hello?" he called. He didn't particularly want to broadcast his location into the dark and echoing rooms but sneaking in without announcing his presence seemed like a good way to be mistaken for an intruder. "I need shelter."
If he were in one of Kayleigh's stories then now would be the time that malicious spirits showed up and claimed his soul because he'd forgotten to wipe his boots, or ask for hospitality, or thank them, or something equally ridiculous. Instead nothing happened. He could hear faint shifting in the distance that didn't quite sound like human movement. He felt as if he were standing in a spotlight with an auditorium full of eyes on him.
A shiver went down his spine as he took another step farther into the room.
"Death awaits those who enter here uninvited," a deep voice echoed from somewhere above him. Neil estimated the speaker was on the staircase, watching him from the darkness. They spoke in German, their words low and rough with an animalistic quality.
"My horse threw me off in your courtyard," said Neil, forcibly keeping calm. "I request shelter for the night before I try to find my way back."
"You are injured."
"Alright, maybe I need to stay for more than one night."
"You expect hospitality in exchange for nothing?" inquired the voice, moving closer. Neil couldn't hear any footfalls.
"I have naught but the clothes on my back," he said. "I can offer goods and payment but only on credit. If you don't take me in then I'll be a corpse for you to bury in your front yard."
"The wolves would take care of it."
"I am not charming." There was a pause. "How did you come to find my home?"
"I got lost in the woods."
"And what brought you into the woods?"
Neil's mind spun with excuses and stories but he felt that the truth would serve him best here. "I was travelling from my home to escape the unwanted advances of a suitor. He is determined to have me and I feared for my livelihood and the well-being of my brother; the man is a monster."
"You have fled one monster only to stumble into the home of another," said the voice as its owner stepped into the moonlight that flooded in through the front windows. He was a beast the size of a bear and covered in a dark, brown fur. He had the horns and ears of a buffalo, the mane of a lion, and the tusks of a boar, but for all that his eyes were very human. Neil couldn't help the small gasp of startlement that escaped him but quickly collected his wits and nodded in greeting to his host.
The beast's head cocked in confusion. "Aren't you frightened?"
"You are certainly very fearsome to look at," Neil admitted. "But every monster that I have ever met before has had pleasing features and fine manners to outsiders. You haven't yet done anything to show your nature one way or the other."
"I threatened your life."
"I'm a stranger in your home," said Neil. "And there is a large difference between threats and actions."
"I could kill you easily."
"You could," allowed Neil, his heart beating wildly in his throat. "Are you going to?"
The beast watched Neil intently for long enough that Neil had to stop himself from fidgeting. The intelligent eyes were unnerving in the grotesque visage. "You may stay until you are healed," the beast finally said. "If you harm anyone living here you will suffer the consequences." He turned to leave.
"Wait!" said Neil. "What's your name?"
The beast looked back over his shoulder, his eyes unfocused and faraway. "Andrew," he said. "My name is Andrew." Then he shook his head as if shedding snow. "Try to make yourself useful as you take advantage of my hospitality," he growled, and disappeared up the stairs.
Neil wasn't quite sure what he should do then but he could hear a rhythmic clunking noise approaching. Light bounced off the floor, indicating that someone was carrying a candle towards him.
"Aaron, did you hear?" said a breathless and excited male voice, also speaking German. "He said he could stay! Aaron, there's a guest!"
"I hope they leave soon," drawled a second male voice, just as the thunking noise reached the foyer and a lit candelabra and a table clock hopped into the room.
Neil blinked in surprise and took a step backwards. "You're not humans," he said stupidly.
"Oh, well spotted," said the table clock. It had one of the most judgmental expressions on its (his? The candelabra had called him Aaron) face that Neil had ever seen despite knowing Kevin.
"Well technically we are humans," said the candelabra, "we were just cursed into our current forms."
Neil looked around cautiously. "Is all the furniture actually cursed humans?"
The candelabra laughed. "No, there's only nine of us; we used to be the servants of the prince who lived here." He made a troubled expression and then brightened. "There's me - I'm Nicky, by the way - and this is Aaron. Katelyn's a feather duster; she's around here somewhere. Matt and Dan were in the kitchen last I checked - he's a footstool and she's a teapot. Allison the wardrobe, Renee the coat-rack, and my husband Erik, who is a credenza, are all up in the bedrooms. They have trouble with the stairs." Again he drooped in sadness before lighting up again. "And you've already met Andrew. That's all of us."
Neil made a mental note to be careful around any of the aforementioned furniture.
"...And you are?" prompted Nicky.
"Sorry," Neil sputtered. "I'm Neil. What happened to you?"
"None of your business," snapped Aaron.
"Oh, it's a long story and you look like you need to rest," said Nicky, more diplomatically. "Why don't I show you up to where you'll be staying? In fact, if you could pick me up and carry me there that would make things a lot easier for me."
"You want me to just… hold you by the… leg?" asked Neil hesitantly. He wasn't quite sure of the proper terms for the anatomy of an enchanted candelabra.
"Yes," said Nicky enthusiastically. "Hopping everywhere gets tiring. Or it would if I weren't a cursed object." He waved his... arms? "Anyway: up, up, up!"
Neil gingerly picked him up. Aaron snorted. "No, thanks," he said, and hopped out of the room.
Nicky watched him go with a sad expression. "I'm not sure that being cursed to be a clock for years and years has helped with his personality."
"How long have you been like this?" asked Neil, limping up the stairs at Nicky's direction.
"It's hard to say," said Nicky. "Time doesn't pass normally here. It feels like it's been ages."
Nicky continued to chatter ceaselessly for their entire trip up the stairs. Neil didn't begrudge him; the castle had clearly been isolated for a long time. He told Neil a little about the castle's inhabitants and made plans for what they would do for the rest of Neil's stay there.
"We'll have to wait for a full tour until you're walking better," Nicky prattled on. "The door on your left is Allison's room; I won't put you in there."
"Thank you," said Neil, not wanting to worry about an enchanted wardrobe watching his every move.
"Take the next room on your right, it should still have good bedding. You can use my head to light the actual candles."
Neil did as instructed, feeling a little strange as he did so. He put Nicky down and turned back the bedding; the sheets were a little dusty and smelled of age, but seemed soft and warm.
"Well, okay," said Nicky, swinging his arms and seeming reluctant to leave. "I'll let you rest, then." He hopped over to the door and turned to look back at Neil. "I'm really glad you're here," he said.
Neil couldn't agree with the sentiment but he smiled at Nicky anyway. "It's nice to meet you."
Once alone Neil undressed for bed and critically examined his ankle. The sharp pain had faded into a dull throb but it was swollen and discoloured. It would be a couple days before he could walk without pain and longer than that before he could walk the distance back to his village.
He settled back into the pillows and left one of the candles burning; he didn't want to be surrounded by shadows in a strange place. His mind shied away from thinking about his situation, still unable to completely grasp the fact that curses and magic were real. He assumed that he'd have difficulty falling asleep but the day's excitement had tired him out and it wasn't long before his drifted into dreamless slumber.
As usual Neil's internal clock woke him before sunrise. The candle he had left burning was on the verge of sputtering out so he lit another candle on the dying flame. He contemplated trying to go back to sleep but there was an itch under his skin compelling him to get up and get moving. He got up, redressed himself in his clothes from the day before, and retraced his steps back into the large foyer. From there he set about trying to find the kitchen.
The rooms he walked through had all once been opulent and lavish but had fallen into disrepair. He tried to keep his footfalls quiet, despite his persistent limp, and kept his eyes peeled for any furniture that might be alive.
He eventually came across a large dining room which he knew must have a connection to the kitchen for the servants. Sure enough he found a short passageway that led to the back of the castle and opened into the food preparation area. Attached to the kitchen were a larder and a scullery; past the scullery he could see a water pump outside. He took a quick inventory of the larder. It was surprisingly well-stocked with dry goods and preserves. He'd been worried that there wouldn't be any food in a castle inhabited by usually-inanimate objects but it was remarkably well preserved, possibly affected by whatever magic was at work here. The root vegetables were mould-free and there weren't any weevils in the flour. In his cursory check he didn't find any baker's yeast; however, there were other leavening agents. Since he was going to be stuck here for a time he could prepare his own sourdough starter and eat quick-bread until it was ready.
Neil inspected the wood-burning ovens and found them in good working order and full of firewood. He lit one of them before finding a kettle and a pitcher (both of which he poked carefully before picking up; Nicky had mentioned that someone was a teapot and Neil didn't want to make a mistake) to take out to fill at the pump, washing his face and hands while he was at it. The water ran rusty brown at first but cleared up before long.
He made the starter first and put it aside. As he was mixing the batter for his raisin quick-bread he heard approaching sounds. Before long Nicky entered the kitchen. He was accompanied by a teapot. The two of them were riding on the back of a footstool that could move its legs independently and walk like a dog.
"There you are," said Nicky in obvious relief. "I thought you might have run away during the night."
"No," said Neil. "I was just making myself breakfast since I assumed that you didn't eat."
"Do you know what I miss?" said the footstool - Matt, Neil recalled. And the teapot was Dan. "Food."
"Opposable thumbs," added Nicky.
"Legs," supplied Dan.
"Sex," said Nicky. "Kissing. Physical intimacy in general."
"Not being furniture," said Matt sadly.
The three of them all sighed deeply, then Dan turned to Neil. "Hi, you must be Neil. Matt and I thought that Nicky had finally gone around the bend but you're real!"
"I'm real," confirmed Neil, although this entire experience was making him doubt that.
"And making breakfast!" said Matt enthusiastically. "It's nice to see the kitchen getting some use again."
"Andrew's the only one of us who eats and he goes hunting in the forest," said Nicky. "It's not like he can cook anything with those bear paws."
"I could make him food while I'm here," offered Neil. "Since I'll be cooking for myself anyway I should at least offer."
The three others shifted somewhat uncomfortably.
"We'll get Renee to ask him," said Dan finally.
"She's the only one he speaks to anymore," said Nicky.
"I'm personally surprised that he didn't chase Neil out of here," said Matt.
"He did say to try to make myself useful," said Neil, transferring his quick-bread into the oven. He looked around for somewhere to sit, wanting to rest his ankle.
"Oh," said Matt, rushing forward as Neil found a stool. "Here, put your foot up. You should be resting your injury!"
Neil stared at the footstool. "I'm not going to put my feet on you," he said.
"You're our guest," argued Nicky. "Let us serve you. It's been years since anyone's been here."
"I'm less of a guest and more of an unwanted intruder."
"I know Andrew didn't make you feel very welcome but the rest of us are thrilled you're here," said Dan.
"Not Aaron," replied Neil.
"Well, yes," said Nicky. "Sometimes the fact that he's Andrew's twin are more apparent than others."
"They're twins?" asked Neil, his head spinning trying to imagine the giant beast and the small table clock being related in any way. "I thought Andrew owned this castle and that's why he's… you know…"
"A giant, hairy monster?" supplied Matt.
"While the rest of you are furniture," Neil concluded.
"No, we were all servants of the prince who lived here," said Dan in a dark tone. "We were cursed when he died. Andrew's affliction is… separate."
"Seriously, though, Neil we're so happy you're staying with us," said Matt. "Most days we just sit around the castle with nothing to do. Allison's already raising a fuss upstairs, demanding that you come visit her."
"I'm really not that interesting," protested Neil.
"You literally could be the most boring man on the planet and it wouldn't matter to us," said Dan.
"You're new!" added Nicky. "It's been forever since we met anybody new."
"And you seem pretty nice so far," said Matt. "All you've done is make bread and you haven't even tried to kill any of us."
"Did you expect me to?" asked Neil in surprise.
"We're possessed objects living in a castle with a beast. We all expected villagers with torches and pitchforks to show up if anyone ever found out about us," said Nicky.
Neil got up to check his bread and carefully transfer it out of the oven. "I'm not going to tell anybody about you if you don't want me to," he said. "Besides I found this place by mistake, I'm not sure if I can find it again once I leave." He quickly ate his breakfast, burning the inside of his mouth on the piping hot bread. He washed it down with well water, then banked the fire in the oven. "Alright," he said, wiping his hands on a dishrag. "Time to meet Allison?"
Meeting Allison turned into an all-day event. As a wardrobe she was wide and tall and deep and consequently couldn't fit through the door to leave her suite of rooms. It was a nice suite - wide and open and bright - but any room was a prison if you were unable to leave it. Nicky's husband Erik, a credenza, couldn't managed the stairs on his spindly legs but he at least could visit different rooms on this floor of the castle. He was currently in Allison's room, evidently waiting for the visit from the stranger. Renee (a coat-rack) was also present, as were Aaron and Katelyn. Despite the fact that Katelyn was a feather duster and therefore didn't have arms she was giving off the distinct impression that she was dragging Aaron along behind her.
Allison's first priority seemed to be getting Neil properly clothed. She threw out about four complete outfits from her… body? (there was no way of thinking about everyone's current anatomy without feeling creepy. No one else seemed to find it strange that Allison had clothing hanging inside of her so Neil tried not to either) so that Neil would have more than just the clothes on his back. Then she launched into a detailed story about her life pre-curse as a successful dressmaker and clothier.
Everyone else chimed in with their own stories and then asked Neil to tell them about the outside world. He tried to make stories of the everyday mundanity that he had lived for the past few years sound interesting but he needn't have bothered. They hung on his every word greedily, listening raptly to everything he said. He was beginning to understand how isolated they had been since they'd been cursed.
Neil kept talking until his stomach rumbled, reminding him that he had to eat. He promised Allison that he would return and headed down to the kitchen.
His mother had been born into a titled family - his American father had married her for her name; she married him for his money - and had never been taught to cook for herself. During their years in Germany they had muddled through with the help of well-meaning busybody-type women. Once they moved to France, Kayleigh took care of cooking and teaching Neil and Kevin how to feed themselves. Although her repertoire had expanded while she was living in France she had started life in a small town in Ireland; therefore, Neil knew six different ways to make colcannon and about a dozen variations of potato soup, which was helpful given how many cabbages and potatoes were in the larder. It didn't take him long to cook dinner, even with Nicky, Matt, and Dan's presence and constant questions. As he was pulling the finished dish from the oven a hush fell over his three onlookers. He looked up in confusion. He hadn't heard any approaching footsteps but a shadow of a large, hairy creature fell on the floor near the entrance to the kitchen.
"Here for dinner?" he asked, keeping his voice carefully neutral. He was intensely curious about Andrew's curse, even more than he was about the others'.
"I do not need food made in a clear attempt to endear yourself to me," sneered Andrew. "It won't work."
"Suit yourself," said Neil, nonchalantly, dishing himself up a serving.
Andrew shifted slightly closer, almost visible now. "...What did you make?" He sounded annoyed, as if he couldn't keep himself from asking though he wanted to.
"Colcannon," said Neil. "Irish peasant food," he clarified once only heavy silence met his words.
"Are you an Irish peasant?"
"No, but I was taught to cook by one."
Andrew took another couple steps closer. "It's warm?" he asked, the longing in his voice badly masked.
Neil suppressed a smile and scooped a second, larger serving into a wide, shallow bowl. He glanced around, wondering where his audience had gone. They seemed to have faded into the woodwork as soon as Andrew arrived. He placed the bowl on the edge of the counter closest to the door and backed away, pulling up a stool so he could enjoy his own dinner. He didn't turn to look as Andrew took several hesitant steps forward and took up the dish before retreating to the doorway.
Andrew sniffed the food suspiciously before ravenously taking several mouthfuls of food. He paused, looked up at Neil who was still studiously ignoring him. He started eating again at a much slower pace.
Once he finished he placed the bowl back on the counter with a bang. "Acceptable," he said.
"Do you want more?" asked Neil.
There was no answer and when he looked up the shadow was gone.
The next few days passed in a similar manner. Neil continued feeding his sourdough starter and spending the majority of his days trying to entertain incredibly bored cursed people. He only ever saw Andrew for a brief period at dinnertime - he had been making a lot of good old-fashioned stick-to-your-ribs hearty meals - and had managed to coax him into speaking a few words once or twice.
On the fifth day the starter was ready to use. He lost himself while kneading the dough, allowing himself to blank his mind and relax. Once the dough was left to rise he looked around in consideration.
"Nicky," he said. "I believe you promised me a tour?" His ankle was feeling quite a bit better.
Nicky, Dan, and Matt showed him through the main floor, seeming both proud of their home and ashamed at its state of disrepair. Neil wondered whether their obvious attachment to the castle had begun pre- or post-curse. He'd heard enough from their stories to know that they had not liked or respected the prince who had once owned this castle and that they'd rejoiced at his death.
The ballroom was grand and impressive, if a little ostentatious in Neil's opinion, but it was the library that made his breath catch. Shelf upon shelf of books, stretching high above him. He saw that most were written in German, although he also saw several in French and at least a couple in English. Books were hard to come by in his quiet village - they were hardly a necessity to the mostly-illiterate peasants.
He ran his hand along the spines of the books and selected one to crack open.
"You can read?" said Nicky in awe.
Neil looked up in surprise, having forgotten that he wasn't alone. "Yes," he said, not wanting to elaborate about his wealthy childhood.
"You can read to us?" said Matt, barely keeping a lid on his excitement.
"Oh," said Neil. It dawned on him that of course no one could read in their current forms even if they were literate. "Yes, of course." His German literacy was a little rusty, but he could manage. It would save him having to come up with anymore stories of his own to tell them. "What do you want to hear?"
"What is there?" asked Nicky.
Neil started reading off titles and it turned out that the answer to Nicky's question was: everything. There was quite a lot of non-fiction: dry reports of agricultural production and details of new technologies but also books of history and geography and science. In the fiction section there were fairy tales and children's stories and mysteries and romances. It took some time but, with quite a few arguments that Neil had to mediate, five books were ultimately chosen.
"I have to finish my bread and get started on dinner," said Neil, "but gather everyone and let them know that I'll be reading a book once I'm finished."
Matt sprinted out the door in an excited clatter, his wooden legs noisy on the hardwood and tile flooring.
Neil smiled, shook his head, and returned to the kitchen. By the time he made it back to Allison's room the excitement had spread to all the other castle residents. A large armchair had been dragged into place for him (which must have taken some serious teamwork). Renee had a blanket in her hook hands waiting to drape over him and Dan had poured him a cup of tea that she'd brewed (which, again, Neil found incredibly strange). It was as if they wanted him to be as comfortable as possible so that he might agree to read to them again.
He sat down and picked up the top book on the pile - it contained several traditional fairy tales - and began to read. He knew his reading wasn't impressive - it was quite slow, for one, as he refamiliarized himself with written German - and he wasn't particularly expressive, but nobody seemed to notice. They all listened in rapt silence.
Not long after he started reading the silence turned a little heavy. Neil paused, about to ask what was wrong, when he noticed the semi-familiar presence just outside the room. He picked up the story without further ado.
If Andrew wanted to listen to him read, he was welcome to.
Neil swore loudly and vehemently in all the languages he knew. The pot of vegetable stock he was making had boiled over and he'd unthinkingly reached for it, achieving nothing except scalding his hand. He used a dish towel to move the pot off the heat, explicitly telling it exactly what he thought of it.
"I do not speak French," said Andrew, emerging from nowhere, "but that does not sound polite."
"French was practically made for swearing," said Neil, submerging his burnt hand into the cool water he had reserved for washing up. "It flows much better than in English or German."
Andrew looked at Neil's hand. "You shouldn't touch hot dishes with your bare hands."
"Thank you for that advice," said Neil dryly. The pain made him forget exactly who he was speaking with and he carried on, "Hey, you could have probably grabbed that with your bear hands… get it? Bear, like grrrr?" He made a claw with his unscalded hand.
Andrew blinked at him twice but otherwise didn't react. He went to the stove and peered into the stock pot, wrinkling his nose. "What is this?"
"Vegetable stock," said Neil. "Don't worry, the onion peel and potato skins are going to be strained out." He sighed. "As well stocked as the larder is, I really wish there was beef or pork or small game. The bones would make the stock richer and with the meat I could make a stew."
Andrew ignored him and stepped back from his examination of the vegetable stock. "You are injured again."
"Technically, I'm injured still," said Neil. "My ankle isn't healed yet."
"Are you naturally a walking disaster or are you trying to extend your stay here?"
"This burn is nothing; I get them all the time working in a bakery. And I'll leave as soon as I can walk back to my village or you kick me out, whichever comes first."
Andrew hummed thoughtfully and then left the kitchen without another word. It had been their longest interaction so far and Andrew hadn't been angered by Neil's joke about his paws, so Neil counted it as a win.
He'd mostly forgotten mentioning his desire for meat until the next morning when he found a line of four freshly killed rabbits waiting for him on one of the prep tables in the kitchen.
"Do any of you know how to butcher rabbits?" he asked his companions.
"I do!" said Matt enthusiastically. "I worked as a butcher back when I had hands."
Matt eagerly talked Neil through skinning and cleaning the rabbits - luckily Neil did not get queasy easily - and Neil made a rich stew for dinner that night.
Andrew's only comment after eating it was, "Adequate," but Neil noticed that he had four servings. There were three pheasants waiting for him in the kitchen the next morning.
Neil didn't say anything to Andrew to indicate that he knew that Andrew was listening in when he read out loud to the others. He wasn't sure if Andrew thought he was being stealthy and thought that Neil wasn't aware of his presence until one day he found a pirate adventure book placed carefully next to the rabbits in the kitchen. Neil shook his head fondly and added it to the pile.
He was beginning to wonder about whether he should bring up leaving. His ankle was almost completely healed and since he had to walk home he would have to do it soon before winter set in. Already they'd had a couple light snowfalls.
He was kneading dough and thinking of his plans. He had just made up his mind to bring up his departure soon when he heard a commotion. Abandoning the dough he looked around the kitchen for an appropriate weapon. A knife would be his weapon of choice but he didn't like the slimy feeling inside of him or the voice inside his head that reminded him that he was just like his father when he held a knife as a weapon. He took up a cast iron pan instead and cautiously made his way upstairs.
"Away, demon!" shouted a voice in French. A very familiar voice. Followed by a low, warning growl.
"Kevin?" called Neil.
"Neil?!" shouted Kevin, just shy of panicking. "Neil, is that you?"
Neil hurried into the dining room to find Kevin fending Nicky (who was babbling in panicked German and holding his arms up in surrender) off with a fire poker that he'd taken from its place along the wall. Andrew was at the far doorway, advancing with his claws out and his teeth bared in a growl.
"Whoa," said Neil rushing between Andrew and Kevin. He held up a hand to Andrew and spoke soothingly, "Calm down. He's my brother."
"He's attacking Nicky."
"He's confused. Let me handle this," said Neil. "Please."
Andrew growled again. "I do not like that word. Don't use it."
"I won't again," promised Neil, then turned to Kevin. "Put down the fire poker," he said, switching to English. "Everything's going to be alright."
Kevin dropping the poker, gave a great, gasping sob, and pulled Neil into a crushing hug.
"Hey, Kevin," said Neil, patting Kevin on the back as well as he could with his arms pinned to his sides.
"You're alive," said Kevin. "I'm here to rescue you."
"Rescue me? From who?"
Kevin avoided looking at Andrew, but he shot a glare at Nicky who had hopped a little closer now that the situation had been defused.
"That's Nicky," said Neil. "He's a friend."
"It's a candelabra," said Kevin, giving Neil a strange look.
"How did you find me anyway?"
"Philippe returned without you but carrying all your belongings," said Kevin, sounding on the verge of hysteria. "Everyone thinks you're dead but I decided to come looking for you. Philippe brought me here."
"I'm fine, Kevin," assured Neil.
"We're in a haunted castle."
"There is a beast."
"That's just Andrew," said Neil. "Come knead some dough and calm down."
Kevin was docile as he followed Neil down into the kitchen, Andrew trailing after them watching Kevin suspiciously. Neil directed Kevin to the wash basin and then let him take out his recent fears on the dough. He seemed to be calming down until Andrew spoke.
"Why is he here?"
Kevin jumped in surprise. "What is that monster saying?" he asked, not understanding German.
"Don't be rude, Kevin," Neil admonished. He turned to Andrew, and spoke in German, "He came looking for me when our horse returned without me."
"What are you saying?" asked Kevin suspiciously.
"I'm telling him who you are and why you're here," Neil said.
"How is it that you speak German and your brother doesn't?" asked Andrew.
"Step-brother, actually," replied Neil. "I lived in Germany for a few years before I met him."
"Has he come to retrieve you?"
"You told me that I could stay until I was better," said Neil. "My ankle is healed."
Kevin tentatively started kneading again. "What are you talking about now?" He frowned as Neil gave a brief synopsis. "It's too bad, really. I think your original plan was working. Riko has indicated that he'll return to Paris since he thinks you're dead. If you could stay away until the spring you may be rid of him forever."
Andrew's face never changed expression, but he had less control over his ears. They swivelled forwards in interest. Neil quickly translated what Kevin had said.
"Riko is the one who is trying to force you to accept his hand in marriage?" asked Andrew.
"He doesn't understand the word 'no'," said Neil wryly. To Kevin, he replied, "I can't stay where I'm not welcome. I'll have to-"
"You can stay here," interrupted Andrew, looking surprised by his own words. "Until the spring. As long as you keep making food. And reading."
"Are you sure?" asked Neil, taken aback.
"The others would mutiny if I didn't offer," said Andrew before leaving the kitchen.
"What?" asked Kevin. "Why do you look as if you were just sucker punched?"
Once Andrew left, Nicky, Dan, and Matt showed up almost instantly, all clamouring to meet Kevin. Neil made introductions, translating for everyone. He explained that Andrew had told him that he could stay, to their great joy.
Kevin was clearly worried about leaving Neil in the castle, although he admitted that it was the best plan.
Dan insisted that Kevin not head back home until the following day and to get some rest, so after the dough was sufficiently kneaded Kevin and Neil headed out to take Philippe to the stables in order to remove his tack and brush him down for the night. Kevin spent the whole time badgering Neil about what he knew about the curse. He was disappointed that Neil didn't know very much and hadn't interrogated anyone to learn more.
"Learn some manners," hissed Neil, checking around even though he knew they were alone and that no one in the castle could understand either French or English. He and Kevin always spoke a mixture of the two when speaking with each other. "They're letting me stay here; don't give them a reason to throw me out."
"I'm just saying that you should learn all you can about what happened here. What if you're a bellows or something by the spring?"
"Out of the two of us, you're far more likely to become something that blows hot air," said Neil.
Kevin huffed. "I don't know why I was upset when I thought you were dead," he said.
"It's because I'm your favourite brother."
"Once upon a time," said Kevin wistfully, "I was an only child."
Neil punched his shoulder and then led Kevin back to the castle where Dan, Matt, and Nicky were all waiting eagerly to show Kevin around. Katelyn was also present, apparently not having been successful at convincing Aaron to accompany her. The afternoon was spent in a flurry of languages for Neil, facilitating communication. It was probably better that way, he thought, as he neglected to pass on many of Kevin's less tactful comments.
As opposed to eating in the kitchen like he usually did, Neil set the dining room table. His mother, due to her upbringing, had been very insistent that meals were to be taken at a proper dining table (and that only servants ate in the kitchen). She had passed her snobbery on to Kevin and, although their breakfasts had to be eaten quickly in the bakery kitchen as they prepared their morning fare, he always made Neil take their other meals at the small table in their apartment.
"Why are you doing this?" asked Kevin.
"Doing what?" replied Neil.
"Serving," said Kevin. "Aren't all the possessed items servants?"
"None of them have hands, Kevin. How, exactly, are you expecting them to make food and set the table?"
Kevin shrugged. "Magic?" he suggested.
"I don't think magic works like that," said Neil. "But if you really want them to serve us during the meal we can ask them for entertainment. Maybe Nicky can sing us a song."
"No," said Kevin with a shudder.
Andrew entered the dining room and his ears betrayed his confusion. Neil wasn't sure if he was wondering why Kevin was still there, or why they were eating in the dining room, or what he and Neil were discussing, so he decided to explain all three.
Andrew just silently looked at the silverware that had been set next to his place setting and then back at Neil.
Neil shrugged sheepishly. "It's only stew and bread; you can pour it down your gullet if you want," he said. Andrew's glare intensified, but Neil continued blithely, "But I warn you that Kevin is going to be really judgmental if you do."
"That was my name," said Kevin. "What are you saying about me?"
"Stop being so paranoid," replied Neil. "I said that you made the bread."
"Alright," said Kevin, mollified.
Andrew took his seat and gingerly held his soup spoon in his massive paw. "Your brother seems more trouble than he's worth," he said.
"Are you talking to me or to Kevin?" asked Neil.
"If I were speaking to him I would not have said, 'seems'; I would have said, 'is'."
Kevin was watching Neil expectantly. "He says your worth is obvious," Neil told him, which made him preen a little.
Andrew glanced between them. "You are lying to him."
"He needs to be managed a little."
"And who does this in your absence?"
"A terrifying woman with more impressive muscles than yours," said Neil, before he switched to English, "Andrew is asking whether you've any marriage prospects."
Kevin blushed deeply. "Tell him to mind his own business."
"Things are going well with Thea, then?"
"You mind your own business, too."
Neil shook his head fondly. "He's in denial," he told Andrew. "He doesn't believe that anyone could possibly have feelings for him."
"Must run in the family," muttered Andrew.
"What?" asked Neil, confused.
"Ask him how he became a beast," interjected Kevin.
"Take your own advice," said Neil sharply, forgetting Andrew's comment. Andrew's ears flipped backwards at his tone. "He threatened to cut me out of our business when he weds," invented Neil.
"He did not," replied Andrew. "Do not involve me in whatever game you are playing."
"What gave it away?"
"You look far too smug." Andrew paused. "Do not lie to me."
Neil sighed. "He's asking nosy questions about your curse."
"Aren't you also curious?"
"Of course I am," said Neil. "But if you wanted me to know you would tell me."
"What's wrong?" asked Kevin. "What did you say to him?" Then, in a more hushed tone, "...Is he going to eat us?"
"Don't be ridiculous," said Neil. "He won't hurt us."
"He was definitely going to hurt me earlier."
"He thought you were going to injure Nicky," said Neil. "He's not a danger unless we give him a reason to be."
As soon as Neil spoke the words out loud he realized that he'd believed them for awhile. Andrew had only threatened him when he thought that Neil may be a threat to his home and its occupants. He had let Neil stay when he'd learned that he was injured and running from Riko. Since then he had expressed concern - albeit his very own brand of concern where he pretended at aloofness and indifference - about Neil's welfare on several occasions.
He hadn't quite realized it before but somewhere along the way he had started trusting Andrew.
Kevin left early the next day. He hugged Neil tightly before he left, making Neil promise that he wouldn't be a broom when he returned for him in the spring. In return Neil made Kevin promise that he wouldn't tell anyone that Neil was alive - in case it somehow got back to Riko - and that he wouldn't come back until the paths were clear and the snow had melted.
Now that Neil knew that he was going to be staying in the castle until spring, he decided to inventory his supplies. The larder would last well into the summer at the rate he currently used it, especially with Andrew bringing him game. Matt had been making noise recently about Neil asking Andrew if he could bring back a deer - he could then talk Neil through butchering and salting and curing the venison.
The water pump was close enough to the kitchen that Neil wasn't worried about losing access and, if it froze, he could melt snow.
The only thing that he was worried about running low was firewood. He'd have to have enough to keep the oven lit as well as the fireplaces in both the room where he slept and Allison's room. If the situation became dire he could probably burn some of the furniture, but that seemed cruel to do in front of the castle's other occupants. He decided to keep that as a last resort and to spend the next week or so building up the woodpile.
He'd seen an old cart in the stables when he and Kevin had been in there with Philippe. He loaded it up with an axe and some rope and dragged it over to the edge of the forest.
"Are you escaping?" asked a familiar voice shortly after he'd started gathering up fallen branches that were big enough to be appropriate firewood.
"Don't you need to be trapped somewhere in order to escape?" Neil replied, as Andrew stepped out between two trees.
"There are predators in the forest."
"I see one right now," said Neil. "He's big and brown and hairy and could be helping me instead of making obvious comments."
"What are you doing?"
"Oh, you know," said Neil as he threw a branch into the cart, "building muscle mass." He sent Andrew a level look. "Collecting firewood, obviously."
Andrew huffed in irritation, although at what Neil couldn't figure out. He'd been the one to ask the stupid question. He disappeared back into the trees and Neil assumed that he'd left but before long he returned, dragging a fallen tree for Neil to chop into smaller pieces.
"You're not on guard," noted Andrew. "I wasn't lying before; the wolves in these woods are dangerous."
"You're right here," said Neil, wiping sweat from his brow. "You're not going to let anything happen to me."
"Why are you so sure about that?"
Neil paused and thought. "You protect the castle. You said I could stay; therefore, you'll keep me safe."
"Are you so sure you're safe?" asked Andrew, baring his claws. "After all you have to reach for your weapon; I already have mine."
"Of course I'm safe with you," said Neil in response.
Andrew's ears curved forwards and he watched Neil quietly for a time before heading back into the forest to bring another log.
The next time that Neil was reading out loud he paused halfway through a paragraph. "This is ridiculous," he muttered to himself, before raising his voice, "Andrew!" he called.
Andrew appeared in the doorway before long, causing some quiet exclamations of surprise from the others. Neil knew that they weren't afraid of him, just that it was uncommon for him to show himself to them. "You hollered?" he said dryly.
"I'm cold," said Neil. "You're basically a walking carpet; come here and warm up my feet." Nicky audibly gasped.
Andrew was completely nonplussed and didn't answer.
"Well at least stop lurking and come in here and sit down," said Neil.
Andrew visibly hesitated before coming farther into the room and taking a seat out of everyone's reach.
"Better," said Neil approvingly. "Now, did you hear that last part? What do you think of Stefan?"
"I think he should watch his smart mouth before he gets mauled to death," replied Andrew.
Neil suppressed a smile. "Good to know," he said, before continuing the story.
Neil had managed to change his sleeping schedule enough that he no longer woke before dawn, but he was still up with the sun. He had to complete his morning baking and deal with whatever game Andrew had found during the night. He brought Neil something almost every day, even venturing out into the heavy snows that they'd been having for the last couple weeks since winter had set in.
Neil was blinking sleepily as he walked into the kitchen, stopping short at the sight that met him. There were a couple dead rabbits as he expected, but on the floor beneath them was a bloodstain. Andrew didn't kill messily; the blood didn't belong to his prey. No, realized Neil as he spotted another bloodstain on the floor closer to the kitchen's exit, that was Andrew's blood and he was somewhere injured in the castle.
He boiled enough water to fill the basin and rounded up some clean rags and a bottle of vinegar before following the blood trail. It led him to the highest level of the castle, to an area that he hadn't been in before.
The blood trail stopped at a large, wooden door. Neil pounded on it.
"Andrew!" he called. "I know you're hurt. I'm coming in if you don't stop me."
He heard nothing but an animalistic whine, which calmed his nerves a little. Andrew was alive at least. He pushed open the door and entered the room. Andrew was sitting on a bed, holding a dusty sheet against a wound across his ribs.
Neil hissed in sympathy. "That doesn't look good," he said taking a step closer.
"Why are you here?" Andrew gritted out.
"Why are you?" countered Neil. "Why didn't you stay in the kitchen and send someone to come get me?"
"I don't need your help."
"Oh, yes," said Neil sarcastically. "I can see you're completely equipped to handle this on your own." He knelt beside the bed and put his supplies on the floor. "Let me see. What happened?"
Andrew moved his paw away and Neil peeled back the bloody sheet. Three parallel lines were scored into Andrew's side.
"Wolf," said Andrew.
"I could have sworn that someone told me to be careful in the forest," muttered Neil, soaking a cloth in vinegar. "This is going to sting," he warned.
"It won't-" Andrew started to say before cutting himself off with a yelp when Neil started cleaning the wounds. He glared but his expression turned thoughtful as he watched Neil efficiently and expertly clean and bandage the cuts. "You do not add up," he said when Neil was finished.
"That's because I'm a real person, not an equation in an accounting ledger."
"You speak English like an aristocrat and you can read in more than one language, but you also cook and aren't squeamish about butchering game and you bandage wounds like you've done it multiple times."
Neil sat back on his heels and looked up at Andrew. "My mother's father was an Earl. By the time the estate passed to him the money had mostly been squandered and he was close to destitute. My father is an American millionaire who wanted to wed a member of the nobility as a status symbol. Once they married he hadn't much use for her and only saw her as something expensive he owned. He didn't have much use for me either, once I was born. We were mainly playthings for him; targets on which he could exercise his cruelty. My mother's innate dislike of involving the servants in 'family troubles' meant that we had to care for each other's wounds." Neil made a decision and stood, untucking and unbuttoning his shirt. He opened it to show Andrew the wasteland that was his scarred chest. "I wasn't lying when I said that I had known a monster."
Andrew reached out tentatively and when Neil didn't stop him or step away he placed his large paw on Neil's breastbone. Neil wondered if he could feel the smooth texture of his scars through his velvet paw.
Andrew's claws extended a bit, almost as if he was kneading like a cat. "I could tear out your heart," he mused.
"You won't," said Neil with certainty. "That's not who you are."
"You know nothing about me," said Andrew, pulling his paw back. "For all you know I was cursed because I murdered someone."
"Did you?" asked Neil curiously. Andrew nodded once. "The prince who lived here?" continued Neil. "Did he deserve it?"
Andrew's too-human eyes examined Neil silently. "Yes," he said eventually.
"Do you regret it?"
"If given the choice would you do it again?"
"Then it was probably justified."
Andrew snorted. "You still think you are safe?"
Neil gestured to his own chest. "I've told you what kind of man I grew up with and what kind of man I left my home to escape. The others have given me an idea about what kind of man the prince was." Neil shrugged helplessly. "Andrew, you're not like them. You protect."
Andrew's eyes snapped to Neil's face, wide and shocked.
"Now," said Neil, buttoning his shirt, "I've got duties in the kitchen. You're going to rest until those cuts heal."
"Am I?" asked Andrew sardonically, his usual placid expression returned.
"You are," affirmed Neil. "If you open any of them again I'll come back and pour more vinegar on them."
Andrew took Neil's vinegar threat seriously and didn't go out for the next few days, although he still showed up to Allison's room for the daily story. He allowed Neil to fuss over him a little, clearly bemused as he made him sit in the comfiest chair and covered him with a blanket. Neil caught Andrew's eyes on him periodically - he watched Neil with scrutiny and something that was almost anticipation.
Neil had also been bringing Andrew's meals up to him instead of making him come down into the kitchen. The third time after he'd schlepped their meal up several flights Andrew pointed out that there was a dumbwaiter.
"What?" said Neil, completely perplexed. Andrew gestured down the hallway.
"There's a dumbwaiter that connects to the kitchen," he said.
"You let me carry your food all the way upstairs for three days without mentioning this?" demanded Neil.
"Maybe you should not treat me like an invalid," said Andrew.
"Maybe you should shut up and eat your dinner," grumbled Neil.
"What are you making?" Andrew asked from the doorway to the kitchen.
Neil suppressed a smile. He had missed Andrew's impromptu visits during his convalescence. Andrew seemed to have a sense for when Neil was doing something new or different from his usual routine and showed up to observe.
"I'm making pretzels," he said. He was currently rolling out long tubes of dough before folding them into shape and boiling them briefly in bicarbonate. Then he placed the pretzels on a baking sheet, sprinkled them with coarse salt, and baked them.
"Pretzels," said Andrew slowly, like he was trying out the word. "I remember this."
"Eating them?" asked Neil.
"Making them," replied Andrew. "Before. I worked as the baker's assistant."
Neil made an interested but non-committal noise, wondering if Andrew would continue speaking. The others spoke of 'before' sometimes, but Neil could tell that it made them sad to remember.
Andrew watched as Neil rolled out another ball of dough. "Nicky and Aaron had jobs in the village but working at the castle paid much better. Rumours were that it wasn't a good place to work." He was quiet as Neil dipped his most recent pretzel into the boiling liquid and resumed speaking when Neil started rolling the next ball of dough. "It wasn't actually that bad unless you had the prince's attention. I caught it early; I think he wanted to break me. It… was just another thing to be endured." Neil continued his work, carefully not looking at Andrew. "But then Aaron decided to come work here. I told him not to but he thought I was being petty. And he caught the prince's attention, too."
It didn't seem like Andrew would continue, so Neil filled in, "You had to stop him."
"Local legend told of a fae that would give you what you wanted if you were willing to pay the price. I asked for strength," said Andrew. He gestured to himself. "This is my price."
Neil nodded. "And the others?"
"The prince's mother was upset at his demise."
"That seems like an understatement."
Andrew didn't respond, but he came to stand beside Neil. Neil leaned against him in support for several moments before he returned to silently making pretzels.
"Neil!" Katelyn cried in a panic, sweeping into the kitchen. "Neil, there's someone in the castle."
"Did they see you?" Neil asked. He had learned that he wasn't the first visitor since the curse had been cast. All of the people who came before him had been treasure hunters looking to loot the seemingly-abandoned castle. Andrew scared them off while the others stayed hidden.
"No," said Katelyn breathlessly. "But he knows your name."
"What does he look like?" Neil asked sharply.
"Black hair, black eyes, has a mark on his cheekbone."
"Riko," snarled Neil. "Where's Andrew?"
"Up in his room, but, oh, Neil, the man has a gun."
All of Neil's happy visions of Andrew tearing Riko limb from limb immediately evaporated. Andrew was large and fierce, yes, but even he would be brought down by a bullet.
He surveyed the kitchen, trying to decide on a course of action. He wasn't about to let Riko anywhere near Andrew.
His eyes snagged on the dumbwaiter. "Get in here and I'll raise you up to Andrew's floor," he commanded while opening the doors. "Stall him while I get rid of our unwelcome visitor."
Katelyn's feather duster face was dubious. "Stall him?" she repeated. "How?" She dutifully hopped into the dumbwaiter anyway.
"You're resourceful," said Neil. "You'll think of something." He closed the door and used the pulley system to raise her to the top floor. Then he took off running, heading for the stairs.
He could hear Riko calling for him from above. He didn't really have a solid plan for dealing with him; all he knew was that he had to get him out of there and get the gun away from him.
Neil caught up with Riko on the fourth story landing, by a large stained glass window overlooking the front courtyard. He stopped two steps down from him, just out of arm's reach.
"And there's my little wife," said Riko snidely as Neil fought to catch his breath.
"You know, for someone who is so set on marrying me you seem remarkably confused about my gender," said Neil. "You'd be in for a big surprise on our wedding night. Good thing it's never going to happen."
Riko took a step towards him and backhanded him across the cheek with the butt of the gun. "That's for running away," he said harshly. He then used his other hand to stroke over where he had hit almost tenderly. "Don't worry, I'll let you make it up to me."
Neil moved to push him off, but Riko raised the gun.
"None of that, now," he said warningly.
"How'd you find me?" asked Neil through gritted teeth. He took a step down the stairs; Riko unconsciously followed him in order to keep him in reach.
"Kevin is not an actor," said Riko. "He was far too relieved when he returned from searching for you. All it took was plying him with drinks until the truth came out." He laughed cruelly at whatever expression was on Neil's face. "Oh, not to me. Don't worry, he didn't betray you that badly. He told Marie, who was quite distraught about your apparent death, and she told her friend Giselle who told me in order to ease my tragically broken heart."
"You don't have a heart," said Neil.
Riko's hand darted out and he grabbed Neil by the chin, digging his fingers in tightly. "I'm torn," he said, almost idly, "about what to do with that tongue of yours. Part of me wants to cut it out but then I'll miss the sweet sound of you begging." He loosened his grip slightly. "Why don't we try that out? Ask me nicely to let you keep your tongue."
"Fuck you," spat Neil.
Riko's eyes promised murder, but he just tsked lightly. "Oh, no, that won't do at-"
His words were cut off by a furious growl as Andrew came menacingly down the stairs. Riko's eyes widened with shock and fear as soon as he saw him. Neil shouted a warning and pushed Riko away from him with all his strength, but it was no use. Riko got his gun up, the gunshot echoing loudly.
For a moment it seemed like everything stopped, the smell of gunpowder heavy in the air. Then Andrew gave a surprised grunt and stumbled slightly, a gaping wound visible on his belly.
Neil emitted a wordless cry of despair and rage and shoved Riko again, trying to grab the gun. Andrew shook off his pain and confusion and loped forwards. He hit Riko with his full force, propelling him backwards into the ornate window.
Riko's face twisted as he fell through the window as it broke, his scream echoing until he hit the stones below.
There was no way he could have survived. Neil rushed over to where Andrew had collapsed. I hope the wolves tear apart his carcass, he thought viciously as he struggled to roll Andrew over to get a look at his wound.
It wasn't good. Deep abdominal wounds like this were fatal, he knew, though not always quickly.
"Idiot," he hissed, applying pressure to the wound even though he knew it was futile. "What were you thinking, running at a psychopath with a gun?"
"He was hurting you," said Andrew, his voice thin and reedy.
"I was handling it," said Neil, his fear making him cross.
Andrew didn't answer, his eyes fluttering closed.
Neil swallowed heavily against the lump in his throat. He didn't want Andrew's last thought of him to be that he was ungrateful. "Thank you," he said softly, leaning up to place a kiss on Andrew's brow. "You were amazing."
Andrew's laboured breathing started to slow down and Neil closed his eyes tightly against the tears that threatened.
He thought at first that the sparkles were a trick of the light. Then they multiplied. He wasn't sure what was happening but golden sparkles were surrounding Andrew's prone body, encasing him completely. Neil had to close his eyes against the brightness as more and more appeared.
When the light faded from behind his eyelids he looked around curiously. Andrew had been replaced by a short (very short, even shorter than Neil) blond naked man. He had three familiar scars along his ribs and a patch of new, pink skin where there had recently been a gunshot wound.
"Andrew?" said Neil incredulously, his voice still wet.
The man blinked open his eyes and yes, those were Andrew's familiar hazel eyes.
"Neil?" said Andrew. "You're bigger." He reached towards Neil's face but stopped short when he caught sight of his human hand. He stared at it in wonder.
"I think it's that you're shorter," said Neil, through what sounded suspiciously like a sob.
"Neil," said Andrew again, sounding awed. Again he reached for Neil before pausing. "I'm naked," he said.
"Right," said Neil jumping up. "Hang on a second." He hurried into the closest bedroom and pulled a sheet off the bed. Then he rushed back to Andrew, not wanting him out of sight for long. He wrapped Andrew in the sheet.
"What happened?" asked Andrew.
"I have no idea," admitted Neil. "Magic?"
Andrew looked thoughtful and reached out to Neil for a third time, this time caressing his bruised cheek in a far more welcome manner than Riko had done earlier. He opened his mouth to speak but was cut off by the sounds of multiple feet on the stairs accompanied by multiple familiar voices.
The people who came up the stairs were far less familiar but Neil could figure out who was who based on voices and mannerisms.
"Neil!" called Nicky. He gasped loudly when he got close enough to see them. "Andrew," he breathed out.
"Neil, you're so small!" marvelled Matt.
"What happened?" asked Dan. "What did you do?"
"I don't know," said Neil. "Andrew stupidly got shot-" Andrew huffed at him "-and was dying but then magic light appeared and turned him into a human and healed his wound."
"You got shot?" demanded Nicky shrilly. Aaron looked murderous.
"But what did you do?" demanded Allison. "You must have done something to break the curse."
Neil rubbed the back of his neck. "I didn't do anything," he protested.
"Really?" said Matt suspiciously. "What was the last thing you did before the magic light appeared?"
"I, uh, kissed Andrew's forehead," Neil admitted. At everyone's incredulous stares, he bristled. "What? He was dying. It was sad."
Nicky clasped his hands together in front of his chest and looked at Neil with starry eyes. "True love's kiss," he whispered. "We should have known."
"It wasn't-" protested Neil.
"Are you telling me that all we had to do to break the curse was to find some sucker to fall for Andrew?" said Allison.
"Yeah, cause that sounds easy," said Dan dryly.
"It really wasn't-" Neil tried again.
"Well if we'd known then we could have put effort into finding someone," said Matt.
"Have you forgotten that until very recently we were furniture?" asked Erik.
"Guys, listen," said Neil. He was stopped from saying anything further by Andrew's hand on his arm.
"It meant nothing?" asked Andrew.
Neil admitted defeat. "Maybe it did," he said.
Andrew's look was knowing. "You'll stay?" he asked.
"Of course," said Neil. Then, after some consideration, "Or actually we shouldn't stay here. It's falling apart and you've probably spent enough time in this castle for several lifetimes. We should definitely leave. But we'll go together."
"Neil, are there any more croissants?" Nicky called.
Neil peeked into the oven. "Five minutes!" he called back. He heard Nicky go back to charming the customer, his French still a little choppy but much improved over the last month.
Neil had spent the rest of the winter after inadvertently breaking the curse teaching the castle's occupants to speak French. They'd all decided to leave the castle behind in the spring but they'd mostly been unsure of where to go. They'd discovered that it had been over fifteen years since they'd been cursed. None of them had aged a day; their old village held nothing for them anymore. They'd all come to the unanimous decision that they'd follow Neil home like stray dogs.
There had been a big commotion when Neil had showed up alive with nine followers. He'd assumed that the other residents of his village had merely tolerated him and paid him very little attention so he was taken aback by the outpouring of relief that met his return.
The nine newcomers found jobs fairly easily: they were all hardworking people who were looking forward to being employed and having purpose again. Neil wasn't sure if they would all stay in the village long term but for now everyone seemed happy with their lives.
Marie had gotten engaged over the winter and Nicky replaced her as the public face of the bakery when she left. Kevin and Thea had also finally gotten their act together over the winter. Once Neil had returned Thea announced that now that Neil was back to manage the bakery she and Kevin were getting married and that they were going to Paris for the entire summer for their honeymoon.
Andrew slotted into Neil's life as if he'd always been there. As if there had been a gaping hole just waiting for him that Neil hadn't noticed. He was certain as the sun rising in the east; providing Neil with someone solid and dependable that he could always count on.
"Did you finish the rye?" Neil asked as he got back to shaping raisin buns.
Andrew made an affirmative noise. "I'm going up to make lunch in a minute; what do you want?"
"Anything that's not rabbit stew," said Neil wryly. He could never imagine wanting it again after how often they'd eaten it during the winter. "Matt brought us bacon yesterday."
"Renee dropped off a basket of tomatoes earlier," added Andrew. "Also a couple cucumbers, I think. Sandwiches?"
"Sandwiches," agreed Neil. "I partially burnt a sourdough this morning," he said gesturing with his elbow. "Couldn't sell it, might as well eat it."
"Somewhere in Paris Kevin is shuddering in horror and he doesn't know why."
"And he never will," said Neil looking up with a smile. "As far as he'll ever know everything was baked perfectly while he was away."
Andrew shook his head and took the croissants out of the oven, letting them cool for a minute before he shuttled them out to Nicky. Neil watched him go. He'd gotten so accustomed to Andrew's human form that it was getting hard for him to remember what he'd looked like before.
His time at the castle was beginning to feel like a faraway dream. He wondered if that was also true for the others although they'd been there much longer. He couldn't believe how much better and fuller his life was now. Sure, he'd been happy living here alone with Kevin, but he hadn't realized what he'd been missing. A social circle made up of people who liked him and wanted him around; true friends that he could count on no matter what.
And Andrew. Who returned Neil's feelings and wanted to be with him. Who made Neil feel safe and secure and settled.
Who was nothing like a beast.