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somewhere in these woods (i am found)

Chapter Text

 

 

Once upon a time in a faraway land, a young prince lived in a shining castle. Although he had everything his heart desired, the prince was spoiled, vain, and pompous. But then, one winter's night, an old beggar woman came to the castle and offered him a single woven coat in return for shelter from the bitter cold. The rag was tattered, ripped but caked in foliage, showing dulled colors of red, and a sickly orange. Displeased by her haggard appearance, the prince sneered at the gift, "Use your rags and twigs for shelter, witch!" and turned the old woman away. She warned him not to be deceived by appearances, "Beauty is in the heart and the sun".

However when he dismissed her again, the old woman's revolting facade melted away to reveal a beautiful forest spirit. The prince tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in his heart. As punishment, she transformed him into a hideous beast and placed a powerful spell on the castle and all who lived there.

Ashamed of his monstrous form, the beast concealed himself inside his castle. The ragged coat she had offered was truly an enchanted cloak, ghastly and large, covering the once prince with black fur, foliage and grotesque horns. When the cloak was removed, the princes' monstrous guise would run rabid, only to be human when worn again. If he could learn to love, and trust another then earn love in return before the moon of his 22nd, the curse would be lifted. If not, he'd be doomed to be a mad beast forever, and the cloak would fall away into the forest from once it came. As the years passed, he fell into despair and lost all hope for who could ever learn to love a beast?

 

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The stars, the moon, they have all been blown out
You left me in the dark
No dawn, no day, I'm always in this twilight
In the shadow of your heart

 

 

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The winter sunrise is always a little more brighter than the rest. Reflecting off the frozen earth, the white snow illuminating a crisp gold light into Niall’s damn bedroom window. The world is trying to blind him at the crack of dawn.

He rolls over, trying to catch the fleeting shade of sleep from underneath his warm covers, and drifting off. Warm, but cool enough that his ankle catches that sweet chill of the sheet, and it’s perfect. That is until there’s a knock on his door, because Niall isn’t allowed sleep in, ever.

“Nialler,” his Dad draws quietly from the doorway.

Groggy, he yawns, “Yeah?”

“Up n’ attem’, You gotta feed the chicks.” Niall nods in his blanket cocoon, sighing but making no effort to move, even after the creek of his door and lock click is evidence of his Dads’ exit. The chicks can wait another five minutes. He stretches lazily, yawns, letting the kinks of sleep crack his bones. But there’s always this knot in his back, and if he twists the right way –

“Oh, one more thing!” The door swings open, just in time for Niall to fall off the edge of his bed with a loud thud.
“Oi, Ni– ya’ alright?” His Dad says calmly from the doorway, right joke.

“Yeah–” Niall peers out from within his blankets on the floor, “what’s up?”

“Have you seen my thick mud boots? I can’t seem to find the damn tings’ since me’ last trip!”  

“Ya Da’ –“, finding strength in how much his side is going to feel the hardwood later and the cold gust coming from the hallway, Niall finally stands. His blankets pool around his ankles, he shivers. “I think Greg put them in the cupboard by the back door, kept trippin’ on ‘em or summat..”

His dad nods a thank you, shutting the door quietly, and as an after thought Niall yells, “Make me a cuppa?” to the closed door. It’s the least his Dad could do if he’s going to get up at 5:00am to tend to the farm. His Dad’s good about giving him wages, and simple work in between classes, but Niall dreads the times his Da’ has to go up the hills to the neighboring towns for special meats and that. Owning the only butchery in a small town is great, but trade is better, like venison and lean lamb which is luxury to a town like this.

Don’t let anyone say Bobby Horan did nothing for this town, thats for sure.

Pulling on his warm jeans – one leg at a time in his half-dead state – high stocks and the warmest sweaters he owns, and he, begrudgingly, finds his way to the kitchen.

“Makin’ ya a cuppa,” his Dad kisses his bedhead, before Niall exists to the coop. It’s a slow trudge through the snow, and the coop door always sticks even though Greg said he'd fix it. Niall adds it to the list of things to do while Da’s away.

He picks up the feed and sprinkles it evenly, checking the coals on the warm water flow to keep the coop warmer than outside so they don't get frozen chicken. Cold cuts, Niall snickers to himself before picking up one of the clumsy baby chicks. It totters in his hand, but it’s soft, stroking it gently with his thumb before placing it back in it’s mother’s nest. “Stay warm, yea?” He smiles, the mother clucking happily, as Niall strokes her neck.

His Dad’s all ready to leave once he gets back inside, “Your tea’s on the table”. Niall see’s how somber he looks, like he knows what trips like these feel like. Of course he does, but Niall just nods, toeing off his boots to hug his Da’ proper. He’ll be gone, and thats always scary. The world is cold and big, and Niall wants to see it all some day, but wants a home to come back to. This tiny farm house on the hill’s with Dad and Greg is home. Niall won’t lose that.

“Be safe, Da’ ya hear?” digging deeper into the rough sweater his Dad’s wearing, sighs once they part.

“I hear ye’, always ‘am Nialler, I swear to that.”

They stadle up one of the two Draft horses they own, an old girl Bobby’s had for years. Margo, she’s smart, and strong, has soul to her. As they tie on the rest of his Dad’s trade, Niall kisses her nose for luck. Not sure why this trip has Niall edgy, but if Margo can get Dad home all these years, she can do it again. Niall trusts her.

Another Horan hug and they’re off.

The house is so quiet, his tea has gone cold and Niall decides to start some hash before heading into town. It’ll be a long week, sure of it.

 

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It’s the fourth day that Niall wakes up to loud clash from the stables outside. It’s the dead of night, a little past midnight, but with Dad gone and Greg in town, it's more than just the wind.  With the wooden bat he keeps by his bed and Greg’s big coat, Niall’s alert as he makes his way outside. Gego, their other Draft is rearing, stomping down on the floors of the stables, he’s loud as he spits and screams.

“Shhh-” Niall puts his hands up to try and calm Gego. He's dwarfed in the large coat, his hands peaking out from the sleeves like a child. He grips the bat tighter in his hand. “Go, love settle!”

The horse calms slightly, shaking his head and hesitantly pushing into Niall’s outreached palm, “Shh– love, what spooked ya’?” Niall says trying to be as calm as possible, but the cold scratches at his joints, his skin burns a cold fire – anxious, ready to strike.

“The wind ain’t nothing,” he whispers to the empty stable, not believing himself, not a lick. Listening, he hears nothing but the wind and the haphazard breathing of Gego ’s panic. It goes suddenly quiet, the air is dead and Niall wades through it slowly to the other side of the wooden shack.

A quick bang clatters at the other stable door, Niall jumps, Gego sneers, roaring again.

“Hello!” Niall yells, holding his bat up, the door rattling from another blow to it. “I've got a bat!”

The metal lock gives, and wind gusts through the hall knocking Niall over, as he holds the bat up as a shield.

Another draft horse rushes into the stable, tripping slightly to nudge at Niall on the floor, “Margo?”   

All of Dad’s packed goods still tied to her, she rears over Niall, breathing heavy with hysteria. He swallows the bile in his throat looking at the empty stadle.

“Margo! Settle!” He clicks his teeth, as he stands slowly calming her. “Where’s Da? Huh-Margo where’s Dad?” She rushes her head into his chest, as he quickly checks her neck for injury. She looks fine, and Niall tries his best not to think of the worst.

“Let’s go find Dad! Margo, let’s go!”

Pulling Greg’s coat tighter to his chest, it’s probably not the best to go out in the dead of winter in yesterday’s jeans, a sweater he found on the floor, and his half tied work boots. But as Margo gallops onto the road, the wind hits his chest, freezing the tops of his hair, stinging his nose – Niall doesn't care. His Dad is out there, probably on the brink of something Niall refuses to think about. The winter can wait.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Margo must have gotten them lost. The sunrises slowly behind them, the heat of the chase has worn to a dull ache of What if? What if all hope is lost? What if he’s gone?Niall shakes off the snow from his hair and the burning in his eyes, trusting Margo with each quickened step. He rubs the side of her neck, desperate, “We gotta find him Marg, we gotta”. He isn’t sure if he’s talking to his horse anymore, or just to the air. Praying for himself.

But the trees are getting thicker, black and horrid, growing from a hell; sharp like the spiked black gates around cemeteries. Places people tread when they don’t want to be found again. Niall tries to swallow, but his throat is dry. The forest is caving in on them with each step forward, he tries not to choke with it. Inky ravens crow above him as to warn him, pleading him to turn back. Whispering forests are the deadliest, Dad always said so.

As the light from the sun reaches the tips of small undergrowth, he catches a large gate in the forehead of their path. It’s rusted, crumbling from untenured earth, eroding with time. The walls are dusted with snow and covered in moss and fungi Niall’s never seen– bright blues and reds. Make a man sick if he breathes too deep, too close, poisonous to touch; classes at the church tell him ones with spots are a call to death when eaten. But blue, like starlight? Nature creates the most beautiful things to cause the worst of damage, he reckons.

The gate creeks in the wind to remind him of the travel ahead. What looks like Dad’s cloak lying in the cobbled alley of the gate becomes more clear. Niall forgets to breathe at all.   

“Dad?!” He shouts, rushing off Margo with a push. It’s cold, the wool powered in the frozen dew of the night. Niall’s voice cracks again, “Dad!” 

Crows screech louder behind him, flying past his head fast as wind, screaming their song with him. The cobblestone beneath him is weak, crumbling as he falls to his knees. Niall’s so tired. He’s so cold. He wants to go home. The alley in front of him leads to a bridge and a greater structure a head; something like hope warms his chest, enough to pick himself up to totter on his feeble legs.

A crow lands in front of him, tugging his father's cloak from his hands.

“No!” He shouts, “Not this! Get!”

He bundles the cloak to his chest, feverishly treasuring it. Running up his toes, he watches the crow hop in front of him– as if taunting for a chase. Niall even imagines it cawing, “Follow”.

But Niall does, looking back at Margo trotting in place with worry. She rears up at the gate but does nothing to come after. “Stay,” he tells her, letting the snapping crow lead, following with more hurriedness. It’s all or nothing, Niall thinks distantly.

It’s obvious that years have passed since this place has been touched by any hand worthy to own it. Verdure climbs up it’s walls, trying to drag it down into the soil with the roots and the worms. Vines, like fingers, crawl up the brick of a once beautiful greystone castle, digging to break through. Surprisingly dark green and lush leaves, some vines even black from the dead of December. Ivy clings to windows, demanding a way in. Towering dead oaks curve over the height of the castle, shielding from the bright sunrise before it, dark as night could ever be. Niall has never seen the forest completely capture something so fully. He trips forward slightly over an uneven brick, trying to keep up.

The crow squawks.

“Oh, piss off!” Niall spits.

Folk tales always told no good of birds like ravens and crows. They pick at his Da’s garden, steal his vegetables, dig up his seed. None of that matters, as he follows, pushing open the cracked door of the biggest castle he’s ever seen outside of a book and yells, “Dad!”  

The dust rises with his voice, as the gothic structure before him reverberates and hisses back. It’s harsh, mocking him to say it again. So he does. Two other black birds follow beside him, as he aimlessly travels through the pillared lobby.

One of the birds beside him pecks at his boot once he rounds a corbel to the right.

“Oi!” Niall kicks at it slightly, before it pecks at his heels again, “What yer’ at bird?”

The crow in front of him caws quietly, distracting him from the tiny devil at his heels, pecking at a wood door toward the end of a long hall. It’s nail-bolted down its sides, great metal strips lining it with a large ringed handle on its right. But what seems to be a massive metal lock is lifted. Niall doesn’t trust anything that can (and has) shite on his head from the sky above, but his gut has never lead him wrong. So far.

Despite the lock being lifted, the door’s still heavy. It plunges him down a swirling row of cement stairs. They lead down into half lit shadows. Hell would be more forgiving, and Niall gasps.

Torches line the walls, and as he struggles to lift one out of it’s iron hold, he realizes they’re way too old to be working. Ancient. It does though, shining enough light to travel him down into a spiraling darkness.

“Hello?” He calls again. Hesitantly Niall enters a murky dungeon.  

The stillness is sickening; air that hasn’t been moved in decades, and when he goes to call again, he hears a small, “Niall?”

A face flashes past a thick wood door, with bars down its middle, “Dad!?”

Niall sobs, pushing the torch through the bars to see his dad, tired, shivering in a cell but he’s smiling. It’s fucking Da’ to smile while being held in a dungeon. But Niall does too, reaching hopelessly for his Dad’s hands.

“I’m so sorry,” his Dad weeps, gripping his hand tight, “I thought,” he stutters, “I-I took a shortcut, Niall but you need to go.”

“What?” Niall whispers incredulously. He just got here. He’s with Dad– he just needs to find the lock and pick it. He can do it. Frantic, he lifts the torch to the door, searching for any sign of a key hole. Scratching quickly at the wood, he dreadfully finds nothing.

“Nialler, please go. Please listen– Ni– you need to leave!” His Dad shouts in a hushed scream.

“Not without you,” Niall sobs as he kneels at the bars trying to pull them out.

“You need to go!”

Niall can’t tell what’s worse – sitting stunned – the shrill yelp of his father in complete fear, or the warm thick air, growling behind his ear.

A roar bellows behind him, booming sharp like thunder in July. Rattling his bones to the core of his ribs, ripping the wind out of his lungs. Vibrations crumble the stone above them, sprinkling debris over his shoulders, as if the world around them is collapsing. Breathing has never been so exhausting.

Niall turns just enough to see a grotesque set of horns, black fur, and the glint of something unearthly; not entirely human, nor beast. Heat rushes through his veins quick, swinging his torch into the beasts face.

“Who are you!?” Niall demands, “Why are you keeping him here?”

His voice shakes, quiet and weak. The beast back steps just enough for Niall to rise on unsteady knees. His Dad shrieks behind him, “Niall, go! Now!” The beast growls low again, pacing swiftly on two legs. The hunch of his back lined with coal dark fur and foliage, flowing behind it like ink in water. Niall’s never seen any animal like it, wolves would cower at such a sight. He’s prey, and this beast is hungry.

“What do you want?” Niall shouts despite the quake to his bones.

The beast goes incredibly still. Niall almost thinks it turned to stone. Yet before he can inhale, it’s right to his nose, baring it’s teeth, breath heavy like blood. One of the crows, flies to the beast’s shoulder as Niall submits back onto the floor. “Witch King keeps a prisoner”, it speaks brokenly.

“Witch King,” another crow at Niall’s ankle repeats and the Witch King growls with it.

Niall gasps,“Take me.”

“Son, please,” his Dad grips him from the barred door. He squeezes Niall's coat trying to pull him through the gaps in the bars.

“Take me in his place,” Niall says, his voice dislocated, far away.  

“No! Niall–”

“Take me instead of him, please!” Rising on his knees, Niall whispers, “Witch King, please…” He grips the torch tighter, “...take me!”

Wolves appear, almost from dust, gracefully at the King’s side. Then the King steps into the shadows of the dungeon, nodding slowly. One at his boot ankle, the other at his coat neck, the wolves drag him towards the King’s sooty feet, which are shockingly human. Niall’s gut lurches.

“Dad–” Reaching helplessly, watching wolves rip the door to his father’s cell open, dragging him from it. Two arms wrap around Niall, and he struggles desperately against them, “Dad!”

His father screams, calling, “Niall, please!” The arms around him tighten, harsh like iron, unyielding to Niall’s forlorn pushing. But the wolves take his father further into the labyrinth of the dungeon, leaving only echos, teasing him. He finally sobs a stuttered breath.

The arms around him fall, and he scrambles from the King’s feet. Two more crows perch on the beast like a throne, caw at him. Niall feels his vision sinking.

The Witch King reaches a blacked hand, fingers like claws, wrapped in stained bandage towards him slowly. It grips Niall’s cheek gently. The touch is burning, setting his face flush, scorching. Niall flinches. The Witch King sneers, low with an agonizing snarl.

And the King is gone.

With his vision spinning, Niall stutters an exhale before he too, is consumed by twilight.

_____

Maybe Niall should take the horse out more often. His bed hasn't felt like this since they flipped it a few months ago. Damn cloud nine, this is. His pillows feel like silk, burrowing deeper into them, catching the waves of sleep still cresting and lulling him. Stretching the kinks in his hips like barn cats do, he twists, nuzzling into the warm impress made by sleep, and falling back it quickly.

Gego’s been quiet since he closed the stables. Actually the whole house has been quiet, which happens. The rooster crows at least mid morning.

Feeling like drowning at early morning is never a priority in Niall’s life, but as he shoots up from his cocoon of blankets, he notices that:

  1. He is not in his bed, and

  2. Definitely not in his house.  

Wolves, crows and monsters light behind his eyes. Flashes of claws and screams, and Niall has to take a few deep breaths to keep himself from having yesterdays dinner splatter on the floor. It wasn’t a dream, it wasn’t a nightmare. The world tilts slightly. He tips to roll from the lavish victorian bed keeping him hostage and tangling his feet in silk sheets. Soon enough, he collapses to the floor.

Dad could the anywhere. He could be out in the cold. He looked worse for wear in the cell. Did he get to Margo? Will he get home safe?

Niall reaches his hand up to his ears, trying his best to breathe steady. The smell of dust tortures his nose, pricking at his eyes as he gasps for air. He doesn’t know where he is, or how long he’ll be here, but the fact of the matter is Dad could be as good as dead.

The fear of the unknown is far worse than any torture a beast could give him. Give solace of his father’s life, and rip Niall to shreds for all he cares. Just tell him Dad’s safe, just tell him.

Niall gags out of panic. It anchors him momentarily, letting him breathe deep for a beat before trying to quickly count backwards. Just like Pastor Breslin taught him when crowds and yelling auctioneers give Niall’s heart a run for it’s money like at the town fair a year back, and when the chicken coop locked on him a month ago. Drowning on air was never a fear he had before.

Counting back from ten, then from twenty he thinks about his Dad, Pastor, Greg, the fucking baby chicks, anchoring himself to them finally, take a solidifying breath.

He’s still shaking as he stands, balancing himself on the post of the beautiful wooden bed, in the most luxurious room Niall’s ever seen. His Nan was a fan of this, bright blue, floral prints and the delicately carved wooden furniture and molding.

Taking another deep breath, he pushes the balls of his palms into his eyes. The large sleeves of Gregs coat rough against the skin of his cheeks. He’s still wearing his work trousers and coat from yesterday. It reeks of dead leaves and soot. As if it's on fire, Niall throws it off himself.

Pushing from the bed, he takes a better look at the room. It’s dark, but there’s a dim oil lamp flickering on a gold painted vanity on the other side of the great bedroom. Turning it brighter the room is illuminated, exhibiting beautifully hung portraits of gardens, and large painting of a boy with soft, curly brown hair and hazel eyes. He can’t read the inscription on the frame, but the boy is smiling.

A note on a pile of clothes on the vanity stool catches Niall’s eye as he bumps into it, having the paper fall to the floor.

It says, “Hope you’ll find comfort in these”.

The script is gorgeous, much like Pastor Breslin’s at the church. Religious inscription and that, but this is different. It feels refined, royal, like a letter from the queen.

Or a Witch King.

Niall contemplates using the oil lamp to burn the garments.

But his sweater smells like mud. The knees of his trousers are stained with soot and the jacket is too big, made him sweat. Picking up the folded clothing he finds a beautifully knitted robe that falls gracefully onto the floor as it unravels; lined with the softest cotton Niall’s ever felt. Underneath is a sleeping-kit, white but threaded with gold, made from thick cotton and what feels like fleece. It all smells fresh, cleaned recently he supposes, or just never worn.

It makes his stomach twist but, he puts them on anyway and folding his mucky togs in their place.

Twisting, he watches himself in the mirror. A laugh surges through him at how rich he looks. A King he is. Even in his best church suit Niall is nothing short of a farmhand, but this – the white is pristine in the glow of the lamp, making the gold thread on the cuff, collar and ankles shimmer.

Taking another inward breath, he feels better already. Not sure if his nauseousness is from hunger or anxiousness. It’s probably a bit of both.

“Breakfast is ready!”

Niall halfway punches the top of the bureau on his descent to the floor. It’s incredible – his heart beat so loud in his throat that as he turns to face the crow, in the open doorway, he has the energy to say, “Fuck!”

The crow squawks again, before repeating itself.

“Breakfast is ready!”

“Ya’ almost killed me, bird! I downright almost had a heart attack!” Niall takes another sharp breath. “Knock next time, would you?”

And damn the heavens, for the crow takes a few steps back and taps at the wood of the door. He chuckles from the absurdity of it. “Breakfast is ready!” It chirps louder.   

Getting up slowly, he sighs, “That all you can say?”

“No!” It seems offended.

Niall laughs, “Witty.”

Smelling his socks, he decides he’d rather have smelly feet than cold ones and slips them on. He pauses. “Breakfast? What time is it?”

“Slept a full day!” The bird informs him. It’s ridiculous, all of it, but Niall takes it as the least of his worries right now.

“That right? And do all the crows talk or just you?”

“Us three!”

“There’s more of you crows?” He gets from the vanity stool, turning the oil lamp dim.

“Ravens!” It corrects.

“Oh sorry,” he nods, holding the door open for the inky raven. “I’m apologising to a fecking bird,” muttering more to himself than anything.

Said bird pecks at the loose knit of his sock and he flinches, “Oi! Watch it now!”  

Exchanging small talk with a communicative raven is really something out of a book, Niall thinks. He learns that the raven’s name is Harry. Also that he cooked the biscuits Niall will be having for breakfast. Baking, talking, snarky birds; he should change his name to Snow White.

Walking around, it’s apparent that the castle is more alive than he’d seen it the night before. The lanterns on the walls are all lit, and the chandeliers are crystal and clean. Another world he’s stepped into, far away from his ranch in the outskirts of a tiny town. Something nicks his chest for a moment, and he struggles to swallow the harsh taste left by morning.

Busts of people Niall doesn’t recognize line the upper halls. Unmanned coat of mail line the lower foyer in pairs, holding swords and spears alike. Some gold with foreign inscriptions and others a dull silver. Harry chastises him with a caw as he goes to touch one. The walls are painted with flowers, bright skies and rich colors, no room the same. He gets a real eyefull. This is true royalty, nothing he’d find on the hillside thats for sure.

Harry leads him to a large dining hall, with a grand table in the middle, and a fireplace, all alight and warm. Different fruits, meats, cheeses and breads sit on silver platters in a line on the wood. Two gorgeously carved chairs sit on opposite sides of the table. Niall hasn’t ever seen this much food, even on Horan christmas. This much could feed an army for weeks. He rubs his eyes, this has to be a dream.

Watching Harry hobble into what looks the kitchen is one of the funniest things Niall’s ever seen. Birds don’t make biscuits. He runs his hands through his sleep mangled hair. Another raven flies down from the golden chandelier above them which takes up most of the hall ceiling. He worries briefly, as it swings, if it’ll fall.

“Sit!” The raven taps at the chair facing the door he entered.

“And you are?” Because if there are chandeliers the size of great oaks and birds that can talk, Niall can play along.

“Louie!”

“Nice to meet you Louie, I’m Niall.” He sits in the designated chair, picking up another note left on his plate, looking much like the one in his room.

“Niall,” the raven repeats. It takes a bread roll from a basket and placing it on Niall’s plate, then taking one for itself.

“Thanks,” he says eyeing the roll. He wonders if he’ll get bird flu. Do talking birds carry bird flu? Niall watches the bird ravage the pastry before reading.

Dear Guest”, the note starts. The calligraphy is absolutely immaculate, Niall thumbs the inked pen scratch:

In your time here you are subject to a series of laws, to keep you safe here in the castle.  First, you may not, under any circumstances leave your chambers after nightfall.
Second, you may never leave the castle walls.
Third, do not wander to the Upper East wing, you’ll find nothing but death there .

Niall takes a full inhale before continuing, having nothing but death, shocks his throat into a knot. Looking at the table before him, he spots a warm pot of water and pours himself a cup. He opens a small box next to it, and finds it filled with different exotic teas and herbs, some in languages Niall can’t read. Finding the one that smells most like home, he places it in the water to steep.

The tea is warm in his hands, giving him the strength to continue.

Fourth, talk to no one. Many have walked these halls, let them do so without interruption .

Niall looks up at Louie. The bird has well massacred it’s first roll, and is now chewing on a piece of ham. “There’s people here?” he asks.

Louie squawks, “Us three!”

Harry said something similar before, curious - Niall knows he won't get much out of them now.

Lastly, dinner is served every night before sundown, do not be late.

Niall sighs down at the note. He takes a conscious effort to remember to ask Harry why it’s signed, ‘’, instead of Witch King. Harry seems to like to talk. He smiles at Louie and wonders how long it’ll be before he can go home.

“So reckon the Witch King wants me to do nothing all day,” he takes a sip of his tea. Letting the black tea sit in his mouth, it’s spicier than the cuppa dad makes. It’s good, sweet. Louie pushes the second plate of cheese closer to Niall with his beak.

“What can I do?” Niall asks, reaching for a yellow cheese.

“Eat.”

It’s the best suggestion yet, and Niall laughs, “I like you Louie.”

The raven chirps with delight.  

He'll have to remember to compliment Harry on the biscuits. They’re damn good.

 

-----

 

Harry and a few other birds start cleaning up breakfast after a bit. Niall can’t tell time without the chime of the wooden clock in their kitchen at home. It’s loud, and has a dancing man that pops from the top on each hour. But in the castle it seems like time slips into being late, then not late at all. He finds himself asking Louie what time it is more frequently and laughs when the raven squawks, you just asked!

Laughing feels like the only appropriate reaction, so Niall does.

Disorienting, midday comes too fast and not at all. He can’t complain. A day in his pajamas is always a good one.

Harry joins Louie and him on the small tour of the castle. Mostly just the places he’s permitted. The two birds bicker and it’s entertaining to watch; like an old married couple they are. When Niall teasingly asks when their wedding is, Louie flies into Niall’s face and tries to trip him on the granite stairs of the second tower.

The castle is much larger on the inside than it initially looks. Three dining rooms, each bigger than the last. Breakfast was served in such a big room, Niall almost falls over seeing the other two be so much more. How does anything fit three house-sized chandeliers? Magic? Witchcraft?  

Niall shudders.

At one point the three pass a set of large golden doors with an inscription of some sort over the top. One of the doors is jarred, showing nothing but darkness. The room is completely seamless, only the gorgeous cherry wood glittering on the floor from the light in the hall. Then nothing, pitch black. Something about the room draws Niall in. He steps closer into the doorway, watching as the two ravens occupy themselves further down the hall with another petty tussle.

The room is warm. He steps hesitantly into the void. It’s a comfortable warmth, like the residual heat from a fire put out, the crisping embers that still burn – it makes him sleepy.

Suddenly a sharp noise thrums somewhere at his left. The room immediately feels darker, heavy. He’s not alone. Eyes glint in front of him, reflecting the light from the doorway behind him. Niall gasps.

They shift closer to him, crawling slowly.

“Niall?” Harry chirps from the doorway. A growl starts to rumble closer to him. “Niall!” the raven’s call again.

He can feel it on his skin, vibrating under his feet, the growl getting louder – dense like an approaching train. Louie pulls the ankle of his trowsers through the doorway. Harry slams the door behind him.

“Don’t go there!” One of them caws.

Harry, Niall thinks, lands on his shoulder butting his head into his cheek. He sighs. The weight of whatever that was falls onto the floor and away. Hopefully it’ll stay gone.

“Alright?” Harry coos, still pushing the soft of his head into Niall’s hair.

“Yeah,” he says (quite unconvincingly), rubbing the scruff of Harry’s neck. The raven hums like a purring cat.

After another lap around the wing, and back down the stairs into the foyer, the three stay quiet. Niall wonders if they know what was in the room, who or what lives there. Why was the door open? What is the Witch King trying to hide? Harry sits comfortably on his shoulder. Louis finds a way to nag itself into Niall’s arms. They seem to enjoy the attention, and he appreciates the distraction.

They lead him into the kitchen. Harry lets him rummage through the cabinets to make a sandwich. For kitchens, this one is another show stopper. It’s about the size of Niall’s entire house, and as he takes a bite of the best sandwich he’s ever made, he chuckles at the mundaneness this room holds. Compared to the golden halls and floral ballrooms with crystal and white king molding, this is entirely wood, iron. A kitchen – well, a kitchen for a king nonetheless.

Louie disappears after what must be past-noon, and Harry leads him to a large window. It’s the only one, from what he's seen, that isn’t smothered by outside vines and growth. But the view is beautiful. What must have been the royal garden – a murky fountain sits in the middle of a labyrinth of overgrown shrubs and bushes. Nialls fingers itch to clean it, to make it what it once was. Maybe add more sunflowers over by the second figurine, and roses bushes – the flowers he could plant in a garden like this.

Looking closer to the side of the castle is a small glass green house, that seems to connect somewhere to the castle side.

“That a greenhouse?” Niall asks Harry, still perched on his shoulder. The raven nods.

“Can I take a look?”

Harry takes a pause, and he gets anxious, what does a greenhouse have to hide?

“Maybe.” Harry says. “Tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow?”

Harry hops off his place on Niall’s shoulder and totters away down the hall from which they entered. “Dinner needs to be made”, Harry states instead of answering. Damn illusive birds.

 

-----

Harry says Niall doesn’t have to wash for dinner because the King will not be joining them this evening.

Which is the biggest crock of shit if he’s ever heard it.

The first night of his stay, he has so many questions that still need to be answered and pestering birds about it feels unconstructive. He’s bitter, sitting brooding at the table, feeling put out. A fucking stood up date to the fair.

The dinner is delicious regardless. (Niall almost cries from laughter as Harry pushes out an oven roasted chicken because irony is only so sweet) Louie doesn't let him cherish it long, and ushers him to his chamber as the sun sets.

Niall takes time to explore his room with more attention, opening drawers and closet doors. There isn’t much, clothes, sweaters, some loose sewing pins and dust. The bed he was sleeping in is bigger than he remembers this morning, and it’s been made. Another set of clean clothes are folded on the edge. However he can’t find Greg’s coat, his trousers or sweater from home. He’ll have to ask Harry about it tomorrow.

Opening a door he didn’t notice before, Niall finds a bath and toilet connected to his room. He promptly uses to have the best hot water wash he’ll probably ever have. The tub is a porcelain clawtoe with running hot water. Fucking rich people  – this is the height of luxury.

The towels are soft and the soap smells like what might be jasmine. He can’t scrub away his anxiety and ignores it for now. He’ll never be this clean again.

Slipping into the pair of silk pants from the bed pile, he finds a set of black trousers with a white cuffed shirt and dull red vest. They look nice, some sort of dinner attire. He places them on the vanity, dimming the oil light and crawling into bed.

His pillows smell fresh, but not like home.  

 

----

 

Waking with an annoyed sigh, Niall feels groggy. Peering out the curtained window, it’s still night, the moon, high, illuminating further in the sky. It might be midnight.

He can’t really tell.

But he’s thirsty and there’s no cup in the loo, and a midnight snack sounds like the best idea he’s ever had. Slipping on the knitted robe over his chest, he feels something royal. He spares chuckling and pads over to the door.

The knob is stiff. He realizes with great exasperation that it’s locked. The King really doesn’t want him to leave, does he? It’s logical. Niall can reason it. But right now he’s a child on the brink of a tantrum, just wanting a biscuit and a glass of milk.  

Looking at the lock hole, it has the same shape as the one in his room at home. Square, metal, a top divot and a latch he can see if he squints through the key hole. It’s much less roughed up than his own at home, probably because it’s never been kicked, or picked before. Probably why it’s easy to unlatch as he uses some of the loose supplies found in his bureau drawers.

Quietly padding down the stairs, he tries to remember the way to the kitchen in the dark. All the ways feel the same but as he enters the foyer hesitantly he hears voices. They echo in a chatter he can’t quite understand. Peering through the dining hall, he can see the kitchen light is bright. Shadows pass the small window on the door, and what smells like baked goods makes his stomach growl.

Slowly pushing the door open, Niall stands in the doorway. A little naked in nothing but a robe and pants.

“Oh, hello Niall!” The one gentlemen says. The other jumps considerably at the oven with his back turned.

“Hi,” Niall says back to him. There’s a glint in his eyes, pale blue like Niall’s own, but his smirk is like a cat. Niall likes him already.

“Niall!” The man at the oven turns around, seeming flustered. His hair is bouncing behind a rag that ties curly locks from his face. He looks familiar and Niall doesn’t know why; gangly, big eyed and tall, but his shoulders are wide, wearing a stained apron and a casual cotton kit. He comes closer to embrace him in a hug. The other man laughs at Niall’s blatant uncertainty.

“Oh, oh! Sorry!” He corrects, holding Niall at his shoulders. Quickly, he extends a flour caked hand. “I’m Harry, and that's Lewis! ”  

“Call me Lou,” Louis corrects. He nods, laughing at obvious Niall’s confused face. “Harold, I think you scared the poor lad!”

Harry glances at Niall, wiping what might be flour off of his robe, “I didn’t mean to!”

“So the talking ravens are named after you?” He says timidly. Harry smiles so wide, Niall’s scared his cheeks will tear. Louis just cackles from his place on a stool leaning on the center island of the kitchen.

“You could say that,” Harry says manically, directing Niall to sit next to Louis. He pats Niall's back as he sits, passing behind him, and kissing Louis’ cheek on his way to whatever’s in the oven. “Bird’s of a feather, you could say!”

Niall feels outside of a joke but laughs at Louis’ groan. “Don’t start, Hazza, really.”

Harry turns to wiggle his brows at Niall, “What’s ruffled your feathers, Lewis

“Shut it, bird brain!” Louis spits back. Niall chuckles harder. Where were these two earlier when he was being ushered around by ravens?

As if Harry could read his mind, or his stomach, he places a freshly baked biscuit on a plate in front of him, with a tall glass of milk. The curly haired boy winks, giving Louis his own after beginning to whine.

“How’d you know?” Niall says. A bit rude with a biscuit in his mouth but they’re so good he couldn’t resist. Harry shrugs.

“A little birdy told me that you barely picked at your dinner,” Harry smiles. He turns to Louis with a wolfish grin, who returns with his own rude gesture.

“If you’re going to keep on with the horrible jokes, I’m going to bed!” Louis shoves another piece of buttered goodness into his mouth.  

Niall follows suit with a small laugh. Louis looks flustered, but in love and it’s cute actually. But as he looks back up at Harry, the boy’s looking back concerned, “I don’t like knowing our guests are unhappy.”

Niall goes to state, that he’s not really a guest when Louis chimes in, “Besides obvious reasons like basically being held here against your will.”

“Thank you Louis,” Harry nods.

Niall shrugs, scratching the back of his head. This is the moment he’s been asking for, a time to have some questions answered. But there’s so many questions bouncing in his head, who is the king? Who keeps signing these odd letters? Where do Harry and Louis go during the day? The most important one stings behind his eyes.

“I guess,” Niall takes a gulp of his milk, giving him more time to gather himself. “I just hope my Da’s ok, ya’ know?”

“He took your horse home,” Louis answers readily. “He’s alright, shaken up, but ok.” But, not sure if he can trust Louis, he nods Suddenly searching for something in the way Louis smiles, solemn; like he knows just how important family is.

A weight lifts off his shoulders and he almost sinks into the kitchen island. He’d been so worried over all of this, but his Dad? Being ok? Being home? It’s the only answer he needed. The only answer Niall wanted.

“Yeah?” he chokes. A little embarrassed that he’s crying infront of strangers, he wipes his eyes.

“Yeah,” Louis repeats, rubbing circles into his back. Niall takes the last bite of his biscuit with fat tears rolling down his face.

Harry smiles softly, Louis grins wide and Niall knows he’ll be ok. Harry gives him a cookie from a large jar that was perched at the top of one of the tall cabinets. Even though he can’t taste much past his snot and tears, he knows this is the best fucking cookie he’s ever eaten. Probably the best on the face of this earth.

Harry makes some bird related comment, Louis throws a piece of his half finished biscuit at him. Niall genuinely laughs so hard, he forgets how sad he’d been.

After the heaviness passes, Harry busies himself baking. Louis starts to tell him a story of the time they and a boy named Liam, thought the library – there’s a library? – was haunted. “It’s funny,” he continues, “because he never leaves his room so we didn’t think it was him.”

“Wait, Liam?” Niall asks, confused.

“No, Zayn!” Harry whips around before looking like he'd said too much.

“Zayn?” Niall repeats. “Who’s–?”

“Haz!” Louis chastises between clenched teeth. But who is Zayn? Harry looks guilty, before a clamor of the door sounds on the other side of the kitchen.

“I can’t find him! He’s not in his room, or the bath and you know Zayn’s going to–” another boy, with short slicked back hair and a face of complete panic rushes through. As if on cue, he stares at Niall like he’s a ghost. He shrieks. It’s not really a shriek, though. It's screaming with his mouth closed, like when Niall stubs his toe on his bed and doesn't want to wake the house. A bit high pitched and whiney.

Niall wants to let out his own frustrated yell. All of these people are emerging from the woodwork but they’re nowhere to be found during the day? Where does the King hide them?

“Can’t find whom, Liam?” Louis smirks. Niall’s the butt of the joke again – he sighs, annoyed. The boy, Liam, doesn’t even see Louis, just burrows his eyes through Niall’s head. For a second he's worried the boy might puke, or fall faint on the spot. The only polite thing to do is introduce himself.

“Hello,” he says timidly. “I’m Niall–”

“How’d you get out?” Liam immediately shoots back. He glances quickly at Harry, who is trying to cover up his own discomfort by baking. Niall wishes he was as lucky.

“He was hungry Liam, let it go,” Louis says with snarl, rubbing Niall’s shoulder. He might be healing the wound, protecting him from Liam’s sneering. Niall can't tell.

Everything in his head screams trouble. Liam’s looking four seconds from dropping dead from complete panic, Harry has a rigid back over a burning stove and Louis... well, Niall can’t really read him. Not sure that when it comes to bare bones if Louis will throw him to the wolves, or keep him hidden. Regardless he feels safe with the boy between him and this Liam.

“Can someone please tell me who Zayn is?” Niall says in the pregnant silence.

A series of things occur at once in a span of time Niall can’t really comprehend. Liam’s scrutinizing gaze turns into one of worry. Louis is fixed at a point over his shoulder. Harry has stopped breathing, and his question is answered by the panting breath at the back of his neck.

“Zayn, please–”, Louis pleads before Niall even gets to turn around.

The eyes Niall’s met with, inches from his own, are feral, filled with hurt and determination. A husky gold, that glows. Madness, tales sing of full moons and werewolves; eyes wild such as these. The kitchen is still besides the overbearing breathing of the monster before him. Or not a monster at all, more so human in wolf’s clothing.

Niall can really see it now. A strikingly detailed cloak, the hood a beak of a massive crow, antlers from what might have been the biggest buck on Earth reach to the ceiling, heady and strong. The man underneath is something unearthly. Niall’s never seen anyone like him; raw, vibrating with the insanity of a mad dog. A howling wolf.  

An energy different anything else sets free in Niall’s belly, hot as flickering coals and he can’t look away. Not even after the King snarls, deep, watching as the man’s chest shakes with it.

“Zayn?” The word comes out of Niall’s mouth like an after thought. The man in question glances away from Niall, as if it pains him, looking rabid at the boys surrounding him. And this time when he howls, it screams of pain.

It’s loud and quick, burning when it echoes off Niall’s skin. So he does he can. He runs.

Liam reaches out to catch him but Niall dodges it swiftly, too wound up to be reasoned with. They call to him as he sprints from the kitchen. Startled, his heart beats – about to rip from his rib cage at any minute. Niall needs to be in his room, now.

When he turns to round the stairs of the wing to his chamber, he can see the King, Zayn, chasing him in a galloping step, each movement faster than the last. Some how Zayn gets in front of him, snarling and daring Niall to move.

Niall does, out of fear.

As the King brackets him to the edge of his chamber door, he prays for his father’s health and his brother’s success. For this to be as swift a death as possible.

But the claws that edge on his neck tease their options as they flex, and Niall chances a glance. The King’s eyes are transfixed, glowing and looking at him as if he’s as good as dinner. Yet something soft, precious. The feathers of the coat tickle Niall’s exposed chest and he whines at the sudden touch.

Alarm and something else entirely causes his knees to buckle. The King reaches out to hold a strong grip on Niall’s cheek, and another hand on his side. It all burns as the adrenaline wears to a thrum, and the ragged breathing between them. The captured prey inside of him tells Niall to submit.

Niall gasps, “Do it! ” instead.

The King crumbles. He flinches as if struck. He pushes Niall into his room none gently, leaving with a nasty snarl. It echos in the room once the door slams and locks again.

Feverish, his room is too quiet, significantly so. Niall needs to leave. He needs to leave this castle, right now.

Packing whatever of his he can find into a pillow case, Niall rips the room apart. The closet holds Greg’s jacket, his cleaned trouser and boots, he slides them on with haste. Clashes of metal and glass echo from downstairs and Niall flinches at each crash. Skin buzzing, itching, he layers on his clothes, pushing open his chamber window.

The wind gusts through the room, asking him to stay but sliding onto vine branches. Niall braces for the fall.

Chapter Text

 

  Snow breaks his fall. It must have stormed over the past day, about three feet or so and Niall’s more than grateful. A fall from the second story could have given him a broken arm, or ankle at least. However, the sting in his weaker knee complains, but it’s nothing he can’t ignore, trudging faster to the castle wall.

Ruefully taking a second glance at his chamber window, he wonders if he’s made the best choice. A loud howl echoes from the castle, and Niall picks up his hobbled pace, better chances of living with frostbite.

The castle wall should have fallen ages ago, it wobbles and crumbles under him. Rocks sticking out aid his climb and he pushes up onto the ledge, quickly throwing his sack over the side, and following it down. His knee gives another protest and groans with the land.

Oddly, the snow is thinner on the other side of the wall, but the forest makes up for the rest. Dodging trees and dried out bushes slows his run and tears at his coat, gripping and tugging him back. He struggles through it. One branch snags his cheek pretty good, and he quickly wipes the blood away, not too worried about petty wounds. More worried about the second howl, louder, coming from the receding castle behind him. The further into the brush he runs, the safer he feels.

Niall must have been running for what felt like hours, sinking deeper into the thick overgrowth. Abruptly, he realizes how dark it’s become; moon high and the snow around him glows in the light. It’s not enough to let him see through the shadows – so black the forest hums with it. Frantic, he keeps going.

Keeping his pillowcase close to his heaving chest, Niall slows his pace, walking towards what he remembers of his path. His memory is hazy, everything so long ago. The window of his chamber was nowhere near the entrance and the starless night holds no aid, he feels lost, but marginally safer than before. Regardless, the silence of forest picks at his nerves.

A stick breaks beside him and he jumps, pushing past the noise in a quick sprint. Eyes flicker from behind him reflecting the little light from the moon and he suddenly notices he’s not alone. Snarls circle around him but the shadowy sweeps of bushes keep them hidden. Niall aimlessly swings his sack, but it does nothing to deter them.

So he laughs, completely manic.

“I just ran from a nightmare”, he says to no one. The sound of his own voice calms some bubbling panic. A large stick pokes at his heel and he picks it up, “What are you going to do, huh!?”   

The first wolf leaps from beside him, getting a quick swing at it gives him an advantage but the stick breaks on contact. “Shit!” The wolf falls, backtracking into the shadows.

His victory is short lived as another jumps in front of him, knocking him to the ground. He lodges what's left of the stick between its snarling teeth, using whatever strength he has to push it off. The animal is heavy, but he finally pushes it up and off.

Everything starts to spin when teeth rip into his ankle..

Niall screams his throat raw.

Suddenly, the moon is shadowed by what is the greatest beast Niall will ever see.

It stands over him and rumbles like a storm, snapping its jaws with an audible clack. Darker than any moonless night, its fur inky, eyes a crisp gold. The wolves try to howl back but the beast lunges, lobbing the strays with its ghastly paws, ripping fur off the backs of them with its teeth.

Niall’s never seen wolves scatter so fast.

The beast picks up the last of the pack by the neck and gnashes its teeth, snapping it cleanly. It's quick, yet the sound of the bone breaking is horrifying, and a shudder rattles through him. Niall pushes from the ground and tries his best to get away. Voices echo behind him, but chatter of his teeth and the sting of his ankle numb all else.  

The frozen ground is hard on his chest as Niall’s knee finally gives, smacking him into the snow. His ankle throbs and Niall can sense the beast crawl up his back. The snout sniffs at his ankle and he flinches but the beast does nothing to touch it.

A cold nose nudges his cheek and it licks him softly, whining, but Niall’s eyes are shut, his hands covering the back of his neck. It’s what his Dad taught him to do with bears, but this ain’t no bear. Niall doesn’t know what this is. He’s shaking so hard, he can hear his bones rattle together, the cold of the snow is numbing his ankle and soaking his trousers through.

The beast licks at his hands, nudging them to open.

Out of the chance that this bear of a wolf saved his life and will take mercy, Niall turns slowly on the ground, trying his best not to startle the beast or to jostle his ankle. He does anyway and moans with the wracked pain shooting up his leg. The beast whines again, quickly nuzzling its snout into Niall’s neck.

Niall’s never been cuddled by a monster before. Hesitantly, he scratches the enormous ears about the size of his palm, jumping when the beast barks in delight.  Shifting his leg, another shock of pain rips through him and he groans between clenched teeth. The beast seems to catch onto to it, swiftly lifting from Niall, to then lifting Niall.

The beast carries him easy, by the collar of Greg’s coat like a pup. Not sure where he’s being taken, Niall takes the time to grip his ankle, putting pressure on the wound. It hurts like all hell, and blood is getting all over his hands. Time slips in and out, the chill of the night antagonizing his skin with an itch he can’t scratch. His vision slips until he sees bright lights bouncing closer and the beast’s breath as it quickens its pace.  

“No!” Niall struggles, seeing the entry gate wide open and the glow of the lobby shining through the open castle door.

“Let me go!” He shouts, and the beast growls. Being so close to it’s mouth, the sound reverberates through his bones, bouncing his heart in his chest.   

The beast places him gently on the lobby rug, snarling at Harry who goes to reach for him, “Zayn, he’s hurt!” Harry protests.

And Niall’s so dizzy, the sudden information hits him steady like a train. The beast is Zayn.

The beast stands over Niall, protecting him, barking frantically at anyone who tries to help, is the same cloaked man that drove him away. It would be flattering in any other situation, really, Niall imagines.

“Zayn, calm down,” Liam puts his hand out, not flinching as the beast snaps at him. He’s holding what looks like a torn cloak, brown, small with two feathers dangling on each rope tie. Niall rationally thinks, Zayn can’t be cold, but Liam throws the cloak on top of both of them.

Niall watches as the beast begins to turn back to the man  he’d met only hours ago under the cloak. Bones crack alarmingly as they form back into hands and legs, the beast snarls, once golden eyes turning a cool shade of brown. The sight should be appalling, Niall thinks but it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen.

The cloak grows as Zayn shrinks, covering them both in fur and feathers, and Niall realizes with a gasp that the King’s naked. The man has shoved his face into Niall’s neck again just like his wolf did before. This time it's more intimate, deliberate.

For no reason at all, Niall cradles his head, running his fingers through the smooth black hair and Zayn’s chest rumbles; he’s so warm. But the comfort is short lived as he gets up. And Niall reminds himself that he was raised in a hearty Catholic home, blushing, trying his best to focus anywhere above the belt.

Ignoring the blatant nudity of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen is the true struggle.

Second to the fact that his ankle’s ripped to shreds.

Harry rushes to his side as Zayn steps back, “Niall, are you ok?”

Before Nial can open his mouth to answer Louis smacks his arm, “You idiot! Jumping from a second story window is dumb enough but then you went and got yourself attacked by wolves!”

The King growls at him, but Niall can see the honest worry. The emotion’s slipping through the cracks of all four of them, he sighs. As if he weighs practically nothing, Zayn scoops Niall into his arms; again with the manhandling. The sudden motion jolts his ankle and he hisses, the King apologizes by pushing his lips against the side of Niall’s head.

Niall has never felt more coddled before, and it’s nice, safe. But as he looks down at his ankle he’s lightheaded again, nausea setting in.

Zayn gently places him in a small living room with an already lit fire and a large armchair. There’s two other sofas but they both look like they’ve been run through by a saw. Or a windmill with axes strapped to them. Niall eyes them worriedly.

Liam quickly brings over a bowl of warm water, and a clean flannel. Harry joins Zayn at his spot at Niall’s knees, propping his leg up on a small ottoman. Zayn’s gentle as he does, kitten licking the blood pooling on the ridge of Nialls sock. It tickles a little, but he’s so tired, he can’t find himself to care.

Harry does. “Unsanitary!” he shrieks, whipping the King’s head with the second cloth Liam hands him.

Harry starts by removing the sock and cleaning Niall’s ankle gently, putting pressure on the right area’s. It doesn’t hurt as much as much as it just throbs. Niall sinks into the cushions of the armchair.

“He gets confused after coming from his wolf state,” Liam informs him even though Niall doesn’t ask. Zayn nuzzles his face into Niall’s thigh as if to prove Liam’s point, knocking the top of the horned cloak on Niall’s shoulder. It doesn’t hurt, the antler’s just blunt and hard.

Niall holds the antler weakly to keep it steady.

“So if he wears the,” not sure what to call it, Niall nods down at the King. “He doesn’t become the wolf?”

“In layman's terms,” Louis shrugs. He’s ripping clean gauze by the crackling fire.

Liam looks almost as confused as Niall, “What would you call it then?”

“Well, a curse is a curse…” Louis whispers to the fire, but Niall hears it anyway. Liam pushes his head, and the other boy groans in protest, swatting back at him. Niall catches Louis’ eye, a flash of something miserable glosses between them, before the boy thinks better of it, turning back to face the fire.

Niall is aware of the elephant in the room like a tangible weight, but isn’t quite sure what it might be, or even who. For a second he thinks it might be Zayn, but it’s better to let it go.There’s already a list of unanswered questions and Niall would rather not add more. The slow rub of hot cloth on his torn ankle is distracting, and the fire is warm from here, still wearing Greg’s jacket and all.

“ ‘m burning up,” he says, sitting up enough to try and tug the coat off. Zayn swiftly gets up without a sound and helps, throwing the jacket somewhere far like it offends him. Liam groans, leaving to retrieve it. Zayn takes his place again at Niall’s thigh, watching Harry work to clean his ankle.

Louis brings over the gauze as Harry pats his ankle dry. It’s not as bad as it looked with all the blood but the bite is still pretty deep, he’ll be feeling it for the next few days he reckons. Harry has to adjust the ottoman to put the gauze on proper and knocks Niall’s ankle. It burns and he flinches slightly, but Zayn barks at Harry as if hurting Niall is worse than anything. Niall chuckles.

“Not your ankle babe!!” Harry retorts, cradling Niall’s heel steadily while he wraps. “And,” he adds, “If you didn’t scare the light of God out of the poor boy, he wouldn’t have ran so…”

Zayn looks hurt, wrapping a hand around Niall’s thigh and squeezing him, as if anchoring him softly to the armchair. The King looks up at him, practically seconds from begging, eyes glossy and wet. It’s still startling how unreal the King looks, skin smooth like polished gold, eye’s large, wide and beautiful.

Niall’s scared to touch but he does, cradling the King’s cheek softly reassuringly, the sharp stubble lining his jaw, warmth radiates from him like a metal oven. Niall’s mesmerized.

Royalty is on their knees for Niall. Practically speechless.

“Not going nowhere,” Niall supplies.

The rooms quiet again, and he's aware of the four sets of eyes looking at him. But glancing down at Zayn, it was a promise, something more than just a put out ankle and a bed, “You did save me’ life.”

The King nuzzles into his palm and Niall laughs, “Like a dog he is!”

Liam laughs too. Niall was starting to worry that annoyed and concerned were his only two emotions. But the King doesn’t find it as funny, looking grouchy, chin perched into the meat of Niall’s thigh, which is starting to cramp.

Harry finishes the tie of his gauze, snug and clean. “There we go! Heal in a week,” He smiles, tying up his curls into a bun. Out of what might be a habit (Niall hopes not), Harry smacks Niall’s calf and he yelps in pain.

Zayn growls loud as Louis yells, “Hazza!”

“Sorry, sorry!”

Niall just laughs tiredly through the ache. He could get used to this.

 

----

 

It’s not that Niall minds being carried, it just doesn’t happen in his normal life. As if he lived any other life, ignoring the reading he did on reincarnation in bible study a summer ago. His hillside town life felt normal. The small farm with horses, stable cats, cattle and chickens felt normal. Waking up at dawn to work with Dad in the shop, making faces at Lou’s three year old daughter, just to see her smile, was normal. Life was normal.

Thinking objectively, losing as much blood as he has (or feels like), can play some tricks on his mind. It probably is when he wakes up the next morning in his chamber bed, not remembering getting there. Faint memories of being carried by a Witch King wash through like a tide only to recede again into confusion and tired aching.

It’s funny, having to remind himself that talking birds are not normal. Shapeshifting Kings with gorgeous eyes, cheekbones that could cut through glass and manhandling fetishes are not normal.

But the longer he sits in bed the faster he’s comes to a state beyond coziness, it’s called fucking burning. Finding he’s covered in at least every single quilt in the castle – okay, it’s like ten quilts and that’s still overdoing it. He’s not dying of hypothermia, that’s for sure.

Slipping from his bed and stepping on the wood floor hurts his ankle, but the floor is warm. Weirdly so, cooling after being hot. It’s the kind of thing that happens when the family dog sleeps at the foot of the bed and has already left to steal the morning toast from the table. Niall chuckles at the memory. Greg had been so angry.

He crouches to touch the floor because his brain has to be playing tricks on him. But it’s warm, compared to the floor further away from the bed. Niall stands up abruptly, caught in the thought that maybe the King slept there that night. It strains his weak knee and his ankle alike. But if the King slept on the floor? On the side next to Niall?

A hot flush burns his cheeks, and ears, like a damn crush he’s got. It’s stupid so Niall does what Irishmen do with they feel these things; heartache, puppy love, and flustering heat.

Bury his emotion so deep in his chest that one day he’ll die and float to heaven with it.

He’s just in his sweater and pants, his trousers gone to the wash he reckons, being covered in snow, dirt and blood. Ignoring the idea that the King took them off to put him to bed he thinks Harry must have done it – makes him feel better, but not by much.

Crying in front of strangers, being chased and bitten by wolves, then being saved by a wolf demigod all in one night serves for a better day, innt?

There’s a small peck at the door as he finishes changing into clean pajamas; he’s disappointed there’s no note. The knob turns and a raven enters; karma works in weird ways.

“Breakfast is ready,” the bird says with less enthusiasm than the morning before. It doesn’t sound the same as Harry does, and not the twang Louie has. Assuming all of the birds are named after the gentlemen he met last night, connecting the dots isn’t too hard even this early.

“Thank you, Liam?” Niall says because he could never be too sure. Blood loss and that.

The bird nods, standing at the door politely. Niall likes this bird best.

Stairs are terrible, horrible things, if it’s not his ankle, it’s his knee or the newly blossoming bruise on his hip. But relief comes sweet with eggs and mash and maybe too many of Harry’s biscuits. There’s another note on his plate but he ignores it in favor of eating more food.  

Liam is quiet most of the trip, and all of breakfast but Louie joins them, perched on the back of his chair eating his own piece of bread. It goes for Niall’s eggs and he swats at the bird, abit sacrilegious to feed a bird what potentially could have been a baby bird. It’s gross and weird, and he tells Louie just as much.

“That’s an egg, like a baby bird. Don’t eat it.”

He’s not sure of the noise the raven makes, but it sounds an awful lot like laughing. Niall hates Louie for it.

Liam seems insistent that Niall read the note, right now. Keeps knocking it closer to Niall throughout breakfast, and his anxiety finally breaks, giving in to the damn bird.

Niall doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to the King’s handwriting, being as beautiful as it is. His heart flips in his chest, when he reads, “Dear Niall” and he swallows his hot tea to numb the burn in his face. God, feelings are the worst.

First and foremost, I’m glad to know that you’re safe, but be forewarned that another attempt won’t be met with such kindness. I keep you in these walls to keep you safe, I cannot control the ruination that’ll occur if you choose to run. I hope you understand that.

Niall nods despite himself, glancing at Liam who turns away quickly, flying onto the chandelier edge. It swings and Niall hates the way he blames that for the way his stomach flips.

Second, it was brought to my attention that you were interested in the greenhouse. I had it opened for you for explore. But keep in mind that you are injured so keep the tasks at a minimum.

Dinner will be served before sundown.

I will not be late, Z 

Well, that was more pleasant than he was expecting. He wasn’t expecting much but this note was lighter and not littered with anger. It was… nice. For a second when he folds the note, placing it in his chest pocket of his sleeping kit, he forgets Louie is still sitting at his shoulder. The bird squawks, driving to snatch the note.

“Oi! It’s mine, thief!” Slapping a hand on his chest, keeping the note pinned down.

“It’s mine!” Louie parrots, because he’s a dumb bird.

“You think you’re a riot, don’t you?” Swatting the bird away, getting up from the breakfast table and taking his dirty plate to the kitchen. He might be in a castle but his Dad raised him right.

“Should be roasted for dinner, you lot,” he says just to see Louie look as offended as a bird can. It’s hilarious.

Traveling through the kitchen he gets to steal more biscuits from the bread box. Harry lets him take two more after a right cuddle – scratching the birds neck, and leaving with a pat on the head.

Niall totters to the living room from the night before, noticing the two sofas missing. He shrugs the thought off, finding some flint and starter rocks by the fireplace, and some thin tinder on the side. It works to start a small fire that will keep lit for at least a few hours, he reckons.

The armchair is just as soft as it was last night, and in minutes he falls asleep, mid biscuit bite. But he’s so warm, safe, thinking of King’s with eyes of golden starlight – he doesn’t care.

When he wakes he’s not sure how long he’s slept but the sun is in his eyes so he’s guessing it has to be around lunch. Draped in a mysterious blanket that he’s sure wasn’t in the room before, Niall pulls it off, kind of disappointed his biscuit is gone. The blanket is soft, smells like earth and something else that makes his stomach warm.

Niall’s not hungry for lunch, telling Harry who says, “Good”, feeding him one of the cookies he had last night. And damn, is it just as delicious. Harry should win a national award for best bird who can make gourmet food, bet it’s out there somewhere, just waiting to be won.

Liam tells him to keep resting when Niall asks for directions to the greenhouse. Some how he convinces the raven otherwise with a cuddle by the cooling embers of the fire.

The King must never care for his birds because they melt into cozy chicks if you pet them under the chin. It’s funniest thing, watching Louie get jealous, then Harry and soon enough he’s covered in three whining birds who all want to be pet. Niall doesn’t mind, it’s nice to be wanted.

The granite is cold on his feet and it’s a slow, aching trek to the back of the castle where the greenhouse entrance is. Liam leaves to get him socks (bless his tiny bird heart), and Louie just likes to disappear so it’s just him and Harry when he enters the completely trashed greenhouse.

Bags of soil that line the brick side look older than him, dust and soot coats everything in a slick paste that liquefies with a touch. There are broken clay pots and dug up dead bushes that could be God knows what. But it’s something to do, and his fingers itch for the heat of fresh soil and the triumph of a seed well set.

“Harry,” he sighs, the bird nuzzles his cheek and caws quietly. “This is a right mess. When was the last time any of this was–” He picks up what could have been a rose bush.

“Never,” Harry supplies.

“That’s for damn sure,” he laughs.

After Liam brings him black slippers and the warmest socks he’s ever worn, Niall slowly gets to cleaning. There’s a broom that’s seen better days along the brick, and he cleans what he can in his state. Harry leaves to get him some tea, but he’s never alone, when one bird leaves another enters, between the three birds.

Liam’s helpful, but quiet, as if the bird isn’t sure what exactly to say. It doesn’t answer Niall’s few questions about their human counterparts, so the bird’s either not as well trained in english, or stubborn as all hell. Liam gets particularly catty when the King’s brought up, so Niall has a tickling, it’s the latter.

Harry comes back with a small trolley, Niall’s cuppa and another cookie. He breaks it apart in threes, giving Harry and Liam each a small share. Not exactly sure what ravens can and can not eat, but watching Louie eat half a cheese plate and most of the ham at breakfast, Niall thinks the list is short and few between.

Harry is filled with jokes all afternoon, and Liam leaves halfway through cleaning.

“Must be a birden to be funny, Liam,” Harry says brokenly once Liam trots away with a croak. It’s mad is what it is. Must be against some law for a bird to make jokes about itself.

“It’s contradictory,” Niall laughs. “Right brilliant, you’re a bird making bird jokes, wouldn’t thought of that. You’re just like him, ya’know?”

Harry lands on the ledge of a tiered wooden shelf meant to hold plants, the bird cocks its head, “Who?”

“That another joke?” Niall laughs, watching Harry squawk and ruffle his feathers, it’s as close to annoyed a bird can look. He finds a stool and eases to sit on it, ankle aching like nothing else, making it hard to stand.

“Harry, I mean. The boy that’s named after you, or summat – it’s all really confusing to tell ye’ the truth.”

Harry doesn’t say anything, just picks at a splinter, which annoying. How little everyone talks about these things, these secrets they’re holding. The things he’s asking are real questions, aren’t they? Or is he just losing it, imagining birds are people and people are birds. But it’s worth a shot to finally ask.

“Where do they go, ya’ know?” Confused by his own question he clarifies, “I mean–like, last night I met a boy named Harry, bakes and stuff just like you. And Louis was there, a lot like Louie, Same like–” Niall squints his eyes as if to prove the point, but he’s talking to a fucking bird for, Christ’s sake.

“The same glint in his eyes – I’m, fuck, I’m just talking the shit aren’t I?”

Niall sighs because Harry isn’t answering other than cawing at him. Using the broom, he steadies himself to stand, picking up his half empty mug and downing the cold bitters thats left. Harry flies to his shoulder, silent and mysterious and still a fucking bird.

This is his normal now.

The greenhouse is relatively clean, in better shape than it was coming in, organized now, stored so he can actually start planting tomorrow. Hopefully his knee won’t start bothering anymore than it is already, and his ankle is just little sore. The socks Liam got him must be woven with magic because the compression numbs a lot of the pain, easier for him to walk around. His knee is another story.

“Just us three!” Harry says on their way back to the dining room not really answering anything.

“I know Harry,” He scratches underneath it’s beak and down it’s neck just to reassure the raven because by this point Niall’s not sure if he wants an answer anyway. Harry purrs, and Niall sighs, “I know.”


------

 

Niall’s in the tub scratching his fingers to get the dust from underneath his hands and nails when there’s a small rasp at the door.

“Come in!”

It’s just Liam, Niall can tell them apart now. Louie is always a little cock-eyed, small eyes but a presence to the bird thats bright. Harry is just loud, not timid but a small polite wit. Niall’s not too sure about Liam if he’s honest, but the raven is the politest, and it’s nice in comparison.

The bird digs at a place in it’s wing before turning to face the door, “Dinner is ready!”

It takes a second at staring at the door, then back at Liam to figure out that the bird is embarrassed that Niall’s naked. It’s a riot. Getting up fully from the warm bath water is suffering, but as he calls, “Hey Liam!” the raven’s sudden squawk and toppling out of the bathroom is a sight Niall never thought he needed to see.

Harry gave him fresh gauze before his wash and he wraps his ankle gently. Thinking it’s best to look sharp, Niall puts on the dark trousers and fancy white shirt found on his vanity from the other night. It’s dinner with the King and all.

The hot bath loosened his joints and cleaned his ankle making the stairs less painful than this morning. A bruise still rots his side but it’s tolerable. His knee isn’t making him totter like his granddad who’s turning ninety anymore, gives him confidence, walking into the dining hall.

But the chair across from Niall’s is empty, stood up again.

“He’s coming,” Louie says at his ankle, bouncing like he wants to be picked up. Niall’s a trained dog by this point, these birds have put him on a wire, cradling Louie in his arms.

Sitting down Niall can see the dining hall shining now. The candles on the chandelier are all lit sparkling a dim light through the maroon painted room, the cherry oak floors glow, almost glass like. Much more luxurious than the other meals he’s had here with just the fire and spare candles on the table. This feels nine-courses-and-tiramisu-for-dessert fancy, a true King’s dinner – Jesus Christ it’s a damn romantic date, it is.  

Niall’s ears burn.

Liam enters first, looking sheepish at Niall. Harry slips a thick napkin onto his lap and the doors across from Niall open. The King stands before it, clothed underneath his cloak (Which Niall ignores because he will not think about how naked the King was before, leaning his chin on Niall’s thigh in nothing but his damn birthday suit, begging Niall to stay. Nope, not thinking about it at dinner).

Niall tries to look away, but there’s something just so alluring about him. Maybe it’s the way he looks so large but fragile underneath the magnificent cloak. Or maybe its the way he walks, like he’s carrying a heavy burden. The world spinning dense on his shoulders, but he’s used to the weight.  

Where would you put a weight like that down if you could?

Niall wonders if he ever has.

“How are you going to get anything around the dead bear on your head?” Niall says to lighten the mood. He earns a low angry growl for his troubles and Liam glaring at him from his perch on one of the King’s antlers.

Niall shoves one of Harry’s rolls into his mouth so he doesn’t say anything else stupid.

Dinner is incredible, Harry really outdone himself. Wine, a full roasted chicken, two different kinds of mashed potatoes, different roasted vegetables, some Niall’s never tried, like beets. What the hell are beets?

The King is quiet, and it’s weird to hear the birds call him by name. Zayn, it is. Niall knows but isn't worthy, or honored enough to say so. Too intimate, raw – Niall fully met him once when he saved his life and sat naked at his feet for hours. He tries out King Zayn in his head, getting used to it but second guessing himself at the last minute.

Not sure if he’s paranoid or it’s his nerves but he swears the King’s head perks up each time Niall goes to say something. It’s a little overwhelming so he buries it in food and another glass of wine.

Breaking his second, maybe third, piece of bread (because he’s a growing lad) Niall smiles, “I better not find feathers in this, Harry, I swear.”

“Will not,” Harry caws.

“Is that a challenge?”

“I made the mash!” Louie cuts in.

“Are there feathers in that too, Louie? You gotta tell me mate, I already had half a bowl n’ I wouldn’t want to pop an egg out later like.”

A sharp bark comes from across the table, and Zayn looks embarrassed with it. He’s seconds from tearing the skin from his lip from smiling, Niall notices. It makes him preen brightly, accomplished, but it’s quiet again and Niall doesn’t want this warmness to fade.

“I–um, thank you for opening the greenhouse for me,” Niall says to his green beans before looking up at the King. So fucking intense he is, stopping everything he’s doing to listen to Niall. It’s alot to say the least.

“It was a wreck, smashed as all hell in there –” the King looks away sharply, “But it’s fine, nothing a little broom and elbow grease didn’t fix.” Niall tries to smile, but it’s too forced so he takes another bite of chicken breast and moans – fuck is it good, melting in his mouth. The King growls lowly before taking his own timid bite. Niall flushes.

“Uh– I would finish it, like– the greenhouse I mean. Like maybe some rose bushes could be started. You have the seed for it and they’re in good shape. Maybe some sunflowers potted for the spring would be pretty, innit?” By this point Niall doesn’t really expect an answer so he continues. “Maybe some spices like rosemary, mint and thyme? For the kitchen, how that sound Harry?”

The raven chirps, landing on his shoulder to butt its head into Niall’s like it has before, but under the scrutiny of the King? Niall's taut, like he isn’t allowed. Unclear, the King’s face is calm watching his raven nuzzle into his prisoner, with that look of holding back a grin. Harry all by forces him to pet him proper, and the King looks down fondly. It calms Niall a little but not by much.

“Clean up!” Louie says not too long after. Niall notices the sun is gone leaving a firelight in the winter sky and it’s gorgeous, coming through the ivy windows of the hall. It causes the chandelier above them to glow in a soft gold, setting an orange blaze on everything. It’s breathtaking.

“Hoo do you think you are?” Harry caws back at Louie.

And because Niall’s been spending too much time with Harry, “Yeah, don’t be so fowl!”

The King lets out another delighted bark, almost like a happy pup. Niall holds back a cackle because that would be rude, and the King smiling is something he should be doing always. It lights up a room even from under the cloak. Niall downs his wine to keep from swooning.

“Clean up!” Liam chimes in this time.

“Alright, I’m leaving,” Niall stands, watching the King do the same.

Zayn ends up walking him to his chamber and the walk is sweet. He winces half way up the stairs, knee finally giving up a little, and the King slips a warm claw on his lower back keeping him steady. The weight is heavy, hot, and lingers once he takes it away; Niall wishes he could wrap himself in it. Just bundle himself in the cloak right on the King’s chest where it’s warm and safe. Like a blushing bride he is.

“You don’t talk much do you,” Niall says as an after thought, the trip to his door is too short.

Of course the King doesn’t answer, dragging his teeth across his lip. It’s distracting and Niall watches the movement, licking his lips in return. Zayn’s eyes do the same. Well then.

“So you can’t talk–”

The words die in Niall's mouth as his cheek is cradled, the nostalgia of before setting dense around them. But the burn of his hands is satisfying in the cold corridor, and Niall reaches his hand to the King’s to hold him there.

Zayn starts to whine slightly, like a dog. It breaks the mood but Niall laughs.

“Oh, ok,” taking the claw from his face and cradling it in own hands. “Night, ya big bad wolf.”

The King doesn’t pull away but huffs, turning his hand to hold Niall’s gently. Zayn lets go after too long (not long enough, Niall argues) and disappears into the dark shadows at the other end of the unlit hallway.

“Witch Kings and shadows, I tell ya’, “ Niall whines to his door knob.

His bed's like heaven getting into it, soft and cool. Being around such heat as the King does things to a man, Niall smiles thinking of it. The latch on his door clicks as he’s on the cusp of sleep, and he feels a small breeze flow through to be shut out again.

Pretending to sleep, he rolls over and reaching for the warm fur at the edge of his bed, petting it slightly to hear a soft purr. With it, his sleep takes him.

 

-----

Most of the next day is spent in the greenhouse with the ravens. They aren’t as much help together as they are separately. If it’s not Louie spilling pot soil all over Liam, it’s Harry plucking at Louis’ loose feathers to watch him squawk. By the first hour Niall’s had to clean up two broken pots, save Harry from being trapped underneath one large ceramic bin and a whole load of topsoil being spilt all over the greenhouse floor.

Niall kicks them out by hour two.

Harry comes back halfway through planting his third box of rosemary with an apologetic sandwich and hot chocolate. The chocolate is rich, sweet but it warms Niall’s ache, sitting dirty in a cool greenhouse. Despite it being winter, the greenhouse it relatively warm. Harry joins him in his quiet break.

“Where does–Zayn go?” Niall asks starting on his second half of his sandwich. Smoked salmon and sweet dill mayonnaise it is, feels too fancy to be a sandwich. “I don’t see him around like.”

“The Library,” Harry says eating a chunk of bread Niall hands it.

“Where’s that?”

“Locked!”

“It’s locked?” It's wrong to be hurt by the distrust, being a prisoner and all. But what was last night? Niall’s been on a few dates before and that was sure as all hell a date. Shoving the rest of his lunch in his mouth, he stands. His knee gives a timid groan, but his ankle is alright, rolling it around in his boot.

“What do you think he does then?”

“Read.” Harry supplies, “It’s a Library, Niall.”

“Ha, ha,” he says getting in Harry face. The raven snaps his beak at him and Niall flinches away, listening to the bird clucking and taking the empty plate with him.

“I hate birds.” Niall says to the empty doorway, finishing the last of his pots.

It’s almost sun down, the light in the sky hazy over the tops of the forest’s edge. The greenhouse is a honeyed maroon, glazing the filled pots, lining the tiered shelf along the windows. Gorgeous, really. Niall sweeps the floor for any loose seed when he bumps into Zayn, or really Zayn looms behind Niall’s step.

Almost whacks him with the broom, he does, thinking he should wear a bell so Niall doesn’t die of a heart attack.

“Warn me, would you?” Niall says a little breathless, and a bit too close. "Getting gray hairs from you four, I swear."

The King does nothing but stare at the rows of pots and small already sprouting seeds, breaking the soils edge. Has he never seen a plant before? Niall starts to point out the types, as Zayn leans closer. Thyme in the first two, a little bit of dill, mint, rosemary and garlic in a small water basin. It’s the sunflower thats growing steady, and Zayn crouches to cradle the small pot in his hands.

He looks up with eye wide, peering heavy from underneath the head dress, and Niall smiles.

“That I found in the back side of the iron shelf, thought it was dead but– Just a little bit of water and sun can go a long way, ya’ know?”

Zayn nods at Niall, placing the pot back in it’s place gently as if he’s scared he’ll break it looking at it any longer. It’s amazing how gentle the King is even though he takes up so much space, as if he’s consistently shrinking himself. Niall wants to touch him, reach out and tell him how warm he is, how it must be so hard to close himself in walls and fur and elusive sneers.

Niall believes there’s always a light on the other side, the grass will get greener by keeping it watered. He reaches out to grab the King’s hand because he can see it happening, this weight holding Zayn down. Niall’s shoulders are strong, nothing this big should be carried alone.

“Thank you– Zayn,” Niall says because he can’t think of anything else. “For this, I mean.”

The King looks hurt, eyes wide and scared but he grips Niall’s hand tight before letting go, and disappearing out the doorway. He takes something of Niall with him and the greenhouse seems shallow, breathing softly on it’s own silent accord. It’s peaceful, Niall breathes with it.

Harry comes to collect him for dinner after he finishes his cleaning, saying the King won’t be joining them for tonight. But it’s alright, Niall’s not sure why but it doesn’t bother him. A small kitchen dinner sounds nice.

Turning a second glance at his collection of pots, the maroon sky shines into a dulling blue.

“One day at a time guys,” Niall says, before shutting the greenhouse door.  

------

Niall sleeps restlessly that night, waking up a few times, achy, each clump of down in the mattress bunching in all the wrong places. It strains his back, and the bruises on his hips, so he decides he might as well get up.

It’s still dark, crescent moon is high – he feels so withdrawn from time so he doesn’t try to guess. Slips on the black slippers Liam gave him earlier and his knitted robe, Niall braces for the locked door, pick in hand. But as he turns the lock, it clicks opening wide. Something in him feels guilty for leaving if they trust him not to. He’s just hungry and a small snack won’t try to kill anyone this time.

Taking the stairs slow, he rounds into the foyer hearing more commotion in the kitchen, smells like Harry’s making something good.

“What do you think we should do, Liam? Force him to trust Zayn?” It sounds like Louis, but this is private, not meant for Niall to hear.

Leaning up on the wall by the kitchen door, he listens anyway. Might answer some questions, privacy and manners be damned.

“And you trust this kid?” Liam says, and Niall tries not to be offended.

“I do,” Harry says quietly, more further away. Niall strains to hear him.

“You barely know him!”

“Liam, he’s funny, he thinks I’m funny. Likes my cooking, what's there not to like?”

“Pretty too,” Louis, saying something Niall can’t hear but Harry laughs and Liam groans.

“If Niall doesn’t at least trust Zayn by this coming full moon, the curse says Zayn’s dead. He’s gone,” Liam says harshly, and Niall sits heavily, appetite running from him.

His eyes sting, throat is swollen with worry and how could Zayn be dying? Niall needs to trust Zayn to keep him from dying? He barely knows him, barely knows if he can.

“It goes both ways Liam,” Louis cuts through Niall’s thoughts. “Does Zayn trust him?”

It’s quiet, for a brief moment, Harry sighs, “Come on Liam, he has to have told you somethin–”

“The sun,” Liam says distantly, trying to remember something word by word. Niall searches for something symbolic, is Zayn just not getting enough sun? “He kept saying, the Sun, that he’s nervous it’ll burn out.”

“I told you he needs to stop reading Thoreau,” Louis scoffs.

“No– I’m not sure what he meant, but I think he trusts Niall, but he's nervous? I’m not sure how we can help but I told him he needs to open up or he’s as good as dead.” Liam sounds tired and Niall suddenly realizes that he is too.

“We’ve got a week boys, how do we make two idiots fall in love?” Louis says loudly. Niall goes to nervously laugh but covers his mouth at the last minute. The boys don’t seem to notice.

“I asked myself the same thing when I fell for you two,” Harry says.

There’s smacking noises and Niall won’t be here to listen to kitchen sex because his appetite has already left him with worry. Creeping back up the stairs with more panic than he came down for, Niall tries to figure out all the reasons why he doesn’t trust Zayn. He comes up empty, feeling worse than before. How does he fall in love?

The gold of his chamber door flickers with the hall lanterns beckoning him into the darkness. Niall knows his bed is soft and the pillows will be warm but the darkness is almost too heavy.

Taking the plunge, he closes the door behind him quietly. Something tells him he might already be in love. The burden is lead, hefty in his chest but light on his fingertips, his legs are weak in a different way than the aches and bruises from before.

Niall goes to bed hungry for tomorrow. He whispers to the dark, “One day at a time”.  

 

 

Chapter Text


“I want to at least help save them,” Niall sighs, tugging his work boots on, tying them tight.

Harry said that Liam had cleaned his boots, and is the one that has been cleaning a lot of his clothes, which Niall is grateful for. The castle doesn’t really have work clothes, everything is lined with fleece, silk or gorgeous cotton. That isn’t farming attire.

That’s an evening with the queen, or a luxurious nap in the summer house attire. A shame really, Niall thinks.

The trousers he came in work just as fine, plus the tall wool socks Harry had given him. So he's pretty set for the day.

“Zayn won’t like it.” Liam crows from the doorway of the castle hall.

“Oops,” Niall laughs, jumping into the snow outside the door and shrugging. He spares a cackle at Liam’s ruffled squawk. Pushing the exit door open was hard from all the snow, and he’s not going to close it because Zayn might get grumpy that Niall went outside to save the last of the rose bushes.

The birds follow him anyway, Harry landing on his shoulder and Liam who lands ungracefully into a snow pile.

“Missed my arm by a mile there Liam,” Niall chuckles, digging the black bird from the snow, brushing off the soft flakes from it’s inky feathers. The raven struggles a little in Niall’s grip but is subdued by the almighty chin scratch. Liam snuggles deeper into Niall’s warm jacket Harry gave him, fits him better than Greg’s that for sure.

“Where’d you say the shed was?” Squinting in the blinding light of the sun reflecting off the crystal snow.

“Ahead,” Harry says, and Niall trudges further until he sees a small shack, with a tree growing from the middle of it. Niall stands at it’s rusted doors, covered in ivy and snow, laughing.

“When you said a while Harry, I didn’t think a hundred years,” Niall trips backwards with his laugh.

“It’s not that long!” Harry flies to the top of the shack, pecking at the metal shingles. It makes a horrendous scratching noise Niall doesn’t appreciate, shivering with it.

“Oi, stop it and help me with this door!”

Kicking the foot of snow from the door’s edge he pries it open enough for Harry to slip inside. Liam’s keeping his neck warm from under the jacket, nudging it’s head behind Niall’s ear to remind him that the bird’s there. With a few metal snaps Harry crows, “Pull!”

And Niall does.

The metal door pulls as easy as a rusted metal door does after being shut for God knows how long, but it’s enough for Niall to slip through, finding exactly what he came for.

The shed is filled with different gardening supplies, shovels, axes, hoes, some more bags of soil which will come in handy for the rose bushes. A red wheelbarrow in pretty good shape catches Niall’s eye and he pulls it from the corner, ignoring some rakes and more shovels that fall over. The huge oak shooting through the shed makes it a bit of a squeeze but not terribly so. His coops at home are smaller.

“OK!” Niall claps his hands, bringing them up to his mouth and blowing to warm them. He should have asked for gloves. “It looks like there’s some seed’s up on that shelf, Harry could you grab those and put it in here,” tapping the edge of the cold wheelbarrow.

The raven does so, as Niall looks for more supplies, adding the large bag of topsoil into his carriage. He jostles Liam a bit with the weight of the bag, the bird whines.

Niall groans, “Sorry.”

Adding two more bags, Niall’s breathless, “See anything good up there Harry?”

The bird caws but he’s not fluent on raven noises yet, and assumes Harry will find what he finds, and it’ll be good.

After swinging one last bag of topsoil into the wheelbarrow, Liam gets annoyed enough that the raven sacrifices it’s warmth to help Harry. Some square pieces of what might be sheets of oak, covered in linen are hiding behind a wooden shelf. They knock together as Niall shifts through the shelf trying to find a hand shovel. Curiously, he slides it out without much struggle, besides being covered in dust.

The linen is stained in dirt and soot, yellowing with age. Niall quickly glances up at the bird’s who are occupied by something on a shelf on the other side of the shed, and starts to uncover the planks gently. They’re not planks at all, but paintings, portraits, looking very similar to the one of the boy in his room.  

He sifts through them quietly, seeing one of a boy with tan skin, and amber eyes, light with a soft face. It looks similar to the King but younger, supple and happy; Niall wonder’s if the King remembers looking like this. Something hard rattles his chest, like remembering an old friend and wondering how they’re doing after so many years. Lifting from it’s arrangement to fully look at it, there’s a signature at the bottom Niall can’t read.

“Is this–?” Niall looks up at the birds who peer down at him, Liam’s unreadable but Harry glides down at his shoulder.

“Zayn,” the bird finishes.

“Zayn’s!” Liam squawks, flying down ontop of Niall head and pulling some of his hair with his beak. 

“Owch, Liam, what the hell?!” Swatting the bird off, he picks up a portrait of four boys in what looks like a tussle. Liam lands back on his bicep and crows loudly in Niall’s face.

“Excuse me!” Harry squawks back, as Niall flinches. The raven tackles Liam to the ground into the dirt of the shed floor with another screech.

Confused by the random aggression, Niall takes time to look at the painting. It’s all the boys he met the other night, his ankle giving a tired ache at the thought.

“Zayn, Louis, Liam and Harry?” Showing the portrait to the wrestling ravens. “Innit?”

The birds stop and look at each other, quiet.

Realisation hits Niall’s in the face so hard he slumps onto the tree trunk for safety of fainting. Harry is the boy that cooks, and the raven that cooks. Liam is a person, Louis is a person, but they’re also birds? But they're people, who are birds? It makes sense in a totally inane way that has a voice in his head screaming, I told you so, and it's exhausting.

Trying to find words to express this understanding is harder than expected as he croaks out a confused, “Birds?!

Harry chirps a laugh, as Liam totters over to his boot, tapping on the metal top. Niall shakily picks him up, “You’re a bird.”

Liam nods, crawling up the grip to perch at his shoulder and looking down at the painting in Niall’s hand. “Us three,” the raven supplies.

“Is this the curse?” Niall whispers, caught with a secret he wasn’t meant to share.

Louis hadn’t been subtle the night of the incident, and it’s not like they know he heard them last night. But that catches Harry’s breath mid crow, and Liam leans most of his tiny bird weight onto Niall’s cheek as an answer.

“Well now that the cat’s out of the bag,” Niall shrugs trying to lighten the mood for his own sanity. “Or would it be raven– now that the raven’s out of the bag! Ha!”

Harry whistles, perching on a shovel handle in the wheelbarrow as Niall covers the paintings again. He contemplates taking the one of the four boys but it’s a little too big to keep and the greenhouse isn’t all that clean. The portraits are too precious.

“Who painted them– curious is all,” Niall shrugs, taking his last looks before sliding them back in place.

“Zayn!” Harry says, rebalancing himself as Niall starts to pull the carriage out.

“Did he now? They’re really good, no wonder his script is–” Niall whistles low, just thinking about the beautiful curly lines of his name inscripted in the letters he gets each morning. This mornings letter was sweet, told him about the other supplies in the shed. It didn’t say he could go out and get it. Actually the letter told him explicitly that Louis or Liam would get it, but again, they were birds – or thats all Niall knew them as.

Pushing the wheelbarrow through into the greenhouse, exhausted, he sighs, “So can you just turn into, ya’know yourself again?”

“At night.” Liam says, little more open than he has been, as if this whole keeping the curse underwraps was their big bump in the road.

“Makes sense. I was starting to wonder if the King just kept you all locked up like, somewhere which was making me worry more than anything.”

Crouching to pick up Harry, he scratches under it’s wing softly, as Liam keeps butting his hair, “But yer’all just a bunch of birds, ha!”

Liam nips his ear and Niall laughs, “Owch! Rude!”

 

-----

 

Walking back from the kitchen, Niall absently chews sandwich after placing the rest of the small spice pots in the kitchen windows. They were cluttering the shelf in the greenhouse after Niall replanted a lot of the snow buried rose bushes. Some of them were too old, or unsaveable, but hopefully when the snow lets up he can dig them out, and place the new ones back in.

It’s hard thinking about the future. How long will he be here? Months? Years? Thinking about what the boys said last night, What if Zayn does die because he doesn’t love Niall back? The bread tastes dull and pasty in his mouth at the thought, and he wants to throw it, and yell and scream.

But he doesn’t, forcing himself to take another bite as he continues down the wing. The roses need to be watered.

Passing the large golden doors, he notices they’re open again like his first day here. One jarred showing nothing but black, darker compared to the shining gold trim. They’re tall, standing in front of it with his sandwich, he's dwarfed like a child. Reaching to the ceiling, they’re carved with an inscription he still can’t read (even when he squints, because that helps), he wonders what language it’s in.

Peeking his head through the jarred door, he tries to look around again nothing but black.

Finding a lit candle down the hall a little way, he runs over to snatch it. Exchanging the lit candle with an old burnt out one in a holder from a small hallway table, Niall takes his slipping sandwich from his mouth and wiping the spit on his chin with his shoulder.

“That’ll do,” He says, adjusting the candle so it’s stable in the holder.

Taking another bite of his sandwich gives him the confidence to enter the darkness.

The candlelight is helpful, but still only slightly. Niall’s never seen a dark so dense it refuses to bend into a shadow. Shining a light on a small stack, he notices it’s a tower of books. They’re everywhere, just stacks of books in different sizes line a path through what must the library. It’s slowly dawning on him that he should probably not be in here.

It was a mistake.

But the walls are so beautiful, and there are so many books, he wants to travel deeper until he can’t be found. It’s addicting the different curiosities this room holds with each step, maps of places Niall’s never seen, pressed exotic flowers in frames, golden painted bookcases that shimmer in the candle light. He’s nervous, rightfully so but his legs keep traveling deeper.

A growl echos behind him and Niall tries his best to turn around as calmly as possible. The King is inches from his face, soft tan skin illuminated in the candlelight, eyes a bright amber. The King looks panicked.

Niall remembers the beautiful boy in the painting, the prince the King was once.

He swallows his anxiety.

“Sandwich?” Niall extends his lunch like a sign of peace. Niall wonders if he was turned into a bird it might be a dove. Or a blue jay if they weren’t assholes.

The King looks bewildered, eyes still wide. Opening his mouth he doubtfully takes a bite of Niall’s extended sandwich, chewing it slowly like it might kill him. Niall shrugs off his worry with his own bite of his sandwich.

Zayn nods then, leaning forward into Niall’s space for another bite.

“Want some?” Niall says after he swallows, watching as Zayn nods shaking the headdress a bit.

He hands the King the candle watching as he inspects the handle while Niall tries to rip his sandwich in half, giving him the bigger piece. “Here!”

Zayn takes it in exchange for the light, disappearing into the darkness again, which Niall for a second forgets they’re in– complete and utter darkness.

“Anyway we could turn on a light, or open a curtain? I don’t know about you but I’d like to see where I’m going.”

Laughing nervously, Niall’s met with nothing but silence. The feeling of anxiety crowds him again, so he finishes his sandwich.

A swift gust sounds and the room is brightened to blinding.

Flinching into a squint, Niall trips over a stack of books before readjusting. Two beautiful windows illuminate the entire library, showing three stories of books stretching high to a ceiling so far away it looks like the sky. Zayn is on the second tier of windows, pushing the great emerald curtains open and sliding down what might be the world’s longest ladder.

Niall’s never seen so many books in his life. Even with the towers of books lining the floor, the shelves are filled to the brim. No empty space, just books. Niall chuckles blowing out his now insignificant candle, “So this is where you go hiding.”

The King tries to growl at him with a sandwich in his mouth and hilariously fails. Niall rises his brows at the sight, and continues to awe at the space. It’s so large, looking up a set of curling metal stairs that lead to the second story.

Zayn moves to a wide nest of books, pillows and blankets closer to the middle of the room. Niall glances from the corner of his eye; the King wraps himself in a small familiar blanket before picking up a folded book from the stack next to him and starts reading. He seems unbothered by Niall’s presence, so he continues to climb the stairs to the second floor.

Touching the backs of the books in his reach, the dust come up, Niall looks closer, some shelves are more empty than others. The King must have picked out his favourites and kept them closer to him. Peering over the railing, he can see the little wall of books the nest is surrounded by.

Niall, as a kid, used to make blanket forts that Greg and him would read books in on stormy nights. Just a small lantern and his favourite story, trying to ignore the wrath whorling outside. Dad would always tell him to tear it down before bed but in that moment they were in a knitted castle where Romeo loved Juliet and witches lived in candy houses. It was their own fantasy, their own safety.

This must be Zayn’s safety, his little pillow fort, hiding from the storm outside. Niall wonders if the storm’s past, or if it’s still raging lowly in the King’s head; shaking the shutters and flooding the house. Suddenly a little anxious about this intrusion, Niall's genuinely honored that Zayn would let him into his home, into his shelter from the thunder.

Niall takes more care to not bump into the stacks of books on his way towards the nest.

“This where you sleep?” He asks timidly, a few feet from him not wanting to be rude.

Zayn peers over the book. He stares at Niall then down at the collection of blankets and pillows before hiding a what might be a blush behind his book. Niall smiles, taking seat where he stands, and taking a book from the stack next to him.

“Poe, huh?” Niall hums, flipping through the book. The spine is worn, well read he reckons. There’s a few pages dog eared as if kept for later and Niall doesn’t disturb them.

Zayn’s observing him, unashamed as he sits up and stares. Turning to face him again, Zayn seems stunned and confused, but hesitantly reaches out to Niall.

Panic runs sharp, as the dawning of what he’s done shoots through him– God –Niall could have touched the book he was about to read, or maybe fucked up his entire order. He’s so stupid! Embarrassed, he meets Zayn’s reach handing him the book, he stammers, “Sorry I didn’t–ahh!

Zayn growls grabbing Niall’s wrist instead and pulling him into the nest. Niall goes easy, letting Zayn wrestle him into his lap, and arranges Niall stiffly and awkward, as if he isn’t sure if he can touch. A laughs bubbles from Niall’s chest, once the King lets him rearrange himself accordly, sitting side by side.

There must be a mattress under them because it’s so soft in this little den Zayn’s made. Niall would sleep here too if he could, besides the fact he’s also being stabbed by a hardback on his arse. He digs for the book and pulls out a translation of Beowulf, cackling at the irony of it.

Zayn knocks his knee with Niall’s, peering over his book.

“Sorry,” Niall waves the translation at him as if its an excuse, before haphazardly placing it on a stack behind them. Zayn puffs a breathe before continue reading. The title reads Frankenstein, he squints. He’s always liked mystery books with thrill, but his Dad never really let him read the scary ones.

“The monster, right?” Niall says. 

Zayn flashes an annoyed glance before sitting up and handing Niall the book, face completely unreadable. Not sure what to do with it, Niall holds the page open, scanning the words for something he’s supposed to understand. The King hooks his chin on the round of Niall’s shoulder, the fur of the headdress tickling his ear.

“Want me to – uh, read it?”

Zayn hesitantly nods, knocking Niall’s shoulder a bit.

So Niall begins at the top of the page, and reads out loud, not sure of himself at first. As he continues, Zayn seems to melt into his side, becoming less awkward with each page. It’s the last chapter where Niall’s into the book, reading more fiercely that he realizes they’re cuddling proper.

Zayn’s head nuzzled into his hip, legs tangling with his own and some how Niall’s other hand is scratching the King’s head. The pillows and stacks of books brace Niall’s back as he reclines into the nest; it’s warm, and peaceful. He could stay here for years.

It just feels abrupt – the world around him kept spinning while he was stuck in the life of this scientist and the monster he created, the death he was surrounded by. Sunset is setting in, Niall can see the tops of trees through the enormous windows, the sky ablaze with the coming night.  Zayn turns to look at him. Eyes a gorgeous maroon in this light and it isn’t till then that Niall notices he’s stopped reading.

“Uh–” A blush creeps to his cheeks, caught gaping at the King so Niall smiles down at the book. “Sorry – I, where where we?”

 

-----

 

Niall wakes up a little too warm, and really hungry.

Opening his eyes, he expects to be in his giant victorian bed, confused at finding he’s in the darkness some place completely different. There’s a grip around him and a featherly breath on his neck; the moon is bright in the sky shining a dim white light on the stacks of books around him.

He must of fallen asleep while reading, and the notion of everything is overwhelming, so Niall does what he does best.

Panic.

Taking a steady breath, he turns until he’s facing the sleeping King, completely gone. They’re so close Niall could brush their noses together, if he tilted a certain way. The headdress is engulfing the small King in its fur and feather but he looks so soft, young. Niall, all at once, wants to take his pain away and bury it somewhere deep so no one can touch it again. So Zayn won’t ever look as tired as he does when he stares at Niall, as scared.

Zayn deserves better than this, better than what he’s been given, this pain, this anger. Maybe he’s falling into some trap this Witch King has created, or he’s falling for Zayn. Brushing the hair from his sleeping face, Niall prays it’s the latter.  

Reaching gently, Niall feels as though he’s holding something special, a tiny budded flower ready to blossom on the first of spring. Being careful not to move too much, Niall kisses his forehead and hums softly, engulfed by the warmth the King radiates. Like fire, his skin burns Niall’s lips and he pushes a little harder trying to say all the words he can’t express at once. Zayn doesn’t have to yell to get his way, nor does he have to hide away. Niall’s here, and he’s ready for whatever it is that’s coming for him.

As he lays back down in the King arm’s, dread tumbles through his stomach. He laces his fingers through the ones holding his stomach and it’s terrifying. Niall’s tired of questions, he just wants Zayn to be happy, he wants Zayn alive.

Niall closes his eyes, and hopes it’ll be enough to save him.

 

-----

 

The Library becomes their thing.

Whatever thing that happens to be or mean doesn’t really matter besides it’s theirs and Niall loves it.

He loves the way Zayn’s cheeks redden when Niall reads books in a darker voice to be dramatic, and he loves the way Zayn smiles at him when he thinks Niall can’t see him. It’s looking at the beautiful portrait of the boy the King used to be, and this man he’s become. But Niall doesn’t think much has changed because the King’s eyes still light up when the battle is won and the character in the story leaves the world victorious, cheering like a child.

A little bit later than noon, after he’s done his work in the greenhouse, Niall brings two freshly made sandwiches, picking up whatever book the King has chosen to be his favourite of the day, and they read. It’s nice. Niall’s always liked stories, reading just felt so out of the way with so much to do on the farm.  

Handing the King his own sandwich, Niall sits beside him. The closer he’s become with the King the less Niall sees him that way, and he wants to call Zayn, by Zayn. It all a fragile step towards something so Niall picks at the crust of his bread.

“Um, is it alright if I call you–” He can’t even meet the King–Zayn’s eyes, so he eats the ripped piece of bread. “I just don’t want to like, well if it’s a problem–”

The mattress sways underneath him and suddenly Zayn’s in his face, tilting his chin up to meet his. And he’s just smiling. It’s an answer if Niall’s ever heard one, and Niall smiles back, picking up his sandwich to eat it proper.

“So,” Niall says after a beat. “What’s the book today– Zayn?

Niall smiles at the King’s bark, his shoulders shaking trying to swallow his sandwich. It’s really endearing is what it is, and the weight in his chest he was trying so hard to bury is growing towards the warmth.

Zayn totters back with his laugh, falling back into the nest and splattering his sandwich on his chest, the headdress falling forward over his eyes. Niall laughs at the stunned face Zayn has, pushing the cloak right again. Picking up the smeared pieces of peanut butter on his chest, and licking them off his fingers, Niall giggles behind his flush trying hard to ignore the way the King’s mouth sounds licking his fingers.

Finally cleaned enough, Zayn reaches for a book on a stack in front of them, “If it’s Poe yer better put it down, I’m not reading him twice in a row– Just not!”

Niall picks up Oliver Twist (ignoring Zayn’s pout) because it’s his Dad’s favourite and thinks how much Da’ would like Zayn. It hurts his heart, so he just starts reading.


-----


The rose bushes are growing beautifully in the greenhouse since Niall brought them from the cold. Two of the four are already budding for the spring, their branches a rich dark green, healthy and strong. The other two are doing just as well, as he trims off some of the dead twigs from their time in the frost. Something must be in the water because the spices are full, sprouting up stronger each hour and Niall’s never seen anything like it.

His favourite is a tall growing sunflower that’s making the hike up to at least the length of Niall’s arm. Its done the most growing and he’s so proud of it. The little flower that could, that did, after being left in the dark of the shelf for so long. Had to repot it and everything after only a few days.

He’s watering the now full shelf of well growing plants when he bumps into Zayn. Niall’s used to it, just expecting to run into him at any point but he still jumps a bit, swatting at the shoulder of the fur cloak.

“Stop it!” He chuckles, walking around Zayn to get the lavender pots. “I already asked Harry to find us a bell for you, so you can stop lurking like a creep.”

Zayn growls his retort, crouching to touch the petals of the lamb’s ear Niall’s planted.

“Don’t– yer’ a proper creep n’ you know it.” Niall smiles, as he can sense the grinning glare, Zayn’s throwing at his back. It’s fun, this one sided banter they have; he twists the mint in the window to give it better sunlight.

Turning, Niall follows as Zayn crawls over to the sunflower, gently rubbing the leaves in between his fingers. He looks puzzled, but doesn’t touch further besides picking up the pot and walking out into the castle.

“Where ya’ going?” Niall peeks out the doorway to watch Zayn continue without turning back.

“Zayn!”

Niall finishes the last of his watering quickly before following as fast as he can without straining his ankle. It’s healed mostly, just sore and his knee still creaks like an old door. It isn’t really a trouble. The ache slows him down as he swings into the Library doorway, watching as Zayn places the sunflower on a high stack of books near the large window.

He seems bothered, placing the flower in different areas around his nest but closer to the window. Something brews in Niall’s chest like a heart attack – breathless with so much joy that he chokes on it. Stepping forward is a leap, laughing the twange away as Zayn almost tips over a tall tower of books trying to place the pot on top.

“You’ll worry the poor thing with all your moving,” Niall says, taking the pot from Zayn. There’s a shelf closer to the nest, on the railing toward the window’s. It’s a perfect spot for getting sunlight all day, and Niall adjusts the pot so it does. The flower fits perfectly, raiding brightly as if its sighing in relief.

Zayn stares from the pot to Niall, and back again.

“It’s perfect there, innit?” Niall says.

The King stops to glance at him fully, lifting his hand to cradle Niall’s cheek. His thumb sweeps over Niall’s cheekbone, hot like burning, but he can’t get enough. Closing his own hand over Zayn’s, Niall smiles; the warmth from Zayn’s hand swelling his heart, blustering a heat rushes all the way down to his toes. It’s overwhelming like the first time, but Niall never wants anything else.

“Lunch!” Louis crows from the doorway, and Niall frowns as Zayn takes his hand away.  

Quickly he reaches forward taking Zayn’s hand in his own, and twining their fingers. If Louis notices, he doesn’t say anything.

The sunflower sways in the warmth of the library sun.


-----


Dinner is made late.

Harry makes a stew with fresh biscuits and a slice of cheese for each and it’s probably his favourite meal so far. Between all of the lavish greens, lamb, garlic roasted chicken with a sauce Niall has trouble pronouncing, he’d rather have this. A simple chicken stew with carrots and celery. It’s familiar and almost as good as the pot his Nan makes.

Almost.

The birds join them, don’t drag him out as the sun sets in the forest for the night.

Halfway done with his stew, Niall looks up, seeing this little group of friends he’s made in the castle too big for him to fill. Harry is on his side, picking at a piece of bread and taking moments to tell him about when they had a farm here once; cows, chickens, the lot. Liam is sitting patiently across from Zayn, clucking inaudibly but in a tongue Zayn seems to understand. And Louis is cuddled in the crook of Zayn’s neck, probably asleep.

Niall’s heart swells and fills his chest reaching up to sting behind his eyes. He has to wipe away the tears. It never accorded to him that this giant castle would become its own place to stay, a home away from home. In ways, it isn’t big enough.

Harry hops into his lap, pushing his head into Niall stomach and he has to choke back a sob.

“ ‘M alright, just blubbering about how good yer soup is,” he says instead. “But, don’t let it get to your head, ya’hear?”

Zayn smiles from his way across the table.

There’s a smack on the door then. It echos from the foyer and into the ballroom, bouncing against the walls like thunder. Zayn’s face hardens, walls Nialls never seen become defensive and he gets from his seat with a growl.

Harry, in his lap, seems to quake but lifts to follow the other three.

“Who?” Niall whispers, getting up slowly.

“Let go! Y-you Beast! Where are you keeping him?!”

Running to the lobby Niall watches Zayn, hunched and growling, the two shadow-like wolves from his first night holding down a man in a thick cloak, much like –

“Greg?” Niall runs to his side, trying to push away the creatures, ignoring how they turn to dust on contact.

His brother grips his neck in a tight hug and sobbing with it, “I never thought I’d see you again, Nialler– never!

Hugging back, home sickness hits his chest in a much different way, ripping it into pieces and everything's too big again. Shattering a mirror that showed only the things he thought he wanted and Niall is suddenly lost pulling away from his brother. A weird limbo between the people he loves and the people he’s learning to – or might already.

Zayn growls behind them, looking hurt and guarded. Greg gasps, shoving Niall away from him

“This the Witch that’s been keeping you?” Greg goes digging in his coat for what might be his pocket blade, keeps it in his back pocket for the shop. He always has it.

Niall grabs his wrist quickly, squeezing his hand till he drops it back, “I’m safe, Greg, please!”

His brother looks betrayed, and Niall sinks.

“How’d you find me?” he says, urging his brother to stand, picking him up by the hand, only to be engulfed in a hug again.

Greg kisses his head, touching his face and hair with a sad smile that holds nothing but trouble. Niall grips his hand hard, “Greg?”

“Da’s sick, Ni– been traveling for days,” Greg looks it suddenly, as if a mask falls away to reveal his brother worn, cold, and tired. Much more tired than he ever needs to be; guilt pounds harder than anything.  

“I didn’t think Marg would have it in her,” His brother’s quiet, sad. “You’ve been gone for two weeks, Niall. Da’ came home sick, and said yer gone! Tried to keep him home but he kept trying– he came back looking worse each trip.”

Greg takes a proper look at him, staring at his fresh cotton clothes, black trousers, soft cotton socks. Niall’s never felt this well in years, and here he is standing in front of his brother who’s gutted, pale and looking way older. Niall swallows his shame like a stone, tears falling on their own accord surprising him, making his cheeks clammy.  He wishes suddenly that the King kept him in the dungeon, let him be meat to the wolves.

“And yer’re here, looking proper– fit,” his brother spits like it’s a curse. Everything aches.

“I’m coming home,” Niall murmurs, wiping his face with his palm. Greg looks solemn but confident, slapping his shoulder side before eying Zayn behind him.

He’s been stone this entire time, uncharacteristically so.

The world dims; it’s the night in the dungeon and the beast Niall saw there. But it’s still Zayn, with the bright eyes, the man who loves Niall’s flowers and books about monsters finding sympathy, searching for something beyond the weight they’ve been given. For a second Niall wants to take him with them. But he knows he can’t ask, there’s no way to express all the worry in his heart, the wreck in his head.

So just Niall reaches for Zayn who reaches back, like he always has, gripping their hands tight. His hand is warm, too hot but never enough; nature creates the most beautiful things to cause the worst of damage. And Niall wants nothing more than to be ruined.

The King looks exhausted, discreetly determined and nodding as he laces their fingers together.

“Thank you,” Niall smiles, and Zayn lets him go.

It's like the wrong choice, he knows it is but Niall turns to run up the foyer stairs, pushing open his chamber door with a smack, pulling on his sweater, tugging his boots tight and throwing on Greg’s coat.

The three ravens are the only things left in the lobby once he leaves. He understands, but that doesn’t keep it from stinging. Niall doesn’t have time, lost a part of it already so he kisses them each on the head before meeting Greg on the cobblestone bridge. It’s a relief to see Margo, who keens to Niall’s touch.

“Let’s go!”

Clinging to Greg, he turns the horse to leave, the gate wide, and rocking in the swift breeze of the coming night. The red dusk above them is a miserable reminder of the way the greenhouse shines, the comfort he feels when his voice echos off the book shelves, and how he’s so in love with a man in wolf's clothing that his bones ache with it.

Niall just wants to go home.


Chapter Text

The village doctor is already in with Dad when Greg and Niall run through the kitchen. Denise gasps but smiles softly, saying something kind with teary eyes, making what might be beef stew. The smell is nauseating, Niall tries to ignore it.

She hugs him briefly, but he can’t hear her as everything unhinges quickly. The furniture is the same, the smell of wood and linen are intoxicating, dizzy with the normality of it all. Niall slumps quick in the den chair because he can’t breathe.

This house is too small.

The trip from the castle didn’t take as long as he thought but night had set in, and Greg marveled as Margo galloped home. Fast enough to leave Niall stumbling from the stables, thighs quaking and knee giving up its attempt to be functional. Even the sight of his house felt unknown and he’d only been gone two weeks? Was that right? It had been years, or even months, but no, just two short weeks; the rug underneath his boots starts spinning. Denise hands him a cuppa.

“Yer’ looking a little cold, Niall,” smiling, she timidly places the tea cup in front of him on the wooden chest in the den.

It’s a nice gesture, and Niall should thank her but his head hurts and moving has never felt so jarring. He tries to nod and hums. The cup so far away from his reach, extending his arm as some phantom limb. The warm edge of the cup is comforting, but the tea isn’t as spicy as it used to be, as it was in the castle.

Shaking his head slowly, trying to get the thought out like water in his ear, flooded and inundate with worry and complete exhaustion. The tea is a reminder – the people he left, how close he was to something real, to the world he wanted to see. Niall wants nothing more to evaporate into the air and blow away.

The doctor nods at Niall, existing Dad’s room with a expression that’s puzzled, walking over with an extended hand. If anything, Niall wishes he were anyplace else.

“Happy to have you back,” he says as Niall wills himself to stand. “The town thought they lost another Horan.” Niall returns the gesture, fighting the numb in his legs to move into the bedroom.

“Just the flu, and I’ve given him all I could,” the doctor explains from behind him. “He should be fine, but at his age–”

Niall almost drops his tea, but Greg saves it quick with a worried glance, snatching it from him and placing it on the night table. His shaky legs carry him to the edge of Dad’s bed, wooden, cozy, remembers curling up here when he got the chicken pox as a child. It hurts his head to remember so he ignores it, gripping his Dad’s hand.  

“Niall?” Bobby smiles.

It’s broken and sad and Niall hates that he’s done this to him, to his family. That he let himself fall into the fantasy of this castle and the people that tugged him down the rabbit hole with their kindness, their comfort, their safety. Talking birds and magic Kings with private smiles, who are alive at night and grow like sprouting sunflowers in the day; it’s all fairy tale.

Niall kisses his Dad’s clammy knuckles to say, I’m sorry, I’m here, but he’s so tired and this place isn't home anymore. The wood walls don’t echo, there are no warm hands and simple glances that mean so many things he still hasn’t figured out. It’s all gone and distant.

Niall hates it.  

“I’m staying,” he chokes to the room at large.

Greg nods glancing at him something vicious like he knows, but brings him a chair and a blanket anyway, “Take off your boots then–stay a while”.

It’s agony but Niall does, finding the energy to hear Greg talking briefly with the doctor. Bed rest for the next two weeks, and this trip is on the house which is a relief since they can’t afford much but the house and the sheep. It’s odd how he still knows that, the night with Gego those weeks ago feel like yesterday and years ago – it’s so overwhelming.

“I’m so glad you’re safe,” His dad grabs his hands tighter, tugging him weakly from the doorway.

“Always was,” Niall murmurs, distant.

Dad just smiles at that, sitting up a little bit more against the headboard; watching Niall proper. Though the scrutiny is bearable, unlike Greg, who was searching for a reason for him to be alive.

“I’m happy you look well,” His Dad whispers. He reaches to grip Niall's fingers loosely before letting go once Denise pops her head in to hand Da’ soup. She looks tired too, but closes the door behind her with a nod. Niall always liked her.

Zayn’s the reason, he realizes. Zayn kept him alive, and well and happy. He lets the thought sit just because he’s selfish and a little heart broken. He reaches for his tea, and takes a sip. He pulls the blanket around him, his headache just aching instead of blinding him – the world finally stopped spinning.

“I’m happy you aren’t dead,” Niall sighs in the silence, and his Dad nods in agreement.

“Could say the same for you.”

“Well, I’m not alright? And yer’ sick so eat yer’ soup.”

Bobby just shrugs and it’s so Dad, it makes him scoff into his tea because he’s ridiculous. It’s quiet then, and Niall wonders what Zayn’s doing right now, wonders if he saved him.

Tomorrow’s the full moon but Niall can’t think about it without crying, and it hurts, a tender spot in his rib cage. His heart beats a little bit too fast, swallowing his warm tea to dislodge the rock in his throat. The chill in his bones strings from the warmth he left behind in those castle walls.

“I came out looking for you. The castle is a place that don’t wanna be found,” Dad wipes his mouth with a flannel, shallowly coughing into it.

“Why did you then?”

Niall regrets saying it, if for the look on his Dad’s face. “You’re my son.”

“I know, I’m sorry.”

“That and I wouldn’t let you be imprisoned with that… beast.”

Niall flinches then. “He’s not.”

The tea is cold, tasteless and has left some leaves at the bottom as if Denise brewed it too long. He slushes it around the cup because he’s crying and can’t think of anything else to do.

“He’s not a beast, Dad.”

 

-----

 

He doesn’t sleep well that night. His bed isn’t soft, and it’s small.

Trapped, but it’s way too big and empty in the space that should be filled. The wind blows his shutters with a clack, creaking the wood panels of this small farm house far away from anything stone or gold. If he lays still enough he could sink into the mattress, be covered in dust and speckles. Like digging out a rake from the frost embedded ground, after being left out during winter; he wonders if he too would become one with the forest.

If he stayed here, would he soak into the earth?

The sun is barely awake but he eases from his bed, pulling on his thick trousers and sweater, wrapping his quilt around himself, chasing the warmth thats left. He starts the kettle once he totters to the kitchen, takes out two cups and leans on the doorway of his Dad’s room.

Bobby’s asleep but rolls over to cough into his pillow. Niall makes a note to clean more so he can exchange it, make sure the flannel is washed too. Wiping a hand down his face is a cheap relief from the numbness but it does the job; he hushes the whistling kettle once it starts to boil.

Putting a sugar in the tea, he sips it lightly, but it’s too hot. Burns like the King’s skin, so he places his lips on the cup edge trying to mimic the feeling. It’s a lost cause, but a comfort regardless. Niall would be seconds from crying if he hadn’t already, his Dad got quiet after he started last night, but held his hand until he fell asleep.

Niall doesn’t know what that means, but it gives him a stone in his stomach anyway.  

Greg comes from the bath around mid morning, dressed for the shop. He takes the cuppa Niall makes him, but doesn’t say anything. It’s heavy in a weightless sort of way, the scrutiny his brother burdens him with all morning as Niall picks at his toast. But neither take the lead to speak, finding the silence a place to hide.

“Just–” Greg starts, opening the front door. “Take care of Da’, alright?” His brother looks gutted, eyes sunken showing dark circles that Niall knows, he put there.

He swallows his shame alongside his tea and nods. “Love you”.

Greg hesitates which tears at Niall’s skin more than the hollowed, “Me too.”

The house is quiet after that so Niall starts his chores. It’s a distraction and he’s grateful. Cleaning the kitchen, the oven, the sink– he checks on the chicks in the coop who seem to be doing well. Niall lets them crawl on his neck while he whistles, and tells them the jokes Harry taught him. He laughs then, chest a little less tight, mood better after he leaves the coop, washing his hands to start lunch.

He wakes his Dad to change out his pillow, giving him the leftover soup Denise made and a tea. Niall makes himself another cup as well, it’s the only thing he can stomach.

Silence is his savior as he sets coals at the edge of his Dad’s bed to keep it warm. But it’s short lived as Bobby grabs his hand, “Come sit.”

Niall wraps his quilt around him like a shield, chasing the fading warmth of his cup on his lips.

“How are ya’ feeling?” Niall whispers, slipping his hand from his Dad’s to hold his cup.

“Better,” Bobby nods, sipping his own tea. “I was more of a wreck not knowing if you were safe, that is.”

“Couldn’t really send a letter,” Niall shrugs, studying the pattern on his Dad’s quilt, picking at the loose threads of his own.

“Because of the Witch King?”

Niall stares at his Dad then, who coughs into the now clean flannel, then glances back at the quilt.

“Zayn.”

“What’s that?”

“His name is Zayn.”

Bobby nods, reaching for his bowl and sipping the rest of the broth thats left. The windows whistle with the wind and Niall can see the snow float with it. It’s mesmerizing.

“Ya’ know, when I got lost I thought it was abandoned, the castle that is.” Bobby takes a minute to cough again, lighter this time, before taking a sip. “The door was hard to push but opened when I did, n’ remember these bird’s who kept following me. They pushed me into this kitchen, n’ took some bread that looked fresh, thinking no one would miss it.”

“And then he was there, and like – the whole beast he looked, Zayn–” His Dad looks at him, unsure but Niall nods. “Zayn, he was. And I was scared so – n’ ya’ know, I tried to get at him, and thinking of it now, he didn’t hurt me, or try to – just brought me to the cell when I tried to get at him.”

Niall looks at his Dad expectantly, watching him pause to slosh around his tea. “Then?”

“Then,” Bobby sighs, “...yer’were there, and I was so scared but yer’ so brave– didn’t even fight him. Ran to Marg then, ran home not sure what else to do.”

Niall nods, his heart swells slowly, breath coming out like molasses, sedate and tired. His Dad reaches for him again, grabbing his hand tight and Niall gasps a sob.

“Zayn? Innit?”

“Yeah,” Niall chokes, getting up to clean his Dad’s bowl and his cold tea, all heat left, now just bitter. It fills him with a hunger that isn’t satisfied by yesterday’s stew, even though he eats it. But he suffers though by his Dad’s side with a beaten copy of Oliver Twist hearing the kitchen clock count the hours.

And he’s alright.

 

-----

 

The house is quiet in a different way when Dad takes an afternoon nap.

Stone is harsh and unyielding, keeping the screaming winds silent as they break against the sharp edges and hollowed towers. This house is older than Niall, a thing of its own as it breathes, wind slipping through the cracks in the corners and the gaps between rotting windows. Reminds him of the greenhouse, warm enough to stay in but still cool to the touch as it inhales.

But the kitchen doesn’t turn a honeyed maroon, when he finally dog ears his place in Frankenstein which he had to hunt for in the cellar. It was hidden in a small trunk with most of Mom’s stuff. Used to be hard to go through but loss is a healing wound and a complaining knee that’s only sore if you keep leaning on it.

Greg comes bustling through the door when the light has turned a pretty purple over the hill, once Niall comes in from another feed of the chicks, and a quick brush of Gego and Margo. He has a casserole from Lou and some fresh baked bread from the Higgins, but Niall starts a small pot of soup for Dad anyway.

Thinking about it, his ankle is all healed up except for the pink around the small puncture wounds, and bruising around his bone. It’s ugly but clean and he rubs it as he stand from the kitchen table watching the sun go down.

“How’s the shop?”

Greg places the goods on the table before sighing, “Alright, it’s too quiet without Da’ there but ya’ know? What it is.” His brothers shrugs, but the intent stings like it was supposed to.

Numbly, he turns the kettle on and puts more wood in the oven to heat the casserole. “What it is,” Niall repeats, surprising himself in how lifeless he sounds.

“And Dad?” Greg shucks his coat, placing it on the rack by the back door, haphazardly throwing his boots by the wall. Niall cringes at the hollowed sound. “Is he doing better?”

“Coughing less, but still head-tired,” the oven is hot, shortening his breath and he wonders how Harry does this all night. The thought drains him, leaning fully on the counter. “Ya’ know when you had the flu, took you three days to finally feel well enough to...”

Greg nods, but narrows his eyes, “Yeah.”

Niall can’t continue his thought, watching the sun set, drowning the room in shadow besides the kettle flame and the fire place in the livingroom. Without being asked, Greg turns on the hall lantern illuminating the kitchen better but it still leaves Niall exhausted.  

Greg breaks the bread, once Niall hands Dad his soup and a small square of casserole. They eat quietly, until there’s a loud knock against their front door. Greg turns to stare at Niall confused as if he’s counting everyone in the room, Dad’s in bed and Niall’s across from him.

The door knocks harder, with a muffled, “Niall?”

The chair underneath him gives a protesting screech as Niall rushes to open the door.

“Took you long enough, thought my bum was going to fall off,” Louis groans, shivering as Niall just stands there staring at him, completely speechless, while the boy’s arse naked on his snowy porch. Niall engulfs him in a hug, the sudden joy a relief, which Louis returns hesitantly, holding his crotch in one hand.

“Are you gunna let me in?”

Yes, yes!” Niall rushes to snag a quilt from the livingroom and wrapping Louis tightly in it. His shoulders are red, and his feet are completely white, shivering, “Why were you naked in the snow?”

“I wasn’t naked,” Louis states, annoyed, letting Niall usher him into the kitchen. “I was flying then the sun went down and I was falling – despite common spell belief, clothes don’t magically appear through bird to person transition.”

Niall lets a laugh bubble from him, overjoyed. It’s intoxicating.

He pour Louis his own cuppa and some of Dad’s soup which he gratefully takes, hunching around the bowl to stay warm. Niall wants to wrap himself around Louis, wanting to nuzzle into the boy’s hair and kiss there – so he does. Louis complains with a whine, but smiles at him around his spoon.

“Missed you,” Louis mumbles and Niall’s chest bursts.

“Greg!” Niall turns to his brother who’s a little lost, looking completely dumbfounded. It’s funny, watching his brother slowly peel his eyes from Louis who has drained most of the soup from his bowl.

“Can you get him some of my fresh clothes? I cleaned a pair that might fit on the heat rack.” Greg doesn’t get up right away, and Niall would be confused too, if a random bloke showed up on his porch stark naked like the day he was born.

But he nods before glancing at Niall, deer eyes, skittish, “He, uh–alright?” 

Louis peers up, “Just flew an entire day to find this fucker,” pointing at Niall, making him shrink in his seat a little,  “How do you think I’m doing?”

His brother nods, “Huh, right, well I’ll go–get you something to wear.”

“What are you doing here Louis?” Niall rubs his eyes, happy and guilty collide in his chest, not sure which one he’s feeling. But it’s better than the numbness. “Not that I’m not happy to see you–”

“Oh, give it a rest.” Louis whines, slurping the broth of his soup. “You know why I’m here, and I’m going to state for the record that you’re a right idiot.”

Niall gawks, not sure what to say to that, but he’s not sure what to say to Louis most of the time. So he laughs.

“Listen, you’re both arses who need to stop pining for God sake, but Zayn’s an idiot too, so it’s a match made in heaven!” Louis preens brightly before placing his cutlery down with a clack.

The boy sighs with an annoyed glance, but he looks happy, warmer now that he’s out of the elements. Happy, like he’s glad he found Niall.

Niall’s glad he found him too.

“Yeah?”

“Yes! Now, let’s slap on some boots and get out of here, because I know–” Louis grabs his hand sharply, squeezing him tight. “You love Zayn and you won’t let him die, and I won’t let you, let him die because he’s self sacrificing and you’re too naive to get him.”

“ ‘Am not!” Niall argues with a flush, flicking his eyes to Greg who runs down the stairs.

“Plus it would be really nice not have to be a bird again,” Louis says as he takes the garbs Greg hands him. They watch Louis trot around the corner to the bath, winking as he rounds the corner and throws the quilt on the nearest sofa. Niall chuckles.

“Where are you going?” Greg barks through his teeth. There’s no way he can explain, so he pushes past him towards Dad’s room. “You’re not leaving us again, you’re just not– not while Dad’s sick.” Niall knows he’s using that to make him guilty but it’s Dad who he’s worried about, Greg can go on without him.

His brother tugs on his wrist to pull him back when he continues to ignore him, “Niall!”

“Oi,” Bobby calls from the doorway, tottering his way through to the kitchen. Greg lets go, for Niall to rush to his Dad’s side, who brushes him off with a gentle hand, “I’m fine, I’m fine.”

“Da’ get back to bed,” Greg whines, reaching to take Da’s bowl who snatches it away to put it in the sink himself.

“Who’s going where?” Bobby pushes, leaning on the counter to pour himself a cup of hot water.

“Niall’s–”

“Your son, Niall here-” Louis interrupts Greg, slinging his now dressed self along Niall’s shoulders, slapping Niall’s chest hard enough to hurt. “-Is going to go save a King from being broken hearted, and possibly dead– depending. But as the head of the household I formally inquire your permission to take your beautiful–” He turns to grip Niall’s chin and shake it gently, Niall tries to pull a smile, “-Handsome son, on this quest.”

The kitchen is quiet as Louis sighs, “Just need your blessing sir– and a horse.”

Bobby smiles, amused, before looking at Niall in earnest, “Zayn?”

Niall nods sheepish, “Yeah.”

His Dad grins then, “Go, take Gego. He’ll be faster.”

“Dad!” Greg shouts. “We don’t know him,” he points to Louis with a sneer. Louis brushes it off with a fake shocked gasp. “– n’ Nialler just got back– are you just going-?”

(Louis whispers, Nialler mockingly in his ear so he knocks Louis’ head gently, suddenly overwhelmed with how much he missed the boys.)

“Greg, when in your life were you asked to save a King? Never, now hush it.” Bobby swats away at Greg’s reach. Niall rushes to hug him. “Promise to visit soon though?”

“Always,” Niall grins so hard it hurts, hugging him tighter before tripping to tie on his boots. He find’s Louis an old pair of Gregs’ which he doesn’t wear anymore but still whines about when Louis slips them on.

Niall rushes to suit Go up, swatting the horses’ nuzzle while trying to push on the reins. Louis seems uncertain, shivering at the edge of the stable doorway and picking at the coat Niall gave him.

“Will it eat me?” Louis steps forward, before tipping backwards when Gego neighs.

“No, he won’t eat you,” he laughs. “Ever seen a Draft before?”

“Yes! I have eyes Niall.” Louis sputters, “Just never ridden one.”

“There’s a first for everything,” Niall says, grabbing Louis’ wrist to help him on the sadle. He seems unbalanced as Gego shakes his head to adjust the reins, clutching on the saddle knob for dear life. Niall chuckles, sliding in front of him and taking Louis’ hands to wrap them around his waist.

“Hold on, alright?” Louis nestles into his back, tightening his hold on Niall’s stomach.

Niall snaps the reins, heat boiling his veins with confidence, “Let’s go!”

The wind pushes them and the moon is their light, the winter won’t stop them.



-----

 

Niall does his best to remember the way back but the forest gets so dark, almost like his first night.

It’s obtuse and overbearing, the darkness that consumes around them. But Niall is confident and Louis does his best to be helpful. Go isn’t going fast enough, because he should be there right now, should be touching Zayn, be with Zayn right now – his skin prickling at the anger that bubbles underneath it.

He shouldn’t have left in the first place, he should have stayed.

But the idea that there won’t be a later is so unfathomable and disgusting that Niall refuses it entirely.

It must take hours – Gego finally slowing to a trot, and Niall’s a little breathless from the cold. Louis keeps his back warm with how tense he’s holding, only peering from his cloak when Niall’s uncertain, which is right now, as the density of the forest eats away at his resolve.

“We’re almost there,” Louis breathes then, too loud in the distilled air. His voice puffs a cloud around them like a reminder of how cold it is. His fingers ache on the reins.

“Yeah?”

“We need to keep going, though, the moon won’t hold up all night,” Louis sighs, looking up at the full sky, cloudless and bright compared to the woodland.

Niall snaps the reins and Go pushes forward as hard as he can, and Niall wants to cheer, give Gego the apples he loves, when the castle gate creeps into sight.

The cobblestone clacks underneath them as they gallop along the bridge, stopping short of the castle door. Niall leaps off, landing swiftly on the stone steps, running to push the door wide. A voice bellows in his head mimicking the race of his heart, like a chant– Zayn, Zayn, Zayn.

“Help!” Louis screeches, dangling from Gego who slowly travels behind Niall.

He puffs a laugh, more at ease now that he’s here, but the need to find Zayn buzzes through him, making his skin seize sharply.

“Come on,” he coaxes, holding Louis’ hips as he swings down, letting Gego follow them inside.

It’s as if he’s placed back in time, in the shoes of who he was, the boy looking for his lost father. The castle is dark, lifeless and preserved; a residual heat swims around them like a storm in July. A tangible dampness that’s tacky, painting his cheeks with a flush, “Zayn?”  

Louis gasps behind him– Gego pushing the boy’s lower back forward, and Niall turns to watch Louis pet the horse hesitantly, “Okay, ya’ large cow.”

“Where is everyone?” Niall asks, trying hard to ignore Louis’ troubled expression. If Louis is concerned, the rest of the world should be.

Louis seems lost, letting go of Gego, to run into the kitchen urging Niall to follow. The castle is quiet, eerily so, and Louis calls for Harry and Liam once they travel through the dining room.

Harry is at the oven, turning around only to wheeze a breathe, hugging Louis desperate, and then dragging Niall in with him. He’s shaking like a leaf.

Harry reaches to kisses Louis’ mouth with a hard smack.

Niall lets out a watery laugh at the two, relief drowning his flush, before he’s being grabbed by the cheeks to receive his own wet kiss on his forehead and cheeks. Looking at Harry fully – his eyes a glassy green and Niall hates to think he made Harry this way, but it doesn’t worry him as he’s buried in a hug, suffocating in curly hair.

“Missed you too, Harry,” Niall smiles wide, easing into the embrace.

Harry mumbles something into his coat shoulder and Niall rubs his back.

“I need to find Zayn,” Niall says then, breaking them apart slowly. Harry sniffles, reaching behind them to grab a flannel from the stove counter. He wipes his face, leaving marks of flour on his cheeks from the cloth. It’s endearing and so gorgeous Niall wants to hold Harry in his chest so nothing will ever break him again.

“Liam’s been trying to find him since you left,” he finally hiccups. Niall’s stomach pits and falls somewhere at his ankles, the warmness of the kitchen falling away, colorless and bland. “Can’t find him anywhere.”

Breathing is hard, but he does anyway to shout, “Zayn!”

Harry looks sharply at Louis, letting Niall rush out of the kitchen yelling, “Zayn?”

Niall first checks the Library, pulling apart the nest because he’s got to be here somewhere, pushing over stacked books like falling trees in his way. The room is consuming and ominous, mocking him with the shine of the moon in the large windows, echoing his screaming like a rhyme. A hollowed joke.

He rushes through the foyer and up the stairs to his chamber, which is just as overwhelming. Bed still messy from the night he slept in it, the smell of himself and jasmine bath soap fog his path. Touching the floor at the edge of his bed, it’s warm, and the punch in the chest he gets stings as much as the doubt – his voice hoarse as he calls, “Zayn!”

Everywhere is silhouetted by the smiling moon, teasing him, it’s too late, he’s gone. And Niall shrieks quietly, his breathe speeding to a pant as he drifts through the halls to the last place he can think of.

The greenhouse inhales when Niall pushes the door open, tired, tears overflowing his vision. He sniffs a breath just trying to do something, anything, as he sees the flowers he has potted slowly rotting. Brown and thin as if he’s been gone for weeks; they’re dry, wilted, and dead. His knee buckles under him and he falls to the stone floor. The shelf stumbles with him, rocking and pushing small pots off. They shatter.

Niall’s shaking with how much he hurts.

And it’s so much – his breath stuttering wet, practically drowning. His heart is at a constant chase to feel the warmth again, the solid hold and amber eyes that glowed a bright honey in the light of the winter sun. Reminds him how the sun constantly has to reach for the moon but still never gets there – once the sun sets the moon rises and the sun will have to wait till the next day.

But Niall doesn’t have a next day, because Zayn’s gone. Niall couldn’t reach far enough to grab him. To keep him from falling.

His chest heaves with how cold the night is.

A shadow swift and dark traces over him and Niall wonders briefly if he’s dying. It’s real, to collapse from a broken heart, to let the darkness take him, but looking up he’s met with a two hands holding a slightly wilting sunflower.

The cloak is black, inky and graceful as it settles around the two of them but Niall is frozen staring up at Zayn.

Heat rushes his bones and Niall reaches up to grab Zayn’s cheek. The stubble rough against his palm, stroking the soft tan skin which glows in this twilight of the greenhouse. Words die at his lips, the drying tears that he never thought would stop dampen his skin, tacky and fresh.

Niall’s palm is so hot against Zayn’s skin that it’s burning, like being too close to the sun. He is so alive with it as he pushes forward to chase the feeling, wanting Zayn to burn every inch of him away until he’s ash.

Zayn flinches – the cloak falls away and dissolves in a cloud around them and Niall’s so scared that he was too late. He didn’t tell him fast enough, that he loves Zayn so much his heart aches with it, that the moon isn't home unless he’s in Zayn’s arms in the safety of the library, that the heat Zayn radiates is like starlight, sacred, bright and the most beautiful thing Niall’s ever seen.

The cloud of dust around them prickles like lightning, roaring around them and Niall screams, clutching tightly to whatever of Zayn he can reach, letting the magic do what it will. Ripping at his skin, shaking his ribs and shuddering the rhythm of his heart, shredding every part of him – Niall holds on because even though the sun refuses to extend its reach, Niall won’t let Zayn set without him.

It exhales.

The greenhouse swims, whispering around Niall when he finally remembers to breathe. Silence greets him so deafeningly that his ribs are exhausted by his own intake. Looking down there’s a shining enormous black cloak covering a small form with the sunflower pot, sitting patiently by his side.

“Zayn?”

Crawling over, he lifts the hood, being met with bright, tired amber eyes.

“Niall,” Zayn whispers, hoarse and it’s the most beautiful thing he’s ever heard.

So Niall dips down and kisses him.

It’s so sweet and soft, but Niall pushes further, desperate and so filled with joy that his ribs could burst with it. Zayn’s grip on his chest keeps him in place. Niall’s drowning in the heat, flushed against the King’s skin, the slick slip of their lips and it’s so much that he rests his forehead on Zayn’s to just breathe.  

“Niall,” Zayn repeats, breathless.

“Yeah–” he chokes, “I’m here.”

Zayn pushes up then, pulling him into his lap and wrapping the both of them in the black cloak. It’s dark, but echoes a mystical light like bright stars captured into the fabric. Niall kisses him softly, as Zayn murmurs, “Niall,” again, and again.

Zayn doesn’t stop saying his name, until Niall’s laughing, squirmy with how in love he is. It’s solid, his heart that filling up like an overflowing cup that pours over everything, drowning his worry with so much happiness. He’s weightless, his chest clear and clean as he laughs.

“That all you can say?” Grabbing Zayn’s jaw to look at him fully – God, he’s so beautiful. Flushed and grinning ear to ear, the star’s light only know jealousy of this boy, this King of the night.

“Niall,” Zayn smiles, tongue butting up to the back of his teeth, nose scrunching and wrinkling his skin; Niall kisses there. “Please don’t take my sunshine away,” Zayn whispers.

Niall pulls back then, kissing him fully, and enough that it hurts to pull away, “I’m not going anywhere.”

They stay like that for as long as they can, Niall wrapped up in the all the stars in the universe and Zayn who refuses to let him go. Whispers his name back to him between breathes like it’s his favourite word, it’s flattering as it is endearing, so Niall kisses him.

But Zayn’s voice.

Velvet and rich, but his laugh is high pitched and breathy, and gorgeous. Niall laughs with him, nuzzling deeper into the night sky cloaking them both, radiating a cool warmth that glows in the speckles entwined with the cloth. It sparks and shines each time Zayn says his name and Niall can not get enough.

The sun shines a bright pink over the edges of the forest and through the greenhouse window, and Niall finally finds his determination to stand. It’s so strenuous as Zayn keeps close, raking his fingers up Niall’s sweater to touch the skin on his stomach and back as if he’s trying to bury himself deep in Niall’s chest. Giggling, drunk off of pure Zayn, Niall would let him; would build a home for him there.

Niall pecks him on the cheek, dragging him stumbling into the foyer, and knows, carved in his bones where Zayn might already be living. A home between his heart and his lungs, which both beat to a rhythm he can’t keep up with as they run into the kitchen.  

Liam is the first to see them, tugging both of them into a hug thats so tight he has to laugh to keep the air in his lungs. But Harry and Louis follow suit until he’s being crushed together in this little family he’s made in the woods somewhere and he couldn’t be happier.

“I want to see the sun,” Louis murmurs, pulling them apart. The expressions around him settle heavy and it isn’t till Harry’s grinning wet and radiant that Niall realises.

The boys have been trapped inside, cloaked in black feathers and dust for years that they haven’t seen the sun, haven’t felt that warmth. Niall grabs Liam by the wrist and Harry in tow, running to chase the sunrise peeking over the edge of the wall already.

Once they hit the snow, the boys run from him and into the sunlight, kissing the tears off each other’s faces. Niall howls, watching Harry lift Louis into his arms, while Liam wraps his arms around them both until they topple into the snow. It’s a pile of limbs and laughter that Niall’s grin stings his face, his joy swelling and vibrating his veins.

“Niall,” Zayn kisses a grin into his temple, voice already sounding hoarse and over used.

“You know, with your voice back and all, you’ll have to read books on yer’ own now.”

Zayn pouts for a second, wrapping the cloak around Niall and hooking his chin on the round of his shoulder.

“Sounds reasonable,” he says, before quickly using the cloak to duck the snowballs Liam and Louis starts throwing at them.

It’s an all out war then, and Zayn roars loud behind him, surprising himself. Niall pats his cheek, before swiftly pushing him down the stairs of the castle and into the snow.

“Get ‘em, big bad wolf,” Niall grins at the shy, embarrassed look Zayn gives him, as if Niall could ever seem him anything other than this. As if the walls Zayn built around to protect himself from the winter winds fell away, and Niall can’t see anything brighter.

The winter sun cresting high in the sky above them, a sweet honey bouncing off the clouds, surrounded by laughter.

A push startles Niall, as he turns to pet Gego whose nuzzled his snout into his shoulder. Zayn lifts up a chunk of snow to throw onto Louis who’s already halfway buried in the pile Harry shoved him into. Zayn growls deep when Louis hooks his legs around his ankles, toppling both Zayn and Liam into the snow. Niall’s chest beams with how much he loves them all, this enchanted castle he’s found in the forest.

The sun keeps him warm as the winter chill resonates around them, but Niall isn’t bothered.

The spring will come soon enough. He has a flower bed to start, maybe some rose bushes and a garden filled with sunflowers. And as Zayn calls his name, loud and happy, to save him from the puppy pile he’s found himself in –  Niall thinks the spring can wait.

 

-----

 

 

 

I had a thought, dear
However scary
About that night
The bugs and the dirt
Why were you digging?
What did you bury
Before those hands pulled me
From the earth?

I will not ask you where you came from
I will not ask and neither should you

Honey just put your sweet lips on my lips
We should just kiss like real people do

 

-----

 

A Few Weeks Later

 

Niall could hear the wind whistling threateningly through unseen cracks in the castle walls, somewhere high above them. The bitter winter weather had been downright mean lately, making going outside completely miserable, if not impossible. Luckily, Zayn had a plan for everything, and that plan usually involved a massive, roaring fire in the main hall.

They were curled up on a pile of furs and quilts on the floor, barely propped upright by a handful of squashy pillows thrown at random into the mix. Full of ale and dinner (crusty pot pie and mash, courtesy of Harry from when he'd been over earlier, who’d cooed affectionately at the two of them and slipped out with an almost annoyingly knowing wink), Niall snuggled deeper into Zayn's arms, listening to the soft huffs of breath in his ear, barely audible over the comforting crackle of the fire. This was heaven, it must be, he thought, eyes slipping closed and a smile threatening to split his face in half.

Zayn hummed, a humid puff of air against the side of Niall's neck. His fingers had been drawing slow, lazy circles on the exposed cut of Niall's hipbone, which had started innocently enough but was becoming... distracting. Despite feeling his sleepy post-dinner nap slipping away, Niall stubbornly refused to open his eyes.

He felt the heat of Zayn's mouth a second before he ever-so-gently set his teeth against the muscle just between Niall's neck and shoulder, not enough to hurt, just worrying them gently against the skin. Niall tried to sigh, but it came out a little more content than he meant it to.

"What're you up to then, I'm trying to sleep," Niall huffed, still not opening his eyes and hoping he sounded at all stern through the quaver that Zayn was putting in his voice. He could feel his lips quirk in a smile against his skin, then plant a lingering kiss against the pulse that was beginning to thud in his neck.

"Are you now," Zayn purred, not even a question, and Niall shivered. "I can just leave you to it then, my mistake."

Zayn's fingertips began making wider circles until they were dipping just below the tie of his breeches, dragging down the vee of his pelvis and achingly not-close-enough to where Niall was very rapidly beginning to need him. Niall whined childishly, moving his hips in a completely fruitless attempt to get Zayn's hand to where he wanted it.

"Unfair," Niall said, already infuriatingly breathless. It was completely mad how fast Zayn could unravel him. "You're a cheat, I can't believe I let you go on like this."

"You love it," Zayn murmurs, still not a question, taking the soft bit of Niall's earlobe in his teeth and sinking in just enough to make Niall gasp. Niall could feel the hard heat of Zayn's cock against the curve of his back, taking no small comfort in the fact that despite his cool exterior, Zayn was just as affected as Niall was. Niall gathered his thoughts enough to grind back against him in retaliation, relishing the way Zayn stuttered and hissed out a breath at the pressure.

"I do love it," Niall said, finally opening his eyes and meeting Zayn's half-lidded ones, biting his lip and feeling the heat radiating from his flushed cheeks. "I love you."

Zayn smiled then, a slow blooming smile that made his eyes shine and crinkle in the corners like Niall loved. It was his special smile, the one that Niall tucked away and cherished when Zayn wasn't around. "I love you too, Niall."

Craning his neck back around was uncomfortable at this angle, but Niall still pressed his lips to Zayn's, a hand coming back around to pull him closer. The kiss started sweet but quickly became filthy as Niall twisted back around to meet his mouth more fully. Opening up to him almost immediately, Niall let his tongue snake against Zayn's, sliding slick and hot and not ever enough.

Before he realized it, Zayn has already snuck a hand under his sweater, digging a thumb into the sensitive spots between his ribs and rubbing the hard nub of Niall's nipple, making him gasp and flinch and lean into his touch. Niall whined high in his throat, letting his eyes fall shut as Zayn tugged insistently at his shirt, pulling it up and over his head, catching on his ears.

“What’s with the rush, love?” Niall said mildly, smiling as he leaned back into the kiss, Zayn already opening up hotly and furrowing his brow. His hands found their way to the hinge of Niall’s jaw, cupping it and nudging it open wider, making Niall gasp into his mouth. Niall loved Zayn like this, getting needy and desperate to touch, to hold, to fuck. It wasn’t like Niall didn’t feel it too, there were days where they simply didn’t make it out of bed, even after the sun rose and set again. But there were times where Zayn was just so hungry for it, like a man in the desert aching for water, and Niall couldn’t get enough of it. Drawing it out of him, teasing him, watching him unravel and become further and further gone until it was like Niall was the only thing tethering him to the earth. Tonight was one of those nights.

Zayn opened his eyes, dark and glittering in the firelight and despite himself, Niall could feel his breath catch. Even aside from the whole Witch King thing, he swore there was something otherworldly about Zayn, an unearthly beauty from somewhere beneath his skin. Zayn’s brows were knit together, a barely-noticeable flush glowing on his cheekbones and he looked downright pouty.

“You know what,” Zayn said, nosing at Niall’s jaw and sucking sharp little kisses on the sensitive skin there. Niall hummed, trying to keep it together at all but his resolve was weakening rapidly.

“Why don’t ye’ tell me anyway, use your words?” Niall suggested tensely, trying not to stare at the straining bulge in Zayn’s soft leather trousers, knowing how easy it would be to split the lacing there.

Zayn very nearly rolled his eyes, despite looking halfway to wrecked already. “Can I fuck you, Niall?” He said exceedingly patiently, voice barely above a murmur.

“‘Course, what’re you waiting for?” Niall said, grinning from ear to ear.

Zayn snorted, then laughed and pulled Niall on top of him, falling down with a fluffy thump onto their nest of furs. “You’re so ridiculous.”

“You love it.” Not a question.

“I do.”

Their clothes were gone in seconds, practiced fingers barely lingering on the divots of muscle and tell-tale bulges in lieu of undoing laces and buttons and casting the offending garments aside without fanfare. They both paused then, staring at each other in the warm, flickering firelight, shadows dancing like living things.

“You’re so bloody beautiful,” Niall murmured reverently, reaching out to gently cup Zayn’s softly-bearded jawline, dragging a thumb along the cut of his cheek. He was, there was no denying it. He looked like the way angels looked in churches, like he’d stepped out of an oil painting, full-formed.

Zayn blinked shyly, brow quirking as a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Nothing like you,” he said, rubbing his cheek into Niall’s hand like the barn cats back home did when they were looking for a cuddle. Sometimes it wasn’t too hard to believe that Zayn has spent the better part of the last decade as some sort of beastie.

Niall snorted and clambered onto Zayn, straddling him over his lap. “I think not, lanky shit I am.”

Zayn didn’t respond, he was looking contemplatively at Niall hovering over him, flush returning high on his cheeks.

“C’mere,” Zayn said, tugging at the backs of Niall’s thighs, urging him to kneewalk further up his body. Niall laughed a bit but went along until his knees met Zayn’s armpits. Looking down at Zayn from this angle was more than a little overwhelming.

“What do you want?” Niall asked, breath caught hard in his chest, but Zayn simply tugged more insistently at his legs. He looked up at Niall through his eyelashes pleadingly, running his tongue along his lower lip in that nervous, unconscious way that made Niall willing to do just about anything he asked, even if it was run outside in the snow completely starkers.

“Sit,” Zayn said simply, seemingly unable to get any more words out.

Niall blinked, not comprehending, until Zayn tugged him again and suddenly Niall was hovering over Zayn’s face, his hands on Niall’s hips, steadying him. Oh.

Zayn gently pulled at Niall until suddenly his mouth was there, with the maddening scrape of beard between Niall’s cheeks and oh god it was good Zayn was holding onto his hips because the headrush almost pitched him to the floor.

“Zayn-” Niall barely managed around the groan strangled in his throat, but Zayn dragged the flat of his tongue, none too gently, across his hole, before digging the pointed tip of it back and then forth again. Niall could feel the slickness of his saliva, the way his beard dragged roughly against his skin, already raw and aching for more. He realized slowly, belatedly, that he was making weak, desperate noises and chasing Zayn’s tongue with rolling grinds of his hips, and it might have once upon a time have embarrassed him but he was drowning in the sensation and couldn’t bring himself to give a half a damn.

It didn’t get better as he suddenly felt the snaking press of fingertips alongside Zayn’s tongue, sneaking around his mouth and sinking into Niall. The press and stretch of them made Niall gasp out loud hiss Zayn’s name, clutching at the otherwise unoccupied hand still on his hips. Zayn’s fingers sunk deep before drawing out again, catching on his sensitive rim while his tongue immediately soothed away any discomfort. Niall felt overwhelmed and undone and completely and totally in love.

Suddenly, too quickly, Niall could feel the hot, liquid pooling in his gut and with a frustrated moan, he reached up and squeezed the base of his cock as hard as he could bear. Glancing down, he could see one of Zayn’s eyes opening up at him questioningly and he tried to remember how to make words.

“D’wanna come yet-” Niall gasped, feeling Zayn’s tongue slow and stop and trying to do anything but scream in protest like he wanted to. “I want y’t’fuck me.”

Now it was Zayn’s turn to moan, eyes slipping shut and head falling back on the pillow beneath him with a soft flumph. They both caught their breath for a moment, the only other sound the crackle of the fire and the distant whistle of the wind.

“Yes, yeah, alright,” Zayn croaked, sounding on the verge of falling to pieces. Niall sympathized. Awkwardly shuffling backward and palming his dick just in case, Niall aligned himself and grabbed at Zayn’s dick, wet at the tip and looking painfully hard. Niall’s hand was shaking and he was pretty sure if he didn’t get Zayn’s cock in him right this very second, he would actually fall over dead. He told Zayn as much and Zayn simply shook with laughter, only pausing for a moment to gasp as Niall sunk down onto him.

They both took a moment to adjust, free hands seeking out each other’s and lacing their fingers tight. There wasn’t anything like this. Without sounding like a truly awful poet or summat, Niall swore there was no other feeling as right in the world as when he and Zayn were fitted together, as close as they could physically manage. Crude, maybe, but Niall swore he could see heaven as Zayn began to roll his hips just right.

They were both so wound up, it was clear neither were going to last long, and Niall loved it. He loved knowing that tomorrow they could wake up and take the whole damn day. He loved that sometimes they both shot off so fast that it was all they could do to laugh about it. He loved everything in between, the bites and the kisses and the times Niall swore he could feel claws rake down his back. He ground his hips down hard against Zayn’s pelvis and heard the breath punch out of his lungs and he loved that too.

“I love you,” Niall bit out, feeling the pressure build in his gut and letting himself chase the sparks of aching pleasure. Zayn moaned, snapping his hips up hard and gripping into the meat of Niall’s thigh with shaking fingers.

By the time Niall got a hand around his dick, he was already coming. He curled in on himself, going silent and choking on air as he painted across Zayn’s chest with come, barely able to move on his cock. Zayn growled, planting his feet for leverage before pounding rabbit-fast into Niall, selfish and desperate for his own orgasm. Niall was keening, high and weak and barely discernable over the sweaty slap of skin on skin, waves of pleasure bordering on pain rocketing through him as Zayn dug his nails into his hip and rolled his hips once and again and finally came hard with a shout.

Niall was gasping for air, small noises still wheezing out of his lungs with each exhale, dizzy with aftershocks. Zayn wasn’t faring much better, chest heaving and shining with sweat. The fireplace was suddenly seeming like too much.

Collapsing on top of Zayn with a happy moan, Niall buried his face in the crook of his neck, licking at the sticky drops of sweat there and ignoring Zayn’s weak protest.

“It’s too hot, gerroff,” Zayn said, nudging at Niall’s dead weight.

“You love it.” Not a question.

There was a long pause, and then Zayn’s arms came up and wrapped around Niall’s shoulders and pulled him even closer.

“I do. I love you,” Zayn said from somewhere buried in Niall’s hair. Niall smiled again and sighed happily, feeling that elusive post-dinner nap finally catching up to him.


Yeah. Heaven.