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Rick Macy and the Blue Whistling Thrush

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11.

“Rick?” his mother calls up the stairs. “Can you come down here?”

“Why?” Rick hollers back, intent on gunning down a pack of rabid werewolves on the TV in his room.

“There's someone here to see you.”

“Who is it?”

“Rick Macy, get down here right now, please,” she yells in That Tone, and Rick hits pause with a groan.

He clatters down the stairs and pulls up short. There's a dark-skinned lady he's never seen before standing with his mum. She's got on a dark blue suit like Tommy Dalton's big sister who's a lawyer in London wears. Even weirder, she's wearing, like, a lunch-lady's hairnet, but fancier. She is not smiling even a little bit.

“Um,” Rick says.

“Your father's waiting in the other room,” his mum says, and Rick has a really really bad feeling about this. He trails after the adults into the living room, keeping an eye on the strange woman the whole way.

As soon as they're all sat down, Rick turns to his dad and says, “I didn't do it,” which always makes teachers suspicious but makes his dad laugh indulgently. Rick doesn't spend a lot of time getting into trouble, but his dad seems to like it when he does.

This time, he grins and raises his beer bottle in a shrug. “Don't look at me, I've got no clue what this is about.”

“Miss Reglan mentioned something about a school,” his mum says. “You said he'd … been accepted already?”

“That's right,” the lady—Miss Reglan—says. Her voice is really deep. “Rick, I represent a very special boarding school that keeps an eye out for special children, children like you. We'd be very pleased for you to attend.”

“Special how?” his father asks, eyes narrowed, at the same time as Rick says, “Oh, I'm, I'm normal.”

“Rick,” she says, looking straight at him, “have strange things ever happened around you? Things you can't explain?”

“No,” he says quickly.

“Maybe you wished very hard for something, and then it happened,” she goes on. “Or maybe you were angry or upset, and you broke something you could have sworn you didn't touch.” Out of the corner of his eye, Rick sees his mum twitch.

“Nope,” he says. “No weird stuff. Can I go now?”

“There was one time—” his mum blurts out, then falls silent.

“Sweetheart, you'd better explain what it is you're on about before I start getting suspicious,” his dad says, calm-but-not-really. Rick stares firmly at the wall.

“Very well,” Miss Reglan says smoothly. “Mr. and Mrs. Macy, I am delighted to inform you that your son has been accepted to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Yes, you heard the name correctly, and yes, it's just what it sounds like. Magic is real, and Rick here is a young wizard.” She folds her hands neatly in her lap and waits. Rick's stomach sinks.

There's a long pause before Rick's dad snorts with laughter. “Right,” he chuckles. “Of course. You need a ride back to the loony bin, or are they coming to pick you up?” Rick chances a glance at his mother, who's looking at him thoughtfully.

“I'm sure you'd like a demonstration,” Miss Reglan says. “Now, so you don't think I've specifically designed a trick ahead of time, why don't you ask me to perform a magical task—anything within reason.”

“Yeah, sure, levitate the table,” Rick's dad says, waving at the coffee table.

Miss Reglan reaches inside her suit jacket and pulls out a long wooden stick. They all stare at it. It's really smooth and dark and curves just a little at the end. Rick's heart is pounding. It's obviously a—it's her—

It's just a stick, he tells himself.

Then Miss Reglan says something foreign and does a sort of swishing motion with the stick, and the coffee table rises three feet off the floor.

“Oh my Lord," Rick's mum says softly. Rick looks at the table, glances at Miss Reglan's focused, serene expression, and then stares at his shoes.

His father is very, very quiet.

Miss Reglan puts the table back down and silently runs through a few more demonstrations: a flower blooming from the tip of the—wand, the lamp in the corner shooting up in height and banging into the ceiling, the telly remote turning into a small blue bird with a bright yellow beak that flies over to Rick and lands on his finger. Rick stares at it helplessly. Miss Reglan just waits.

Rick's dad stands up very slowly. He walks over to Miss Reglan, the beer bottle dangling from his fingertips. “May I?” he asks, gesturing at the wand.

“I prefer not to let go of it,” she says.

He nods understandingly: of course, of course. Then, lightning-fast, he brings up the bottle and smashes it into the side of her head.

Rick had been vaguely hoping she would block the blow, but she's surprised by it. The almost-empty bottle shatters against her skull, and while she's dazed and distracted, Rick's dad immediately goes for the wand. He actually pulls it out of her hands, but before he can do anything else, she yells something kind of desperately, and Rick's dad's whole body freezes up. She yanks the wand out of his hand. Rick hears his mum whimper, but she doesn't move.

Then Rick's dad starts screaming at the lady. Rick shuts his eyes tight and tries not to listen, but he can't help but hear bits of it—you fucking cunt, get the fuck away from my family, you're gonna burn in Hell forever, you fucking dyke bitch—before finally his father's voice cuts off abruptly.

“Rick?” he hears, from right in front of him. “Rick, you can open your eyes now.”

He opens them reluctantly. Miss Reglan is sitting on the edge of the coffee table in front of him, her elbows on her knees, looking at him intently. The beer is gone from her hairnet, and the bird has gone to perch on her shoulder. His mother is hovering behind her, looking worried. Rick glances over to his left and sees his dad in a crumpled heap on the floor.

“Is he—” Rick starts, throat tight.

“He's fine, Rick,” Miss Reglan says. “I just thought it would be good for you and me to talk about the school a little before we talked to him about it, okay?”

“I don't want to go,” Rick says.

“I know it sounds scary right now,” she says gently. “But it's really a wonderful school, where you'll learn to do amazing things with other kids who are like you.” The bird whistles and flies back to Rick. Rick tentatively strokes a finger over the bird's wing. “You know that thing you can't explain that's been inside of you for a long time? That's your magic. You don't have to be alone with it anymore.”

“I don't want to go,” Rick whispers again.

“You're not the first Hogwarts student with a parent who doesn't approve of your magic,” she says. “You have a lot of options, Rick. I'll try to talk to your father first, see if he'll come around. If that doesn't work, I can change his memory, and we can tell him you're going to a Muggle boarding school—a non-magic school. Or if you don't want to come back here, we can make sure you have somewhere else to live, where your mum can visit you. Or there are ways to make sure that you're safe here.”

“I don't want to go,” he repeats.

“Rick,” she says, “it's my job to see to it that you get the education you need and deserve, and that you're safe while you're getting it. And I promise, I promise you, that if you let me, I can do that for you. I give you my word.”

Rick shakes his head. He hunches his shoulders and cups his hands around the blue bird, which chirps at him.

His mother sits next to him. “Rick, dear,” she says hesitantly. “It could be … nice, couldn't it? A new school, and you could learn, well, magic. Do you … do you want to go, sweetheart?”

Rick bursts into tears. His mum hugs him to her chest, and Rick gasps out, “I don't want to go, I don't want to go,” between desperate, wracking sobs.

*

Miss Reglan tries for a long time. She talks to Rick a lot, and his mum talks to him, and eventually Miss Reglan wakes up his dad and she and his mum go and talk to him in the other room while Rick plays with the bird. He doesn't hear any shouting, but he thinks maybe Miss Reglan made it so he wouldn't. The two women come back in, and Miss Reglan talks to him some more, and then she leaves the room to make a call. Rick's mum sits with him on the sofa and puts her arm around his shoulders. She looks really tired, and she doesn't try to talk to him anymore.

When Miss Reglan comes back in, she looks tired, too. “All right, Rick,” she says. “This is the last time I'm going to ask you. Are you willing to go to Hogwarts next year?”

Rick shakes his head.

She sighs. “Okay, then. I can't force you to go.”

“So what, then?” Rick's mum asks. “We just … carry on? You said it could be dangerous for him not to learn to control … it.”

“It could be,” she says, “but probably not, especially if Rick works on keeping his emotions in check. I'll of course leave you my contact information in case you have any questions, or if Rick changes his mind. And....” She hesitates. “Mrs. Macy, if there's … anything else I can do for you. Anything at all. There are a lot of resources you can call on.”

“Oh,” his mum says. “Oh, no, it's not like that. I know it can look like, but, he just gets angry about some things. He would never … do anything you need to worry about. Really.”

Rick chances a quick look at Miss Reglan—she doesn't look happy, but she gives a reluctant nod. “I see,” she says. “Well, I'll still offer to change your husband's memory of today. It might make things easier.”

“Oh,” Rick's mum says. “Yes, that's probably for the best.”

Rick's head comes up suddenly: he's just had an idea. “Can I talk to you alone?” he asks Miss Reglan urgently. It's the first thing he's said besides I don't want to go in hours.

Miss Reglan nods, and his mum goes in the other room where his dad is. As soon as the door closes, he says, “If you can change me dad's memory, can you do it to my mum, too? So then neither of them would know about me.”

She looks pained. “Why don't you want your mum to know about your magic?”

“I don't want her thinking I'm … weird, or whatever.” She doesn't say anything, so with great effort he adds, “She'll feel sorry for me.”

“I'm sorry, Rick, I don't feel comfortable altering the memory of a parent who's been supportive.”

“But you can do it, right? It's not against the rules?”

“I'm authorized to alter Muggle memories at my discretion, which means, yes, I can do it if I want to, and I don't. You're not going to change my mind on this, I'm afraid.”

Rick thinks about his mother knowing that he's … wrong, and wishing he was at school with the other weird kids, and giving him funny looks all the time, and it's awful. On his shoulder, the bird whistles in distress. Rick feels like he's about to cry again, so he swallows it down and says hurriedly, “What about, what about Kieren?”

She cocks her head. “What about Kieren?”

“Is he a, um. A … is he like me?”

“Ah,” she says. “As a matter of fact, yes. He's my next stop.”

“Yeah,” Rick says, cheering up a little. “Yeah, sometimes he can make pictures move with his mind, he showed me. He's really good at drawing.” Rick had thought about telling him about the time he'd been upset and yelling at his mum and a vase exploded, but a piece had hit his mother in the face and she'd been really scared and he didn't like talking about it. He tried not to get angry much after that. The pictures were brilliant, though—Ren would probably have a great time at the school. He'd probably make a lot of friends.

“Are you sure you don't want to go to school with Kieren?” she asks, sensing weakness, but he shakes his head frantically enough that she sighs and doesn't press.

“But he can tell me about it, right?” Rick asks hopefully.

“If he knows you're a wizard, of course.”

“No!” Rick says. “No, don't tell him. Can you just tell him I'm a … a muddle?”

“Muggle.”

“Yeah, tell him I'm a Muggle, but because he's the only magic person in a town that's all Muggles, he can talk to one person about it even though it's secret so he won't be lonely. He'll pick me, because I'm his best mate.”

“Hmm,” she says. “Believe it or not, Rick, you're the first eleven-year-old I've ever met whom I couldn't convince to go to Hogwarts, so I suppose the rules are going to have to be flexible in your case.” She regards him silently for a while. Rick widens his eyes and tries to look cute. The bird whistles plaintively.

“Okay,” she says finally. “I'll tell him you're a Muggle but I'm giving him permission to talk to you about magic. But, Rick, I strongly, strongly encourage you to tell Kieren you're a wizard. I imagine things will be very lonely for you if you don't.”

“I'll think about it,” Rick lies.

“Since I work with Muggles regularly, I have a telephone, so I'll leave my number with you and your mother. Call me if you want anything; I would love the opportunity to help you.” He nods. “One more thing.” She holds out her hand, and the bird flutters over to perch on her finger. “Would you like to keep the bird?”

Rick stares at it. It stares back at him, then starts cleaning its wing with its beak.

“We need a remote,” Rick says finally.

“I can make you another one,” she says.

“No,” he says. “That's okay.”

Rick thinks she's going to keep asking, but she doesn't. She just looks sad. She pulls out her wand, says some magic words, and the shiny blue bird turns back into a dull grey plastic rectangle. She hands it to Rick.

“Thanks,” Rick whispers, and he kind of thinks they're both trying not to cry.

*

Ren is really super excited about being a wizard. He comes over the next day and drags Rick to his room and talks so fast and so much that Rick feels exhausted. They look at Ren's school supply list and giggle about how it's all stuff for a wicked witch Halloween costume—robes and cauldrons and toads, really?—and Rick calls Ren a witch and finds it hysterically funny, so before long Ren is hitting Rick with a pillow while Rick laughs breathlessly.

The remaining month or so of summer passes pretty much like normal. Rick hangs around outside a lot and watches movies at the Walker house, and Ren spends his time drawing and talking about magic, and then one day Ren's waving goodbye from his family's car as they all go down to London so Ren can catch the train. Rick waves until the car's out of sight and tells himself it's dumb to feel jealous or whatever. If he wanted to go to the school, he could have just gone.

When Rick gets home, his mum is making pancakes and his dad is drinking coffee and reading the paper. “Where're you sneaking off to so early?” he asks.

“Thought I'd go for a run,” Rick says. He wore gym clothes and made sure to run to and from the Walker house so he'd be sweaty.

His dad looks impressed. “Well, how about that,” he says. “We'll make a man out of you yet.”

“Thanks,” Rick says, silently vowing to go running every morning from now on.

His mother sets a plate in front of him. “Is today the day Kieren Walker's going off to school, do you know?” she asks casually.

“Um, yeah,” he mutters, shoving an enormous bite of pancakes in his mouth.

“Some art school, was it?” his dad says. “Christ, a whole boarding school for fairies in training.” He laughs. After a second, Rick laughs, too.

His mum makes biscuits that afternoon and lets him have two straight out of the oven. Her hand lingers on his shoulder when she walks by.

*

Until Ren left, Rick hadn't really noticed that he didn't have any other friends. He was friendly with plenty of people at school, but he didn't really like anyone enough to hang out with them. But maybe he just doesn't know anyone well enough, he reckons. He just hadn't bothered since he'd found Ren, and the kids in his class are probably a lot cooler than they used to be.

He and Ren had always been aware of each other, obviously, living in the same tiny town and all, but they didn't become mates until late in Year 5 when they had to do a history project on an English monarch of their choice. Rick suggested Henry VIII more or less at random, and Kieren gave a detailed, passionate speech on why they should do James I, which Rick accepted immediately. Truth be told, by that point Rick had spent the better part of a year being fascinated with Kieren from afar—he was pretty quiet most of the time, but when he did talk he was just so smart, and he was always drawing really interesting things, and basically he just seemed to Rick to be mysteriously different from everybody else he knew. Rick has no idea what Ren saw in him, but it was apparently something, and that was that. They mostly hung out at Ren's house—Rick likes Ren's parents a lot even though they're really weird, and his little sister is great—and Rick is pretty sure his dad doesn't know that they're mates. It's not that he's keeping it a secret exactly. He just … doesn't think Ren and his dad would get along, really. His mum knows, because he has to tell her when he's at the Walker house, which is a lot, and she's fine with it, so it's not like there's anything wrong with it or anything like that.

Anyway, it's not a big deal, because there are loads of kids Rick can make friends with now, and he spends the first few weeks of the new school year diligently doing just that. He falls in with Dirk Wiggins's crowd, who were the tough guys in primary school: “Are you gonna be a tough guy, or are you gonna be a little girl?!” Dirk is fond of saying whenever someone hesitates over some plan he and Gavin have come up with. Gavin Elder is really dedicated to Making Plans and Devising Battle Strategies; he's more posh than anyone else in the group, and just generally pretty weird, but he's been Dirk's best mate since they were infants, so he can get away with a lot. There's Pete Manning, who really enjoys punching people, and Chris Turpin, who spends most of his time smoking weed he gets from his older brother, and Jamie Vance, who watches too many R-rated American movies and swears like a 1940s Italian gangster. Rick is kind of an apprentice tough guy—Dirk is firmly of the opinion that Rick was left to the influences of women and artists too long and it's their Christian duty to show him the ways of True Manhood. This suits Rick just fine, because whenever he says something “soft,” they just shake their heads patiently instead of getting angry or throwing him out of the group or something.

Bascially they're a bunch of loud boys who get in trouble a lot, and they're pretty dumb, but Rick's dumb, too, so whatever. And his dad likes them and laughs a lot when they tell him about all the trouble they get into, so Rick starts breaking a lot more rules that year. Sometimes his mum lectures him, but his dad says he was worried Rick was a sissy and a goody-two-shoes and he's really proud that he's not, so it's okay.

He does not miss Kieren Walker one bit and does not care that Ren promised he was gonna write a ton of letters and has not sent even one.

*

Rick specifically tells his mother when she asks that he's not going to see Ren over the Christmas hols, Ren is an arsewipe, but she lets him up to Rick's room anyway.

“Rick, they don't have normal post,” Ren says urgently as soon as he sees him.

“What's that mean?” Rick says suspiciously.

“You have to send letters by owls. Real owls! That carry letters! I didn't think you'd want owls flying to your house all the time, I thought you'd get in trouble.”

“Why would I get in trouble for owls flying around the house?”

“I don't know, I don't know why you get in trouble for half the things you do,” Ren says, which is a fair point.

“Fine,” Rick says. “Owls, bloody hell.”

“Wait till I tell you about the poltergeist,” Ren says, and they both crack up.

So the rest of the break is good, and Ren tells him all about how much he likes Charms class and how great all the other people in Gryffindor are and how the paintings are alive (he mostly talks about the paintings) and a billion other things. Once you get to know him, Ren talks a lot, and Rick's used to it by now, plus Ren's life is obviously a lot more exciting. Rick mostly listens and asks questions and makes Ren go outside and run around sometimes, because left on his own, Ren just sits inside and draws and reads. He hangs out with his new friends a few times, but doesn't introduce them to Ren—he doesn't think they'd get along. At Christmas dinner, his dad gets mad about some stuff and yells (but not at Rick, really) and breaks the bowl of mashed potatoes, but that happens sometimes, so it's still a really good break, even though Rick was really looking forward to mashed potatoes.

The day before Ren leaves again, Rick feels sick. He spends most of the day lying on Ren's bed playing with his new Game Boy Advance while Ren sits next to him and frantically does his homework. Half an hour before Rick has to go home for dinner, Ren mumbles, “Hey, I, um—here,” and shoves a piece of paper at him. It's one of Ren's moving pictures, of a tiny bird flitting around Rick as he looks fondly exasperated. The movement is a lot smoother than the ones he used to do; he's been practicing.

“It's, uh, it's a wren,” says Ren, and he turns bright red. “You have to hide it, though, I don't know how to tell it to stop moving yet.”

“Yeah, of course,” Rick says, staring at it. He should say thank you, but the words are stuck in his throat.

He really, really doesn't want Ren to leave.

Ren lies down on his side and very hesitantly rests his head on Rick's shoulder, his small body lightly curving around Rick's. Rick folds up the paper and presses it to his chest, and they lie there, not saying anything, until Rick has to go home.

*

The rest of the year is kind of tense. Rick's mum has been looking at him funny since summer and going out of her way to be extra-nice to him, and now she keeps asking questions about Ren's school when his dad's not around. He's pretty sure she's trying to get him to think about how great it is so he'll want to go there, and he gets so mad about it that one day he yells at her. She looks surprised, because Rick never yells, and Rick immediately claps his hands over his mouth because he never yells—he has to keep his emotions in check so he doesn't hurt her. He gets so freaked out that he refuses to talk to her for a whole week, which makes his dad furious, so Rick has to stay in his room whenever he's not at school and isn't allowed to do anything but homework until eventually his mum comes and gives him a hug and talks to him a little even though his dad told her not to. For the next couple of months Rick feels awful and mostly avoids his mum, because he knows his dad is right that she deserves a better son than him—like, at least one that won't accidentally turn her into a frog, although Ren says that's pretty advanced Transfiguration.

Rick tries to figure out a way to make it up to his mum, and one day when they're staying late after church because it's his mother's turn to clean the altar, it occurs to him that she might like it if he joined the Altar Guild with her. His mum's been on the Altar Guild as long as he can remember, and most of her friends are in it with her, including Mrs. Walker—the Walkers have been gradually falling away from church, but Mrs. Walker is still on the rota, and sometimes he pokes his head into the sacristy to see her and his mum laughing while they wash the dishes. So if he joined, his mum would probably like to talk and laugh with him, and also it looks pretty fun: take all the special objects off the table, put them away where they go, put them all back in their exact right places.

He wants it to be a surprise for his mum, so he goes to Vicar Oddie to ask him about joining. Vicar Oddie gives him a weird look.

“I'm not sure that's the right place for you, son,” he says.

“Why?”

“Well, it's a job for the ladies of the church, you see. Not for a boy.”

“It's okay, I like being around the ladies,” Rick says. “And my mum's friends like me, and I think me mum would like having me around.”

Vicar Oddie shakes his head. “It's just not a thing for a young lad to be doing,” he says. “You should be outside in the fresh air, messing around with the other boys, not scrubbing the dishes. Leave it to the women, Rick, it's not for you.”

Rick understands then. “I shouldn't want to do it because it's girly,” he says.

“Well, I wouldn't put it that way,” Vicar Oddie says. “It's just not the right place for you.”

“Okay,” Rick agrees. “Sorry. I thought cause it was a church thing it was different, but it's all right, Vicar, I'm not a girl.”

“Well, of course, you're not,” he says, looking amused.

Rick understands because his father had to have a talk with him last year about the kind of music he was listening to. One of the things his dad said was that if people knew about it, they might get the wrong idea and maybe even beat him up, which seems to Rick like a good reason not to do something. “What if I keep it secret that I like it?” Rick asked, and his father shook his head and said, “Secrets always get found out.”

Rick never does find a way to make it up to his mum, but one really good thing does happen that spring, which is that Ren musters his Gryffindor courage and asks a teacher about the owl post situation. It turns out that some of the owls are specially trained stealth owls that will make sure only to deliver letters when Rick's parents aren't around. Rick's still pretty nervous about the whole thing, but Ren does send him a ton of letters and no one notices anything suspicious. It's weird having to write a letter back right away, but the ninja owls are happy to come inside and let him pet them while he replies, which he enjoys. Ren sends him magic pictures that he keeps under the mattress (the one with the wren he keeps in his pillowcase), and it's not as good as going to school with him every day, but it's a whole lot better than nothing.

 

12.

One day, late in the summer before Year 8, Rick is on his bed innocently reading a magazine when there's a loud crack! and he yelps to see Miss Reglan suddenly standing in front of him.

“What are you doing in my room?!” Rick yells.

“I didn't want to bother your mother,” she replies. His dad's at work, but he can hear his mum making dinner downstairs.

“So you just teleport into my room?” Rick says, indignant.

“Yes,” she says, then cocks her head and considers. “I suppose that was rude of me.”

Yeah.”

“I'm sorry,” she says. “I should have been more respectful of your privacy.”

Rick is not used to adults apologizing to him, or being respectful of his privacy. “Um, okay,” he says awkwardly.

“And I Apparated into your room, by the way, that's the technical term.”

“Whatever,” Rick says, filing that away.

“May I sit down?” she asks, gesturing to a chair covered up by jackets and a stack of books. Rick shrugs, and she clears off the chair and sits in it, completely unfazed. Rick is kind of impressed.

“So, Rick, how's school?”

He is less impressed. “Fine.”

“Did Kieren Walker have a good first year at Hogwarts? I hear he's in Gryffindor.”

“Yeah.”

“Has he told you much about it?”

Rick shrugs.

“Rick, this isn't an official visit,” she says. “I just wanted to see whether you'd had a change of heart since last year. Maybe you've changed your mind about going to Hogwarts?”

“I can't, I'd be behind,” he points out.

“I'm confident there would be no problem with you entering as a slightly older first-year.”

“There's a kid in my class who got held back a year,” Rick says. “People make fun of him.”

“Maybe it's better than nothing,” she says.

Rick is silent. He'd figured he couldn't go now even if he wanted to, but of course it made sense that he could. It would be weird to be a year behind Ren, but they could still hang out, even though he wouldn't be in Gryffindor.

He tries to think about what would happen if he said yes, but his stomach clenches up and his heart starts pounding, and he casts about desperately for something to change the subject.

“How come you don't wear robes?” is what he lands on. She's wearing a different suit the same color as last time, and her hairnet is a different shade of blue.

“I do wear robes,” she says. “But not when I'm visiting Muggles.”

“Oh,” he says.

She must see something in his face, because she adds, “I spent today delivering Hogwarts acceptances and didn't bother changing before I came here.” While she's talking, she takes out her wand like she's fidgeting with it and turns a cup into the small blue bird from last year, which hops over to him.

Rick is dumb but not that dumb, and he knows when something is a trick. He glares at it.

“You seemed to like it last time,” she says.

“I'm not going to your school,” he mutters.

“I'll tell you what,” she says. “Why don't I sit here for … ten more minutes, and at the end of it I'll ask you again. If you say no then, I'll leave. Does that sound okay?”

“No,” he says. “I want you to leave now. My dad'll be home soon.” He tries to make that last bit as threatening as he can.

Her face goes hard suddenly, where it was unsmiling but gentle before. “Rick,” she says, and he flinches at the iciness of her tone. “Your father doesn't frighten me. He shouldn't frighten you. There have always been cruel, close-minded people like your father, and you have the choice, right now, to stop being afraid of them.”

“Shut up,” Rick says. “My dad isn't cruel, he just doesn't want me to be a freak—

“A freak like Kieren?” she says coolly.

“I'm not like Ren!” he says, trying very hard not to yell. “I'm not like Ren, and I'm not like you, I don't even know you, so just go away already and stop saying bad things about my dad. And take your bird with you.”

She stands up. “Fine,” she says. With a flick of her wand the bird turns back into a cup. “You know how to contact me if you change your mind.” There's another crack!, and she disappears.

Rick buries his head in his pillow and focuses on not getting angry, not getting angry, until he hears his dad's voice calling him to dinner.

*

In October, Dirk gets in a feud with Milo Ramsey, who, despite being “a giant flaming nerd” (as Dirk put it), is pretty popular on account of his parents being wealthy and throwing him awesome themed birthday parties every year (and also because he's really nice, Rick thinks but does not say). The feud is over—Rick honestly doesn't even know, he thinks it has something to do with Milo telling a teacher about something Dirk did? Anyway, it keeps Rick busy for the next couple of months.

Dirk's house is usually their headquarters, but his grandparents are visiting and loudly disapprove of Dirk's friends, life, and choices, so they end up at the Macy house in the evenings more often than not. Rick's dad heartily approves of Dirk and is always telling Rick he should be more like him, and also more like Jamie, who's really athletic; Rick does karate, but he's not very good at it. His mum is happy to have them for dinner, so they spend a lot of afternoons taking over the garage and hanging about and mostly ignoring Gavin's attempts to get them all to focus on How They Are Going to Show Everyone Who's Boss except when Dirk decides it's time to get serious and tells them to shut up and listen to whatever complicated campaign of violence, harassment, and intimidation Gavin has cooked up that day.

The Milo Incident … gets pretty bad, actually. Like, they've beaten people up before, and vandalized people's stuff, but this is the first time they, um, set anything on fire. Chris and Jamie and Rick get caught, and the school calls their parents, and, waiting in the principal's office, Rick thinks really hard about throwing up. Milo had opened his locker to a pile of burning papers and screamed and wet his pants. Everyone had laughed at him. Rick thinks his dad might be really mad about this one.

His dad laughs it off, though, and tells Rick about the explosives they used when he was in the Army. He talks to the principal, and they don't get suspended. Jamie and Chris get grounded. Things go back to normal after that, except Milo is a lot quieter and looks scared whenever Rick passes him in the hallway.

Rick is really fucking glad when Ren comes home.

*

Ren has a lot of homework over the break, more than last year, which he complains about, but he doesn't seem too annoyed. Rick feels dumb just hanging about watching Ren write essays (on parchment, with quills—wizard school is weird), so he hangs out with Dirk and everyone more than he did last winter. He makes sure to duck out of the house on Christmas Day to give Ren his present, though.

“Oh,” Ren says, looking down at the (really, really badly) wrapped present Rick shoved in his hands. “But I didn't get you anything.”

“You drew me the picture,” Rick says. “Last year.”

“That wasn't a real present, I give you pictures all the time.”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “That one—” Ren is looking at him funny. “—had a bird,” he finishes lamely.

Ren stares at him. “Okay, bye, Happy Christmas,” Rick says, and flees.

Rick's dad is off work for the holiday, so Ren doesn't come by the house, but three days later his mum runs into the Walkers at the supermarket and all but orders him to go see Ren.

“He misses you,” she says.

“No, he doesn't, he's busy with school,” he mutters.

“Rick Macy, that boy was so excited to ask me about you, I'm surprised he didn't accidentally levitate.” Rick is shocked enough at the joke that he can't stop himself from laughing. She smiles kindly at him. “Here, take some biscuits to the Walkers while you're over there.”

Ren is pretty unhappy he's been hanging out with his new friends so much, it turns out, so Rick apologizes and spends most of the next week hanging about watching Ren write essays. He's flipping idly through Ren's history book when Ren says, “Augh, when was the sodding International Goblins and Warlocks Conference, ugh,” and after a beat, Rick says, “1615,” because there was a picture of a goblin and a wizard a few pages back and sure enough, the date is right there.

“Oh, hey, thanks,” Ren says, and somehow Rick ends up looking up facts and checking over his essays. Ren clearly has no idea what makes teachers happy, so Rick has some serious work to do.

“You're really good at this,” Ren says suddenly while Rick is in the middle of explaining that he needs a better conclusion, and Rick trips over his words and blushes. Ren smiles at him. He has a really nice smile. After a second, Rick smiles shyly back.

Even though they're inside, Ren is wearing his new red scarf with the shiny gold appliques Rick's mum helped him sew on glittering at the ends, shaped like tiny birds.

*

February is horrible.

It's so stupid how it starts—Rick has just had one of those horrible, sucky days, when he forgot his homework and tripped over his shoelaces and the cafeteria lunch was disgusting and he'd passed Milo Ramsey in the hall, like, twelve times, and it was just. It was just dumb things, but he gets upset anyway because he's terrible, and at dinner that night he accidentally knocks over his milk glass and it spills all over the table, and he starts crying, like a baby, like a little girl.

He thinks his dad is going to yell at him, but when he gets a good look at him through his tears, his blood runs cold and he cries harder, because he can see what's coming, and out of all the horrible things that could possibly ever happen to him, it's the worst, it's the absolute worst.

“Got a couple new hires at the factory today,” Rick's dad says to his mum, picking up his beer glass from the puddle of milk.

"Dad," Rick chokes out.

“Bill,” his mum says softly.

“A couple of them seem like they'll pan out,” he says, putting his beer back down in the milk. “Some weaklings that'll get weeded out soon enough, though.”

“Dad, I'm really sorry,” Rick sobs.

“Bill, he's sorry, he'll clean it up.”

“Hmm?” Rick's dad looks politely blank. “Are there more of those potatoes?”

It lasts for a whole month, which is longer than ever before. Sometimes Rick talks to his dad even though he doesn't answer; other times he doesn't talk at all, just slips silently through the house, like a ghost. Deep down, Rick's never been sure his father is pretending. Maybe Rick is just so disappointing his dad's brain can't take it and he really does lose the ability to see and hear him. Maybe Rick's magic is doing it. Maybe he doesn't actually exist at all, his mum and the rest of the town are all hallucinating him, and his dad is the only sane man who knows there's no such thing as Rick Macy.

His mum always tries to be extra nice to him when it happens, but he doesn't even care about his mum. He just wants his dad. He wants to cry a lot, but obviously that would be the stupidest thing to do, because Rick knows his dad wasn't disappointed about the milk. So he spends a lot of time after school sitting in a little nest of blankets in his bed and thinking about sad things—being a bad person, Ren dying, Milo Ramsey—and practicing not crying, which he shouldn't have been doing anyway because of the magic.

One day Rick's dad tells him to stop skulking around the house like he's about to get stepped on, and Rick can feel himself snap back into existence, just from the weight of his father's eyes on him.

 

13.

The next time Miss Reglan visits him, the first thing he sees is her silhouette in the mouth of The Den.

“Hello, Rick,” she calls. “May I come in?”

“Okay,” he says. He'd wondered if she might come but hadn't really thought she would.

She walks down the narrow cave entrance and moves to sit by the wall opposite him, but he scoots over so there's plenty of room next to him in the space they've hemmed in with candles. She sits down at his side.

“Rick, before I say anything else, I want to apologize,” she says. “I said some things to you last year that were unhelpful and upsetting. I had no right, and I'm sorry.”

“Thanks,” he says. It's not so bad having adults apologize to him, he decides.

“Now however did you find this place?” she asks, appropriately admiring.

“Ren found it,” he explains happily. “It's the coolest. We hang out here, like, all the time now, and our parents don't know about it—uh, don't tell them.”

“I would never,” she says. He looks over at her. She's wearing shiny blue robes and a blue hairnet with little jewels in it. She has her wand out, just toying with it, and she's smiling.

“You know, there's a room at Hogwarts—this is a secret, don't tell Kieren,” she instructs. He nods solemnly. “It's called the Room of Requirement, and it turns into whatever you want, whatever you need it to be. I used to turn it into a giant aviary and take, ah, friends there. It was … magical.”

“What's an aviary?” he asks.

“It's an enclosure full of birds.” She starts flicking her wand with that absent, fidgety motion, and a dozen rocks turn into birds of all different kinds and colors. He doesn't think it's for his benefit, so he lets the little blue one hop up to him and pets it while it whistles contentedly. They sit in a pretty comfortable silence, both of them playing with the birds.

“Hey, can I ask you something?” Rick says eventually.

“Of course.”

“You found me out here because the wizard government monitors underage wizards, right? So you could find out where I was.” She nods. “So the wizard government is monitoring me.”

“The standard underage tracking spells pick you up, yes.”

“Ren won't show me any magic, because he says it's illegal for underage wizards to do magic outside of school. But you never told me I wasn't allowed to do magic, just to try not to. But it must be illegal for me, too, right?”

She sighs. “That's actually a much more complicated question than you think it is. I looked into it, and you're not the first witch or wizard to refuse to go to Hogwarts—it's rare, but there is precedent. You're just the first since World War II. Essentially, you continue to have the legal status of a pre-school-age wizard, in that it's legal for you to perform minor magic, as it was before you were eleven, but you're subject to the same sort of monitoring spells as Hogwarts students. But I haven't gotten a clear answer as to what happens if you perform larger-scale magic that causes harm or reveals your secret to ordinary Muggles—and I have serious qualms about your legal status when you turn seventeen, but we don't have to get into that yet.”

Rick processes this. “So if I do small magic things, I'm not gonna get in trouble.”

“Correct,” she says. “To be honest, Kieren wouldn't get in trouble for minor magic either, our office has better things to do, but don't tell him that. The general thinking with pre-school-age wizards is that involuntary magical outbursts are going to happen and there's not much point in worrying about it. So as long as you don't do anything that requires a reversal squad, you can do as much magic as you want without hearing from the wizarding world at all.”

“Huh,” Rick says. “Okay. That would be dumb, though, because I don't know how to do magic.”

She's quiet for a while, thoughtfully stroking a yellow parrot that's sitting on her wrist. “I'm really not sure how to advise you, Rick,” she says finally. “You're right that it would probably be unwise deliberately to practice magic without training. But I imagine you must feel very … bottled-up, never using your magic. It's meant to be used.”

“Not really?” he says. “I haven't felt weirdly bottled-up lately.”

She shrugs. “Adult wizards usually suffer psychological and physical health problems if prevented from using magic for an extended period, but there's not much information on wizards who never practice magic regularly. Maybe it's not a problem. Of course, the question is moot if you agree to come to Hogwarts this year.”

He's impressed that she still sounds so hopeful. “No, thank you,” he says politely, but he feels a little sorry for her.

“Well, the offer's always open.”

“You can stay a little longer, though,” he says. “Ren's meeting me here, but you can stay until he gets here.”

“All right,” she says. They play with the birds until Miss Reglan says that Ren's on his way. She asks if he wants her to change all the birds back, and he says yes, but after she leaves he piles all the bird-rocks into a cool-looking tower. Ren knocks it over by mistake but helps him build it back up, and they write things on the wall and talk and giggle, and hide from everyone in the world until it's time to go home.

*

Rick's helping Ren pack at the end of the summer when he notices Ren's leaving a bunch of his magic books behind. “Oh, yeah,” Ren says. “Those are the first- and second-year books I don't need anymore,” and they go back to packing.

But after Ren leaves, Rick can't stop thinking about those books in his room, like a stomachache that won't go away. Miss Reglan said his magic was meant to be used, and it wasn't illegal, but … it's not like he wants to do magic, and he definitely doesn't need to. But maybe it couldn't hurt to read about it a little? He already knows a bunch of magic history from helping Ren. And besides, what about accidental magic? He works really hard at not doing magic accidentally, and hasn't slipped up the whole time he's known about it, but he might screw up someday, and since he's older than ten, maybe his magic would be stronger and more dangerous. So he should probably know some stuff about it. Just to make sure it was safe.

That still leaves the problem of getting hold of the books, though. He never goes to Ren's room while Ren's away, that would be weird. He can't just ask Ren's parents to lend him the books, because they would tell Ren, and Ren would wonder what he wanted with them, and it would be suspicious. No, what Rick needs is A Plan.

Rick is not good at making plans. He briefly considers asking Gavin for help, but Gavin's not good at making plans either, he just thinks he is. Come on, think like a Ravenclaw, he tells himself. Or a Slytherin. Somebody smart, anyway.

Eventually he comes up with something he thinks is workable, grabs his rucksack, and heads over to Ren's house.

“Hello, Mrs. Walker,” he says politely when she opens the door.

“Oh, hello, Rick,” she says. She looks happy to see him. “It's nice to see you during the school year. Is everything all right?”

“Yes, ma'am. I was just wondering if I could go up to Ren's room to see if I could get some ideas for what to get him for Christmas.”

“Oh, well, I can help you with that, I think I have his wishlist from his birthday around here somewhere.”

Um. Rick tries to think fast. “Um, no, I have to go to his room, because … I … think I left something there. Over the summer. But also to look at his drawings. Um, for gift ideas.” Rick is not good at thinking fast.

“I see,” she says. “Well, go ahead, Rick, you know you're always welcome over here.”

“Thanks!” he says, and dashes up the stairs before she can get any more suspicious.

When he gets there, he quickly throws all of Ren's magic books in his rucksack, but he figures he should linger a little since he's supposed to be trying to think of ideas. Actually, he doesn't know what he's going to get Ren for Christmas, come to think of it.

He spends some time going through the artwork on Ren's desk. They're about half magic and half normal, and there are a couple of partially-finished paintings; Ren only started painting this summer, and he's still getting the hang of it. One of the paintings is of a flock of owls, letters and packages clutched in their talons, flying up from the bottom right corner until Ren stopped painting midway through the body of a barn owl, only the strange cloudy pink of the sky beyond. Rick gets a funny, tight feeling in his chest that he doesn't like, but he doesn't want to put the picture down. He ends up taking it over to Ren's bed and getting under the covers, and he just lies there and doesn't think about anything for a while. When he leaves, he carefully puts the painting back and makes the bed.

He goes into the living room to let Ren's mum know he's leaving. “Bye, Mrs. Walker.”

She looks up and smiles. “Goodbye, Rick.” Then she looks curious. “Was your rucksack that full when you came in?”

He stares at her. “Yes,” he says finally.

She looks tolerantly amused, which he thinks is the best he can hope for at this point. “Oh, yes, of course. Well, come back soon, we'd love to have you for dinner some time, even when Kier's away.”

“Okay, thanks,” he says, and she makes him take some banana bread to his mum.

He takes the books to the Den and means to only flip through them every once in a while, but he kind of ends up reading all of them all the way through. He still hangs about with his friends and does karate and everything, but whenever he can get away, he's back in the cave, slowly forcing himself to memorize first-year spells, Ren's latest letter tucked safely in his pocket.

*

December finds Rick staring down at the phone in dread. It takes him half an hour to work up the nerve to dial the number all the way through, and another fifteen minutes to stop himself hanging up while it's ringing.

When he finally gets through, he stammers out, “Hi, Miss Reglan, this is, um, Rick. Rick Macy.”

“Rick!” She sounds really happy. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I wanted to ask you for some books?”

“I can help you with that. What sort of books did you have in mind?”

“Books on controlling magic. Like, for kids. Or, um. Like, if there are any, if there are any books for, um, teenagers maybe, for. Um. Teenagers. Controlling magic.”

“Okay?” She sounds confused. “Did something happen?”

“Uh, most of the stuff in my room started glowing, but it's okay, I took care of it.”

“How did you take care of it?”

“I tried the Nox spell? Like for putting out a wand light? I tried to use a pencil as a wand, but it didn't work, so I just, like … thought it at the room, and it worked eventually.”

“I'm very impressed, Rick, it sounds like you handled that admirably.” He feels a tiny warm flutter of pride and tries to enjoy it. “Have you already been doing some reading up on magic?”

“In Ren's old textbooks.” Which, of course, he completely forgot to put back in Ren's room, way to go, genius, but Ren had seemed shyly pleased that Rick was interested in his magic and hadn't suspected anything, so Rick could live with it.

“Was the glowing an accident?” Miss Reglan asks.

“Yeah.”

“Were you particularly emotional just before it happened?”

“Uh.” He's not sure emotional is the right word. “Yeah.”

She's noticed the hesitation, though. “Are you sure?”

“Um. I was pretty, um. Worked up.” Oh God.

“Okay?”

“I was dreaming.”

“Ah, was it a nightmare?”

“No. Uh, really not. Like, the opposite of a nightmare.” Confused silence. “It felt really good and then everything was glowing,” he says desperately.

Oh,” she says suddenly, sounding almost as mortified as he is. “Oh, right. Of course. Sorry. Yes, I'm sure there are books on that, I'll send you some. Is owl post all right?”

“You'll use the ninja owls?” Rick asks, without thinking, because what he really needed was for this conversation to become even more embarrassing.

“I'll use a sneak owl, yes,” she says.

“Yeah, that's fine, then,” he says. “Uh, sorry this conversation was horrible.”

She laughs a little. “I told you I would help you with anything, Rick, and I meant it,” she says. “But also let us never speak of this again.”

“Yeah, no,” he says with feeling.

“While I have you here, have you had a change of heart about our usual topic of conversation?”

“No, thank you,” he says. “Hey, are they really called sneak owls? Because that's a weird name.”

“What would you call them?”

“I thought ninja owls was pretty good.”

“That's not a very familiar reference in the wizarding world, actually,” she says. “Listen, Rick, I have a meeting, so I have to go now, but please feel free to call again, okay?”

“Okay,” he agrees.

“All right, take care, Rick. Happy Christmas.”

“Happy Christmas. Uh, see you next summer,” he says, and hangs up.

So, okay, that was the most awkward thing ever, but he got through it, and at least she didn't ask him what the embarrassing magic-inducing dream was about , which is the most secret part of everything, because, um. He's pretty sure those kinds of dreams don't mean anything, though. Like, plenty of boys probably have, uh, glowing dreams about, like, sheep or cars or their teachers or whatever, it doesn't mean they actually want to do things with them. His body is just reacting randomly to stuff, and it just happened to react to somebody play-wrestling with him and pinning him face down on the ground and breathing against the back of his neck, which is something any thirteen-year-old boy would react to, it had nothing to do with it being Ren—and it was just because that memory got tangled up in his brain that he dreamed about Ren taking his clothes off and pressing his warm smooth skin all up against him and, um, kissing his neck, and anyway, it's perfectly normal, he just probably shouldn't tell anyone.

Ren gives him an obscene amount of magic candy for Christmas, and he gives Ren a sketchpad that he stenciled red and gold designs on the cover of, and Ren hugs him, and a lamp shorts out in the corner. Miss Reglan's books come a few days later, in magic wrapping paper with Quidditch players in Santa hats zooming around on it. He puts the wrapping paper under his mattress, takes the books and the candy to the Den, and, after Ren leaves, spends most of his time reading about magical hormones and trying not to get distracted by the memory of Ren's arms around him, Ren's face buried in the crook of his neck.

*

In the spring, Rick joins the football team. He's been doing karate for years now, but it's pretty great to be on a team, where everyone works together. Jamie's on the team, too, and so is Danny Birmingham, Jamie's friend and next-door neighbor. Danny has this way of laughing where his whole face lights up and his teeth are ridiculously white and even, and Rick likes being around him, so he spends a lot of time that term smoking fags with him and Jamie behind the school. It's relaxing, and football, even though it's hard work, is relaxing, too, cleaning out his head so there's no room for anything except breath and movement.

There's some stiff competition at tryouts, and Rick's dad is so proud of him for making the team that he takes him camping, which he's never done before. They don't stay in Roarton but drive to a different forest that seems somehow bigger and older and quieter than the woods at home. When they get deep enough into the trees, he feels a familiar prickle in his skin and breathes through it until his magic quiets down again, warming his whole body as it fades. He looks at his dad and is surprised to see he looks just as wondering as Rick is, like this place feels magical to him, too, and it's okay.

His dad shows him how to shoot—he says Rick can try it himself when he's older—and they roast pheasants for dinner, which are pretty much the best food Rick has ever tasted. He builds the fire all by himself, with his dad talking him through it, and when he finally gets the sparks from the flint to catch on the wood, his father whoops proudly. That night, by the fire, his father shows him how to whittle, sitting Rick between his knees and gently guiding his hands around the wood and the knife, and by the end of the trip Rick's made a passable-looking hawk that his dad promises to put on the mantelpiece, even though it doesn't stand up by itself.

When they're packing up the car to go home, Rick says suddenly, “Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“I just—thanks,” Rick says shyly. “This was brilliant.”

His dad comes over and puts a hand on his shoulder. “What kind of father would I be if I didn't take my boy camping?” he says, smiling down at him. Then his face grows serious. “Rick, I know I've been—a bit hard on you sometimes. But I know there's a great man inside of you, and I want to make sure you'll be everything you can be. I've gotta get you ready for a cruel world, son. A father's job isn't always pleasant.”

“I know, Dad.”

“But this weekend was,” he says gruffly. “So. What do you say we listen to music too loud all the way back, huh, kiddo?”

“Yeah!” Rick agrees. When they get home, his dad does, in fact, put the hawk up on the mantel, propped between his old Army medals and a Bible, and Rick's mum is very impressed by it.

Rick gets into whittling briefly after that—he starts off working on it in the Den, but for some reason it's not a thing he wants to do alone, maybe because it was so nice to be doing it with his dad. His mum lets him work at the dining room table as long as he's careful with the knife and makes sure to clean up all the wood shavings afterwards.

“It's nice to see you with a hobby,” his mum comments one day while he's working on an owl. He thinks he might give it to Ren.

“I've got hobbies,” Rick says. “Like sports, and video games.”

“I didn't think you played video games much anymore,” she says, and he shrugs.

“I dunno, I'm busy,” he says. “I like this, though, it's fun.”

His mum smiles fondly at him. “You remind me of me when I was your age and used to play the piano for hours at a time,” she says. “Very focused, me mum said of me. She said, That girl could sit through the Blitz at that instrument, and I said, well, if we were in the Blitz, people would like some music, then, wouldn't they.”

“I didn't know you played the piano,” Rick says.

“Well, I stopped,” she says. “I was getting terrible headaches, you see, and then I just never went back to it.”

“Oh,” Rick says. The kitchen timer goes off then, and his mum goes to check on the casserole.

His dad comes home early that day and sees what Rick's working on. “The hell is that, a crippled penguin?” his dad asks in amazement. Rick flinches. It does look kind of like a penguin.

“I'm not very good yet,” he says.

“What do you wanna get good for?” his dad says. “It's a silly game for camping trips, it's not art. And clean this up, you're making a mess of the table.”

His dad says he has a surprise for him after dinner and takes him upstairs. “Don't tell your mother,” he whispers, before handing Rick a magazine. “Ran across it today, and figured I was your age when I got my first grot mag.” He claps Rick on the shoulder and says gravely, “Use it wisely, son,” before bursting into laughter. Rick rubs sheepishly at his hair and says, “Dad,” looking both embarrassed and pleased.

He doesn't look at the magazine for a few days, and when he does, he thinks the girls are all very pretty. He idly starts making up stories about them—this one is trying to raise money to get her family out of a war zone, that one was tragically widowed on her wedding night, this one has been forced into nude modeling by her wicked stepmother but has a daring plan to escape with her lover to Paris—before he realizes that is the dumbest possible thing he could be doing with this magazine. There's sort of a learning curve to jerking off to pictures, but he figures it out eventually.

He doesn't whittle any more, obviously, and he feels embarrassed every time he passes the mantel, where his dad has left his stupid carving that looks more like a turtle than a hawk.

 

14.

Ren's different when he comes home for the summer. He's quieter and brittle, and he snaps at his family and makes his sister cry once when she comes into his room without asking. He looks tired all the time. Rick tries to remember if he was like this at Christmas and thinks guiltily that he was paying more attention to the stuff that was happening to him around Ren than to Ren himself. He gets out the shoebox in his closet and reads through all of Ren's letters from the past year, trying to see if he can track Ren getting sadder and sadder as they go on. He thinks he can see a gradual shift, but maybe he's imagining it.

He asks Ren if anything's wrong, if something happened, and Ren shakes his head and says, “Nothing happened,” looking frustrated and confused and like he's about to vibrate out of his skin. Rick can't fix him if he doesn't know what's wrong, but he tries anyway. Thinking that maybe Ren feels bottled-up, he eventually convinces him to do little bits of magic, he won't get caught; sometimes Ren stares blankly into space, fidgeting with his wand and making sparks fly out, and Rick has no idea if it's helping. What does seem to help is a hand on his shoulder or his back, so Rick pushes down his tangle of emotions and touches Ren as much as possible: bumping into him, play fighting, throwing an arm around his shoulders, sprawling across his bed and ignoring the couple of inches of space they usually leave between them. Sometimes Ren will curl up against him and hug him tightly and press his face against Rick's neck, and Rick cautiously strokes his hair and whispers whatever he thinks will make Ren feel a bit better, his lips brushing against Rick's forehead. He figures those are the bad days.

Miss Reglan finds him aimlessly walking the streets of Roarton that year, hands shoved into his pockets, kicking rocks down the road. He grunts at her in acknowledgment.

“Morning,” she says, falling into step beside him. He glances over. She's wearing a blue dress, conservative but casual; maybe he doesn't count as a business visit anymore.

“Hey, I like your hairnet today,” he says. It has bright silver spirals strewn all over it, like galaxies.

“Oh, thank you,” she says, pleased. The bird he hadn't noticed was on her shoulder whistles and flies over to him. “It's called a snood, actually.”

“Why do you wear them?” he asks.

“I like to do as little to my hair as possible, but I like to have it contained when I'm working,” she says.

So he's still a business visit after all. “What's it look like loose?” Rick asks.

“Expansive,” she says drily. “I like my hair very much, actually, but covering it for work helps me make a distinction between my personal and professional lives. Snoods went out of style, oh, a couple of centuries ago, but I like old-fashioned."

“Maybe I could see your hair sometime?” Rick asks in a sudden burst of boldness.

She looks amused. “If you like. Now?”

“No, that's okay,” Rick says, pleased just to have permission.

They walk in silence for a bit. Rick wonders if they're friends now. If she's his grown-up friend, maybe he can ask her about Ren.

“What do you do if someone's upset all the time for no reason?” he asks.

“Depends who you're talking about.”

“Ren.”

“I think that's just being a teenager,” she says. “It'll pass.”

“Oh.” That's not very helpful.

“If you're worried about him, you could follow him to school,” she points out.

“Nice try.”

“It's true, though. Go to Hogwarts, you can see him every day all year long. Maybe you'd be in the same House.”

“Yeah, right,” he says. “I'd be in Hufflepuff, they take anyone there.”

“Hufflepuff is not the leftover House,” she says sharply.

Oh. “I thought you were in Ravenclaw,” he mutters.

“Don't make assumptions,” she says. “Anyway, what, you don't think you're smart? You don't think you're brave?”

He looks at her in disbelief. “Come on. You're gonna tell me I'm smart?”

She shrugs. “You've always seemed like a reasonably bright child to me—curious, interested in learning, willing to listen to complex explanations. And as for courage … Rick, to be honest, I can't imagine the strength it must take to live the life you do, a life that's much lonelier than you deserve. Gryffindor would be lucky to have you.”

“It's not lonely,” he says. “I have plenty of friends at school. And Ren, and my mum and dad.”

“How are things with your dad?”

"Good. Great. He took me camping.”

“Okay.”

“He just has to be hard on me sometimes because that's what parenting is,” Rick says. “I don't know what you think is happening.”

“I didn't say anything.”

“You were thinking it, you're always thinking it,” he says. “He doesn't hit me or anything.”

“Would you tell me if he did?”

“Sure, whatever.”

She stops walking. He stops, too, and turns to look at her. The bird hops from his shoulder to his hand, and he pets it.

“Really?” she asks.

“Um,” he says. “Yeah, why not, I mean, he won't.”

“Promise me you'll tell me if he does.”

He shifts nervously. “Fine. I promise. But there's not any problems, that's what I'm telling you, my dad's great.”

She looks unhappy. “I just worry, Rick.”

“Well, don't,” he says, kicking at the ground. He clears his throat. “Anyway, what House do you think I'd be in?”

“Oh, I think you'd make a very good Hufflepuff,” she says. “You're industrious and patient and willing to see the best in people. I just think you'd do well in the other Houses, too—well, not Slytherin, Rick, you're certainly not a Slytherin.”

“You're not supposed to call Slytherin the evil House anymore,” he points out.

She arches an eyebrow. “I see someone's been paying attention to wizarding social politics.”

He shrugs and smirks a little. “I listen,” he admits.

“I'm glad you do,” she says. “Are you sure you won't—”

He sighs exaggeratedly, handing the bird back to her. “Don't you have more important things to do than ask me the same question over and over again?”

“No,” she says earnestly, and he rolls his eyes, but he grins to himself when she's gone and thinks idly about how maybe someday he could be a Gryffindor.

*

When he grows up, Rick thinks, he's going to look back on Year 10 as the year everything started to go wrong.

The magic is starting to bubble up more and more insistently. It's his own fault for reading the books in the first place—if he'd just kept not thinking about it, it probably would have stayed quiet. When he thinks about that, he gets fiercely, chokingly angry at himself, which of course makes the magic even harder to control. He reads the books from Miss Reglan over and over, he practices all the tricks, but he really isn't smart, and they don't work, and the magic keeps leaking out again, and he really isn't strong and he gets angry, and he throws up afterwards, every fucking time.

He doesn't pay attention in school, he doesn't want to, he barely ever does his homework. He finally lets Chris talk him into smoking weed, and he likes it, so he does it a lot. He spends more time with the lads, throwing himself with renewed fervor into terrorizing eleven-year-olds, petty acts of vandalism, fighting, and the rest. That fall is the first time he hits someone and likes it; he throws up after that, too. Danny Birmingham decides to take up karate, and Rick helps him train sometimes, guiding his hands through the motions, pinning him to the mat.

He waits for Ren's letters with a desperate, starving passion that scares him. He digs his fingers into black owl feathers and watches Ren get more and more miserable between the lines. “What are your friends like?” Rick writes, and Ren writes back, “Everybody in Gryffindor is pretty friendly,” which means he doesn't have any. Rick gets in four fights in a week and gets suspended; Dirk and Pete come over, and his dad teaches them all poker. “How's Quidditch?” he writes, and Ren writes back, “Honestly I couldn't care less about Quidditch, too bad everyone here is obsessed with it.” Ren sends him paintings, strange miserable things that make Rick's chest hurt; he sends drawings that are tentatively obscene, just flashes of bare skin in them, barely visible. Eventually Rick jerks off to one of them and throws up afterwards. “I've been sick a lot lately,” he writes, and Ren writes back, “Yeah, me, too.” Rick thinks his mother is becoming afraid of him.

Ren writes, “It's gotten colder out, so I'm wearing my bird scarf,” and Rick writes, “When you come home, we're going to spend the whole holiday in the Den, just the two of us,” and Ren writes, “You'll probably think I'm a pussy, but I really miss you,” and Rick writes, “I don't think you're a pussy,” and draws a little x after his signature. Ren stops signing “Kieren” and starts signing “Ren” and draws the same x.

That fall, Rick gets drunk for the first time, breaks something with magic every other week, makes his father angry every other day, learns to shoot partridges, yells at his mother, turns invisible for a week and a half, jerks off three times a day, and dreams of Kieren Walker's hands and eyes and voice, every fucking night.

*

He talks Ren's family into letting him meet him at the train station alone. He doesn't know what Mrs. Walker sees in his face and tries not to think about it, but she pulls her husband aside, and they just tell him to bring him straight home. There's no one else at the station, no one else getting off at that stop. Ren gets off the train half a foot taller, ten pounds skinnier, and looking like he hasn't slept in three months, and Rick thinks helplessly that he must be the most beautiful boy in the whole country.

“Hey, mate,” he says. “Good to see you.”

Ren stares at him. Rick sticks out his hand, and Ren stares at that.

“Fuck you,” Ren says eventually, and pulls Rick into a bruising hug. Rick buries his face in Ren's neck and hears Ren give a dry, hitching sob. “I really missed you,” Ren says shakily, and Rick mumbles, “Pussy,” and they both crack up.

They're both a little reckless that winter. Ren touches him constantly, in a way that would look compulsive if it weren't so obviously deliberate; Ren confides in him and looks at him too softly and says he spends the whole school year just waiting to come home to Rick. And Rick, after five years of carefully keeping Ren away from his house most of the time and never mentioning him to his dad, just—cannot do that anymore. He just can't. He announces he's going over to Ren's house one day at breakfast, and his dad says, “Who?” Rick says, “Kieren Walker,” and his dad says, “Really?” and Rick doesn't even care, he wants to see what happens, he wants to see Ren all the time. He wants Ren in his house, in his bedroom, he invites him over more and more. His dad watches them play cards and play video games and hang out, and sometimes he makes little comments about Ren that aren't exactly friendly, but he seems pretty calm, and Rick starts to hope that maybe he'd been worrying about nothing for all this time.

“Have him over for dinner,” his mum says.

“Are you sure?”

“If you're comfortable with it,” she says. “I think it will be all right, won't it?”

“I don't know?”

“Your father wants you to be happy,” she says. “Kieren makes you happy.”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “Um, he does,” and so Ren ends up standing on the Macys' doorstep one evening a few days before Christmas, wearing his nicest shirt, holding a bottle of wine, and looking completely terrified.

Rick answers the door—also in his nicest shirt—and there's a moment where Rick looks up at Ren, fine-boned and ethereal and haloed by the porch light, and feels weirdly like he's supposed to kiss him. But his mum and dad come to the door, and Ren gives his mum the present and shakes his dad's hand, and then they're all sitting at the table and his mum is asking Ren how his family are while his dad glares silently.

The whole scene feels surreal. Rick is scared and elated all at once, and Ren keeps catching his eye and the air crackles between them with what may or may not be literal magic. Something is going to happen, Rick thinks wildly. He doesn't dare look at his father. He wonders if his dad is going to ask him about Ren—he has no idea what he'll answer if he does. He's not sure he knows what the answer even is.

“So, Kieren, you go to some sort of art school?” his dad interrupts.

“Uh, yeah,” Ren says. “It's, um, it's a good school.”

“Bunch of boys like you, innit?” his dad says. “Skinny lads with scarves and makeup and all?”

“It's co-ed, actually.”

“Is it,” his dad says. “You got a girlfriend up there?”

Ren looks straight at Rick and says evenly, “No, sir.”

“Got your eye on someone?”

Ren swallows. “I don't—don't think girls are really in the cards for me.”

“Uh-huh,” his dad says softly. Rick can't look away from Ren. There's an awful, agonizing silence.

“Rick, has this lad been bothering you?” his dad says finally, and Rick feels every muscle in his body turn to ice. “It's not your fault if he has,” he goes on. “These people, they're obsessed, they can't control themselves. You've just got to cut him off. Let him know you won't stand for his kind around you.”

“I'm not bothering him,” Ren whispers. His eyes are pleading.

“I wasn't asking you,” his dad says. Rick can't speak. “Rick,” his dad says, and he still can't speak, and his dad says, “Answer me,” in his coldest, most commanding tone, and Rick can't speak, he can't move, he can't breathe.

His dad bangs his fist on the table, and Rick yells, “Yes!” and Ren looks like he's been punched.

“What?” Ren says.

“Get out of this house,” his dad says. “You're not welcome here.”

Ren's shaking, but there's a hard, desperate glint in his eyes, and he says, “No.”

“I said, get the fuck out.”

“I'm not fucking going anywhere,” Ren says, and his dad slams his chair back and hauls Ren up by the collar of his shirt, dragging him bodily toward the door. Ren struggles, and Rick's dad gets a hand on his arm and slams him against the wall, and Ren looks honestly, truly scared.

“Let go of me,” he croaks, all the bravado gone from his voice. Rick lurches up and stumbles over to them, saying, “Dad, please—” and his father whirls on him, face twisted with righteous wrath, and grabs him harshly.

This is it , Rick thinks numbly. Here it is.

And then Ren gives a wordless shout, and his father is suddenly pinned to the ceiling.

There's a moment of perfect, stunned silence, before everybody starts yelling at once.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” Ren moans in terror over the sound of his dad's livid screaming, and Rick yells, “What is the matter with you, put him down, put him down right now!” and Ren yells back, “I'm trying, I don't know how!” while waving his wand around uselessly. Rick's dad is screaming and screaming—I'll kill you, you spawn of the Devil, you goddamned faggot, I'll kill you—Rick is gonna throw up any second now, Ren's about to cry, and basically a horrible fucking eternity of rage and despair and panic manages to go by before the magic reversal squad finally shows up.

It's two male wizards, wands out, wearing robes. They Apparate into the dining room, and, after taking in the situation for a moment, one of them quickly stuns Rick's dad and floats him down from the ceiling and into his chair. The other one turns to Ren, who, along with Rick, has gone silent and wide-eyed.

“Kieren Walker?” he says.

“Yeah,” Ren says shakily.

He gets as far as, “Kieren Walker, you are in violation of the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery and are hereby suspended from Hogwarts School of—” before there's another crack!, and Miss Reglan appears, looking very focused.

“Sorry to interrupt, Archibald, but may I have a word?” she says. She makes a little soundproof bubble and has a hurried conversation with the other two wizards. Rick just stands there. He's not looking at Ren, but he can hear him starting to cry. He suddenly realizes that his mum hasn't moved from her seat or made a sound since his dad started talking.

Miss Reglan lifts the soundproofing. The other wizards don't leave, but they move to stand behind her, letting her take the lead. She's wearing robes and looks very professional, and Rick remembers how the first time he saw her he thought she must never smile.

“Kieren, do you remember me?” she asks. “I'm Ms. Reglan, I brought you your Hogwarts acceptance letter.”

“Yeah,” Ren says quietly.

“So you're in a bit of trouble here, Kieren,” she says. “You performed magic while underage and in front of Muggles, neither of which is legal unless you were doing it to protect yourself or someone else from harm. Did you believe that you or somebody else here was in danger from Bill Macy?”

“I—” Ren says hesitantly. “Yes. I did, I thought he was going to hurt Rick, and I panicked.”

“He wasn't going to hurt me,” Rick says. “He didn't hurt me.”

“What matters is the genuineness of Kieren's fear, not its accuracy,” she says. “There will still need to be a disciplinary hearing, Kieren, but given the extenuating circumstances, I think you'll be acquitted of any wrongdoing. You'll need to come down to the Ministry to explain what happened, but I'll guide you through the process and make sure everything's taken care of before the spring term starts. Does that sound fair?”

“Okay,” Ren whispers.

“I'll go talk to your parents and explain what's going to happen,” she says. “First, though, I need to ask whether Bill Macy poses an ongoing threat to either you or Rick.”

“He doesn't,” Rick says.

“Um,” says Ren.

“You disagree, Kieren?”

“He barely knows my dad,” Rick says. “He doesn't know anything about whether he's a threat.”

“I—Rick seems scared of him a lot.”

“Everyone's scared to get in trouble with their parents,” Rick points out.

“That's different.”

“Just because my dad yells louder than yours doesn't make it different.” He says to Miss Reglan, “You can't trust Ren's word on what happens in my family, and you know it.”

“Kieren,” she says, “do you believe that you yourself are in danger from Bill Macy?”

Ren says reluctantly, “Not if I stay away from him, I guess.”

“Mrs. Macy?”

“He'd never hurt us,” she says faintly. “It's not like that.”

“I see,” Miss Reglan says.

“Wait,” Ren says, sounding panicky. “Wait, can't you—open an investigation or something? To make sure they're all right?”

“The Ministry doesn't have resources for that.”

“Well, can't you call someone who does?”

“Shut the fuck up, Ren,” Rick says.

“Well, excuse me for trying to save your life,” Ren snaps, and Rick punches him.

“That's enough!” Miss Reglan says sharply, and Rick feels invisible hands pulling him back. Ren looks furious, and he's still crying. He's going to have a black eye. Miss Reglan aims her wand at Ren's face, but Ren yells, “Don't heal it!” and she puts her wand away.

“Okay,” she says, sounding less composed than before. “Kieren, I'm not authorized to contact Muggle authorities—”

“Why the hell not?”

“Take it up with my boss,” she says. “That's a serious suggestion, by the way. In the meantime all I can do is alter Bill Macy's memory. I'm only going to change his memory of your magic, so whatever altercation you were having before that, he'll remember.”

“Good,” Ren says fiercely. “I want him to know. I don't care if everyone knows.”

“Good for you,” Rick snarls.

“Mrs. Macy, come with me,” she says, floating Rick's dad out of his chair. “We'll take care of this in the other room. Kieren, either wait for me or I'll meet you at your house. Archibald, Ajax, I have things under control here.” The other wizards look skeptical about this, but they Apparate away. Miss Reglan takes his parents into the other room—he wonders what she's going to say to his mum.

The door closes, and Rick and Ren are left alone.

“What the hell?” Ren says plaintively.

“You're the one who attacked my dad,” Rick says.

“You fucking hit me!” Ren's voice is shrill and unpleasant. “And what the hell were you doing before that? I've been bothering you, really? Cause I just can't control myself? Rick. Why didn't you tell him?”

“Tell him what?”

“You know what!”

“Look, Ren, I don't know what you thought was going on....”

“What I thought was—you invited me to dinner with your parents! I thought you were going to tell them about us!”

“There's nothing to tell!”

“Bullshit. That's utter shite, Rick, and you know it. I was gonna tell my parents, I was gonna do this with you for real, I'm tired of being scared all the time—”

“Well, congratulations, you're so fucking brave—”

“Yeah, and you're a fucking coward, Rick, if you were in Gryffindor, they'd—”

“Well, I'm not! I'm not like you! I'm not a Gryffindor and I'm not a wizard and I'm not a cocksucking faggot, so shut up and get the hell out!”

Ren finally falls silent, his face shocked and vulnerable, his left eye swelling up.

Rick says, “We were mates, Kieren. That's all. Sorry you got confused.”

“No,” Ren says in a very small voice, tears running down his face. “No, what, I wasn't alone in this.”

“Sorry,” Rick says. “But you are. I just, I'm normal, I'm not like that.”

No,” Ren says. “You're lying, you're scared of your dad, Rick, tell me you're lying.”

“I'm not.”

Yes, you are, tell me the truth, Rick, please, tell me you—that you—that you fancy me.”

“Make me,” Rick says quietly.

He doesn't. He leaves.

“Rick,” he hears Miss Reglan say behind him. “Please let me take you to Hogwarts. Please. Don't throw everything away for him.”

Rick doesn't say anything. She moves into his line of vision and reaches out, but he jerks away. She says some things to him; eventually, she leaves.

Somebody does call a social worker, probably her. They don't find anything because there's nothing to find. His dad takes Rick's bedroom door off its hinges as punishment. Ren's disciplinary hearing must go well, because his mum tells him Ren's gone back to school. He doesn't talk to Ren. He doesn't go to the cave. He'd bought Ren a couple of books of poetry for Christmas—Housman and Whitman, what the fuck was he thinking—and he rips up every page of them and flushes them down the toilet. Rick sits in his room and stares at the wide-open doorway and practices feeling nothing at all.

*

In the spring of 2006, Rick Macy wins every athletic award and championship it is possible for him to win. His father is very proud of him.

He goes running for hours every day. He does sit-ups; push-ups; chin-ups. He shows up early to the gym and stays late after practice. His coaches are very proud of him. He works out every day until his brain shuts down. Sometimes Jamie joins him, or Pete, or even Gavin, who's trying to Broaden His Horizons; sometimes it's Danny who sits across from him and calmly lifts weights, his strong arms moving confidently up and down.

Rick gets in a lot of fights. He's stronger now. He tries to do his best every time he hits someone: peak physical performance. He hurts a lot of people. He gets sent to the school guidance counselor a lot. The counselor says he doesn't think Rick has anger issues so much as he's depressed and recommends a therapist. This is roundly ignored in the Macy household. Rick never listens to the counselor.

His father finds him weighing himself one day and asks what he's doing. He's thrilled that Rick wants to be in shape for sports, that he's taking it so seriously. He wants to help. He works out a diet and an exercise plan and weight goals for Rick and helps him stick to them. When Rick fails, his father yells at him. When he does well, his father smiles down at him and grips his shoulder and is kind.

Rick brings home his first girlfriend: Vicky Barnes, who lives across town and once in Year 4 got half the class to stop talking to him because he called her a crybaby. She lets him put his hand up her shirt. His dad gives him The Talk and gives him some condoms and claps him on the back. His friends keep taking the piss out of him over it. Eventually they have sex. Rick isn't really that drunk, but he still doesn't remember it very well; he mostly remembers staring at his big clumsy hands on her and being sure they were going to hurt her by mistake, and then she'd hate him forever. She breaks up with him not long after.

Rick is not very good at keeping to his diet. He stares down at his food and gets nervous and can't eat it, and sometimes he throws up. Then later he's too hungry and eats too much and throws up. So he misses his weight goals a lot, and eventually he gives up on them, and his dad is tight-lipped and silent.

Letters start coming regularly from the Ministry of Magic, but he puts them unopened in a shoebox in his closet. He uses the owls to send letters to Hogwarts about what a great term he's having, about his friends and his girlfriend and how good he is at sports—how happy he is. He's even managed to shut down the magic almost completely.

His dad starts taking him to the Legion in the evenings a lot. He brags about him to everybody: my son, the football star, the karate master. He puts his hand on Rick's shoulder and squeezes, and Rick grins modestly while his father shows him off.

Sometimes Rick stands in the bathroom naked and looks at himself in the mirror, small black birds flying across his reflection. His body looks like just a car that he's driving. Like a machine that doesn't really belong to him. He thinks that he's just borrowing it: he has to treat it right, keep it perfect, because if he doesn't, someone's going to come along and take it away from him, and he won't exist anymore.

Rick's father tells him he's proud of him, and it's the only thing in the whole world Rick knows how to want.

 

15.

Rick gets sent to camp for the entire summer. He is not surprised. He isn't surprised when Miss Reglan finds him there, either.

“Man, you just don't know when to give up, do you, lady?” he sneers before she can say anything. He sees a quick flash of hurt on her face before it smooths out into as unemotional a mask as he's ever seen from her.

“Persistence,” she says, “is another Hufflepuff trait. One you have demonstrated to a fault.”

They're hiking a steep trail alone in a forest, and Rick starts pushing harder, outpacing her—she doesn't have the right shoes for this. To his great annoyance, she appears at his side a moment later, wand out, floating.

“So how's camp?” she says brightly.

“Great. We learned how to kill our own chickens.”

“Lovely,” she says. “Come to Hogwarts, Rick.”

“I don't want to go.”

“Why not?”

He doesn't say anything.

“Rick. I don't understand, I genuinely don't. You could be safe there. You could be yourself. You could be with Kieren—”

“Kieren's not my friend.”

“He could be. And you deserve that. I just don't understand why you would choose a man who belittles you, who makes you hide who you are, who thinks you're an abomination, over all the people in your life who love you.”

“You're right,” he says. “You don't understand.”

“Fuck,” she says, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Okay. Just. How about this. You tell me one thing you're afraid of happening if you go to Hogwarts, and then I'll go. Just tell me, what are you afraid of?”

He says, “You can go now.”

She waits him out for a while, while he keeps tramping through the woods. When she vanishes, the bird he's been steadfastly ignoring loses interest in him and flies away. He wonders whether it will turn back into what it used to be, suddenly plummeting to the ground, or whether it will just keep living forever. Then again, he doesn't really care.

When he gets back to Roarton, he assumes Ren's already left. But he's looking out his window the next evening and sees him walking by, hunched and skinny and pale. It's like an earthquake, deep cracks running through his whole body, trying to shake everything apart. But then Ren is out of sight, and Rick goes to the loo to throw up, comes back to his bedroom to pick up the broken pieces of one of his football trophies, and calls Dirk Wiggins to ask if he wants to get smashed.

*

There's a formal dance for the Year 11 students in October—why it's in October nobody knows, but the school has very few dances, so everybody in Rick's class is talking about it. All of Rick's friends like to complain about how dumb it is (except for Gavin, who has plans to Woo Mary McGovern with flowers and a scavenger hunt), but they also all make sure to get dates right away, so Rick dutifully asks Vicky Barnes, since he reckons he already knows her.

But it turns out Vicky is going with Danny, which Rick feels kind of funny about, so he complains loudly to the lads about how that git stole his girl, and Jamie swears that he's not gonna talk to Danny until Danny apologizes to Rick over it. His dad gets righteously indignant on his behalf, too, because it doesn't matter that Rick and Vicky broke up six months ago, you don't steal a mate's bird. Rick goes to the dance with Alice Lanchester instead, who's thin and pretty and quiet and doesn't even say anything when he asks her, just nods, wide-eyed. In fact, she hardly speaks to him the whole week leading up to the dance, staying stubbornly shy in the face of his clumsy attempts at conversation; he feels nervous and baffled about her, about how you can't guess a thing that's going on behind her still, silent face.

But he has a mission on the night itself, and his mission isn't Alice: it's confronting Danny about his betrayal of their friendship, not anything violent—Danny's good people, plays sports, goes to church—but properly taking him to task for it. “You've got to let him know you won't stand for him taking what's yours,” Rick's dad says, and Rick plans to do just that.

His mum puts him in a tux and tells him he looks very handsome, and Rick mutters who cares, because he doesn't want to look like a sissy who cares about things like looking handsome in front of his dad; but his dad gets angry with him for disrespecting his mother, and his mum is hurt and tired, and everything is horrible as usual. He and the rest of the lads walk over to the school gymnasium and pair up with the girls there: Dirk with his fit mega-popular girlfriend Brittany, Pete and Chris with the Devlin twins, Jamie with Lilah Robinson who's rumored to have slept with the whole swim team, and Rick of course with Alice, who only looks at him when he's looking away.

Inside, Rick picks Vicky's bright blonde hair and confidence out of the crowd easily and tracks her movements, keeping the dark figure at her side in the corner of his eye. When she leaves the room, probably to visit the loo, he mumbles an incoherent apology to Alice and leaves her standing against the wall, fidgeting with her pretty grey dress. He pushes through the crush of people on the sweltering dance floor, and closes his hand around Danny's bicep, turning him around roughly.

“Rick!” Danny says, dazzling grin on his face. He leans in to give Rick a half-hug, but Rick jerks away without thinking about it. Danny's face falls, and he looks perplexed.

“You stole my girl, you git,” Rick says, but Danny can't hear him over the music. Rick is forced to grip his shoulder tightly and lean in close, repeating it with his lips against Danny's ear: “You wanker, you stole my girl!”

“What the hell, Rick?” Danny says. “You broke up months ago, I didn't steal anything from you.”

“That's not the point,” Rick says, and Danny is looking bemused and exasperated, and Rick should explain what the point is, but he's sort of lost track of it. “I thought we were mates!” he yells.

Danny opens his mouth to say something, then closes it and locks his hand around Rick's wrist instead, tugging him away from the crowd, Rick stumbling along after him in surprise. Danny pulls him into the hallway, and Rick assumes he's gonna stop there, but he takes Rick downstairs to the locker room, flipping on a couple of lights so the room is dimly lit.

“What'd you bring me down here for?” Rick asks belligerently. The locker room is at least as hot as the dance floor, and he's sweating through his tux.

“I don't know, it's quiet, no one's gonna interrupt your being a prat,” Danny says. “Seriously, Rick, you broke up with Vicky ages ago, what's the damn problem?”

“I fucked her,” Rick blurts out. “I fucked her and now you're fucking her, and it's not on, mate.”

“I'm not even fucking her!” Danny says. “It's one stupid dance! Not that it matters, since it's none of your business who she fucks, or who I fuck for that matter.”

“I don't care who you fuck,” Rick says.

“Then what are we doing here?”

“I don't know, you brought us here,” Rick tries to snap at him, but his throat closes up halfway through, and I don't know is all that comes out.

“Good God, Rick, you're such a freak sometimes,” Danny says, and Rick has his hand fisted in Danny's dress shirt before he knows what's happening.

“You take that back,” Rick growls. He can feel Danny's heart racing under his fist, and Danny doesn't look the slightest bit scared of him.

“This is so stupid,” Danny says. “You people are so bloody ridiculous, I don't know how you live with it. You want to fight me? Will that make you feel like a man?” Rick is close enough to feel Danny's breath with every word he speaks, and Danny's face is twisted in a handsome, contemptuous sneer. “I think I can take you, Rick, you've been a good teacher.”

Rick gets a sudden, sensory flash of every time he's guided Danny's limbs through complicated movements, every time Danny flipped him and landed on top of him, and he's suddenly, horribly aware that they're alone in a dark locker room and no one would say anything against it if he pinned Danny to this floor and broke his fists open on his face, no matter how close their bodies were pressed together, and then he throws up.

He manages to turn away so he doesn't actually vomit on Danny, but it's a small mercy, because Danny has seen his weakness now, he's seen one of the most private things about him and he knows. Rick only catches a glimpse of Danny's surprised face, and then he runs, away from the locker room, away from his mess, away from Danny's white teeth and capable hands and confused, pitying concern.

He runs upstairs and slams his way out of the gymnasium without even bothering to find Alice. But he's only gone a few steps past the door, when he hears someone calling his name and spins around to find Gavin leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette.

“Oi, where are you off to so early?” he asks.

“Home,” Rick says shortly. “What're you doing out here?”

“I said something to upset Mary,” Gavin says, sad and contemplative. “You know, Dirk's my best mate and blood brother and all that, but he's sort of a tosser sometimes, isn't he? D'you think we're disrespectful towards women, Rick?”

“Fuck women,” Rick says, and Gavin laughs even though it wasn't a joke.

Rick goes home and is horrendously, unforgivably rude to his mother, and his dad fists his hand in Rick's dress shirt and yells at him and sneers at Rick's obvious, stinking fear. And at school on Monday, Danny finds him in the cafeteria and says to him quietly, “We're okay. We won't mention it again,” and things go back to normal, like they always do.

*

In November, Rick's mum drags him along for Christmas shopping, even though Rick hasn't had to help her pick out presents for their extended family and half the town since he was twelve. He whines and complains, but she insists, and his dad sides with her, though he seems sympathetic to Rick. So on a Saturday when Rick is supposed to be in the woods with his friends, instead he's throwing himself into the passenger seat, crossing his arms silently, and sulking with all his considerable skill.

He's confused, though, when his mum pulls into the Walkers' driveway. “Um,” he says. “What?”

“Oh, we're not going shopping,” his mum says. Mrs. Walker comes out of the house with Jem, who's eleven now and wearing a punk military jacket a couple sizes too big for her. His mum waves, and they get in the back seat.

“Hello, Rick,” Mrs. Walker says. “Sorry about the kidnapping.”

“Hi,” Jem says.

“What are we—what?” Rick says.

“Don't worry, Rick,” his mum says. She looks practically giddy. “We're going to have a lovely day. Does everybody have their seatbelts on?”

They end up going to a harvest festival in the next town over, the kind that's part carnival games and part local artisans. Jem is shy at first, but by the end of the drive she's chattering happily about what she's looking forward to; apparently the Walkers went last year. Rick doesn't say much in the car, but when they've found a parking space and are getting out, Mrs. Walker catches his arm.

“Rick,” she says, keeping her voice low and looking at him seriously. “Today doesn't count, all right, love? Nobody else in Roarton is going to hear anything about today.”

He stares at her. She smiles at him and pats his arm before going to find out where the entrance is.

They start with the tents with vendors and demonstrations: quilters, a beekeeper, a blacksmith, a family that makes jams, some people with sheep, etc. At the fourth tent they go to, Rick lets an old lady show him how to spin wool on a spinning wheel; he isn't too bad at it. Jem eats as many free samples as she can find, but eventually starts to get bored, and since their mums really are doing Christmas shopping, Rick gets permission to take Jem over to the games and rides before they all meet up for lunch.

Jem likes the funhouse mirrors best, and also the teacups, which spin a lot faster than Rick expects them to. He feels a little queasy after and asks Jem if they can sit down for a little. She's fine with it after he buys her a lemonade, and she tells him all about school while they sit on a bench.

“...and I really wanted to go to Kelly's sleepover, but Mum and Dad said no, which Kier says is because—oh, no, I wasn't supposed to talk about him,” she says, and looks guilty.

“Oh, uh,” Rick says. “It's all right.”

“No, but Mum said I wasn't supposed to mention him to you.”

“Oh. But it's okay, though, she just meant not to ask about him and me or anything. You can talk about him as your brother, it's fine.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, you won't get in trouble. Cross my heart.” He solemnly draws an X over his chest, and she giggles. Then he convinces her to go on the carousel, because Rick loves carousels and hates that he's too old for them now. Jem rides a bear, and Rick rides a dragon; he makes them go on it twice.

They have shepherd's pie and apple cider for lunch, and their mums gossip about the neighbors. His mum is smiling a lot. They spend the rest of the afternoon doing some more shopping and watching performances and presentations and things. There's a puppet show that makes Jem laugh, and a magic show that makes Rick laugh, and a falconer, for whom Rick sits totally still, rapt, for a whole half hour. He asks his mum for some money for a beautifully engraved wooden box of paints and brushes, promising to pay her back, and he's grateful when she gives him the money without saying anything about it.

There's a little time when they split up again, and Rick is left with Mrs. Walker. “Thanks for … bringing us here,” he says awkwardly. “My mum looks like she's having a really good time.”

“Oh, I'm glad,” she says. “She's been seeming a bit anxious lately.”

“Yeah,” he says, his throat tight. “It's my fault.”

“No, it's not,” she says sharply. “Rick Macy, there is nothing in your life that you need to feel bad about. There are only things you can do that you can feel good about.”

He looks at her in confusion, and she pats him on the arm again. “You're a good son, Rick. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise,” she says. “Now tell me if you think Mr. Walker would like any of these.”

After they've dropped the Walkers off and gone home, Rick's mum turns off the car and sits in the driveway for a while. “Rick,” she says softly. “If you wanted to go to school at … Hogwarts. I would support you. Whatever it takes. Okay?”

He thinks about saying yes in a way he hasn't since he was twelve. But he can't. He's okay here, really. He just needs his mum to be happier.

“I know,” he says. “Thank you, Mum.” He leans over and kisses her on the cheek, like he used to before bed when he was small. He's bigger than her now. He's practically grown up. “I love you,” he says.

“I love you, too, dear.” Her smile is a little watery, but it's a smile.

Nothing changes in Rick's life after the day that doesn't count, but he practices being kind to his mother, and he can feel good about that.

*

It's a year later. Exactly a year.

Rick had thought he would have forgotten Ren by now. He hasn't gone back to the Den this whole time, the books still sitting there behind a rock. He hasn't sent Ren a letter since May (Miss Reglan still sends hers; he still doesn't read them). He hasn't spoken to him or heard his voice. He hasn't looked at any photographs. He saw him once for four seconds. He's kissed five girls this year.

But if he goes to the box in his head and takes out the memories there, he can still feel what he felt when Ren touched him, like a sickness, like a missing limb.

He goes to bed that night and ends up dry sobbing, curled on his side with all his muscles seizing up. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry, he whispers into his pillow, against the crinkle of Ren's drawing under his head, his magic prickling urgently under his skin.

It hurts, everything hurts so much, Rick thinks he's going to die from it and he doesn't want to die, so he does the only thing he can think of to do, which is to wait for his parents to go to bed, get dressed, put on his boots, grab a torch, and sneak out of the house. It feels better to be doing something—he just moves and doesn't think, all the way through the woods and to the mouth of the cave, where...

There are already candles lit.

Rick stands in the entrance, paralyzed. Eventually he hears a thin, raspy, “Hey.” He walks forward jerkily until he's standing in the arc of the candles and looking down at Ren.

Ren looks up at him, then looks away. “I wondered if you'd be here,” he says. “Are you gonna sit down?”

Rick backs into the wall opposite Ren and sinks slowly to the floor. He can't stop staring. He really can't, he's trying to look away, but all his willpower's run out, and Ren's hair looks soft and golden, his long fingers are fluttering restlessly, his face is—his throat—his eyes—

“You were horrible to me,” Ren says.

“Yeah,” Rick croaks, his muscles clenching up again.

“So, you punched me,” Ren says, “and you called me a cocksucking faggot,”—Rick flinches—“and I read your letters yesterday, and they were all bollocks, and I'm just, I'm so mad at you.” Ren runs a hand over his hair and looks like he might cry. Rick wants to say he's sorry, but the words are stuck in his throat.

Instead he says, “Do you have friends at school?”

“What?” Rick supposes the question must sound random. “Um, not—there are some people I talk to. I'm not exactly popular.” He sounds tired. “Turns out Hogwarts isn't the greatest place for awkward gay Muggle-borns.”

“But your parents? Your sister? You talk to them?”

Ren frowns. “Why are you asking?”

Rick swallows. “I just, um. I wanna know if you're okay.”

Ren looks at him in disbelief. “I'm not okay, I don't even remember what okay feels like,” he says, and he wraps his arms around his knees as tears start running down his face.

Without consciously deciding to, Rick crawls over to Ren and pulls him close. Ren struggles out of his grasp and says, “No, are you just gonna be nice to me right now and go back to hating me tomorrow—” and Rick says shakily, “I don't hate you.” Ren goes limp and sobs into Rick's chest, gripping his shirt. Rick cradles Ren's head with one hand and rubs his back with the other and decides it doesn't count, tonight doesn't count, he'll fall apart if he can't have tonight.

Eventually Ren stops crying and loosens his hands. He moves to pull away, but Rick holds him tighter, and Ren relaxes back into him. After a moment, Ren's fingers start moving lightly against Rick's stomach, tracing patterns over his shirt. Rick's breath hitches, and he runs his fingers through Ren's soft fine hair.

“I am sorry, though,” Ren whispers.

“For what?”

“For … getting confused. For making you uncomfortable.”

“Oh.”

Ren pulls back again, and this time Rick lets him go. Rick folds his hands in his lap, but Ren leaves one hand on Rick's knee; his face is very close.

“You can keep coming here,” Ren says. “You can keep the books, too.” Rick's nails are digging into his skin. “I wish we could still be friends. But I get it. It's fine.”

“It's not fine,” Rick says.

“Yeah. I mean, it's dumb, but it's not your fault. I get it.” Ren looks at him, sad and brave and better than Rick has ever deserved. “I'll never forget you.”

“Please do,” Rick begs. “Please forget me. Just, go be a famous wizard artist and never look back, please.”

Ren lifts his hand from Rick's knee and brushes his fingertips across Rick's cheek. Any moment, he's going to walk out of this cave, and Rick's never going to see him again, and he's going to live with it because that's what people do.

“I guess this is goodbye, then,” Ren says. Rick can't say anything, but Ren just waits. Eventually he manages, “I guess.”

“Okay,” Ren breathes, and then he's cupping Rick's face and kissing him.

Rick freezes for maybe two seconds before surging forward and kissing him back frantically. He gets one hand on Ren's shoulder and the other on the back of his head, pushes him to the ground, and climbs on top of him, kissing him the whole time. Ren makes a muffled, startled noise at first, then starts making entirely different sorts of noises, moaning eagerly into Rick's mouth. He pushes up Rick's shirt and gets his hands on his back, and Rick shudders and jerks his hips against Ren's—and oh God, he thinks Ren is hard, too, oh fuck. Rick briefly loses control of himself and grinds his hips down on purpose, but Ren grabs his face and mumbles, “Ow, my back, let me up,” and Rick scrambles off him. As soon as there's space between them, Rick freezes again, but Ren is immediately pushing him against the wall and sitting in his lap and kissing him hard, and Rick runs his hands up and down Ren's lean body and slender arms and beautiful face and kisses him and kisses him and kisses him.

They haven't been kissing for nearly long enough when Ren stretches his leg to the side and accidentally knocks over a candle. “Shit,” he says, breaking away to make sure nothing's on fire. Rick lets his head fall back against the wall. His lips feel numb, and he feels warm and loose all over, tingling with the hot pulse of his magic. Ren shifts back to look at him and presses their foreheads together, raising a trembling hand to Rick's jaw.

“I thought you were gonna say no,” Ren says in amazement. “I just wanted to, to do it one time to remember you by. You convinced me you weren't into me, you wanker.”

“Ren,” he says, his voice cracking. “I can't—I can't—”

The light in Ren's eyes dims. “Oh,” he says. “Right.” He pulls away, but Rick grabs his neck and hauls him back in.

“I can't let you go,” he says. “Ren, I can't, I can't say goodbye, I can't do it,” and then they're kissing again.

He really can't. He tries, the next day, to stay home, but he ends up right back in the Den with Ren's mouth on his. After a few days, he gives up on trying to stay away. He feels horribly guilty every time he goes to church, and he feels awful lying to his father, but all of his bad feelings just get burned up in this rush of fierce, crazy joy. He can't even describe it, it's like nothing he's ever felt before. Whenever he sees Ren he lights up, he barely needs to eat, it doesn't even matter that they're sneaking out almost every night because he barely needs to sleep. Being with him is strange and overwhelming and amazing, and Rick is greedy for as much of it as he can get, for even the barest glimpse of Ren's smooth skin and narrow shoulders, Ren's surprisingly tight grip, the forcefulness of him—Rick is gasping for him, drunk on it.

They usually go to the cave, but there's a day when Ren's family goes out and leaves him alone for a few hours, and they spend the whole time in his room. They're not doing anything but snogging; Rick wonders whether Ren's going to want to do more, but maybe he's as nervous as Rick is because he doesn't say anything. He does get bold enough to kiss Rick's neck, though, which is fantastic and worth the awkward couple of days of turtlenecks before they figure out how to avoid hickies. But it's nice to have a bed even just for kissing, because Ren's bed is soft, and he's missed it, and it's while Ren is kneeling over him in his bed and pressing delicate kisses to Rick's face that Rick says suddenly, “I'm in love with you,” and Ren looks just as wide-eyed and says, “I love you, oh my God, I love you,” and after that they can't get enough of saying it.

Rick doesn't even really think about school until it's the night before Ren leaves: he gives Ren the box of paints, and Ren gives him a painting he says he made for last Christmas. It's a picture of Rick's face, but grown-up and calm and strong; Rick thinks it doesn't look like him at all, except for how the ears stick out just right, but it's beautiful. He knows he can't get away with keeping it in his house, so he asks Ren to hold on to it, and they hang it up together on the wall of his bedroom—“So I'm always here waiting for you,” Rick says.

Ren puts his arms around him and says he wishes Rick could come with him, and Rick remembers that he—can. He could go home and call her right now. He's already sinning constantly by being with Ren, so maybe he could just. Go to the school. Maybe they could tell his father he was going to a normal boarding school, and his dad would still love him and see him during the hols.

He doesn't know why he doesn't do it. He just can't imagine telling Miss Reglan he's changed his mind, and being in classes with kids Jem's age, and telling Ren he's been lying to him all this time—Ren would probably hate him for it. So he kisses Ren as much as he can, and the next morning he goes down to the train station, even though Ren's family is there and they agreed he wouldn't. Ren runs over to him and says, “What are you doing here?” and Rick shrugs and says, “Had to say bye to my boyfriend,” and Ren drags him out of sight and makes out with him until the train comes.

*

Being separated is sort of torture, for obvious reasons, but sort of a relief—not only does he not have to lie as much, the sheer painful intensity of his feelings (his love!) comes down to more manageable levels—and it's actually sort of exciting, too. There's something that feels special and grown-up about waiting for each other, about promising to keep waiting for as long as it takes, and there's this weird shivery pleasure to thinking about Ren while he's at school or at a party or sitting at the dinner table, like the way it feels agonizingly good when you're about to come and hold off on it as long as possible. They write love letters now, too, that get more intense as the months roll on, full of promises and declarations and longing. And anyway, being separated is the usual way of things—he always spends the school year wishing for Ren to come back, it's just that now he's looking forward to the snogging.

So Rick clings tight to Ren's letters and artwork and the memory of his touch, and he's happier than he's been in a while, but at the same time things get very, very tense at home. Rick is pretty sure his dad suspects something is going on that Rick's not telling him about, and he's harder on Rick than usual: yelling a lot, ignoring, and also sometimes forbidding Rick to eat breakfast or dinner as a punishment—he says it doesn't matter, since Rick's given up on staying in shape anyway. Rick can't get upset about any of it, though, because he deserves way worse, and he'd get it if his dad knew what he was really doing. He doesn't even try to stay out of the way, just lets his dad rage at him and takes it with as much courage as he can muster. And a few weeks in, he takes a deep breath and braces himself and tells his dad he wants to stay on for sixth form.

“I know you wanted me to get a job next year and you've been talking to some people about it,” he says. “But I really want to keep playing football, and I figure A Levels can't hurt, right? Maybe it could be useful for getting jobs in the future.”

His dad looks honestly baffled. “What kind of jobs are you thinking of getting?”

“I don't … know,” Rick says. “I don't know what I want to do, so I was thinking maybe I could just, keep my options open?”

“Are you thinking about uni?” his dad asks.

Rick swallows, because he doesn't know, and saying yes would make it real. “That's years off, Dad,” he says instead. “I'm just talking about staying on the football team, really.”

“Well, you can't stay in school forever,” his dad says. “I don't see the point in waiting around, and Ed Manning says he'd be happy to give you a job at the auto shop. And have you thought about the Army? I think you'd make a damn fine soldier, son.”

“I don't want to join the Army,” Rick says, way too quickly. His dad's face closes off. “I just, I don't know, Dad, maybe I could be something more than I thought I would,” which is exactly the wrong thing to say, shit, he really wishes he'd let his mum be home for this.

“So you're too good for the Army, is that it,” his dad says, and Rick flinches at the ice in his tone. “Too good to work on cars or get a factory job or do any real work that's useful to people. Oh, no, Richard Macy wants to go to college.”

“Dad, that's not—”

“Maybe you want to be an artist,” he says shrewdly, and Rick's eyes widen in a burst of panic he can't control.

His dad nods grimly, and suddenly he reaches out and grabs Rick's hands hard. “When are you gonna grow up, huh?” he says cuttingly. “Why have I been spending all this time, all this money on you, if you're gonna turn out to be a gutless weakling?” He squeezes Rick's hands tighter and tighter as he snarls, “Haven't I been patient with you? Didn't I go to all those football games you lost, didn't I try over and over again to teach you to shoot when you'll never be able to hit the broad side of a barn? What more did you want from me? Did you want me give you lots of hugs and tell you I don't care if you're fat and weak, it doesn't matter, why don't you just go to college and learn about fashion and interior design and hair styling, fuck, why don't you just grow a pussy while you're at it?” His face is inches away from Rick's, and Rick forces himself to meet his eyes. “I've given you everything you need to be a man, and you want to throw it all away. You really hate me that much?”

“I don't hate you!” Rick bursts out; he feels angry. “I've been trying, I do everything you ask me to, I just want this one thing!”

“One thing. Really,” his dad says. He moves one of his hands to Rick's shoulder, his fingers digging in, and he leans close and says very softly, “What have you let him do to you?”

And Rick, in a moment of sheer suicidal bravery, says fiercely, “Nothing I didn't want him to.”

There's an awful silence. Rick has never seen this particular look in his dad's eyes before—it's past anger, past disgust or disappointment. Rick thinks about what Ren would do and holds eye contact defiantly, but he's starting to shake, and the bile is rising in his throat, because his dad is looking at him like he's a monster.

Rick's dad jerks his hands away and Rick flinches, but his dad just lashes out and sweeps everything off the coffee table with a deafening crash. He gets up and stalks the room, slamming his fist against the wall like he wishes he could slam sense into Rick.

“Who are you?” his dad roars, face twisted up in hatred. “You sure as hell aren't the son I've raised for sixteen years, so what are you?

Rick opens his mouth but doesn't know the answer, and his dad starts grabbing things from the mantelpiece and throwing them at him.

“Foolish children are a grief to their father,” he recites, hurling a candle to the right of Rick's head, where it smashes against the wall, “and bitterness to her who bore them.” Rick has to duck to avoid getting hit with his own ugly whittled hawk. “The eye that mocks a father and scorns a mother,” he shouts, “will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley”—now Rick's dad stalks over to the coffee table and heaves it in Rick's direction, Rick scrambling to pick up his feet before it crushes them—“and eaten by the vultures,” and Rick's dad steps on the upside-down table and leans over, and Rick feels a pure blinding rush of terror, but his dad is leaning past him to get the Bible off the shelf and shove it at Rick. “Deuteronomy,” he says. “Chapter 21.”

Rick props the Bible on his knees and tries to find the right spot, the thin pages refusing to cooperate with his shaking fingers. “Faster,” his dad yells, and Rick finally gets to the right chapter, and his dad demands, “Verses 18-21. Read it aloud.”

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son—” Rick starts.

“Louder,” shouts his father, looming over him. Rick clears his throat.

“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son,” Rick reads, loudly, “who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the town....” Rick falters and falls silent.

“Finish it,” his dad says coldly.

“...shall stone him to death,” Rick says. “So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.”

His father lets that hang in the air a minute. “Good,” his dad says at last. “Now Leviticus. 18:22.”

“No, please,” Rick says. “I know what it says, I'm sorry, I won't.”

“Read it.”

“I can't,” Rick says desperately.

“Why not?”

“I can't, I can't say it out loud,” he pleads, his knuckles white where he's gripping the Bible.

“Of course you don't want to,” his dad says reasonably. “It's a disgusting thing, innit?”

“Yeah,” Rick whispers, because it is: it's disgusting and dirty and evil, and he knows that, he knows it because God says so.

“Clean this up,” his dad says brusquely, gesturing at the room. “Don't bother coming down for supper. And you can go to sixth form next year.”

“No, it's fine, I don't want to,” Rick says immediately.

“Oh, no,” his dad says, “you don't get to back out of it now. You're going. You're gonna see what it's like when you try to be something you're not.” He walks out, and Rick buries his face in his hands and bites down hard on his lip for a little while before he stands up and starts cleaning up his mess.

Rick doesn't eat dinner that night, and the next night he can't bring himself to go downstairs and face his father at the table, and his dad doesn't say anything about it, so he keeps that up for a week before his mum has a talk with him. She comes into his room in the afternoon and puts her arm around his shoulders.

“I think it's wonderful you've decided to stay on for sixth form, dear,” she says quietly.

Rick swallows and says miserably, “I'm really sorry.”

“What for?”

“Being ungrateful,” he says. “Being a … a disappointment.”

“Oh, my darling boy,” she says, pulling him in a tight hug. “You could never disappoint me. Never.” He closes his eyes and hugs her back, inhaling the familiar scent of her perfume. Then she says, “I've spoken to your father about Kieren Walker,” and he pulls back in shock.

“How—why—what did you tell him?” he stammers, eyes wide.

“What I needed to,” she says, and he's never heard a tone quite this steely from his mum before. “He won't stop you from seeing him. Just don't mention Kieren to your father, and keep them apart, and he won't say anything about it.”

He stares at her. “Thank you,” he says finally, pathetically grateful, because he'd thought maybe when summer came he wouldn't be able to see Ren at all, not even to … to break up with him, which he's been trying so hard to talk himself into doing. If he leaves Ren, that'll be bad enough, but not being able to say goodbye to him would be unbearable.

“Of course, Rick,” she says, and she seems very tired. “Now will you eat something tonight, love? I feel like I'm watching you waste away in front of me.”

His stomach rumbles on cue, and they both laugh a little. “All right,” Rick shrugs, kissing her on the cheek. “I have missed your cooking.”

“Flatterer,” she says, and he steels himself and follows her downstairs and sits at the table with his father and reminds himself that his dad just wants him to grow up to be a great man.

 

16.

“Rick?” his mother calls up the stairs. “Can you come down here?”

“Coming!” he yells. He puts his book facedown on the bed and clatters down the stairs. “Oh,” he says in surprise. “Hey.”

Miss Reglan is sitting with his mother in the living room, an empty teacup on the table in front of her and a bird on her shoulder. He'd heard the doorbell ring half an hour ago and figured it was Mrs. Walker or somebody visiting his mum.

“Hello, Rick,” she says. She looks cautious, and he remembers guiltily that he was pretty rude to her last year. “No camp this summer?”

“Shorter session. It was last month.” He'd had to leave early in the morning the day after Ren got back; they'd spent hours making out in the cave that night (Rick had given up on the idea of breaking up with Ren as soon as he saw him), and by the time he got to the camp, he hadn't slept in almost two days. But it had been worth it, and now he's been back for two weeks and they still have three weeks left—five whole blissful, incredible weeks, even if things feel a little off, a little different from the winter—it's just taking them time to adjust to being in the same place again.

“Rick?” Miss Reglan says. Oh, he's zoned out thinking about Ren again. His mum looks amused.

“Yeah, sorry,” he says. “Did you want to talk here?”

“I was hoping you would let me take you to lunch, actually,” she says. She's wearing Muggle clothes, but it would still look strange for him to be having lunch with an out-of-town woman in a power suit (and snood) with a bird on her shoulder. He points this out, and she raises an eyebrow. “It's convenient, then, that nobody's going to notice us,” she says. “Well, the Walkers might; they know me, it's more complicated to hide from them.”

“All right, then,” he says. “Lunch sounds good.”

He kisses his mum on the cheek on the way out, and the bird flutters into his hands as soon as the door closes behind them. He strokes its glossy blue feathers. “Do you know where you want to go?” Miss Reglan asks.

“Yeah, follow me,” he says, and they start walking. “Um,” he says after a bit. “I'm sorry about last year. I wasn't very nice.”

“That's all right,” she says. “I swore in front of a student.”

“Yeah, that was brilliant,” he says, and she laughs.

He takes her to the Legion. “Ren's banned for life here, so he won't see us,” he explains.

“Why is he banned?”

“Punched Gary Kendal for calling him a poof.”

“Good for him,” she says. He grins and ducks his head.

After they've gotten drinks and a table and ordered food, Miss Reglan asks very seriously, “How are you, Rick?”

“Good,” he says. “Really good. I'm starting sixth form next year.”

“Your mother mentioned that. She seemed very proud.”

“Yeah, she is. I mean, I know it's a dumb idea and I probably shouldn't, but I still kind of want to give it a shot?”

“Absolutely,” she says warmly. “I think it's wonderful. And your mum said you and Kieren had made up, too?”

“Um, yeah. It's great, really great. We're great.”

“I'm glad, Rick, I'm very happy for you.”

“I'm not sure he's great,” Rick blurts out. He hasn't had anybody to talk to about this. “I mean, he's great, obviously, he's my, um, best mate, but I'm not sure he's happy. Well, he's happy usually, just not as much as he should be? I wish we didn't fight so much.”

“What do you fight about?”

“Everything,” Rick says with feeling. “He just gets upset about stuff, I can never tell what it's going to be. The other day he got cross with me for—uh, never mind.” For kissing him too roughly when two days before he'd snapped at Rick for treating him like he's made of glass, but she doesn't need to know that. “I asked you about it,” he remembers suddenly. “I asked you … two years ago what was going on with him, and you said it was just being a teenager.”

“Well, maybe it is,” she says. “Then again, I don't know anything about teenagers, I tend to think of them as a horror. Not you, dear, for you I make an exception.” She pats his hand, and he sighs.

“Maybe it's just how he is now,” he says. “I didn't … talk to him for a year, and the rest of the time I was, um, distracted, and he's probably been miserable this whole time, I just stopped asking.” God, he did, he's a terrible boyfriend—he got so distracted by being happy about Ren, and then guilty, and worrying about school and God and his dad that he forgot Ren still didn't have any friends and kept waking up at night and felt constantly mysteriously unhappy whether or not Rick was there.

Miss Reglan looks sad. “I wish I knew what to tell you, Rick,” she says. “Just … be there for him, I suppose. Find little things to cheer him up. Let him know you care about him.”

“I do,” Rick says, and he's saved from having to say any more about it by the arrival of their food. The bird tries to peck at his sandwich, and he shoos it away.

“I'm sorry I can't be of more help,” Miss Reglan says.

“Yeah. It's fine.” Changing the subject, he asks, “If you hate teenagers so much, why do you have a job that means you have to deal with them?”

“Oh, I almost never work with teenagers, I usually handle children under eleven.”

“But you showed up when Ren, you know. And you said you would help him with the disciplinary hearing, and we were fourteen then.”

“Ah. Yes. That sort of incident is not usually part of my job description, but I arranged to be notified if anything of magical significance happened in Roarton, so I made an exception for Kieren.”

“Oh. Thanks.” She shrugs, a little embarrassed.

“Of course,” she says. “But yes, usually I work with younger children, especially Muggle-borns.”

“Are you Muggle-born?” he asks. “Wait, I'm not supposed to ask.”

“It's fine. I'm half-blood: pureblood father, Muggle mother. I knew about magic before I turned eleven, but I remember growing up mostly in the Muggle world and going back there for holidays. I remember, too, learning that wizarding society is not particularly kind to Muggles. Or Muggle-borns.” She frowns. “Wizarding society isn't particularly kind to many people. It hasn't been kind to you.”

“I'm not in wizarding society.”

“Exactly. And the Ministry were happy never to think of you again after the first time you turned down Hogwarts.”

“Well, yeah?” he says. “I said no.”

She sighs. “You were eleven, Rick, and in an—a complicated family situation, and—oh, never mind. Rick, four years ago it wouldn't have been too difficult for you to enter Hogwarts as a first year, but I recognize that being a sixteen-year-old in a class of eleven-year-olds wouldn't be the most comfortable situation for you.”

“Yeah, no shit,” he says.

“Quite. To be clear, you are welcome to avail yourself of that option any time you wish—I don't care if you're forty years old, I will make sure you can go to Hogwarts if that's what you want. But I've been considering some other possibilities.” She pulls a folder out of—thin air, and hands it to him. The blue bird stops drinking from her water glass and comes over to look at it. “Young children sometimes receive preliminary magical training from tutors, so private instruction isn't unheard of. I've talked to some people, and I could arrange for you to meet with a tutor on a regular basis, either in Roarton or in a wizarding location. You wouldn't have to pay for it, and with your mother's help it shouldn't be too difficult to keep your lessons a secret from your father. You could also come to Hogwarts over summer or Christmas. And it's still true that if you or your mother ever want to leave here, I can find you a place to live—”

“Did you call the social worker?” he asks, remembering suddenly.

She hesitates. “Yes.”

“You said you weren't authorized to do that.”

“I'm barely authorized to do any of this, Rick,” she says. “I don't regret it.”

“Look, he's my dad,” he says. “He's my dad, don't you love your dad?”

“Very much.”

“So how would you like it if people came and said your dad was, was abusing you and told you to lie to him and hate him and never see him again?”

“The difference is that my dad didn't abuse me.”

He stares, shocked that she actually said it. She winces and deflates a little.

“Rick, I'm not asking you to hate your father,” she says. “I just want very much for you to be safe and happy, and I don't know how to do that for you, and I'm trying. I'm trying to give you as many options as I can.”

He gathers up the bird in his hands and stares at his half-finished plate; he's not hungry anymore. “You said—you said last year to tell you one thing I was afraid was gonna happen.”

“Yes?”

“I think I'm gonna go to Hell,” he says. “It says in the Bible that magic is evil, and I think my dad's gonna hate me when he knows for sure that I'm evil and I'm gonna be in God's bad books and go to Hell.”

“Sweetie, that's not how God works.”

He snorts. “Uh, that's exactly how God works.”

“Am I going to hell, then?”

“I—I guess so.”

“What about Kieren? Is Kieren going to hell?”

His chest feels tight. “Yeah,” he says hoarsely. “Yeah, I guess.”

“And what about you and Kieren?” she asks. “Are you going to hell for that?” He freezes. “I inferred,” she adds.

“I—I don't—”

“You know, I'm bisexual,” she says, like she's commenting on the weather. “I generally keep my private life private, but it would be wrong not to tell you. You should know that it's entirely possible to become a contented, productive member of society and also to have gay sex.”

“We're not,” he says. “Having. Um. The Bible doesn't say anything about kissing, I checked.”

“Rick. The people who told you that the Bible condemns homosexuality and that's the end of it were lying to you, they were simply lying. The Bible is much more complicated than that. You wouldn't go to hell for going to Hogwarts or for having sex with Kieren, I am certain of it.”

“What about honoring father and mother?” he shoots back.

“Well, you're already lying to your father, aren't you?” she says. “Might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”

“No, that's stupid,” he says. “Just because I'm doing one wrong thing doesn't mean I might as well go out and do more. I mean, I'm not gonna start murdering people.”

“So if you want so badly to obey your father, why don't you break up with Kieren?”

“Because I can't.”

“Of course you can. You choose not to.”

“No! No, I can't. Ren just happened, and I can't stop it now, but I can play football and not do magic and stay at home with my dad.”

“But—” She looks incredibly frustrated.

“You just don't understand,” he tells her.

“Yes, that's because it doesn't make any sense,” she says in exasperation.

“It does make sense,” he says stubbornly. “He's me dad, and I'm trying to do right by him. He's just trying to make me a man, and I want to be what he wants me to be, and that's what I'm trying to be.” He holds out the folder.

“Oh, at least keep the folder,” she says, giving up. “It won't hurt to keep it, right?”

“Fine,” he says. “Look, it's nothing personal, all right? You're all right. You've been really good to me.”

“Thanks,” she says tiredly. “You should finish eating.”

“I'm not really hungry.”

“You're sixteen, how are you not hungry?” she asks in disbelief. He actually is pretty hungry, but he's also feeling kind of sick. The bird comes over and nuzzles at his finger, and he makes himself pick up the rest of his sandwich and start eating it slowly.

They sit there in silence for a while until Rick blurts out with his mouth full, “Are you really, um...?” She waits. He swallows, and finishes, “Bisexual?”

“Yes,” she says. “I have slept with many women. Well, that's an overstatement. But there was a tight-knit queer community at Hogwarts in the eighties; I gather that's not so much the case these days.”

“Yeah,” he says, thinking of how alone Ren seems to feel. He is actually really surprised Miss Reglan is that way, she seems so … respectable. But then again, he doesn't actually know any gay people—queer people?—besides Ren.

She walks him back to his house, and he asks her a little about herself to cheer her up. She ends up telling him a hilarious story about a Ravenclaw-Slytherin prank war in her fourth year; they're both laughing by the time they get to his porch. He's about to say goodbye when she leans forward and gives him a hug, squeezing him almost too tightly. He hugs her back.

“So we're mates now, right?” he says when she lets him go.

“Yes,” she says, nodding decisively. “I believe we are.” The bird flutters over to her shoulder, and she smiles at him as she Apparates away. He goes inside to put the folder in his closet and runs right back out again, following the magnetic pull he's been feeling for hours, the pull he feels all the time, and when Ren opens his door, face flushed and shining like the sun, Rick leans forward to kiss him desperately, right on his front porch.

*

Two weeks into the school year, Rick is miserably certain that he's made a huge mistake.

He's become suddenly, horribly conscious that school always consisted of people like him and people who were going somewhere, and now almost his whole crowd is in the real world already and all the smart kids are staring at him, wondering why are you still here? Jamie and Danny stuck around for football, and Gavin and his parents were always planning for him to go to uni, but without Dirk the gang kind of falls apart. For the first time since he was … seven, maybe? … there are days when Rick doesn't know where to sit during lunch. And sixth form is hard. Everyone is constantly talking about A Levels and how difficult they're going to be, and his teachers never cut him any slack. He's used to teachers just sort of writing him off, not marking him too harshly or worrying about whether he was doing well or badly, because it didn't really matter. And now teachers are disappointed in him and call him in for meetings asking if he's sure he's prepared for sixth form, and his grades, which used to be halfway decent, are really, really not anymore.

I'm just too dumb, Rick thinks numbly, staring down at the grade on his first history exam and the note that says, See me after class. But he can't quit now, because his dad told him to be here, and if he wanted to leave school, he could have just left.

He tries a little at first. He tries to study and do all his homework, but it's all way over his head, plus he's really busy that term—there's football and karate, and his dad's been working extra hours at the factory and asked Rick to pick up some extra chores around the house, and he's been doing more at church because he's a man now, and it's past time for him to start contributing, and he spends Saturdays camping or partridge shooting, plus his dad's been taking him to the Legion in the evenings more often, so it's just, it's just really hard to find time to study, and he needs so much more time than the other kids anyway. He tries to stay up late sometimes, but he's bloody pathetic, he always ends up falling asleep by mistake and oversleeping and nodding off in class and getting in trouble for that, and he can't even remember anything he was supposed to have been studying; plus sleep deprivation makes it hard to eat and makes him throw up all the time. Danny, who's actually smart, offers to help him, but he can only take one day of Danny trying to teach him stuff and looking pityingly at him when he's too dumb to understand before he says he doesn't think that's gonna work out. Eventually he stops caring so much; there wasn't any point to sixth form in the first place, so it's not really important if he's pants at it.

Gavin's having a pretty good go at things, though, and Danny's marks are excellent, and everybody knows that Alice Lanchester is top of the class. But around the beginning of October, she stops showing up to classes, and all sorts of rumors start going around—that she had a nervous breakdown, that she ran away from home, that she's dead.

Rick corners Vicky after class one day to ask her about Alice, and Vicky arches a perfectly groomed eyebrow. “What makes you think I know about it?” she asks.

“You're friends, aren't you?” he says. “I've seen you talking to her.”

“That mousy girl? We're not friends,” she says. “I talk to a lot of people.”

“Well, do you know about it or don't you?”

“Heard she cracked up,” Vicky shrugs. “Not my fault she's so sensitive.”

It occurs to Rick for the first time that Vicky is actually not a very good person. “You're a real bitch, aren't you?” he says.

“Wow, what an original insult,” she says. “Rick the Dick thinks I'm a bitch, I'll be sure to cry myself to sleep over it.”

“Look, just … tell me where her house is.”

“What do you even care?” Vicky says, but she sends him to a girl who knows Alice's address, and he heads over there that afternoon. A man who must be her father answers the door, looking exhausted.

“Mr. Lanchester?” Rick asks, and the man nods. “My name's Rick, I'm a friend of Alice's from school. I heard she wasn't feeling very well?” he guesses. “I thought she might like a visitor.”

Mr. Lanchester blinks slowly. “All right,” he says. “Maybe she'll like to see a friend.”

Rick follows him through the house and up the stairs, to a door that's standing wide open with a television playing softly in the room beyond. “Alice, love,” her dad says. “You've got a visitor. It's Rich.”

“Rick,” says Rick, but he's focused on the ghostly figure sitting up in the bed, wearing a nightgown and staring ahead blankly.

Mr. Lanchester leaves them alone, and Rick draws a chair up to the bed on Alice's left side. Her hair is hanging limp around her shoulders, and she doesn't react. Rick carefully fixes his eyes on her face.

“Hello, Alice,” he says. She doesn't say anything. The telly is playing a nature documentary, something about lions. “I'm sorry I left you at the dance,” he says, which is the only think he can think of to say to her.

“I don't care,” she says tonelessly.

“I know,” Rick says. “That's all right.” He reaches out without thinking about it and presses two fingers lightly to her wrist before drawing back his hand. “That's a pretty nightgown,” he says.

“I know,” she answers. It's very white and makes her look like a painting or a sculpture: something called The Suffering Maiden or, The Widowed Bride or, Sadness. It has no sleeves, and he wonders why she's making no effort to cover up her arms, which still have fresh bandages over them. But maybe she likes them, he thinks. She hardly ever speaks, so maybe she likes that they speak for her.

He reaches out again and puts his hand over hers. He sits silently, just looking at her while she looks in the direction of the telly. She has a cut on her cheek, too, and he wonders where that came from. It's strangely comfortable to sit with her. He used to be nervous around her because he never knew what she was thinking, but he's pretty sure she isn't thinking about anything right now, and that's not hard to understand. She has a funny way of breathing, in through her nose and out through her mouth, lips opening and closing; he mimics it, and it's nice.

After a while, he gets up to leave. When he gets to the doorway, he's surprised to hear a quiet, flat, “Thank you,” behind him. He turns around, but she doesn't look at him or say anything else. “Yeah, of course,” he says, and wonders if he should do something else, but he just leaves.

Alice's dad is sitting in an armchair when Rick gets downstairs. Rick nods at him and mumbles a goodbye.

“I'm the one who found her,” Alice's dad says in almost the same dull, abstracted way as his daughter. Rick doesn't want to think about that. He wonders where Alice's mum is, and thinks he remembers that she's dead.

“Were you angry?” Rick asks.

Her dad blinks and looks at him. “Of course,” he says. “Not at her.”

Rick comes back the next day, but her dad says she's sleeping, and the day after that she's gone. Her dad says she's gone to stay with her aunt, but Rick thinks he might be lying. There's nothing else he can do about it, then—he's never going to find out what happens to her. He goes back to his life, for lack of anything better to do. Milo's top of the class now; Rick's teachers are starting to realize he's not ever gonna get up to par. There's a trend of Alice Lanchester jokes for a while, making up more and more ridiculous reasons for her to kill herself, and everyone agrees that Rick's jokes are the best of the lot.

*

Rick spends a lot time at parties that semester, drinking too much and snogging girls when he's hammered enough, because word usually gets back to his dad about it. He doesn't sleep with any of the girls, but sometimes he lies and says he does. Anyway, the biggest party of the year is Tommy Dalton's Halloween party, and Rick is dressed as a gladiator and chugging his fourth beer when Chris Turpin appears out of nowhere and throws an arm around his shoulders.

“Rick!” he yells. “Rick, my man, let's get fucked up.”

“Y'are fucked up, fuckwad!” Rick yells back.

“Naw, mate, I mean fucked up,” he says, and dangles a small plastic baggie full of pills in front of Rick's face.

Rick's heart starts racing. He's never done anything but weed and fags and alcohol; he hasn't seen Chris much lately, he didn't know he was into other stuff now. Maybe he should ask what kind of pills they are.

Don't be a pussy, he tells himself, and he grabs the bag and pops one of the pills in his mouth, washing it down with the last of his beer.

Then things get Really. Fucking. Weird.

Most of his guilt and worry is cut right out of him, with just this distant thread of panic left—he's never felt this out-of-control of himself, like he's standing helplessly in a corner of his mind and watching everything blow up in front of him. But he mostly doesn't care. It feels good to lose control, to let everything go fuck itself. He's loose and careless, gesturing wildly and sprawling all over people, and (he realizes later with horror) he forgets to be careful about the magic, which must be why his cup is never empty, and maybe why Gary Kendal trips over nothing and faceplants in the punch bowl, and oh fuck, that's not the only thing he forgets to be careful about.

After he has some more to drink, and after some dancing and maybe a couple of girls, he and Chris stagger over to the couch where Jamie and Danny are, and then at some point Jamie and Chris disappear, and Rick ends up with his head in Danny's lap.

“Hey,” Danny says, looking down at him in amusement. He's got a Dracula costume with a high collar and long white fangs, and he looks fucking spectacular.

“Danny!” Rick says happily, reaching up and patting him on the cheek.. “You're my favorite, mate, you're so smart.”

“Thanks?”

“Yeah, I mean it, you're bloody brilliant, you're maybe smarter even than Ren, maybe.”

“Who's Ren?”

Rick gapes at him. “Ren . He's Ren. Kieren Walker.”

“Oh, Kieren Walker, yeah. The bloke you're always fucking around with during the hols.”

“Not fucking,” Rick says absently, searching around on the floor for his beer cup, which obligingly zooms into his hand. He tries to take a drink and spills beer all over himself.

“Right, Kieren's the gay one.”

“Hey, no, he might be bisexual. He doesn't know yet,” Rick explains. He sighs dreamily. “Cause he just likes me.”

“Does he now?”

“Yeah. He misses me.” Rick frowns. “He's so sad.”

“Well, he'll see you in a few weeks.”

Rick makes an unhappy noise. “No, he'll be sad, nothing fixes it. Now I'm sad.” He squirms around and buries his head in Danny's stomach. “Wanna make out with my boyfriend,” he whines.

“Oh,” Danny says. “Oh, you're actually.”

“He's so pretty,” Rick mumbles, and falls off the couch.

Gavin, dressed as an accountant (it's Ironic), ends up taking him home, pulling Rick's right arm around his shoulders while Rick waves his costume sword around with his other hand and attempts to sing “God Save the Queen.” Gavin keeps laughing. When they get to Rick's house, Gavin ruffles his hair and says they should do this more often, and Rick wraps him up in a giant hug that makes Gavin laugh harder. Gavin helps him with his key, and Rick does try to be quiet when he goes in, but then he trips over something and falls into a table and knocks over a vase. “Shiiiite,” he says unsteadily when the vase hits the ground and breaks into a million fucking pieces.

The stairwell light clicks on, and Rick blinks up at his father, who's wearing a bathrobe and a blank expression.

“Hi, Dad,” Rick stage whispers. “Sorry about. The thing. Hi.”

His father doesn't say anything and walks slowly down the stairs. Rick thinks dimly that he should maybe be paying closer attention to something.

“That's all right, Rick,” his dad says evenly, advancing on him. “Boys will be boys. No harm in having a bit of fun with the lads.” He's standing right in front of Rick now, and Rick has to tip his head down to look him in the eye. “That what you're expecting me to say?”

“Um...,” Rick says. “Yeah?” Yeah, right? His dad likes when he goes to parties, and he's been buying him drinks at the Legion since he was fourteen, so. Yeah?

His dad says, very, very quietly, “What did I do to deserve something like you as a son,” and Rick throws up all over his dad's slippers. His dad steps out of the slippers and goes back upstairs. Rick starts shaking and shaking and can't stand up anymore; he's on his knees, his hands are in vomit, he throws up again. He can't—think, he has to—he has to clean it up, he has to—stand up, get a hold of yourself, sober up, fuck you fuck you, you're terrible—he stumbles over to the kitchen in the dark, lights start materializing, he shuts it down, he has to, he has to get to the paper towels, he gets them—okay, okay, get back, clean up the mess—why are you so slow, why are you so weak—he cleans up the vomit, it takes forever, he's shaking, he can't cry. He picks up all the pieces of the vase. It was the replacement for the one he broke when he was nine. He picks up all the pieces with his bare hands. His hands get all cut up, he doesn't care. He goes upstairs and sits on his bed, still in costume, and stares at his hands. Then he starts ripping at the cuts and making them bleed more, and he hits himself in the head really hard over and over, and he doesn't know what's happening, and he falls asleep on the floor, curled up and shaking and shaking.

In the morning he looks at himself in the mirror: bare chest, fake sword, blood smeared all over him. He stares for a long time. Eventually his dad comes in and leads him to the bathroom and cleans off the blood and bandages his hands and says gently, “Son, you can't do this to yourself,” and Rick says, “I know, Dad, I know, I'm sorry.”

*

On their one-year anniversary, Rick and Ren build a fire in the den and smoke a few fags, sitting side by side against the wall. Rick isn't sure this is a great anniversary activity. He'd thought about taking Ren out on a proper date and chickened out, but still, they could at least be snogging right now, and instead they're barely touching and not even really talking. Ren is staring fixedly into the flames, and Rick is staring at Ren's long fingers holding his cigarette. He wants to touch them, he wants to put them in his mouth, but he doesn't think Ren would like it, and the thought sits cold and heavy in his stomach.

“I came out to my family a few days ago,” Ren says abruptly. “Officially. Not that they didn't already know.”

“Oh,” Rick says, then after a beat, “Congratulations.” He tries not to ask, he really does, but Ren doesn't say anything, and eventually he starts, “Did you—”

“No, I didn't tell them about you,” Ren says tartly, and takes a long drag on the cigarette.

Rick doesn't know what to say. He reaches out a hand and pets Ren's hair lightly, to see what will happen: Ren doesn't react. Rick goes back to his cigarette and stares at the fire.

“I don't know what you want, Ren,” he says. “You want me to tell my dad? Really?”

“Yeah, Rick, I do. Or. I don't know. I don't want to be the poofter you hang around with because you feel sorry for him forever.”

“I'm not doing that.”

“I know, but everyone thinks you are.”

“No, they don't.”

“Yeah, you're not the one who walks into the shop and everyone who sees you goes quiet and stares and whispers to each other, you don't—” He stops and scrubs a hand over his face. “My parents,” he says quietly, “it's really hard on them.”

“What'd they say when you told them?”

“Dad said, 'All right, son,' and Mum said, 'That's fine,' and asked if anyone wanted more yams.”

“So that's good, they're fine with it, yeah?”

“I don't know, I never know what they think.”

“It'll be okay. Your parents love you.”

“Sure,” Ren says, like it doesn't matter very much. After a long pause, he says, “I'm just the only one who has to deal with all of this, and it's not fair, Rick. It's not fair to me.”

“Yeah,” Rick says quietly. “I, um. Are there kids like you at school?”

Like me, Ren mutters under his breath. “Yeah, sort of. We're not exactly friends.”

Rick hunches his shoulders and looks at the ground. “Ren, I don't know how to tell him. I'm his only son. He couldn't bear it.”

“If he can't accept you for who you really are, he doesn't deserve you,” Ren says.

“Well, it really isn't, it's not natural, though—”

“Christ, Rick, shut up.” Ren throws his cigarette into the fire and stands up. “If it's so unnatural, what are you even doing here.”

“Because I can't help myself,” Rick says, dropping his own cigarette and grabbing Ren's ankle. “You're incredible, Ren, and I love you, and even if it's wrong, I just, you're so, I'm not strong enough.”

“If you had to see me every day,” Ren says, staring at the opposite wall, “at school, I mean, I don't think you'd love me at all. I think you'd take me for granted. Sometimes I think you're just jealous.”

“I would always love you,” Rick says. “Ren. There's no way I could know you and not love you.”

Ren huffs and doesn't say anything. His hands are shoved in his pockets. Rick scrambles to his feet. He stands behind Ren and tentatively rests his hands on Ren's hips; when Ren doesn't move away, he leans in and kisses Ren's neck.

“It's not—” Ren starts, but he gasps softly when Rick kisses his pulse point, so Rick keeps going. He keeps kissing his neck and bites a little, and Ren is totally still and making these breathy little whimpers, and Rick gets his hands under Ren's shirts and touches his ribs, his stomach. Rick can never believe it when he's actually touching Ren, he spends so much time wishing for it. But Ren is here now. He isn't pulling away. Rick bites down on Ren's earlobe and, shaking, slips a hand under his waistband, curving his palm around Ren's hipbone.

It takes him a minute to realize that Ren isn't trembling from excitement, and that his breathing is way too fast. “You okay?” Rick asks; Ren stumbles away from him, over to the far wall, out of his reach. He's gasping for air, his arms clenched around his middle, and then he gets on his knees and puts his hands flat on the ground, still with that horrible frantic panting. Rick stands there numbly. He should be doing something to help, but he doesn't know what. Ren falls apart in front of him while Rick's hands hang helpless in the air, and he's completely useless and Ren knows it.

Eventually Ren's breathing slows, and he sits up and rests his hands on his knees. Rick finally goes and crouches next to him and touches his back. “What happened?” Rick asks. “Are you okay?”

Ren gives a faint, tired laugh. “Sorry,” he says, “don't worry about it. That just happens sometimes.” He's still shaking slightly under Rick's hand.

“What does that mean, it just happens sometimes?” Rick demands, feeling scared. “How long, Ren, fuck, why didn't you tell me?”

“Because you can't do anything about it,” Ren snaps. “There wasn't any point to telling you, you can't do any good,” and Rick jerks away from him and lashes out blindly, striking the cave wall with his fists over and over in a sudden flurry of movement. It's over quickly, and Rick leans against the wall, panting. He turns his head to see Ren hunched defensively in on himself, like he's scared of Rick but isn't going to do anything about it. Rick struggles not to throw up.

“Sorry,” he gasps pointlessly. “Shit, Ren, sorry, I'm. Sorry. Sorry.”

“I just don't know what's happening to me anymore,” Ren says. He starts to cry. “I don't know anything, but I love you so much, I don't want to break up—”

“Are we breaking up?” Rick asks in sudden terror.

No,” Ren says. He lurches forward and pulls Rick into a tight hug. “No, we're not breaking up, everything's just so hard.”

“I could tell my mum about us, do you want me to tell my mum?”

“It doesn't matter,” Ren says, “forget it. I don't want to leave you, I hate having to leave you, when I'm at school I'm so alone I can't stand it. I cry all the time, Rick, I'm such a bloody mess.”

“You're perfect,” Rick says fervently. “You're not a mess, Ren, you're perfect, you're so much better than me,” and he takes Ren's face in his hands and kisses him before Ren can say anything else.

They make out with desperate urgency, blood trickling from Rick's knuckles and getting smeared on Ren's skin while Ren doesn't seem to care. They kiss as hard and as long as they can, and it's not enough; it's never enough. Later, Ren dozes lightly in Rick's arms while Rick stares at the embers of the dying fire and thinks about two things in a loop. One is going up to Danny Birmingham in November and saying pleadingly, “You can't tell anyone,” and the look on Danny's face when he answered, “Yeah, of course not.” The other is that, if Ren had to see him every day at school, maybe he would have accepted everything about Rick as just the way things were, instead of going off and realizing Rick is a coward and an idiot and pathetic. Maybe he would have loved Rick without knowing any better.

*

It feels like everything is slipping through his fingers—school, time, Ren—like he's standing still and watching everything in his life become impossible. His father mentions over dinner one night that Ed Manning is still hiring, and Rick says, “Yeah, okay,” and his dad sets it up for him to start work at the garage in the summer. His mum doesn't say anything about it, and Rick just thinks to himself, after all that, after all of that, the taste of failure bitter and sharp. Ren's letters come less frequently, and Rick lies awake at night, at home or in the den, and thinks that something is broken that can't be fixed; Ren is trying so hard to love him and he can't, but Rick is still just as gone on him as ever. Ren is going to leave him, and he doesn't know if he'll survive it. Sometimes he stands by the phone and thinks about calling Miss Reglan, but he never does. She's taken to sending him books, though, and he does read those: spellbooks, magical theory, some wizarding poetry that he reads softly aloud. He goes to school and drinks the right amount at parties and gets worse and worse at pleasing his dad, and the whole time he feels like he's standing still.

And then in April Milo Ramsey's little brother catches Milo kissing Danny Birmingham, and the sermon that Sunday is about having the courage to fight the forces of darkness, and Rick's dad keeps making comments about it, and Rick decides, fine. Might as well. He rounds up everyone, and Gavin and Jamie hold Milo down while Chris writes I LIKE DICK on his face and FAGGOT PANSY FAIRY on his chest in permanent marker, and Pete and Rick and Dirk take turns punching and kicking him and laugh at him while he cries. Jamie gets first crack at Danny—“I let you sleep in my house, you pervert!”—and Danny gets in three good punches before Pete and Chris wrestle him to the ground and Dirk kicks him enough to knock the breath out of him. “Seriously?” Danny spits out when he sees Rick, and Rick kicks him in the head and puts his hands on Danny's skin and scratches open the breaks in it wherever he finds them. When they're finished, Rick says tonelessly, “You can't tell anyone,” and Danny, covered in blood and bruises, somehow struggles to a sitting position and says, “You know, I used to feel sorry for you, Rick, but you fucking deserve everything you get.”

Rick goes home and kneels by the toilet, but nothing happens. Eventually he gets up. Danny needs stitches, and Rick's father is proud of him. The whole town is proud of him.

Everybody knows who did it, but Danny and Milo don't tell anyone. There wouldn't be any point.

 

17.

Miss Reglan finds him fixing the engine of Ken Burton's car. “Summer job?” she asks.

“Real job,” Rick says. “Permanent.”

“How did your A Levels go?”

“Didn't take them.”

“Okay,” she says. “Do you like it here?”

“I'm pretty good at it.”

“Good,” she says, “but do you like it?”

He shrugs. He doesn't really have any feelings about it one way or the other.

She summons a stool from the other side of the garage—Pete's dad is at lunch, and Pete is out picking up parts, so there's no one around to see—and perches on it in her tidy blue dress and sensible blue shoes. “Rick,” she says gently, “you don't seem like you're doing very well.”

“He broke up with me,” Rick says dully.

“Oh,” she says. “Oh, I'm so sorry, love. When?”

“A month ago.”

“Did he say why?”

“Yeah,” Rick says. “He said he was … messed up, and I couldn't help him, and it was too hard to be alone so much, but also he heard about—” Rick swallows. “I'm not, I'm not a good person,” he whispers.

She pulls out her wand and turns the wrench in his hand into that same small shiny blue bird she's been offering him for six years now. He cups his hands around it and feels himself shaking, like how crying used to feel. She reaches out and puts her hands on the outside of his. “You are good, Rick Macy,” she says softly. “You deserve better than you have been given.”

“You don't understand,” he says. “It's, I, I put a boy in hospital, I beat them up for being gay, I did that.” He shuts his eyes tight.

“Oh, Rick,” she says softly. She doesn't let go of his hands.

He opens his eyes a little and frowns at her. “Aren't you—you shouldn't still be here, yeah?”

“Why?”

“Because I hurt people,” he says. “People like you. You shouldn't be … sticking up for me.”

“I'll stick up for whom I please,” she says. “You don't frighten me, Rick; I'm much more powerful than you.”

“But I'm a bad person,” he insists.

“You did a terrible thing,” she says calmly, “but it doesn't make you a bad person. And it doesn't make me care about you any less.”

He wishes suddenly that she would hug him but doesn't know how to ask for it. Instead, he says, “What is this bird anyway, why do you like it so much.”

“It's called a blue whistling thrush,” she says. It whistles on cue. “I used to have a book of birds when I was young, with beautiful illustrations—a Muggle book—and this one was my favorite. No particular reason. I just thought it was lovely.” She pets its head with one finger, and it whistles happily.

“Is it your Patronus?” he asks.

“Mm-hmm. It's quite a sight, a tiny phantom bird confronting a dementor.” He smiles a little at the thought.

“Do you ever wonder what it's like to fly?” he asks.

“We have broomsticks, Rick,” she says. “I don't have to wonder.”

He swallows, and she gently squeezes his hands.

“What if you took a couple of weeks off from work and came to stay with me?” she suggests. “Like a holiday. I could give you a tour of the Ministry, or Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade or anywhere else you want to see. You could meet my cat.”

“You have a cat?”

“I inherited him from my great-aunt, he's a menace. You could adopt my cat,” she says hopefully.

“Yeah, I don't think my parents would be too happy about that.”

“Have you thought about moving out?”

“I don't,” Rick says. “I can't really picture moving out.”

“Ever?”

He hunches his shoulders and doesn't say anything.

“Will you come visit me, Rick? Please?”

“I don't want to go,” he whispers, and saying it doesn't even feel like a choice anymore.

She takes her hands back and rubs her eyes with the heels of them, and Rick cradles the blue whistling thrush to his chest. She says, “Sometimes I wish I didn't need your consent. I wish I could force you to learn magic—I wish I could have forced you six years ago. I used to think I knew what it meant for people to have choices.” She looks at him, and she looks like she's given up. “I'm sorry, Rick. I'm sorry I keep failing you.”

“What happens now that I'm seventeen?” he asks.

“Well, I can't track you magically anymore, for one thing—I had to ask your mother where you were,” she says. “You'll be allowed to practice magic without restriction, but if you perform any illegal magic, you'll be tried as an adult wizard, and you'll be eligible to be sent to Azkaban—the wizarding prison. I'll send you relevant information on wizarding laws so you'll be clear on what's legal; I should have done that before now, I apologize for the oversight. There are certain rights that only belong to Hogwarts graduates, or to graduates of equivalent international schools, but that won't be an issue as long as you live outside wizarding society. I'm not sure what would happen to your legal status if you enrolled in Hogwarts or obtained private tutoring, because no one at the Ministry cares enough to settle on an answer.”

“That's fine.”

“It's not fine,” she says. “Could I maybe visit you more often, Rick?”

“I'd rather you didn't.”

“Do you read my letters?”

“No.”

“I'm going to keep sending them.”

“Hey, owls can find me even if the tracking spells can't.”

“Owls can find you, but I can't use owls to find out where you are—it's a subtle bit of magic, actually, but it's not important right now.”

“No, tell me about it,” he says. This is the last time he's ever going to see her. He says, “Please, I want to know.”

So he works on Mr. Burton's engine while the blue whistling thrush hops around the inside of the bonnet and Miss Reglan tells him about the finer points of post owl magic and debates on wizarding vs. Muggle communication technology and the screech owl she had when she was in school, and he's going to miss her, he's going to miss her so much and he can't go with her, because he would miss his dad more.

She asks him three more times, and the third time he says very quietly, “I sort of wish you could make me, too,” and she does hug him then. She leaves just before Ed gets back, and it takes him a while to realize she left the blue whistling thrush behind. He buys a new wrench, and silently thanks God she didn't ask him about it.

*

And that's it, then. Rick figures this is the rest of his life. He goes to the garage every day except Sunday and gets better at his job; Ed is impressed with him, Pete is jealous. He doesn't really see much of his friends anymore, except when he goes to Chris's house to smoke weed. Gavin invites him over in the evenings sometimes and does his homework while Rick reads whatever random book he picks off Gavin's shelf, and then Rick goes home and lies about what he's been doing.

“Busy day at the shop today,” he'll say to the blue whistling thrush, or, “Need to be running more, Dad says I'm putting on weight.” The blue whistling thrush lives in his room now and doesn't seem to need to eat, which makes sense because it's a wrench. “It's cause I spend too much time talking to you,” he says, stroking its tiny head with one blunt finger. “Gonna waste away in here.” It whistles sympathetically.

Milo Ramsey has to come in to the shop once that fall. He looks small, but then he's always looked small—he never stood a chance against Rick. He stays and watches Rick fix his car, which doesn't take that long, and when it's done he says, frustrated and baffled, “How are you so good at fixing things?” “Just cars,” Rick answers, and he vaguely wishes Milo would hear the apology in that, but of course Milo can't hear it if Rick can't say it.

“He'll be okay, right?” Rick asks the blue whistling thrush quietly, not sure who he's asking about. It hops into his palm, and he curls his hand gently around it. It's so small he could crush it with the quickest squeeze of his fist; but he doesn't. It gets bored eventually, and he watches it flit around the room, darting in and out of the open window.

He and Ren still send letters, because there's no reason not to. People break up all the time. Ren's letters are flat, empty things, no artwork, and Rick's letters are worse. He doesn't sign the x after his name anymore. There wouldn't be any point.

“I think I'm. Sad,” he says haltingly to the blue whistling thrush. He has a day off from work, and he's been curled up in his bed for hours, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth. He can't feel his magic anymore; he hasn't in a long time, months maybe. He supposes it must have shriveled up into nothingness, like a limb that he didn't use until the muscles all decayed. The bird nuzzles his fingers, but it feels very far away.

Sometimes, when she thinks he's asleep, Rick's mother comes into his room and strokes his hair. She says he's a good boy. She says she's sorry.

Rick's father loves him. Rick is finally becoming everything his dad has ever wanted for him. He has a good solid job, he left sports with honors, he's strong and loud and happy, he cheers for United. Things are so nice with his dad, so pleasant. He wonders why he spent so long being stubborn when all his dad ever wanted was the best for him, and it's so much easier just to be good. Rick's dad smiles at him now like he's the greatest thing in the world, and he tells everyone in town how lucky he is to have a son like Rick. Sure, sometimes Rick still disappoints: he's sullen, or he drinks too much, or he says something weak. But he's getting better. His dad hugs him sometimes, and being wrapped up in his father's arms, swallowed up in his embrace, is more real to Rick than anything has ever been.

There's a day when he sees Vicky Barnes at the Legion and his eyes linger a little, and his dad elbows him knowingly, and Rick thinks, yeah. That's what the future is: flirting with Vicky, marrying her or some other girl, having kids, being a pillar of the community. It's what his father did, it's what his father wants; it's what's supposed to happen.

“It's good,” he insists to the blue whistling thrush. “Everything's finally good. There's no reason to be unhappy. I just have to get better at remembering that,” which is what he prays for every night. God probably hates him, but he'll at least want him to be fixed, so every night Rick asks not for happiness, not even for forgiveness, but just to want what he's supposed to want.

He's sure, someday, he will.

*

With a week left in the Christmas holiday, Rick answers a knock at the door to find Ren standing there.

They just look at each other for a moment. Ren seems tired and pale, as usual, and he looks at Rick like he's been starving for him. Rick wants suddenly to kiss him, but he doesn't; he can stop himself now.

“You look good,” Ren says finally. “You look, you know. Healthy.”

“I know,” Rick says. “I work on cars now. And, you know, work out.”

“Right,” Ren says. “Can you come to the cave with me.”

“Let me grab my coat.”

They don't talk on the way there, but they walk close enough for their hands to brush occasionally with what feels to Rick like a tiny shock of warmth. He hasn't been to the cave in a couple of months, not from any conscious decision. He just. Stopped going.

They each take a match and light half the candles, and they meet in the middle. Ren snuffs out his match with a quick snap of his wrist, but Rick just holds his, watching the firelight illuminate Ren's face. They hold eye contact for several long, still moments. Ren whispers, “Nox,” and the match goes dark, and Rick drops it and looks away.

“Rick,” Ren says softly, and he's standing in Rick's space, cupping his cheek, rubbing his thumb at the corner of Rick's mouth.

“You broke up with me, mate,” Rick reminds him. Ren leans in and kisses him.

Rick kisses him back, but it tastes like ashes—Ren's done with him, he doesn't want another goodbye. Ren pulls back and touches their foreheads together. “Come with me,” he says breathlessly.

“What?”

“It can work, I really think it can—I'm graduating soon, I won't be coming back here to live, and you could come with me, we could get a flat together.”

“Where?”

“Hogsmeade. No, wait, listen to me. I was already planning to move there, and I checked: Muggles are allowed to live in Hogsmeade, it's just not very usual, and I'm pretty sure if I ask around I can find you a job somewhere, it's not like every job requires magic.”

“How long have you been planning this?” Rick asks.

“Not long, a few weeks,” Ren says. “It was so horrible without you, Rick, knowing I was going to come home and not be with you, it was killing me. Rick. Run away with me. I don't care what you've done, I don't care about anything else, we're in love, come with me.”

Ren's eyes are dark and wild, and Rick shivers at the heat in them. “Me dad,” he says, “you want me to leave me dad,” and it's a test, it's a challenge, it's a prayer.

Ren holds Rick's head tight between his palms and looks him dead in the eye. “Look at me,” he demands, and Rick does, helplessly. “Yes. I want you to leave your dad. I want you to live with me—God, Rick, imagine it, we could wake up next to each other, every morning! We could make dinner together, you could touch me whenever you wanted to—no, keep looking at me,” he insists, because Rick's eyes have closed, he feels dizzy, he feels alive. Ren says, “I want to see you and touch you and kiss you every day forever, I want to make love to you, Rick, I want to fucking marry you,” and Rick's eyes fly open as he sucks in a sharp breath. Ren's eyes are wide. “I didn't mean to say that.”

“Did you mean it?” Rick asks.

There's a pause, and then Ren gives a short, hysterical laugh and says, “Yes, Rick, God, yes, marry me,” and kisses him hard and kisses him again, and Rick wraps him up tight and draws him to the ground and gets Ren on top of him, and Ren is gasping between kisses, “Say yes,” and, “Live with me,” and, “Marry me,” and Rick is touching every bit of Ren he can reach.

His hand brushes against the front of Ren's jeans, and Ren makes a hot, needy noise and says, “Do you, do you want to,” and Rick swallows and clears his throat and manages, “Nah, we could, we could just wait till we're married.” Ren stops kissing him, and they stare at each other, tangled together and too overwhelmed to move, and Rick realizes he just said yes.

“I'm gonna live with my husband in Hogsmeade,” he says blankly.

“Holy shit,” Ren says.

*

The rest of the week is split between planning—what Rick's gonna tell his parents, when they're going to move, what money they're gonna live off of—and snogging like it's brand new all over again. Ren doesn't want to let Rick out of his sight, and Rick doesn't want to be let out of his sight—the more Ren looks at him and touches him and insists they're going to get married, the more real it gets. Whenever they're separated, Rick feels like he's drowning, and whenever they see each other again, he feels like Ren is throwing him a rope, or like he's already tied the rope tight around Rick so Rick doesn't even have to hold on. Ren is practically manic with hope and anticipation. “We'll paint all the walls different colors,” he says, and, “I'm going to get you an engagement ring, no, really, I am,” and, “We could get a cat,” and Rick thinks they could adopt Miss Reglan's cat and laughs uncontrollably until Ren kisses him to shut him up.

The evening before Ren leaves, Rick has dinner at the Walker house (Mr. Walker is pretty cold towards Rick, but Mrs. Walker seems to be fine with him, and Jem is always happy to see him), and after dinner they go to Ren's room and lie down in his bed and kiss and whisper promises to each other until Ren has to go spend time with his family and Rick goes home. The sky is heavy and overcast, and as soon as Rick gets inside, there's a loud crack of thunder and the heavens open. Rick lies awake in bed for a long time, listening to the downpour and feeling his magic dance like lightning across his skin.

He must fall asleep eventually, because he wakes to a piercing sound next to his ear. Groggily blinking his eyes open, he finds the blue whistling thrush looking at him expectantly. “What do you want?” he mumbles, and it whistles at him and flies over to the window. It's still dark out, and raining harder than ever.

Rick drags himself to the window in time for a small shower of pebbles to hit the pane. He blinks. It's impossible to see through the rain-streaked glass, so he opens the window and looks down to find Ren, completely soaked and about to throw another handful of rocks. Ren waves. Rick frowns in confusion and waves back without thinking about it. Ren points more or less in the direction of the front door, and after a moment Rick nods and shuts the window. “Thanks,” he says to the bird, almost inaudible over the rain. He cups his hand around it, and it nuzzles his fingers before flitting away into the closet, out of sight.

Rick races silently downstairs and opens the door to Ren. “What are you—” he hisses, before Ren presses a finger to Rick's lips and slips inside.

By the time Rick closes the door, Ren's already on his way upstairs, taking off his drenched coat as he goes. Rick follows him to his own room, and when he shuts the bedroom door behind them, Ren pushes him against it.

“It's three in the morning, Ren,” he says. “You're banned from the house.”

Ren kisses him, slowly, deeply, runs his hands down Rick's thin T-shirt, slips his hands under the waistband of Rick's sweatpants.

“I don't want to wait until we're married,” Ren whispers, and Rick's breath catches. Brushing his lips against Rick's mouth, Ren murmurs, “Make love to me tonight,” determined and vulnerable and afraid, and Rick can't even breathe for wanting him.

After a long, long moment, Rick nods.

Ren drops to his knees, and Rick makes a strangled noise and claps his left hand over his mouth. The room is dimly lit from his desk lamp, and the rain pours down steady and relentless while Ren slowly, slowly pulls down Rick's sweatpants, brushes his mouth against the fabric covering Rick's erection, pulls down his boxers, kisses the jut of his hip. “I've wanted to do this for you for so long,” Ren sighs, and if Rick dared to speak, he would say something about how Ren looks good on his knees, because, Christ, it's unreal how beautiful he looks right now, totally in control and like he would give Rick anything; Rick could just stare down at the shadowed planes of his face for hours and be happy. And then Ren licks the head of his cock, and Rick muffles his sharp cry with one hand and slides the other into Ren's wet hair, and Ren takes him into his mouth.

He can only look at Ren's hollowed cheeks and his lips stretched around Rick's cock for a couple of seconds before it's too much and he has to look away. He stares out the window at the driving rain, the flashes of lightning, and tries to be quiet because his parents are sleeping down the hall—oh, God, he brought a boy home, a boy is sucking him off in his father's house, swallowing him down enthusiastically and digging his fingers into Rick's arse, and Rick can look away, but he can't block out the tiny, obscene noises Ren is making.

A spike of pleasure hits him, and he jerks his hips forward as his hand tightens in Ren's hair. Ren moans, and Rick lets go hastily, but Ren pulls off and whispers, “No, do it again,” before mouthing at Rick's balls. Rick raises a trembling hand to Ren's hair and pulls on it a little, and Ren moans again. Rick tugs harder and pulls Ren back onto his dick, thrusting into his mouth, tentatively at first, then faster as Ren whimpers and sucks him in deeper, and It. Feels. Amazing. Rick realizes suddenly that it feels too amazing—he doesn't technically have a basis for comparison, but he's pretty sure Ren's too good at this and is taking him too deep for this to be his first time. Which means he must have practice, he must have been with guys at school, and Rick feels a hot rush of anger that he wasn't at Hogwarts for Ren to shag, that they didn't kiss for the first time in Ren's four-poster bed when they were fourteen or hold hands at Quidditch games or go on dates at the Three Broomsticks, that Rick never pulled him behind a statue after class and shoved him against the wall, never took him to the Room of Requirement and filled it with the smell of the ocean and the sound of birds and a breeze blowing through the curtains and took Ren's clothes off in the sunlight and spread him out on a huge white bed and fucked him—and Rick comes hard without warning, and Ren swallows.

When Rick comes back to himself, Ren's kissing his neck fervently, and his hard-on is pressed against Rick's thigh. Rick starts to panic. “I can—do you want me to—” he stammers, and Ren takes a look at his face and says, “Here, come here, it's okay.” He leads Rick over to the bed, Rick stumbling with his sweatpants down around his knees. Ren guides him onto his back and gets on top of him and kisses him; Rick can taste his own come in his mouth. Ren keeps kissing him and fumbles with his jeans, and then Rick feels Ren's hard, bare cock pressed against his stomach, dragging across his skin as Ren rocks slowly back and forth.

It's like a dream, except it's the realest thing that's ever happened to him. Rick just has to lie there, clinging to Ren's neck, shivering under Ren's weight—Ren's still in his wet, heavy clothes, freezing wherever he's pinning down Rick's body. He could probably push Ren off if he wanted to, but it feels like he couldn't. He closes his eyes and touches Ren's beautiful face, and Ren rucks up his T-shirt and trails kisses along Rick's chest, sliding his dick against the hollow of Rick's hip, straining against him, wanting him. Rick listens to Ren's quiet gasps and the endless roar of the rain and wishes he could keep his eyes closed forever, that Ren would kiss him and come for him and do whatever he wanted with him for the whole rest of his life.

Ren shudders and digs his teeth into Rick's shoulder, and Rick feels a warm wetness spurting onto his stomach. “Rick, Rick, oh, Rick,” Ren says dazedly against his skin, shivering through the aftershocks. Rick kisses his ear and strokes his hair, the skin of his back. “I love you,” Rick murmurs fiercely. “I love you, Kieren Walker, understand?”

“Yeah, Rick, God, you're everything to me,” Ren breathes. He shifts to press their foreheads together. “Open your eyes,” he says quietly, so Rick does. Ren's eyes look huge and gorgeous, and Rick feels a little self-conscious.

“Sorry I didn't...,” he says, gesturing vaguely in the direction of Ren's dick.

“What?” Ren says. “Oh, it's okay, I didn't expect you to.”

“Right.” He strokes his fingers along Ren's cheek, and Ren's eyelids flutter. He has incredible eyelashes.

“I never want to leave this bed,” Ren says.

“You have to,” Rick says. “You have to take me away from here.”

“I will,” Ren says seriously, and kisses him deeply, tenderly—like they have all the time in the world.

Ren cleans him up and zips up his jeans and puts his coat back on, Rick watching him the whole time. He walks Ren to the front door. “Take an umbrella, mate,” Rick says.

Ren shakes his head and gives him a small smile. “I like feeling the rain,” he says. He gives Rick one last, sweet kiss before walking off into the storm, his hands in his pockets and his face turned toward the sky, getting smaller and smaller until Rick can't see him anymore.

*

Rick goes back to his life and acts normal, but a fierce warm hope is taking root deep in his chest. He'd wondered if he'd regret the engagement once Ren left, but as long as no one knows about it, there's no one to talk him out of it or remind him that he's, you know, planning on lying to his dad and living in sin, so he just sits back and lets himself feel happy.

He can feel his magic again now, and he's really glad to have it back. He gets bold enough to start doing a couple of spells on purpose—just basic ones, but he still feels a nervous thrill at the danger. He only does it in the Den, with all the books right there, and now he can make sticks light up and sometimes make pebbles float, and a couple of other things. His favorite thing to do is to see how big a bubble he can make bloom at the end of a stick, holding his breath and pushing tentatively so it gets bigger and brighter until it finally pops. Once he makes a bubble so big it fills the cave from floor to ceiling, and when that one pops, he basks in pride for a good ten minutes, grinning like an idiot at the words on the wall across from him that Ren carved in with magic a few weeks ago: REN + RICK 4EVER.

And soon Ren sends him a letter to tell him that he's found a job for Rick in Hogsmeade—the propietor of Dervish and Banges, a magical instruments shop, needs an assistant, and while he isn't too excited about hiring a Muggle, he's willing to give it a try. Ren already has an apprenticeship with a painter lined up, so that's Rick's cue to talk to his parents, and he feels terrified and thrilled, because this'll be it—there'll be no backing out of it after this.

Rick thinks about telling his mum the truth, or at least part of it, but he decides it will be easier on her not to have to lie about it to his dad. He does talk to her first, though, and tell her that he wants to move to London, maybe only for a while: he just wants to try living somewhere else, doing something else, he wants to see if a big city might good for him. She's even more supportive than he thought she would be. They sit down with his dad, and Rick explains the plan, and his dad—doesn't seem upset, actually. He seems confused, and he's worried about Rick moving without a job waiting for him, but he doesn't dismiss the idea and says he'll think about it. He adds, “You're almost eighteen, son, if you want to go, I can't stop you,” and Rick thinks giddily that this might actually work.

A couple of days later, it's a Saturday with unusually nice weather, and Rick spends the day wandering aimlessly in the woods, enjoying himself. A post owl finds him and drops a letter from Ren into his hands; Rick blinks at the unexpected weight of it. “Can you come back tonight when I've got paper and pen handy?” Rick asks the owl, and it hoots and lets him pet it briefly before flying off. Rick runs over to the Den and lights the candles and opens the letter, and a handsome silver ring falls into his palm. He stares at it and feels like his heart is going to burst.

The letter says simply: Told you I would. It warms up slightly when I'm near. I love you so much. I can't wait to see you. Ren x

Rick puts the ring on his left hand and stares at it and is really glad no one's around to see him blushing like a bride on her wedding night, which, oh my God, they're going to have a wedding night. It's actually gonna happen: he's got a fucking engagement ring on his finger. He presses his left hand against the words on the wall, and tiny fairy lights spread out from his hand, and he prays as hard as he can that everything will just hold steady for a few more months, because he really wants this, he doesn't know how to stop wanting it.

When he feels like he can stand to take the ring off, he puts it in his pocket with the letter and jogs home, going straight upstairs to put the letter with the others. He gets to his room and freezes.

There are piles of papers on his bed. He stares at them without understanding for a while, and then he realizes with slow horror that all seven years of Ren's letters are there, and all the unopened letters from Miss Reglan, and the folder of tutoring options, and a stack of drawings and paintings with the picture of Rick and the wren on top, the one that's been in his pillowcase since he was eleven years old.

“Rick,” he hears behind him, and he feels like he's been plunged into icy water. He turns around haltingly, surprised he can even move. His dad doesn't look angry, just stern and cold, which is worse. Rick wonders hysterically if he's about to be disowned for being gay or burned for being a witch.

“Rick,” his dad says again, “I'm so sorry.”

“What?” Rick croaks.

“I know you understand,” he says. “You've failed, son. You haven't just failed me. You've failed the Lord himself.”

“I know,” Rick gets out, overwhelmed by the sudden force of all the guilt he's been avoiding.

“Course you do,” his dad says. He steps forward and lays a hand on Rick's shoulder. “You know when something's not right. You know better.”

Rick stares at him and nods and can't say anything.

All of the righteous certainty vanishes from his dad's face, and he asks pleadingly, “Why'd you do it, Rick?” He looks old, sad, like he's just lost everything he ever wanted. “Didn't I teach you better? Didn't I give you everything I could?” he asks, and he looks like Rick has broken his heart.

“What are you gonna do?” Rick whispers. “Are you going to punish me?”

“No,” his dad says. His grip is tight on Rick's shoulder, and he looks at him with the full weight of his disappointment in his eyes. “What would be the point?”

Rick burns it all. He burns all the art, the beautiful and the experimental and the obscene. He burns Miss Reglan's letters and the option to ever read them. He burns the list of magic tutors. He burns Ren's childhood letters and love letters and letters about the the future and his last letter, the one in his pocket, the last letter from Ren he'll ever read. He even burns the books still undiscovered in the cave. The only thing he keeps is the ring, cold and heavy in his pocket, and he tells himself it's because it probably wouldn't burn.

He finds a wrench on his floor and thinks his father must have found the blue whistling thrush and squeezed the life out of it until it went back to what it used to be. So his dad definitely knows about magic now, and he's definitely read the letters enough to know Ren was more than his best mate, but he doesn't say anything more about any of it, just helps him build the fire and claps him on the back. But Rick can still see the disappointment in his eyes. Ren feels further away all the time, a jagged space in Rick's memory he doesn't touch. It's his dad he has to see every day now, and his dad's face he sees in his dreams, and his dad doesn't say anything or ask anything of him, but he doesn't have to—Rick could have lived with lying to his father, but he can't live with his father knowing just how disgusting he is, he can't do it. His father is perfectly civil, a little distant, because he's given up on Rick becoming a great man, and there's no point to punishing him because he can't be fixed.

Rick is going mad with guilt, and he wants to be better, he's sorry he hurt his dad, he wants to make it up to God. He finds himself at the cave one more time, and he doesn't know why, and then he does. He goes in and spreads his hands over the words on the wall, and thinks, it was mad, it was stupid and evil, he should've been trying to help Ren instead of dragging him down further. He shuts his eyes and pulls all his magic up through his stomach and his throat, and he can feel deep gouges carving their way into the rock under his hands, then filling up again, until the wall is smoother than it was to begin with. He pushes the magic back down and folds it up small and imagines squeezing it tight until it pops and is gone forever. And then he opens his eyes and apologizes to God and goes and enlists in the Army.

*

There's a going-away party in the church parish hall the day before Rick leaves for basic. His mum makes a cake, and Vicar Oddie and his dad give speeches, and practically everyone in the town shakes his hand and tells him he's doing his family proud. He's joking and laughing with everyone, talking about how he's looking forward to making something of himself, shaking their hands firmly, doing his part.

He's surprised to see the Walkers there and wonders if one of his parents invited them specially. They don't come over to talk to him, but Mrs. Walker catches his eye from across the room and gives him a small, sad smile while Jem looks at him like he's scum. He turns away and talks to Vicky Barnes and Gary Kendal, who are dating now and have both really gotten to like him in the last year or so; Vicky rubs at Rick's new military haircut teasingly, and Gary says he's gonna be the scariest son of a bitch the Army's ever seen, and Rick grins at them.

The only moment he slips up is when he's going to get another beer and suddenly comes face to face with Danny, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. Rick's smile falters.

“Gonna get yourself shot, then,” Danny says flatly.

Rick should say something rude, or sneer and walk away, but he hears himself saying simply, “Yes.” There's a flash of—something over Danny's face before it smooths out into hostility again.

“Well, have fun killing people,” he says. “I think you'll be really good at it.”

“Thanks,” Rick says faintly, and he opens his mouth to say he doesn't know what, when he hears his dad's voice beside him saying, “So this is where you've got to, Rick.”

Danny walks off without another word, and his dad asks, “What're you talking to him for?”

“We were just talking,” Rick says, and then in a brief moment of insanity starts to go after him. His father seizes him by the arm.

“You've got nothing to say to him,” he says.

“Yeah, no, just a sec,” Rick says, tugging against his father's grip, and his dad digs in his fingers and pulls him close.

“Stop it,” he hisses in Rick's ear. “You're embarrassing me,” and Rick realizes a few people are looking at them curiously. He stops resisting, and says he's sorry, and then he goes back to talking to people he's supposed to talk to: Dirk Wiggins, who proposed to his girlfriend last week and is settling into a pleasantly dull factory job; Pearl Pinder, who promises him free drinks whenever he's on leave; Maggie Burton, who's knitted him a scarf.

The party ends, and the Macys go home, but just as they're going in, Gavin Elder comes running up to the house, out of breath.

“Hey, Mr. Macy, Mrs. Macy,” he pants. “Sorry I missed the party! Can I say bye to Rick, then?”

Rick catches that look passing briefly across his mum's face: the one that says she's reluctant to let Rick out of her sight however briefly, because she's not sure she'll see him again. But she smiles at Gavin, and Rick's parents go inside, leaving Rick to raise his eyebrows and frown at Gavin in confusion.

“Blimey,” Gavin says. “Look at your hair.” Rick rolls his eyes. “It looks good!” he goes on. “It's just you going off to war and all—we're really growing up now, aren't we.”

“Dunno,” Rick shrugs. “It's been a long time since we were children.”

“Not really so long, I think,” Gavin says. “I feel like I was still a child just last year. But things are changing, you know? I think I've learned a lot of stuff, it's really good.”

“All right,” Rick says, noncommittal.

“Anyway, I got you a present,” Gavin says briskly. He pulls out an old book from his jacket and hands it to Rick: A Shropshire Lad by A.E. Housman.

“Not really into poetry,” Rick says.

“Yeah, you pick up that book every other time you're at my house,” Gavin says, and Rick flushes. “Lots of soldiers in the world wars carried one of those in their pockets, you know. Housman said it was too bad the book was so short, you'd never hear of it stopping any bullets to the heart. But it was quite popular in the Army anyway.”

“Well, it's war poetry, innit,” Rick says.

“Uh-huh,” Gavin says, and Rick wonders when Gavin got so bloody insightful. “Hey, did you hear Milo got a full scholarship to UCL?” he asks cheerily. “His parents are damn proud. And Danny's made it all the way to Oxford, first person from this town in twenty years.”

“That's good,” Rick says. “That'll be a good place for him.”

“Yeah, he'll be all right,” Gavin says. “Just thought you should know if you didn't. And you'd better be all right, too, Rick. No dying, you're not allowed. Don't get maimed neither. You've always been the best of us, don't go screwing it up now.”

Rick snorts and says, “I'm not the best of anything,” and Gavin hugs him—nothing manly about it, a solid warm hug, and Rick would never in his life have believed that Gavin Elder would have seen through him so well, but people do weird shit sometimes, he guesses. Anyway, it's a good hug; and Rick goes ahead and ships out to Afghanistan with a book of flaming queer poetry in his pocket, too thin to stop a bullet.

 

18.

It would be an understatement to say that Rick is shocked when he leans over to open the door of the Jeep for a visiting colonel and Miss Reglan gets in.

“What the fuck,” he says.

“Drive, don't ask questions,” she says, closing the door. She's wearing a uniform and has her hair shoved under a cap.

“Are you seriously fucking with the Army in a war zone?” he asks.

She waves a hand dismissively. “There's no actual colonel you need to escort, and I promise your precious military operations won't be compromised if you take me for a drive.”

“How did you even find me?” he asks, starting the Jeep. “I thought the underage tracking spells wore off.”

“They did,” she says with deep annoyance. “I had to track you down the hard way and illegally access troop deployment records and put on this ridiculous outfit, you're welcome.”

He bites back a grin. “What's your name?” he asks.

“What?”

“I'm eighteen now,” he says. “I reckon I can call you by your first name.”

“Oh,” she says in surprise. “I hadn't realized you didn't know it, but I suppose there's no reason you would. It's Ravenna, Ravenna Reglan.”

“Fucking wizard names,” he says, and she snorts.

“It's a family tradition to name children after cities,” she says haughtily. “Well, my older sister's name was Trish, though, after our mother's mother. But I happen to like my name.”

“It's nice,” Rick agrees. He adds quietly, “It's good to see you, Ravenna.”

“Yeah. It really is,” she says. “What happened, Rick?”

“I joined the Army.”

“Yes, I can see that, but why?”

“You know why,” he snaps, and she scrubs her hands over her face.

“Jesus,” she mutters. After a pause, she asks, “Is it what you wanted it to be? Do you feel like you're doing good work here?”

There's a list of bodies Rick carries in his heart now, and some of them are children, so the only honest answer to that question is, “No.”

“Then why?” she sighs. “You're always so worried about doing the right thing.”

“Nothing I do ever feels like the right thing,” he says in frustration. “But at least this is a real man's work, yeah?”

“No,” she says. “Okay, forget that, do you like the people at least? The military structure?”

“I do,” he says honestly. “It's like a family. Everyone's got my back, and I've got theirs. It's simple.”

“Okay,” she says slowly. “I don't … understand that, but I believe you, so I'm glad you're happy with your colleagues.” She huffs out a laugh that's not really a laugh. “I just wish you'd found a family somewhere I wasn't scared to death for you.”

“It'll be fine,” he says soothingly. He's given this speech to his mum. “I'll drive some Jeeps, keep some peace, and before you know it I'll be back in England a better person for it. I'm doing well here, I'm gonna be fine.”

She doesn't look convinced. “And when you get back to England, then? Will you go back to Roarton?”

He avoids the question. “This was my idea, you know,” he says. “Nobody put me up to it, it was my choice.”

“Rick, if I've learned anything from you, it's that 'choice' is a relative term,” she says. “Did your father find out?”

“Find out what?”

“Any of it.”

“Yeah,” he admits, “all of it.”

“Oh, Rick,” she sighs. After a pause, she asks, “What's the ring?”

His hands clench on the steering wheel. It's too pathetic to tell her the truth: that it's an engagement ring from the boy he left without a word of goodbye, that he tells his buddies he has a girl back home, tells them her name is Ren. Instead he says, “It's better this way.”

“What is?”

“He's better off without me,” Rick explains. “I'm no good for him, I'd've just slowed him down. He's gonna have a brilliant life.”

“Mm,” she says. “Is that how Kieren saw it?”

Rick struggles to get the words out. “I didn't tell him I was leaving,” he says tightly. “I just. Stopped writing to him. I know it's horrible, shit, it's, it's unforgivable, he'll never forgive me for it. But he'll be okay. Whatever shit I did to him, he'll be okay, he's so strong. He'll forget me.” She doesn't say anything. “What, no comment?”

“That shit's fucked up, Rick,” she says matter-of-factly, and he chokes out a startled laugh. “You're not wrong, Rick, you did a bad thing—”

“Way more than one,” he mutters.

“Of course you have,” she says. “That's what people do. But do you really think Kieren's life will be better if you get yourself killed over here?”

“Yes,” Rick says, and he hadn't realized until he said it that that was exactly what he thought, and not just about Ren. There's a long silence, and he quotes softly, “I would die as fits a man.” So quick, so clean an ending, he adds silently.

“Rick, do you...,” Miss Reglan says. “Do you think dying in battle would make up for everything? Get you into heaven, maybe? Is that what you're doing here?”

He tries to be honest with her, with himself, because he's running out of chances to be honest. “I think it's the best option,” he says. “I think it would be easier for everyone to remember me as a hero. I think it would be a lot easier for me. But I'm not gonna do anything, I'm not gonna get myself blown up on purpose. But if it's God's will, you know. It wouldn't be so bad.” It could be nice not to exist anymore, he thinks. Maybe he would get into Heaven after all, if he died a good soldier. He says offhand, “I've killed people, you know, and hurt a lot of people who didn't deserve it, and embarrassed my family. So it's okay. It's probably what I deserve.”

“No,” she says. “No, it isn't. It is not. You deserve to be happy, Rick Macy. I don't care that you think you don't, I don't care who tells you you don't, you absolutely, one hundred percent deserve to find a life in which you are good to people and people are good to you. Your life is not done yet, Rick, you're not going to change my mind on this.”

Rick is embarrassed to find his eyes prickling a little. He shrugs and says, “You've never understood.”

“I know,” she says. “But I love you anyway. So. Hogwarts? Private tutoring?”

“No,” he says. “But. Thanks. Thanks for asking.”

She puts her hand on his shoulder, and he leans into it. “When you get leave, will you come visit me?” she asks. “We don't have to go anywhere magical. We can just hang about in my flat.”

“With your horrible cat?”

“God, his name is Rasputin, did I tell you?”

He laughs, and it comes out a little watery. “Okay,” he says. “Sure. We're mates, after all.”

“That we are,” she says. “So just stay alive until then, yeah?”

“Till then,” he agrees, and then he pulls over and says, “Oh, look, you're gonna like this.” He points to the bank of a stream off the side of the road and fishes out his binoculars. “Here,” he says, handing them to her. “Tell me what you see.”

It takes her a bit, but then she says in wonder, “It's a real one!”

“Yeah,” he says, grinning. “I've seen a bunch of them. Blue whistling thrush, native habitat: apparently Afghanistan.”

“It is, I'd forgotten,” she says. She looks happier than he's ever seen her. “Thank you, Rick,” she says, and he gives her a hug. He wonders why she's never been able to save him when he's gotten to like her so much.

It's a good memory, a happy memory, and in that strange timeless moment he has later in which to think his last thought, it's what comes to mind: a warm, firm hug in a Jeep on a foreign continent. It seems like an odd choice for his mind to make, but the thing about it is that it's untainted—they parted on good terms, he hasn't yet broken her heart. So in that sliver of time after the bomb goes off and before Rick disappears, he remembers hugging his friend who's stuck by him for years. He closes his eyes, and feels happy, and feels loved, and, yes, he thinks to himself, yeah. This isn't so bad.

*

*

*

 

20.

The first thing he sees when he opens his eyes is a woman with an Afro dozing in a chair to the right of the bed he's lying in, looking like absolute shit.

Then he blinks, and it's Miss Reglan—no, Ravenna—that he's looking at, and there's a brief moment of nausea when everything slots into place.

“I remember you,” he says groggily, the English feeling foreign on his tongue. Her eyes snap open, and she draws in a deep, shaky breath.

Rick,” she says, moving to sit on the edge of the bed. She takes his hand. “You remember me? What do you remember?”

“All of it,” he says, and she winces. “Where am I?”

“St. Mungo's Hospital,” she says. “The wizarding hospital. They healed the amnesia, then?”

“You found me?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Yes, Rick. I'm sorry it took so long. It's 2011 now. It's been two years.”

Two years. It was only two years.

“I can see,” he says.

“The Healers cured your blindness,” she says, “but there's some scarring, mostly on your face, that they said your magic … set, somehow, I didn't understand it. Spell damage has unpredictable effects sometimes.”

“Oh,” he says, putting it together. “I Apparated.”

She nods. “There was an explosion,” she says, “and I think you would have died, but you reacted instinctively and tried to Disapparate. I assume you'd read enough about Apparition to understand the basics, but, well.”

“That thing happened,” he says. “That thing with the weird name that happens when you Apparate wrong.”

“Splinching. Yes,” she says. “Magic can't regrow limbs.”

He knows that. He knows that his name is Rick Macy, and he's a wizard, and he was in the British Army in Afghanistan, and there was an explosion, and he doesn't have a left arm or a right leg or eyesight—except he does now, he has to look at things again.

But he's looking at Ravenna now, and that's not so bad, even if she looks like she's going to cry. “Where was I?” he asks.

“Pakistan,” she says. “It's impossible to track magically someone who's Apparated, so it was very hard to find you, and no one believed you were alive. They identified your arm, you see.”

“But you found me,” he says. “You saved me.”

“Rick. You escaped an explosion that should have killed you and survived for two years in a foreign country against astronomical odds,” she says. “I'd say you saved yourself.”

He stares at her. He's had a different name for two years. He did things Rick Macy wouldn't have been strong enough to do.

“I don't think Pakistan counts,” he says.

“I think you're wrong.”

“No,” he says. “No, it was just. A miracle, I guess.”

“Well, then,” she says. “Then God saved you.”

Oh. Maybe, he thinks, testing out the thought. Maybe Rick's life isn't over after all.

Ravenna asks him, “Where do you want to go?”

He frowns. “I have to go home now, don't I?”

“No,” she says. “I haven't informed your parents yet that you're alive. I've been waiting for you. Whether and how they're informed and where you go are your choice. It's always been your choice. Whether you believe it or not.”

“You said you didn't understand what choices were anymore.”

“I don't,” she says. “This is what I want them to be. This is what I've always wanted for you.”

He was so close, he remembers. He was going to run away and get married. “Have you told Ren?” he asks.

Silence. Rick feels a cold terror creeping up inside him.

“I'm sorry, Rick,” she begins, and he flinches. “Not long after your death, he disappeared into the Forbidden Forest. No one could find him anywhere. He's presumed dead.”

“They didn't find a body, though?” Rick says.

“There's strong evidence that he didn't survive,” she says. “I wouldn't hold onto false hope.”

Rick says blankly, “He was supposed to take me with him.”

“I know, love,” she says, and Rick bursts into tears.

Ravenna hauls him upright, and he wraps his arm around her and sobs into her shoulder, a lifetime of tears unbottled all at once, because Kieren Walker is dead, and Rick Macy was dead, too, and now he has to make choices and look at people and live without Ren all over again. Ravenna holds him tight and strokes his hair and whispers soothing things like his mother used to, and Rick finally cries and cries, and Ravenna is crying, too.

Eventually his tears run dry, and his throat is quiet and aching, and he feels drained, completely wrung out, in a way he's not sure he's ever felt before. He takes a few more minutes just to cling to Ravenna, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth, and when he's sure he's calm enough, he pulls away and asks, “Can I have a mirror?”

She hesitates. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” he says.

She pulls out her wand and looks around. “Is the wall all right, or is it too far away?”

“Wall's good,” he says. She moves her wand in a spiral motion and murmurs, “Reflectio,” and the wall shimmers and then shows him himself.

Hello, Rick, he thinks at his reflection. It's not anything he didn't expect, but he's surprised to see how strong his face looks, how grown-up, even with his tears and puffy eyes. The scar on his left cheek is a vivid red, strange and serpentine. He flips the covers off his leg and looks at its strong muscles and the vacant space next to it, matching diagonally his arm and non-arm—striking enough to be worthy of a painting, really.

It's funny, he notes, that even now he can remember, he can't really think of himself as having had a left arm and a right leg. He dreams sometimes of a tall slender body curled up against him, of soft fine hair and long fingers and delicate bones, but his body is always just the same in those dreams; he assumed it was what he'd always been like.

“I'm sorry,” Ravenna whispers, and he sees her reflection wiping at her tears. She pities him, he realizes, but she doesn't understand.

“No, it's okay,” he says. “It looks like me. It really does.”

He takes a deep breath then and thinks about the other dreams he has and says, “I don't want to see him again.”

Ravenna's eyes widen. “Really?”

“If I see him, I don't think I can leave,” he says urgently. “But I haven't seen him. And he hurt me. He made me hurt Ren. I don't, I don't think he loves me.”

“Okay; okay, Rick,” she says. “Can I take you to my flat, can we work out what to do from there?”

He should have just listened ages ago, and then Ren would still be alive and Rick wouldn't have hurt people and killed people and lost so many pieces of himself. But he didn't. He didn't. And it's too late for it to matter, but. He can say yes right now. So he might as well.

“Okay,” he says, exhausted. “Okay. I want to go.”