Niv's first memories are mostly feelings, sensations he can remember if he really tries to focus.
The first memory is always his mom, singing something sweet and low, holding him close to her chest. If he closes his eyes, Niv can almost feel her warmth and the way she was smiling against his cheek. The way she used to hold him close, the way she used to braid his hair.
He remembers gentle hands, kind words, quick fingers. He remembers almost falling asleep during the process, remembers lots of different hairstyles, and a lot of time spent in the bathroom.
If he tries really, really hard, he can almost remember his mom's voice, and how she used to tell him that was their special time together.
When he doesn't try, Niv remembers his father.
It gets better with time, but for the first few months, he can't stop hearing his father's voice in his head, no matter how hard he tries.
He does his best to drown out the noises he wants to forget - raised voices and mean words -, but they always come back when he thinks he's done it.
There's a part of him that never stops fearing he'll eventually forget his mom's voice. He does his best for that not to happen, too, and while he does everything to forget his father, he holds on tightly to everything that can remind him of his mom.
They can call it group home as much as they want, but it’s still an orphanage for problematic kids. That’s just what it is, no need to beat around the bush that much.
Niv learns that the first day they bring him there.
For the first weeks, after his father left, Niv really thought he had a chance at something vaguely close to a family. A home. He met a lot of different social workers, a lot of different families, a lot of different parents.
He did his absolute best to look and be like a perfect kid, to hide the fear eating him from inside - because how can you really expect someone else to want you when not even your own father wanted you?
Niv did his best, looked his best, behaved at his best. Tried his best not to do anything weird or unusual, the things that the other kids - the ones that got to go home with someone - didn't do.
It didn't really matter.
It was something about his face, something about his hair, something about the color of his skin, something about his age - not quite as young as a lot of the wannabe parents wanted him to be. Something about his look.
Niv doesn't know what that something is.
He figures it has to be the same reason why his dad left.
He gets shuffled from home to home, from reluctant foster parents to reluctant social workers. Nobody seems to want him. Niv spends his time wondering what's wrong with him, what exactly is the reason he seems to be the only kid in the whole world no one wants.
When he gets to the group home, Niv understands he isn't at all the only one.
One of the nicest social workers tries to explain to him that there's nothing wrong with him, that it's just that he has some special needs, that he is a special kid.
Niv knows better than to hope he's special.
He learns soon enough that special really means weird.
That a lot of the families that hosted him in the past months think there's something weird going on with him. Niv doesn't really understand what they think it's wrong with him and if it's again something that has to do with the way he looks or with something entirely different.
(Or maybe that's just it. Maybe the thing that's wrong with him it's the fact that he never seems to understand anything. Maybe he's just stupid, like his father used to yell when he was angry or frustrated or tired. Niv remembers his mom yelling back at his father, defending her son, but maybe she was just nice. Maybe he's truly just stupid.)
The group home isn't a nice place, and it definitely doesn't feel like a home.
Not one of the kids there looks happy - and Niv can't really blame them. They're all different kinds of problematic, like they usually hear social workers whisper here and there when they think they can't hear.
They lash out at one another, and once again Niv can't really blame them.
He spends four months on his own, barely talking to the others, because he found out they're gonna pick on him no matter what he does, especially the older kids, and he'd rather not give them any reason at all.
He hides away as much as he can, steals one or two of the few books in the house, and hides under the stairs to read them. He still tries not to do anything unusual, but sometimes - especially when he's sad, or tired, or angry - it's hard. Really hard.
But he tries his best, still believes maybe he'll get his happy ending, that maybe this is just another short and ugly moment in his short and ugly life.
(Niv dreams of his mom, of her kind eyes and her kind smile and her kind words. Niv dreams of the only nice thing he ever had, the one nice thing he doesn't have anymore and never will have again. Niv dreams of his father, too, but those are mostly nightmares.)
It never happens.
Something else happens along the way, something that makes life a little more bearable: another kid gets to the group home, making Niv realize exactly why they think they're problematic.
Nils is angry, angrier than anybody Niv has ever met before.
He fights, tooth and nails, with anybody that tries to pick on him; and even though he's way smaller than most of the other kids, way smaller than Niv, he manages to defend himself.
Nils also seems oddly interested in him, and Niv doesn't really want to know why: if it's just because he wants to lash out at someone else or if it's because Niv is weird and stupid. He does his best to hide like he usually does, but Nils has a way to find him every single time.
"You can do it too," Nils corners him one day when Niv doesn't manage to hide well enough.
"Do what?" Niv asks, doing his best to sound confused. He is, a little bit, because he's not completely sure what the other kid means, or why he's so particularly bent on talking with him. But there's a small part of him that understands perfectly well what Nils is asking.
"You know what."
"No, I don't."
"You know," Nils shoves him a bit more gently than he could, and then leans closer, almost like they're talking about something secret.
Niv supposes they are, in a way.
"No, I told you I don't," he repeats once again, because he's learned that's the best course of action. Because he's still not completely sure this is not something... something else. Something that could possibly land him in a place worse than the one he's already in.
"You can do magic. I know you can, I saw you the other day."
Niv shakes his head and tries to look away, but he knows what Nils means and he knows exactly what happened that other day. He didn't do it on purpose, he didn't, he really didn't.
He always does his best to keep everything hidden deep inside, to avoid doing anything he shouldn't be able to do... but sometimes it's hard. Sometimes he gets really angry, or really scared, or really sad, and then things... things just happen.
Niv doesn't know why it happens, doesn't know if there's a way to stop that. The only thing he knows is that this is just another thing that sets him apart from the others, just another thing that marks him as weird. As someone who nobody would ever want.
And yet Nils is right here, right in front of him, and he's talking about the Thing like he knows what that is or why that happens. For a brief second, Niv feels hope again.
"How- how do you know it's magic?"
"Well, what else could it be?"
"I... I don't know."
"You didn't know you could do magic?" Nils looks shocked enough that Niv begins to wonder if that's just some sort of common knowledge he didn't know of.
"I don't know," he replies again, at a loss of what he should or shouldn't say.
Nils doesn't talk for a while, still hunched over and somehow balancing on his heels. He looks a bit confused, and a bit lost in thoughts. When he finally talks again, Niv lets out the breath he didn't know he was holding.
"So, you can do stuff. Like, weird stuff. But you don't know why you can. And you never met anyone else who could do those things?"
Niv thinks of his mom, beautiful and strong, with her own kind of magic. Niv thinks of his father, always angry and distant, away from home for the majority of the time. He knows for sure his mom would never have hidden something like that from him.
He knows nothing about his father, other than mean words and mean looks.
"I don't know."
"Okay, that's fine. It's fine, it's cool, I can tell you things!" Nils looks almost excited, for the first time in the whole conversation, and for once Niv doesn't have the feeling he'd just like to run away and be alone forever.
"What kind of things?"
Nils tells him about things. A great deal of them.
Nils tells him about wizards and witches and magic, tells him about spells and potions and schools made for their kind, tells him about magical creatures and a whole other world so close to them Niv can almost touch it.
As time passes, Niv starts to remember things. It's like a dam opened, after that first talk with Nils, it's like a river flowing inside of him and never, ever stopping.
He doesn't really want to remember things about his father, and yet he does. And at the same time he doesn't want to stop remembering, because those things can help him understand his mom better, can help him understand his own life better.
Niv asks Nils what exactly a Squib is, and he gets back a description of someone who definitely looks like his mom. He remembers that word being tossed around in angry whispers, and he thinks he understands things a bit better now.
There are days when he thinks he'd rather not.
But the newfound knowledge that the exact thing that made him weird is really something special, is enough to make him feel a little bit better.
That's probably why, when things just started to get better, everything gets even worse than before.
The group home has never been a nice place to live. It's a sad, grey place, without colors and happiness, and it gets even worse when the old supervisor leaves and gets replaced by someone who is apparently even less happy to be there.
Niv does, as always, his best to make himself smaller and disappear, to avoid creating any kind of trouble.
Niv can understand why, really, he can. Nils told him about his father, someone who makes Niv's father look like the best dad in the world, and this new supervisor has more than a few similarities. He likes to yell. A lot. Sometimes he glances at a few of the kids with looks he really, really shouldn't have.
(Niv isn't particularly bothered by raised voice. He's used to silence, to those silent looks that say why are you even talking to me? A raised voice is still a voice, and luckily enough, he's not on the receiving end of the looks.)
Not all the other kids react like this, there are a lot of them who really don't like to be yelled at. Niv does his best to help if he can because they're already in a bad place and if there's anything he can do to make it slightly better, well... he'll do it.
The supervisor seems to take a direct interest in Nils, and things get even worse from that point on, until the day Nils just... run away.
The whole world collapses once again on Niv's shoulders, for the third time in his brief life. His mom died, his father left, and now the only person who he felt he could count on ran away.
Niv gets it, really. He does. He's not angry, he's not mad.
He's come to a point when he understands they have to do anything they can to survive. It all comes down to that, to survive long enough to get out of that place and then... survive in some other way.
Niv has abandoned the hope for some kind of family a long time ago. He doesn't really know what's going to happen to him, even if he manages to survive more years in the group home.
Nils has told him about some kind of schools, for people like them, but as time goes by Niv starts to think maybe he's not really one of them.
Maybe it was all a dream, maybe it was a prank of some kind, maybe they won't take him because his mom wasn't magical, and he isn't good enough.
Niv has been in the group home for a year and a half, the first time he decides to run away.
The first time he does it, he doesn't really know what he's doing. It's a sloppy attempt, he doesn't know where to go or how to hide, and to be fair he doesn't even know what he's trying to do other than get away from that place. They take him back after two days.
Things get way worse, after that.
So Niv runs away another time, after a few more months, and he manages to stay hidden for a few days longer than the first time. The third time he makes it almost to an entire week.
The fourth time is the one, he can feel it, the fourth time he'll manage to hide away long enough that they'll lose interest and let him be. Maybe he'll find Nils, somewhere out there, maybe for once things will go as they should go.
Niv makes it to Glasgow, and then almost makes it to Inverness. Which is already dumb as it is, because where did he think he was going? Where was he going to go, after that?
It doesn't really matter, because some kind of gruff retired policeman sees right through him and tries to do the right thing.
Doesn't matter that the right thing isn't really the right thing.
Drest, this is the name of the old man, talks with the group home supervisor, and then offers to take Niv home. Niv does his best to slip away unnoticed, but the old man is weirdly good at not letting him out of his sight, and he never has the chance to do that.
The ride home is long and silent.
Niv is already planning the fifth escape, even if he's starting to lose hope. At this point, he's starting to think this is mostly useless. It gives him a few days of respite, but then? Things get always worse when he comes back, and he has the feeling this won't ever change.
So, honestly, really, it's not his fault if he accidentally sets fire to the side mirror.
(Or if he tries to run away when they pull over to check on the damage. He does. It’s another failed attempt.)
Drest starts looking at him in a funny way, after that particular accident. It doesn’t feel dangerous, so Niv doesn’t pay that much attention to the old man’s glances, but he definitely feels them.
He doesn’t even try to come up with an explanation for the side mirror. In his experience giving explanations is never, ever a good idea.
It’s always better to pretend he doesn’t have the slightest idea what’s going on, otherwise they just start wondering if he had anything to do with what just happened, and that’s how you end up being the weird kid in five different foster families.
When they get back to the group home, Drest goes straight to talk with the supervisor - and Niv is almost glad, for a little while, because this means he'll be left alone for a bit.
He's a lot less glad when Drest comes back, after two more weeks, just to see him.
Niv tries to ask him why, but he doesn't get an answer. The only thing he gets is a poignant look, which he obviously doesn't know how to interpret, and a few minutes of silence.
After a while, Drest asks him if he's okay and if he's doing fine there.
Niv doesn't answer because it somehow feels like a trap, it feels like something is going to happen the minute he opens his mouth to say anything.
So he just nods, and Drest leaves after a while, unconvinced but still silent.
Niv ends up locked in the basement for an entire day and gets told he's never going to be adopted if he keeps running away. He snorts when the supervisor tries to use this particular threat to make him stay. Yeah, like he's ever going to be adopted either way.
(That earns him another full day of punishment.)
Niv knows he can't run away so soon again. He needs to wait a bit, to give the impression he's learned his lesson, to give the impression he doesn't want to do that again. And it needs to be more than a few days since he's already done it a few times.
Niv waits, but he never gets the right occasion because somehow, for some weird reason, Drest comes back again.
"Why do you do this?" Niv asks again, and again and again because Drest comes back a few other times and Niv still doesn't understand why.
It takes a while, but eventually, Drest gives him an answer.
It happens a few days after a particularly bad moment, an awful aligning of the stars that has a few of the older kids taking their anger out on someone, Niv deciding to intervene, and the supervisor finding out. Weirdly enough, Niv finds himself in the basement once again.
He's painstakingly waiting for the end of the punishment, without really knowing when this end will come, when the door of the basement opens and Drest makes his appearance.
"Let's go," he growls with a scary look in his eyes, but Niv's experience with danger tells him he doesn't have to be afraid.
So he follows, even if he doesn't know what's going to happen, even if he doesn't know why Drest is taking him to grab the few things he has and out of the group home. He follows because he reasons things can't get much worse than they already are.
Drest growls something menacing to the supervisor, flashing some kind of badge Niv doesn't even try to recognize, and then leads him to his car - which, by the way, has a brand new side mirror.
"Where are we going?"
"Away from here."
And that is completely fine by Niv.
Drest pulls over when they're far enough from the group home, almost twenty minutes later. He stops the car at the side of the road, lets out a tired sigh, and then turns to look at Niv.
"I'm sorry for all of this," Drest apologizes, and Niv doesn't have the slightest idea why, or what's going on. He doesn't talk, because he doesn't want to go back to the group home just yet, and he's afraid anything he might say will led to that exact outcome.
"You must be wondering what's going on," Drest sighs, resting his hands against the steering wheel, but Niv still doesn't answer.
The silence hangs heavy in the car.
"I know you can do magic," Drest blurts out, eventually, and Niv immediately tenses up, ready to deny or to just give some kind of excuse to save himself from whatever is going to happen in the next few minutes.
"Don't try it with me, kid, I'm a wizard too."
There's another moment of silence, this time a stunned one, while Niv tries to process what he just heard. Or the fact that, if the old man isn't lying, he's talking with the first adult who knows how to do magic for the first time since... well, since his father left.
"I know what happened to you. I asked that fucke- the group home's supervisor, and he looked into your papers, and I did some researches. I know your father is a wizard and your mother..."
"My mom is dead. I don't want to hear about what else she was."
Drest sighs, and then nods.
"This whole system is fucked up, young wizards and witches shouldn't be left in group homes without supervision."
"We had supervision."
"Magical supervision. You could've hurt yourself. Could've hurt someone else," Drest sighs again and looks like he's about to add something else to those words. He doesn't, in the end, and Niv is left wondering what he really wanted to say.
"What I'm trying to say is... I don't think it's right for you to be there, in that place. It's not right for anybody, to be honest, but you? I can do something to help you."
"Why would you?" Niv asks bluntly because that's something he's been asking himself for quite some time, lately. "Why would you want to help me?"
"Do you want some bullshit like I think it's the right thing to do? Or do you want the truth?"
"Well, I don't know. I don't. I saw you when you ran away, and I thought I was going to do the right thing and get you back to where you belong. And when I saw that place..." Drest looks away, hands tight around the steering wheel. "It's not right."
"A lot of things aren't right."
They both remain silent, after that, Drest still looking out of the front window, and Niv still looking at his own hands. It's not necessarily a bad silence, it doesn't feel tense, nor dangerous in any way. Niv would love for it to end, though, if only because he's still not sure what is going on.
"I have a few... connections. I have a pretty good idea who your father could be, and I could find him if you-"
"No!" Niv blurts out, a little louder than he'd like. The mere idea of seeing his father again makes him want to curl up on the ground and cry. And it's not like his father is ever going to want him back, so even if Niv wanted to find him... well. It wouldn't end well.
"No? You don't want to find your dad?"
"He didn't like my mom," Niv murmurs, eyes fixed on his fidgeting hands. "He definitely didn't like me."
"Well," Drest sighs again. "Sounds like a daft bastard. "
For a whole minute, Niv thinks this must be it, this must be the moment where he gets hauled back to the group home. Then Drest looks at him and offers a small smile.
"You can come with me. We can try, at least, but I promise you if at any point you don't feel comfortable, I can talk to a few of my friends and find you a new place to stay. Well, up until the moment you'll have to go to Hogwarts."
Niv has absolutely no idea what the heck a Hogwarts is, but that doesn't stop his heart from beating way too fast.
"You want me to stay?"
"Well, I want you to-"
"You won't send me back?"
"To the group home? Absolutely not. I told you, I won't force you to stay with me, I understand that you might be uncomfortable. We'll see what happens if that's okay with you."
Niv simply nods, because he has no idea how to explain the fact that almost anything else would be better than the group home.
He's still uncertain, obviously, because he has seen Drest just a few times, and maybe he wants to hurt him in some kind of way Niv doesn't really want to think about. He figures it's still better than the group home.
He can always try to run away.
It turns out not all men suck. It turns out not all of them want something in exchange and it turns out not all of them want to hurt kids.
Or maybe it's just Drest.
(Niv doesn't care, Drest is more than enough.)
He seems more than happy to genuinely care for Niv, without wanting anything in return. Niv is still cautious, but as time goes by, he starts really believing Drest means him no harm.
They live in a shitty apartment in Glasgow for a while, and Niv has never felt better in years.
After the first three months, Drest gets him a record player.
(He must have seen the reverent way Niv handles the content of the small and crumpled cardboard box, which holds the few things he got from his home. Things that were his mom's. He must have seen the way Niv looks at the LP record he never, ever got to play.)
Niv doesn't even know how that works, so Drest helps him set it up, and for the first time in his whole life, Niv gets to listen to the one thing he still has from his mother.
(He still keeps her small beaded necklace in there, up until the moment he understands Drest won't yell at him for wanting to wear that.)
"You wanna know a funny thing?" Drest asks him, while they're lying on the floor and listening to the very last song of the album. "I like Diana Ross, too. Your mum must have had really good taste in music."
It's a day full of first times: Niv hears someone say something nice about his mom for the first time in years, and it's a damn good feeling.
Six months later, Drest comes back home with a dangerous smile and asks Niv if he'd like to do something with his hair.
Niv isn't sure what exactly is going to happen, but he figures it can't be worse than the nest of unruly hair he has on his head right now.
Turns out Drest has asked for advice from a specific part of his family - which seems to be a big ass family - and has spent the last few months trying to learn how to deal with Niv's hair.
He does a good job of it, with strong but gentle hands. He's hesitant, at first, but he understands what he needs to do fairly quickly, and Niv ends up with a head full of beautiful braids.
It's the first time in years someone braids his hair. It's the first time in years Niv looks in the mirror and almost likes what he sees.
It almost looks like something his mom could've done.
(Niv starts crying in the middle of the bathroom, but Drest is right there to hold him.)
A few months later, they move to Killarney. After a year and a half, Niv begins to think maybe he won't get sent back to the group home.
Maybe he has finally found his family.