“Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three. Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one.”
– Sandra Cisneros, from Eleven
See, Gemma’s been growing a little seed she found in an apple. She put it in a pot and carefully put earth over it and watered it every day until there was a tiny green thing coming out of the earth. And when it happened she squealed and smiled and told everyone she’d plant it in the backyard when it was big enough and eat its apples and maybe put a swing on it. Harry liked the little thing just fine, even if he didn’t see much point to sitting and waiting around until it got big. Lots more interesting things to do in the meantime.
But now– but now they’ve just come back from a weekend trip to his Aunt Lydia’s and back in Holmes Chapel it’s properly cold, the kind of cold that’d made Harry’s nose and the tips of his fingers pink when he stepped out of the car. And now they’re in the kitchen and it’s much colder than Harry remembers it being before and Gemma’s clutching at the pot that was on the windowsill and crying.
Mum sees her and rushes to her. She looks into the pot and her face does something quick and sad. “Oh, darling,” she says, and holds Gemma close, letting her sniffle into her jumper and mumble things that Harry can’t make out.
He walks up to them and tries to peer into the pot. “Can I see?” he says. Gemma ignores him. Maybe she hasn’t heard. “What’s wrong?” he says, louder this time. Gemma cries harder.
He meets his mum’s eyes instead. She looks more tired than she usually does. “Gem’s plant died, baby,” she says, softly. Harry feels like his tummy’s suddenly heavy.
He frowns. He doesn’t understand. “But, but she’s been giving it water every day! And it had lots of light too, didn’t it?” He looks at Gemma and pats her elbow. “Maybe if you give it more water it won’t be dead anymore.”
Gemma shakes her head from where it’s buried in Mum’s jumper. Harry opens his mouth, wants to ask why, but Mum says, “It doesn’t work like that, Harry.”
Harry furrows his eyebrows. “Can I see?” he asks again. He doesn’t remember ever seeing a dead plant before. He reaches up and tugs the brown pot from where it’s squished between Gemma and Mum and peers into it curiously. It doesn’t look all that different, but Harry thinks he understands, because before it was green but now it just looks slumped and… sad.
Harry looks up at Gemma and sees her still sniffling, grabbing at Mum’s jumper with closed fists. He looks down at the plant again, and feels bad for not caring about it before. It was pretty, and it made Gemma happy, even if it took ages to grow. He wishes– he doesn’t know what he wishes, not really. He wants to make it better. He wants to give back to the plant the thing it had to make it not look dead. He prods it gently with a finger and wants.
And then suddenly the cold Harry was feeling is gone, and there’s a warmth that feels soft and glowing, like watching a fire. He hears himself breathing but it’s really loud, almost like he’s covering his ears, and then– and then, so slowly, the plant begins to curl upwards and turn green again, only this time it’s a green that’s dark and wonderful. Harry can hear his heart, boom boom boom in his ears and his chest. The plant twists, and its stem grows taller and taller, and suddenly, slowly, something at the tip of it changes and a flower opens up, its petals spreading out in brilliant red. More flowers bloom along the stem, opening into the light. Harry remembers what he’s been told at school and wonders if by touching the plant he made spring happen.
Because he made this happen. He knows it.
His heart isn’t so loud anymore. The flowers have stopped appearing. He tugs on Gemma’s sleeve. “Gem,” he says. “Gem, look.”
Gemma looks. Her mouth opens but she says nothing. Harry feels uneasy suddenly. He looks at Mum, and she’s already looking at him. For a second, Harry gets the distinct impression that he’s done something terribly, terribly wrong, and he feels his eyes get itchy with sudden tears. But then his mum is letting go of Gemma and picking him up like she only does sometimes now. “Harry,” she whispers into his hair, “Harry, my wonderful, wonderful boy,” and that’s all he needs to feel okay again, really.
Harry doesn’t make anything else happen, and his mum doesn’t say anything else about it, so he thinks it’s okay, he hasn’t done anything wrong, and puts it out of his mind soon enough. But one day she starts taking him to see a lady that says she’s not a doctor but looks like one, and she does things that doctors do too, at first. She measures his height and weight and foot size and uses her instruments to look into his eyes and ears and mouth, and then she tells him to do things like draw his mum and his sister and a family made up of animals. Then she asks him a lot of questions. Some of them he knows from school, but others he has to think about and even then he’s not sure he’s answered right.
He goes two times every week after school, and eventually she starts asking him to do different things. She gives him things to draw and to build and to dress up in, and once she gives him Legos and walks out of the room and doesn’t come back until it’s time for him to go. And she tells him to lie down and close his eyes and think of things like a garden, or a river, or being underwater, only she speaks like she’s telling a story, a story that he makes inside his head; and every time he opens his eyes again he has a strange tingly feeling at the tips of his fingers and toes. Until one day she tells him to imagine he’s flying and he hears his heartbeat everywhere, just like when he did that thing to Gemma’s plant. And when he opens his eyes he feels strange all over, and after a second he realizes it’s because he’s floating two inches above the carpet he was lying on.
The lady smiles the brightest smile Harry’s ever seen on her face.
His mum comes to his next visit after that. It’s nothing like the rest of them; there’s no games, no Lego, no lying down, and the lady says hi to him very nicely but talks to his mum the rest of the time. Harry sits on his chair and listens for a bit, something about how he does really show an aptitude for it and we’ve got some books and leaflets here if you’d like to take a look and specific schools with special programmes if you’re interested. He gets bored after a while, though, because even though he’s usually really good at sitting in his seat or criss cross applesauce all through class there aren’t any funny pictures to look at and the doctor isn’t even talking to him and it’s boring. He starts to fidget, slides down out of his chair and hopes his mum’s too busy talking to the lady to notice, and then starts to investigate the room. He looks at his mum once or twice, keeping a wary eye, and one time she notices what he’s doing and looks like she’s going to tell him off but the lady tells her something quietly and she leaves it be. It’s strange, but Harry’s not going to question his luck.
They don’t come back after that. Harry doesn’t ask why, but he misses it, sort of. He has his own toys, but he liked the bit where he imagined things. He especially liked it when he made himself fly. He’ll have to try that again.
“Did you hurt him?” she says, tone a little strict.
Harry fidgets. This feels like a telling-off. “Only a little,” he says, and watching his mum’s face grow stern, he adds defensively, “He was breaking my pencils!”
“Harry,” his mum says seriously. “When is hurting people ever okay?”
Harry blinks, then hangs his head. “Sorry,” he mumbles. “I didn’t do it on purpose.” He sneaks a look up and his mum’s eyes are softer, like she’s forgiven him. He breathes out, relieved.
Gemma, though, looks strangely excited. “Did you really do that? Can you show me how?” Her eyes are bright.
Harry shrugs, something he’s seen her do, but feels pleased all the same. “It’s easy. If someone’s annoying you you look at them and you just do it.” He sneaks a guilty glance at his mum, and adds hastily, “But you shouldn’t because hurting people is bad.”
Gemma, though, is frowning. Harry wonders why. He quite likes impressing her. “Mum, can Harry do magic?” she asks. He feels a jolt at that, and looks at his mum too, waiting for her to explain.
His mum hesitates. Strange. “It’s not like that, Gems,” she says eventually. “He can just do things that we can’t. It’s how he was born.” Gemma looks like she’s going to protest, and Harry has a burning need to ask questions, too, because how does she know all this? But his mum looks at both of them and says, “We’ll talk about this later, okay?”
Gemma frowns, but she mumbles, “Fine,” so Harry does too. They finish dinner, though, and soon enough they’re getting ready for bed, and his mum might have talked to Gemma while he wasn’t looking but later comes and she still hasn’t explained anything at all.
Every night, Harry’s mum pulls up his blankets, tucks him in and then sits on the edge of his bed and tells him a story. Gemma says she’s too old for stories now and goes to her room and reads a book instead, but Harry loves it, never wants the story to stop. But– as much as he loves the stories, he has to ask his mum this first, because he’s been wondering about it ever since Gemma said it and he can’t go any longer without knowing.
Magic. He’s never even thought about it like that. Magic would be the coolest thing ever.
His mum sighs and strokes a hand through his hair. The yellow light from his bedside table lights up her face and it feels nice, safe. “Ah, Hazza,” she says. “I think I should have told you about this before. I'm going to explain something to you, okay, baby?” Harry nods, the covers hitched up to his chin. “Remember the lady I took you to see?”
“The doctor?” Harry asks.
His mum smiles. “She wasn’t a doctor, but yes. Remember the questions she asked you, the things she told you to do?” Harry nods again, even though he wonders how his mum knows about that if she wasn’t there. “Well, she wanted to find out some things about you. She wanted to find out if you could do certain things, things most people can’t. Turns out, you can.”
“Magic,” Harry whispers, hardly daring to believe it.
His mum’s smile grows. “Not magic, Hazza, not really. It works in a very specific way.” Her hand keeps on stroking his hair, slow, reassuring. “It only happens when you really want something. When you do, you can sometimes change things, make them closer to how you want them to be. But you can’t control it, not really – the only way to control it is to learn to control what you want.”
Harry snuggles further into the blankets and feels so warm, down to the tips of his toes. “So it is like magic,” he says. His face is smiling even though he can’t remember making himself smile.
His mum laughs. “Maybe it is, Harry, maybe it is.”
“And can– can a lot of other people do it too?” He squirms from the excitement. Maybe he can get to be in some sort of club with these other magic people. Maybe he gets to use his powers to become a real live superhero.
His mum’s smile falters a bit. “Not really– I don’t know how many people there are, love. We can find out, if you want. See if there’s anyone your age around here. Would you like that?”
“Yes,” he says honestly. He thinks for a bit, and then, “Does that mean there’s no one who can do magic at school, then?”
“I talked to the school,” she says, “and I think there’s one girl in Year Five who’s like you. You can talk to her if you like, you know that?” Harry fidgets, because he’s never talked to anyone in Year Five in his entire life. They’re even older than Gemma. “The school mentioned there are some special classes she takes, too. Maybe try that out and see what it’s like.”
Harry nods in silence. He can’t– he can’t say anything right now, he’s so busy thinking about it all. He has powers. He has actual powers. And all he has to do is learn how to use them and he’ll be able to do anything he wants! A thought occurs, then, and he says excitedly, “Can I tell everyone at school?”
He wasn’t expecting the smile to drop off his mum’s face like it does. “I don’t think that’d be a good idea, love.” She takes one look at his face, and then adds, “You can tell your friends, okay? But maybe– I don’t think it’s a good idea to announce it, baby. Tell people you trust, and you’ll be fine.”
Harry feels disappointment swell inside him, cold and horrible, the thought of impressing everyone with his magic dropping from his mind. “But why?”
His mum sighs, and her voice is softer when she speaks again. “People don’t like things that are different, Hazza. They don’t like people who are different. Especially when they might be afraid of those people, too.” His mum looks straight at him now, and her face is serious. “And that’s why you should never, ever do what you did today, Harry. You have something special. Never use it to hurt people. Do you understand?”
Harry nods, although he doesn’t, not really, especially the part about people being scared of him. But he doesn’t dwell on it. Instead, he hugs his mum around the neck and lets her kiss him on the forehead and tuck him up snugly, and when she turns the light off and leaves the room with a whispered, “Goodnight, Hazza,” feels nothing but sleepy, and warm, and safe.
David looks at him. “What?”
“I can do magic.” He feels himself smile at that, big as anything.
He’s pleased to see David’s eyes widen. “Really?” Harry nods seriously. “Prove it.”
Harry falters for a second. He wasn’t expecting David to ask that. But it’s okay, really, because he can do magic to get the things he wants, right? So all he has to do is concentrate on wanting something. He looks around and spots a girl called Lucy who has very yellow hair. He frowns and concentrates on turning it purple. Nothing happens.
David looks at him. He doesn’t look impressed. “I knew it wasn’t true,” he says, and runs over to the football pitch without looking back at Harry. Harry blinks, confused, and says nothing. Maybe he’ll keep quiet like his mum said after all.
Or it doesn’t at first. Harry eventually stops trying to impress people with his magic, because it’s just not working. He can’t do it, and no one believes him, and some people even laugh at him. He’s thinking of telling his mum that maybe the doctor got it wrong when one morning he sees a dead squirrel by the side of the road when his mum’s walking him and Gemma to school and before he knows it he’s turned it into at least ten miniature squirrels who scamper off and leave nothing behind. Gemma gasps, his mum smiles, and Harry thinks that he maybe can do magic after all.
Weeks pass, and the air starts getting warmer, and Harry eventually figures it out, the knowledge growing like it was part of him all along.
There are a lot of things he wants. When they pass an ice-cream cart and his mum refuses to get him one, when he goes to his friend Sam’s and plays with her dogs all afternoon and wants one of his own, when they go shopping for his cousin’s birthday present and he wants a Nintendo game too – when all of this happens, he squeezes his eyes shut and wishes. But when he opens them again everything’s the same as it was. Still no ice cream. Still no game. Still no dog.
He cries a bit the first few times. What good is magic if he can’t even use it? It doesn’t seem fair. But even though he wants those things desperately, he forgets about them soon enough, and when he wakes up the next morning he can’t remember if there was anything he wanted at all.
The other kind of wanting is different.
It doesn’t happen all the time. It doesn’t even happen often, and when it does it’s for seemingly unimportant reasons, reasons that a lot of the time he can’t even explain himself. But when it does… when it does he knows instantly because he gets so focused suddenly, and then he feels hot down to his toes, and then he makes things change. And even when he can’t explain what he wished for, he looks at what he’s done and feels happy, and calm, and good.
He has magic. He knows that now. He can do anything, even if he can’t choose what he does with it, even if he can’t tell anyone, even if he’s the only one.
“Did you make it snow?” he asks.
“Yes,” Harry says immediately, because he actually feels quite proud of it.
David looks at him for a moment and blinks. “All those other times, too?”
“Yes,” Harry says again. He wonders excitedly if David will believe him this time.
“That’s so cool!” David says. “Can you show me how?”
By the time Harry’s mum comes to pick him up, six different people have come up to ask him if he really can do magic. Harry’s feeling very pleased with himself. When he sees his mum, though, he remembers what she’d told him, what she’d said about not telling people, and he feels guilty and scared for a second before he remembers he’s done nothing to make people afraid of him. He’ll be okay.
His mum takes him and Gemma to visit her in the hospital. Harry hasn’t been to many hospitals before: he wonders if they’re all so clean, if the light is this white in all of them. He and Gemma kiss his grandmother’s cheek and she smiles at them both and squeezes their hands tight. Harry smiles back even though he feels uneasy and has decided he doesn’t want to be here at all.
When he gets home, he asks his mum, “Is Gran going to die?”
He’s old enough now to know from the look on his mum’s face that he maybe shouldn’t have asked that question. But she sits next to him in one of the kitchen chairs, dinner temporarily forgotten, and looks him in the eye. “Maybe. We don’t know. The doctors don’t know yet.”
Harry keeps on asking, even though he knows he shouldn’t. “What’s wrong with her? Is she ill because she’s old?”
“Her lungs aren’t working properly,” his mum says gently. “And yes, in a way it’s because she’s old. It means she’s not as strong as someone who’s younger. But young people get ill too, like you and Gemma do sometimes. Only you’re strong, aren’t you? So you get better.”
“I know that already,” says Harry. He’s frustrated, like he isn’t saying what he wants to say at all. “But you don’t have to be old to die. Do you?”
His mum looks at him. Harry thinks she looks sad, sort of. “No,” she says quietly. “Life always ends at some point, love. So what matters is if it's a good one.”
Harry thinks about that. “I’d like to live to be a hundred years old. Do you think I can?”
His mum ruffles his hair and kisses his forehead. “I don’t know. Do you think I’ll live to be a hundred?”
“Definitely,” Harry proclaims. He grins at his mum, and she grins back, and then goes back to making dinner.
Harry’s left thinking about what she said. He feels like he needs more, though, so when he gets back to his room he stands on the bed and inspects his bookshelves. He finds three or four books that talk about the human body, and he looks through all of them, trying to find an answer for what he asked his mum, do you have to be old to die? But there’s nothing. There’s bits about getting old, but he finds nothing about dying at all. It’s like the people who write the books don’t want you to know.
It takes him a while to fall asleep that night. His head starts thinking thoughts on its own and he can’t get it to stop. He wonders where Gran is now. He’s heard people at school say their grandparents are in heaven, watching over them. He looks up at the ceiling. It’s hard to imagine she’s up there. Maybe if he’d gone to the funeral he’d have found out. He’d ask his mum, but she looked so tired today, and he scared if he talks to Gemma he’ll make her cry again.
He wonders if he’s really never going to see Gran again at all. He wonders what dying feels like, if it hurts.
He falls asleep eventually, but has strange dreams, and when he wakes up the next morning he finds out he’s made the ceiling glow.
She’s eleven now, two digits, and she’s always been taller than him but now Harry feels like a tiny garden gnome when he stands next to her. Her hair reaches halfway down her back, and she doesn’t put on her sparkly lipgloss anymore. Instead, it’s something pinker, less shiny, and he notices her eyelashes are longer and darker sometimes when she’s making an effort to look pretty. She looks old now, like a proper secondary kid, and Harry thinks he can’t remember when that happened exactly. It scares him, somehow.
He never did any magic to help Gran when she was ill. He never did any magic to save Gran when she died.
For the first time, he hopes Gran’s not in heaven, hopes with all he has that she can’t see him now. Because she’d know. She’d know everything, she’d know that it’s his fault, she’d know he saved the squirrel he found on the road back when he was six but he couldn’t save her. He wonders what’ll happen when Mum dies. Will she die because of him, too? Will she die because he didn’t do magic to save her?
He didn’t go to Gran's funeral, but he’s seen funerals on TV, he knows what they look like. He sees his mum lying in between bunches and bunches of flowers, her eyes closed, her mouth not smiling. He screws his eyes shut and buries his face into the pillow, but it’s no use; the flowers are still there, only this time it’s his Aunt Lydia. Miss Wheel from school. Gemma.
Gemma’s going to die too, isn’t she?
She’s so much older than him now, and she’ll eventually die, too. She’ll be gone forever and he won’t be able to see her or talk to her ever again, no one will, because he couldn’t do magic and save her.
Everything will go away. Everything. Even him. Even this house. Even the little babies that are being born right now somewhere in the world. Everything will go away, will leave, and no one will remember it.
Every second that passes, now, is one second that he’ll never live again, one second that takes him closer to the day his mum will die, Gemma will die, with nothing he can do about it.
He realizes he’s crying when he touches the pillow and it feels wet where his face was on it. He cries quietly, though, putting his hands over his mouth. If his mum comes to see what’s wrong he won’t be able to stop seeing her dead.
The flowers won’t go away. They’re there every time he closes his eyes. Harry falls asleep wishing he were anyone else in the world - someone who doesn’t know like he does.
She has breakfast with him every day and she microwaves him the lunch his mum leaves for them in the fridge, but he has to catch her in a good mood to get her to play with him. So he really doesn’t have much to do all day if he's not at the town pool or at someone else’s house. He draws, he reads a book sometimes, he sits on the sofa and watches CBeebies, he counts his sticker collection, but eventually he does get bored and is reduced to taking naps or lying on his bed and staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars he stuck on the ceiling when he was six.
Today, that’s what he does. He’s not bored. He just feels too terrible to do anything else.
Gemma comes into his room mid-morning, sees him, and asks him what’s wrong. Her voice sounds concerned, almost like a proper mum voice, and hearing it makes it even worse. He tells her he’s feeling bad, because he technically is, and she feels his forehead even though Harry’s pretty sure she doesn't know how to tell if someone has a temperature or not. She kisses him on the cheek and tells him she’ll call Mum and ask her what to do. Harry nods, looking at the stars on his ceiling.
His mum comes home early, just before lunch, and feels his forehead too, more expertly than Gemma had done. She proclaims him temperature-free, even though he can see she looks concerned when she asks him what hurts. He just shrugs and buries his face into the sheets.
Together, though, they manage to persuade him to get up and go downstairs for lunch – it's macaroni cheese, so he can’t bring himself to pretend to have a tummy-ache. Gemma tells jokes and his mum tells him about all the various odd customers she had today at the till. Then his mum tells them she can help them to bake something this afternoon if they want, which of course leads to bickering, because Harry wants brownies but Gemma has a strange fascination with bread and always refuses to make anything else. They make half a tray of brownies and a small loaf of bread in the end, and eat the bread with dinner and the brownies for dessert. Harry’s kept so busy he almost forgets all three of them are going to die.
But at night, when his mum comes into his room to tell him a bedtime story and even Gemma comes to listen, snuggling in next to him, he can barely pay attention. His mind's too skittish to listen properly, always going back to the truth he’s spent all day trying to avoid. They both kiss him goodnight and he absently kisses back until the light is off, and they’ve gone, and he’s alone again.
There’s something about the house at night, like this, that makes it seem so big and so empty. In the dark, his room looks like cave walls, and when he looks out to the corridor a while later, when his mum’s turned off the light too, he sees the darkness at the end of it and feels like it could go on forever. The stars on his ceiling glow, but they seem much too far away. He curls up beneath the sheet even though the air is warm, careful to keep it tucked in.
When he starts crying it almost feels like a relief, like he’s been holding his breath all day and he’s only letting it out now. He turns his face into the pillow and lets himself think it all, all the bad thoughts, until he feels so so small, like he’s being crushed under them. He hugs his chest with his arms and sobs as quietly as he can.
Every minute that passes is a minute closer to his death, to everyone’s death, he knows that now. He knows that he shouldn’t waste them, but he can’t stop crying, messy hiccupy crying that makes him feel like a little kid. He wouldn’t mind being little now. Little kids don’t know anything, and they can play and do normal things without feeling guilty and bad all the time.
He looks up at the stars on his ceiling and suddenly they’re not enough. He hesitates for a moment, cheeks still wet, before tugging the sheet back and stepping out onto the carpet one foot at a time. He pads over to the window quietly and tugs the curtains out of the way; he struggles to open the window but manages it in the end, letting a gentle breeze into the room.
He usually can’t see the stars very well from his bedroom window. On cloudy nights you can see patches of the sky at most where there’s gaps in the clouds. On clear nights, the lights in the street below make it hard to see anything except for the really big ones, like the ones he knows make up the Big Dipper. But the streetlights don’t seem to matter today, because he looks out at the sky and there are so many of them. The whole sky, everything he can see, is tiny sparkling dots of light, some of them so close together it looks like bits of the sky are white instead of blue.
They’ve told him at school that stars die too. Not like people: people just… die and that’s it, but stars explode and sometimes turn into black holes that suck everything inside themselves. He’s never really understood why, but his mum likes to explain, too, that some of the stars we see are dead already even though they’re still in the sky – something to do with them being so far away. He looks up at the stars, wiping at his eyes messily with the back of his hand, and wonders which ones out of all of them are dead already. He wonders if any of them will die before he does.
He focuses on one particular star that seems like it’s right in front of him. It’s one of the smallest ones, just a tiny pinprick of light that you have to look hard to see. He looks at it, really looks at it… and suddenly, like a wave, he feels heat rushing through his body, the kind of heat that can only mean magic. But it’s strong, stronger than it’s ever been, strong enough to make him scared and to make him shut his eyes tight just in case. It gets hotter and hotter until it almost burns, and Harry wonders what magic like this could possibly do– but then, in a second, it’s gone completely, and he stumbles, leaning against the windowsill, his eyes flying open again. Suddenly, he feels tired, so tired, his eyes closing even though he doesn’t want them to, his body slumping. He doesn’t feel like crying anymore. He just wants to sleep, and forget about this, because even if it makes him feel a bit silly – it’s scary.
He looks for the star before going back to bed, but he finds nothing.
He doesn’t think back to the feeling of magic last night at all.
Still, once he gets there he finds he’s not really in the mood to play. No one will go with him on the swings because they’re too busy hanging upside-down from the monkey bars, and then some other kids show up with a football and of course a game starts up. Harry knows he’s terrible at football, but he still joins in on most days because it’s fun even when he ends up tripping and falling into the mud. But he hangs back today, kicks himself higher and higher on the swing until it starts to creak alarmingly and he lets himself swing slowly to a stop. He looks at the game going on a little further, but he stays where he is. It’s quiet here. It’s nice.
He hops off the swing, his shoes squishing into the muddy grass. He looks around and decides to go exploring. The park has the road and the rows of houses on one side, but on the other side, behind the park fence, the trees start. He heads over to them, clambers over the fence, and it's only a few steps until he’s in the trees properly. The earth is darker here, and damper, and when he looks up there are branches blocking out the cloudy sky.
He can barely hear the sounds of the game anymore. It's like he’s in a whole different world.
He steps quietly through the tall plants and pretends he’s in a proper forest. He stops and listens. Yes, he can hear it now, the evil forest-dwelling wizard that’s coming to get him. He doesn’t know what he's going up against, then. Harry breaks into a run suddenly, not daring to look back in case it slows him down, and ducks behind a tree. Slowly, he peeks his head out to see if he’s still being chased– and then he sticks his hands out and throws magic at the wizard, really powerful magic, thunder and lightning bolts. That’ll show him. When the magic clears, the wizard is gone and there’s nothing there. He pushes his sweaty hair out of his face and grins. He’s undefeatable.
But– wait! There’s something else coming! It’s bigger than the wizard, it’s a full-out monster. Harry flees and it chases him. He needs somewhere to hide, somewhere it can’t get him, so he can do magic and defeat it. He looks around, but there’s nothing– and then he sees a tree with thick branches lying low, perfect for climbing, and he thinks okay.
He jumps onto the branch and almost slips and falls, but he hangs onto the trunk, clambering onto the next branch quickly because he needs to be fast or it’ll get him. He edges along it sideways, carefully, and steps onto a higher branch a little to the side– but then he looks up, looking for the next branch, and stops abruptly. The monster falls away from his mind.
There’s a boy on the branch. Harry’s sure he’s a real, live boy, not a pretend one. Only– he doesn’t look like any boy Harry’s seen before. Because he glows. His skin looks like there’s a gentle light coming out of it, and if Harry squints– are those colours on the boy’s skin? He can’t see them if he looks directly, but he sees them out of the corner of his eye. They’re colours that change, and Harry suddenly thinks, looking at the boy, that he looks just like the sky.
(He also has no clothes on, but Harry doesn’t mind. He goes around naked at home a lot of the time anyway, especially in summer, so he can respect it.)
Harry’s staring, even though he knows it’s rude. It’s just– he’s seen nothing like this before, not even when he’s done magic. It’s so pretty.
His eyes meet the boy’s. They’re a lovely shade of blue, and it takes Harry a moment to realize that they’re narrowed straight at him. The look on his face blatantly says that he doesn’t trust Harry at all. Harry looks at the way he’s holding his body and notices he’s tense all over, like he’s ready to run away.
“Hi,” Harry says carefully, trying to sound as friendly as he can. “Who are you?”
“Who’re you?” the boy shoots back.
“My name’s Harry. You?”
The boy looks oddly taken aback at the question. He hesitates, and then carefully says, “Louis.” It sounds strange, though, like he isn’t used to saying it out loud. Harry wonders why.
“Louis,” Harry says. “Nice. What’re you doing up here?” Maybe he was playing like Harry was. Maybe if he was they can play together. Harry inspects Louis – he looks about as old as Gemma. He hopes that doesn’t mean he’s too old to play like she is.
Louis blinks. “I was– I don’t know. It’s just, I– it’s better. Than down there, I mean.” He frowns. “Nevermind.” He hesitates before speaking again, but then says, “What’re you doing here?”
Harry grins. “I was playing. D’you want to join in?” Louis blinks, and then shakes his head no. Harry can’t help but feel disappointed. He’d quite have liked to play with someone who looks so strange, and so pretty.
“Why’s your skin like that?” he asks suddenly. It’s rude, he knows, but he needs to know. Louis frowns and looks down at his bare arms. Then he shrugs. (Harry also feels a little disappointed at that – he’d sort of been hoping Louis could do magic too.) As an afterthought, Harry adds, “D’you want some clothes? You can borrow my shirt if you want. I can go without it.” Louis shakes his head again. Okay, then.
Harry hesitates for a moment before lowering himself down and sitting on the branch. He leans his back against the tree trunk and adjusts his bum until he’s sitting comfortably, and he’s pleased to see Louis does the same, even though he sits as far away from Harry as he can and still looks tense. Neither of them say anything for a while. Harry looks at Louis, at the lovely warm glow that comes out of his skin, and he wants to touch it just to see if it feels as nice as it looks. He doesn’t, though, because he wants Louis to trust him, and if he does that Louis will probably run away.
Instead, he just watches, and he’s so caught up he doesn’t even notice when a familiar warm feeling starts up inside him. In fact, he’s only aware he’s doing magic at all when he hears a faint rustling sound and sees the smaller branches on the trees around them growing, growing– and reaching out to Louis, trying to touch him. Harry can’t help the way his face grows hot.
He looks to Louis quickly, hoping he hasn’t chased him away. But Louis doesn’t looks alarmed at all. Instead, he’s looking at the branches in wonder, and he actually hold his hand out and touches a nearby one gently. It squirms, like Louis’s tickled it. Harry’s amazed to see the way Louis’s face slowly, slowly grows into a smile– and then he looks at Harry, still smiling, and asks, “Did you do this?”
Harry nods, face still hot. He thinks Louis will maybe ask him how, like everyone else does, but instead he just says, “It’s really nice.”
“Thanks,” Harry says, and honestly means it. He’s relieved to see Louis doesn’t look tense anymore, like somehow Harry’s magic has made Louis trust him more than Harry being nice to him. That’s never happened before. Maybe that’s why it feels so nice.
There’s a moment of quiet. The plants are still, now. Louis looks like he’s going to say something. But before he does, Harry hears shouts: his name being called, faintly, from somewhere that sounds far away. Louis tenses and doesn’t say anything.
“I have to go,” Harry says. He doesn’t want Sam and Greg and Tess to come here looking for him and he’s scared Louis will leave if they do. So he slides off the branch quickly and hops onto the next one, wanting to get out of here fast– but he can’t help himself, he stops and glances back up to look at Louis. He’s looking down at Harry. Harry really doesn’t like the thought of leaving him here all alone.
“Louis?” Louis blinks at him. “Are you sure you’ll be okay here by yourself?” Louis nods and says nothing. Harry doesn’t like it. “I’ll come back tomorrow, I promise. I’ll bring some clothes too.” Louis nods again. “Okay. Bye, Louis.” He waits in case Louis wants to say something back, but he doesn’t, so he hops down to the next branch and then off the tree.
He’s about to start running back when he hears a faint, “Bye, Harry!” He whirls around and sees Louis’s face peeking out from between the leaves. Harry waves, and Louis waves back, and when Harry gets back to the park he still has a grin on his face.
He hasn’t really sneaked out of the house. He told Gemma he was going to the park with his friends is all. Only the park is empty and he’s not really in the park anyway but in the bit with the trees, dragging his plastic bag and calling out to try to find Louis. He’s not having much luck so far.
“Louis? Are you there?”
Harry squints at the trees, trying to see if he can spot Louis anywhere among them. Uneasiness starts to creep its way in. Perhaps Louis isn’t there at all. Perhaps he’s gone already, or something’s happened to him because he spent the night here all alone. Or perhaps... perhaps Louis wasn’t even there in the first place. Who knows? Maybe Harry got so caught up in his game that he imagined Louis and thought he was real.
“Louis?” he tries again. His voice sounds wobbly. He listens, and then–
“Harry?” a voice says from above. Harry’s so shocked he drops the bag.
He scrambles to pick it back up and then cranes his neck in every direction. “Louis? Where are you?”
There’s a soft thud as Louis hops out of a tree and lands on the ground. Harry is so relieved to see that he’s okay, that nothing hurt him when Harry wasn’t there. “Louis,” he says breathlessly. “You’re here.”
Louis smiles at that, actually smiles at him. Harry feels dazed. It’s like looking right into the sun. “You came.”
“Well, I promised,” Harry says, frowning slightly. Louis wasn’t sure he’d come back? He looks down and remembers the bag in his hands. “Here,” he says, fumbling with it, “I brought you some clothes like I said. You don’t have to wear them if you don’t want to. They’re just in case.” He holds out the folded clothes and Louis steps closer and takes them, looking at them curiously. He unfolds them, though, and seems to like them okay, because a moment later he’s pulling the shirt over his head and tugging on the pants and shorts. Harry’s relieved to see the T-shirt only looks a little tight on him and the shorts fit okay.
“Thanks,” Louis says. He looks at the bag curiously. “You brought more things?”
“Well– just in case,” says Harry. “I brought you food, and some water in case you’re thirsty. And a pillow so you can sleep okay. And a comic book for if you get bored.”
He pulls everything out of the bag and hands it over; he considers for a moment and then hands him the bag too for good measure. Louis looks intently at all of it. It’s almost like he’s never seen any of it before, which is odd, but Harry doesn’t want to ask questions because he wants to make sure Louis stays. So he tries to explain what everything is, and Louis nods seriously and follows all of his instructions. Soon enough, they’re sitting on the ground, not quite side-by-side but closer together than they were yesterday. Louis drinks the water and eats everything, offering some to Harry every time. Then he tells him he liked the chocolate best of all.
“Me too,” Harry says, and Louis smiles at him. He doesn’t know why, but Louis’s smiling so much today, and it’s wonderful. He seems so much friendlier than yesterday and barely tense at all. Harry wonders if he’d like to play with him today, then promptly asks him, and this time Louis looks a little cautious but nods all the same.
It’s not only that he looks interesting, magic, almost. It’s also that he’s so much fun. Harry’s sure that’s not just because he’s older (although he doesn’t actually know how old Louis is), because none of the older kids he’s ever played with are this good at it. This is the best day ever.
He’d explained the game to Louis and Louis had understood pretty fast, but had suggested, what if we chase them instead of them chasing us? Of course. Harry doesn’t know why he didn’t think of that before. Now it’s not a chase anymore – it’s a battle. And he has Louis on his side. Fantastic.
Harry’s hair is sweaty and his clothes are muddy. He pays this no attention at all, because right now he’s also running, crashing through the trees, hoping Louis isn’t too far off. He needs to concentrate or he’ll get distracted from the strategy. Up ahead, he sees the tree they’d agreed to meet at once they’d thrown the monsters off. (This is Louis’s idea, too. A pack of monsters instead of just one is much more exciting.) He runs up to it and ducks behind it, panting. Louis is already there, glowing brighter than ever, Harry thinks.
“Hi,” Harry whispers breathlessly. “Are yours very far away?”
Louis shakes his head no. “I left them just there,” he whispers back, gesturing at the trees. “We don’t have much time.”
Harry nods. “Okay. I was thinking I could distract them, make a lot of noise, and you can run up behind them quietly and finish them off.”
Louis grins. “Brilliant.” He shuts his eyes, cocks his head and listens. “They’re coming,” he says quietly. “Okay, when I say so…” His eyes open again and he looks straight at Harry. “Go!”
Harry shoots out from behind the tree and deliberately stomps his feet as he runs, crashing through as many bushes as he possibly can. “Hey!” he yells. “Hey, over here, look at me!” He glances over his shoulder. They’re following him. Good. He spots Louis as they get closer and closer and grins breathlessly. They’re gonna show them.
He whirls around once the monsters get too close. They stop, looking confused. Harry faces them defiantly, sticking his hands out to the side to get them ready for magic. He sees Louis right behind the monsters. They haven’t noticed him. Louis looks at Harry, and as Harry watches, he nods.
Harry shoots lightning bolts at the monsters, and Louis shoots his own magic at them too, and in a second, that’s it, it’s over. The monsters are gone. They’ve won.
“Yes!” shouts Harry, and Louis cheers back, and then Harry runs up to him and hold his hand out for a high five. Louis just blinks at him, so Harry, feeling giddy and brave, reaches out, takes Louis’s hand and smacks it against his own. Then he realizes it’s the first time he’s actually touched Louis (he feels just as warm and glowy as he looks) and quickly drops his hand, glancing over at Louis’s face. He doesn’t look worried or scared or angry at all, so Harry grins at him, still sweaty and excited from all that running.
He’s opening his mouth to tell Louis how great he is when his stomach growls. Is he hungry already? It’s only– wait. Harry looks up at the sky between the branches and realizes that the sun is bright and high up in the sky, which means it’s later than he thought, but he can’t know for sure because he doesn’t even own a watch, nevermind have one with him. He wonders how long he’s been here. If he’s not home for lunch Gemma will probably come looking for him. And she’ll definitely call Mum. That wouldn’t be good.
He doesn’t want to leave, though. He doesn’t want to leave at all.
“Louis?” he says tentatively. Louis looks at him, his eyes bright and blue. “I think I have to go now.”
He thinks Louis looks disappointed for a teensy moment, but then he just shrugs. “That’s okay,” he says. “Will you come back?”
“Of course,” Harry says immediately. Does Louis still think he won’t be coming back after all they played today? Maybe he didn’t have as much fun as Harry did. “Will you play with me again?” he asks a little shyly.
Louis’s face lights up at that. Harry is glad. “Yes! Also,” he adds as an afterthought, “you should bring more chocolate. It was nice.”
“I will,” Harry says, nodding. He hesitates. “Bye, Louis. I liked playing with you.”
“Me too.” Louis grins. Good. “Bye, Harry.”
Harry turns around and starts walking towards the park again. When he gets to the fence, though, before he climbs it, he can’t resist looking back and waving. Louis is right where he left him. He waves back. Harry looks at his glow and feels nice, happy, like he’s bubbly inside.
Louis is fantastic. Louis is loud and fun and fast, and he can climb trees better than anyone Harry’s ever seen and he comes up with the best game ideas ever. Harry struggles not to tell his mum or Gemma anything about him, because he’s scared if his mum realizes he goes to the park alone with someone she doesn’t know she won’t let him go anymore, but it’s hard, because Louis is fantastic and does the best things sometimes and Harry wants everyone to know about him.
He visits Louis every day except for Sunday, when his mum takes him and Gemma up to Manchester to visit the zoo. Harry likes the zoo okay, because the animals are nice and friendly and they look like they have enough space to play in (he once read a leaflet about zoos who treat animals badly and it made him cry). But the whole time he’s there, he can’t help but wonder what Louis’s doing, if he expected Harry to come today too, if he’s disappointed. He brings Louis more chocolate than usual the next day to make up for it.
He goes to the park all the other days, though. It’s easier when his mum’s not at home because Gemma always lets him and is she asks about it it’s questions that are easy to answer. It’s harder when his mum’s home, but he makes up a different excuse every time and so far it’s going nicely.
And Harry loves it. He loves being with Louis and he loves playing with Louis. The games have evolved now, and they have allies as well as enemies and they aren’t just fighting for themselves now; they have a kingdom to protect. Harry’s glad they always fight together. He likes having Louis on his side.
Besides, Louis never treats him like some of the older kids Harry knows, Gemma’s friends or brothers and sisters of friends of his from school. He’s always right by Harry’s side, never trying to boss him around or treat him like he’s only a little kid. He likes playing as much as Harry does, and he always seems to be having just as much fun.
Also, Harry’s noticed that Louis loves it when he does magic.
He’d thought about it the first time they met, when Louis seemed to trust him when he made those branches grow, and he’s seeing it now. Harry is usually too focused on the game to do magic when they play, but it happens sometimes anyway. And as soon as it does, Louis stops playing immediately to stare at the way Harry’s making flowers bloom, or the earth ripple, or water sprout from a tree like a fountain. The first few times, Harry thought he did it because he thought it was weird, but then Louis had turned around and smiled at him, glowing brighter than ever, and Harry had known that wasn’t it.
But it still takes him a while to realize that Louis can do magic too.
They’re not attacking but hiding this time. The wizards have taken a little baby prisoner and they have to be quiet if they want to sneak in and rescue it. They’re flattened on the ground, dragging themselves through the undergrowth as silently as they possibly can, but when they’re almost there suddenly Louis jumps up and starts running. Harry wants to yell at him because now they’ve been hiding for nothing and Louis isn’t supposed to play like this, but– the moment Harry opens his mouth, Louis is gone.
Where is he? Did he just disappear into thin air? Harry forgets about hiding and props himself up on his knees, looking around wildly. How did he do that? Where did he go? What if he doesn’t come back?
“Louis?” Harry calls out uncertainly. He gets no reply.
But then– Louis, somehow, is appearing again right next to Harry, in a different place than when he disappeared. He’s smiling widely and cradling an imaginary baby in his arms. “I did it, Harry! I got him!”
Harry scrambles to get up and looks at Louis, stunned. He reaches out and touches Louis’s arm to make sure he’s really there (he is) and then demands, “How did you do that?”
Louis frowns, dropping his arms. “Do what?”
“You were there, and then you disappeared, and– and now you’re here,” Harry explains, gesturing wildly.
Louis seems to realize what he’s talking about. “Oh,” he says. “I don’t know. I just did it. But it’s just like you, right? When you do things like make flowers appear.”
“But that’s different,” Harry says. “I can’t just…” He trails off suddenly, because he’s realized something. “Does that mean you can do magic too?”
He’s barely met anyone who can. He talked to the girl who used to go to his school once, but she was so much older than him so he felt too shy to say much, and once his mum took him to a sort of meeting with other kids and their parents, which was fun, but two kids got in a fight and one of them turned the other into a fox so they didn’t come back after that. But Louis doing magic is something else entirely. Maybe Harry should have suspected it already, seeing that strange light in his body. But if he really can, this is even better than he thought.
“That’s brilliant!” Harry says excitedly. “How does yours work? Is it when you want things too?” Louis looks confused, so Harry helpfully adds, “You should talk to your mum about it. Mine took me to see a doctor and we found out lots of stuff. Maybe it can help you too.”
“My mum?” Louis asks, looking more bewildered than ever.
“Well, you don’t have to talk to her if you don’t want to,” Harry says. “It might help, but maybe it won’t, I don’t know.”
“What?” Louis says. Harry’s excitement fades a bit, and he stops to look at Louis more closely. If Harry didn’t know better, because Louis is older and he doesn’t do that, he’d say Louis was going to cry.
Harry frowns. “Louis, don’t you have a mum?”
Louis suddenly grows tense all over again. “What are you talking about?” He looks defensive, and angry, and Harry wants to know so badly but the idea of Louis being angry at him is scary.
“I didn’t mean–” Harry says helplessly. “Louis, please don’t be mad at me. I was only trying to help.” Why is Louis acting like this? Why doesn’t he want to answer? What magic can he actually do? Harry doesn’t understand at all.
“It’s okay,” Louis says, but it’s not, because he doesn’t look friendly anymore at all and he’s glowing brightly, but not in a warm way like he usually does, and Harry doesn’t like it. But he says nothing else after that, and Louis doesn’t either, and Harry knows Louis doesn’t want to play right now so he leaves almost right away. Even though he can’t stop wondering about Louis’s mum, and about Louis’s family, and, for the first time, if he really is all alone, not just here but everywhere.
Harry’s brain freezes unpleasantly. “What?”
“Whitby, silly,” Gemma tells him.
His mum takes a look at his face and smiles. “It’s okay, Harry, you don’t have to tell me you’d forgotten about it.”
Harry’s stomach feels twisty. “When? How long are we going for?”
“A week, remember?” Gemma tells him. “We’re leaving in two days, aren’t we, Mum?”
She looks to his mum for confirmation and she nods. “That’s right, Gem.”
“But–” Harry can’t get the words out. “But we can’t be away for a whole week!”
“Why’s that?” Gemma asks curiously. Harry says nothing.
“Harry, love, is something wrong?” His mum sounds concerned. For a moment, Harry wants so badly to tell her, tell her that he can’t go because then Louis will truly be all alone and what will he do then? But he doesn’t. He can’t. So he just shakes his head no and looks down at the table, feeling helpless and guilty and terrible.
He felt too bad to tell Louis anything yesterday. He’s going to have to do it today. A feeling of dread weighs him down on the entire walk to the trees.
The game isn’t very good today. Harry can’t get into it properly. When they stop playing and collapse to the ground, Harry can feel Louis’s eyes on him. He turns his head to meet them. They look like they’re asking a question.
Suddenly Harry can’t take it anymore. “I’m going away tomorrow.”
Something in Louis changes a bit. “Oh,” he says. “Okay.” He’s silent for a moment, and his eyes flit away to look at the ground. “Will you be coming back?”
Harry frowns. “What? Yes! It’s only for a week.”
Louis shrugs. “Okay,” he says again, and neither of them say anything for a while after that.
Harry feels like he needs to say something else. “Louis,” he tries. Louis doesn’t look at him, but Harry knows he’s listening. “I can ask my mum if you can come with us if you like. I bet she’d say yes.”
“No,” Louis says immediately.
Harry can’t help but feel hurt at that. “But why?” he says. “Why don’t you ever want to go anywhere that isn’t here?” He sees Louis tense up at that, but he’s tired of Louis not answering his questions, and he feels hot inside. “I just want to be proper friends with you, why don’t you want to?”
Louis is on his feet now. “Harry. Just shut up, okay? Just shut up.” He glows bright, but it doesn’t look friendly at all.
Harry feels his eyes start to get itchy with tears. “Why won’t you answer me?”
“Just– just because, okay?” He’s very very near to shouting, and Harry’s heard him shout before but never like this, never at him. He suddenly feels less angry, more scared. He tries to reach out to Louis, but Louis jerks his arm away. “Harry, just leave me alone, okay? Just leave me alone.”
Louis turns away and Harry gets up, gets ready to chase him. But before he can, Louis just goes, disappears completely, and Harry can’t possibly follow.
Dimly, he wonders if Louis will die too, someday. Where before he’d managed to imagine it much too clearly with Gemma and his mum, with Louis it’s much harder. Louis dying just doesn’t seem right. He’s much too bright to.
It rains during the whole drive back to Holmes Chapel. It’s a long trip, takes more than three hours, and Gemma sleeps through most of it. Harry tries to, but he can’t. He settles for watching the raindrops on the car window, making them race each other until he loses track and just stares, thinking, thinking.
The first thing Harry wants to do when he gets back is visit Louis. He’s halfway to asking his mum if he can go to the park when he realizes what a terrible idea that would be, and he retreats to his room immediately.
In the end, it takes him two whole days to muster up the courage to face Louis. Sam and Greg show up at his door and they ask him to come to the park with them: he panics at first, but then he gives in. He guiltily plays football with them for a while until he can’t stand it anymore and stops playing to sit on a wet bench a little further off, and he spends ten whole minutes staring at the ground after that (Sam comes to ask if he’s okay and he answers yes so she goes away eventually) before he finally picks himself up and trudges towards the trees.
He expects at least five minutes of walking around and calling out Louis’s name, if Louis even turns up at all. So when five steps in he looks up and Louis’s sitting on a tree stump right there, Harry doesn’t have a clue what to do with himself.
“Hi,” Louis says, like it’s the most normal thing in the world.
“Hi,” Harry says back, because he can’t think of anything else to do. Louis doesn’t hate him. Or does he? There’s no way Harry’s going to ask.
Louis stretches his arms above his head and grins right at Harry. His glow is happy and warm, and there’s no anger on his face at all. Harry’s never done magic on people before, but he wonders if it’s happened now. Maybe he wanted Louis to forgive him so badly that he made it happen. But no, that can’t be right, because he hasn’t felt the magic feeling once in the whole week. Maybe Louis’s just forgotten about it. In any case, he actually looks happy about seeing Harry again, and Harry doesn’t want to question it.
So he launches himself at Louis and yells, “Duck!”, because a wizard’s just fired a spell at them and he can’t let it hit either of them, and of course Louis goes right along with it, flattening himself to the ground until Harry tells him in a whisper that the spells have passed. Because it’s what he always does, and Harry can only feel relieved that it’s something he’s still doing.
Harry doesn’t push it. If he’s forgotten, at least they’re still friends, and that’s enough.
Once, though, after Harry’s done describing his mum’s dresses in meticulous detail, he says, quietly, “It’s okay if you don’t have a mum, you know. I don’t have a dad.” Maybe Louis’s figured that out on his own, because Harry’s mentioned other people’s dads, but never having one of his own. Still, he wants Louis to know.
There’s a pause. Then, Louis says, “I don’t have a dad, either.”
“Oh,” Harry says. “Okay. Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“I don’t think so,” Louis says. It’s an answer that’s a bit strange, but that’s not what Harry’s concerned about, right now.
“Are you– are you all alone, then?” Harry asks it quietly, because he’s not sure if Louis will want to hear it. Louis doesn’t look at him, and Harry, for a moment, is scared he’ll disappear.
But then Louis looks at him and says, “There’s you.” He glows a little bit brighter as he says it. For some reason, Harry is relieved.
Harry’s so surprised he drops the sock he’s holding. “Um,” he says. “Sorry?”
She laughs. “I was just wondering, love,” she says. “I’ve noticed you go there a lot, and I talked to Sam’s mum yesterday and she told me you don’t play with Sam much these days. So, what’s it you do here?”
No no no no. This wasn’t meant to happen. “I, er,” he says, and before he can make something up he just blurts out, “I play with my friend. A friend I made.”
“Oh?” his mum says, sounding interested. “Who’s this friend you’re spending so much time with, then?” At least she’s not telling him off. Harry feels like crossing his fingers, though, just in case.
“Louis,” he says carefully. “His name’s Louis. He’s fun.”
“Louis,” his mum says. “I can’t remember if I’ve heard the name before. Does he live around here?”
Harry hesitates. “I don’t know,” he says, because he doesn’t. He doesn’t even know if Louis lives anywhere at all.
His mum looks thoughtful. “Okay, then,” she says. “You should invite Louis round sometime, then. I’d quite like to meet him. He sounds lovely.” She smiles at him and keeps on folding a shirt of Gemma’s, leaving Harry thoughtful, but mostly relieved.
“That’s nice of her,” Louis says casually. For a moment Harry thinks he might leave it there, but then he says, “What’d you tell her about me?”
Playing with Louis is easy, straightforward, but when Harry talks to him he sometimes thinks he can’t figure out anything he does. “I told her you were my friend,” Harry says.
“Oh,” Louis says. Harry thinks he sounds a little bit relieved. “All right.”
Harry fidgets, scratching a nail against the tree bark. “Are you coming, then?”
Louis’s glow dims a little bit. “I don’t think so,” he says. Harry’s about to ask him why, but then Louis says, “Tell me more about Ben 10, then,” and Harry does, and that’s that.
They spend a lot of time climbing trees. Louis is brilliant at it, halfway up the tree trunk even as Harry struggles to make it to the second or third branch. (He also ends up falling off a few times, disgruntled, as Louis hoots with laughter. Louis never falls, not once.) There’s a tree here that’s excellent for climbing, the one Harry had first met Louis in, and they climb that one high enough that Harry gets scared if he looks down. But then he looks at Louis, glowing bright against the green of the leaves, and he feels reassured somehow. Louis’s here, so he’ll be okay.
Louis seems happier up here, much less nervous. Harry thinks he’d love the swings, and resolves to get him on them one of these days.
They’re having lunch one Saturday, his mum and Gemma and him. The rain patters against the window, and Harry’s looking at it worriedly while he eats his salad, hoping it stops this afternoon so he can go see Louis, when his mum says, “Will Louis be coming over someday, then, Harry?”
“What?” Harry says, panicking.
“Who’s Louis?” Gemma asks.
“He’s my friend,” Harry says defensively. He glances at his mum. “I don’t think he wants to.”
“Oh?” his mum says. “Why not?” Harry shrugs.
This is strange. The whole of it, it’s just– strange. Louis isn't something he talks about at the lunch table, that’s all. He never wants to go out of the trees, so it’s weird talking about him anywhere else. Even if he isn’t there.
Harry wonders if he was wrong about Louis. Maybe he can’t do magic, maybe he just is magic. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t want to leave the trees– because he’s one of those magic creatures, fairies of the woods, like in stories. Only Louis is a boy, not a lady, like they are. Also, he’s not green.
“What’s he like?” Gemma asks. “Is he your age, or is he older?”
“Older,” Harry says. Gemma asks him how old, but he tells her he doesn’t know. “You wouldn’t like him anyway,” he tells her. “He plays with me all the time, and you say playing’s for little kids.”
“He sounds like a good friend, then,” his mum prompts him.
Harry nods seriously. “He’s the best.” It might be weird talking about Louis to his mum and sister, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t secretly enjoy it a little bit. He wants to tell people how great he thinks Louis is, but he never gets the chance to, so. “He has the best ideas for games, Mum, you know? They’re so good. And he’s really cool. I mean, he even glows–” and then he claps a hand over his mouth, because he really should not have said that.
“He what?” Gemma asks, frowning.
“He– I mean–” Harry thinks wildly, panicked, trying to find an excuse for what he’s just said. He comes up with nothing. “Well, he glows,” he admits. his heart is beating so loudly he wonders if his mum can hear it. It’s the kind of thing he thinks she might be able to do. “I mean, his skin does. It’s actually quite nice. I think he can do magic too, but I don’t know for sure because he won’t tell me.”
He glances up from where he’d been looking at the table, embarrassed. His mum and Gemma are both looking at him, but they have odd looks on their faces. Why? Harry doesn’t understand.
Gemma is the first to speak. “Harry, is Louis actually real?” Harry recognizes her voice immediately. It’s the one she uses when she thinks she’s a proper grown-up. Harry hates it.
“What?” Harry asks wildly. “Why?”
“Gemma, Harry, calm down, the both of you,” his mum says sharply.
Harry whirls around and turns on his mum. “Why’d she say that?” he demands.
“Because you’re making up stories about people in your head and saying they’re real,” Gemma says. She sounds calm enough, but when Harry turns to face her there’s something in her face that’s maddening. Like she thinks she’s right when she’s lying.
“Liar!” Harry shouts at her. “You’re a liar! He’s real. Why would you say that?”
“Yes, but you only think he’s real ‘cause you’re the one who made him up,” Gemma says, and that’s it.
Harry runs right out of his chair and pounces on her. “You’re a liar!” he yells, and then he pulls on her hair, hard. She shrieks and slaps him, but he only pulls harder, because Louis is real, he is, he is–
–but then he’s being pulled back sharply, and he lets go, and suddenly his mum is there, and she’s angry, really angry, like he’s almost never seen her. She doesn’t shout. His mum never shouts when she’s angry. Somehow, that makes it even worse.
“None of that,” she says. Her voice is cold, stern, deadly serious. “None of that here, or ever. Understood?” She looks each of them right in the eye. Harry shrinks back when she looks at him. “I won’t have my children acting like savages. Not in this house. Never do that again.” She pauses, lets them take it in. “Now I want you, Harry, to apologize to Gemma, and Gemma, you apologize to Harry. And then you’re both going to sit down, and behave, and neither of you are going out this afternoon. I don’t care what plans you’ve made. Understood?”
Harry watches Gemma nod sulkily. His mum turns to him then, but he doesn’t nod. He doesn’t say anything at all. He just turns away and runs, right up the stairs, into his room, slamming the door behind him. He throws himself against it and then it all wells up and it’s too much and he just sobs and sobs until his chest hurts and he can’t breathe.
“Harry?” he hears his mum say through the door. At least it’s not Gemma. He still scuttles further up against the door, though, leaning all of his weight against it so it can’t be opened. He’s not going to talk to his mum right now. He’s not.
His mum knocks again. “Harry, can I come in?” He hugs his knees and buries his face in them, doing his best to cover his ears with his arms at the same time.
“Harry.” She doesn’t sound angry. She sounds concerned, and a little bit tired. Harry hesitates.
Slowly, he wriggles away from the door, settling against the wall instead. He doesn’t open the door, but it looks like his mum can tell he’s moved even from the other side. The door opens, slowly. Harry stares at the ground.
His mum walks up to him. He can only see up to her knees from here. She crouches in front of him and takes hold of his chin gently, making him look at her. “D’you want to tell me what happened down there, love?”
Harry feels his face turn hot. The tears come back, and dimly, he’s aware that some sort of mist is floating around him, shielding him. He can’t remember making that happen, but he doesn’t want it to go.
“I don’t want her to be right,” he mumbles. He wants to hide his face, but his mum won’t let go of his chin. The mist grows thicker.
His mum bats it away with a hand. “Harry,” she says. “Is Louis real? For you?” Harry doesn’t even hesitate before nodding, because he is. “Do you play with him, have fun with him?” Harry nods again. “Then he’s real. End of story. If you feel he’s with you, he is.”
Harry tugs his face loose and wipes at his eyes with the back of his hand. He lets what she’s said sink in. “Yes, but–” he starts, and stays there. He doesn’t know how to explain. She hasn’t seen Louis. No one has seen Louis except for him. She doesn’t understand.
In the end, he just looks at her and asks, "Do you think he’s real?"
She smiles, warm and mum-like. “I believe whatever you believe is real, love.” It’s only a bit reassuring. Still, he can see the mist fading, little by little.
He hasn’t, he finds out the next day when it's stopped raining. He’s relieved, but he also can’t stop thinking about what Gemma said.
“Can we go out to the park?” he asks Louis, because he’s certain seeing Louis outside of the trees will prove he’s really there, that Harry’s not making him up. (He wants to touch Louis, too, see if that’ll clear it up, but that’s not something he’s going to ask. He’ll have to do it sneakily.)
Unfortunately, if they haven’t done that before it’s for a reason.
“Um,” Louis says. “Maybe not now? Hey, how about we do that bit where we climb up the trees and then drop down and attack?”
That sounds brilliant. Harry’s just about to say okay when he catches sight of Louis’s glow and remembers what he needs to find out.
“Louis,” he whines. “Please can we go to the park, pretty please?”
Louis has stopped moving. He stays in one place now, but he still rocks back and forth on his feet, and his fingers fidget. “I like it better here,” he says, quieter.
“Come onnnnn,” Harry says in his best pretty-please voice. “I really want you to come on the swings with me, Lou. They’re the coolest. It’s like,” he makes a gesture, “it’s like, when you’re up here, right? It’s like you’re in the sky.”
Louis blinks. He blinks again. He’s quiet for long enough that Harry’s going to tell him more reasons why he should come, but then he says, “Okay,” like it’s no big deal. Harry’s eyes go wide and he’s immediately taking Louis by the arm (he’s so warm, and he’s there, he’s definitely there) and starting to walk towards the fence. Louis shrugs him off after a moment and bounds ahead. Harry has to run to catch up.
They make it over the fence easily. It’s easy-peasy for Harry now, he’s climbed it so many times, and it looks like Louis’s just good at climbing everything. He hops down, lands on the grass and looks around. Harry hadn’t really thought ahead to this moment, but he’s pleased to see Louis suddenly has a giant smile on his face, like he can’t wait to start exploring everything that’s out here.
They’re actually out in the real world. Louis hasn’t disappeared, and his glow is nice and bright. He’s here. Harry’s sure he is.
Louis turns to look at Harry. His smile is huge. “Let’s go!” he yells, and breaks into a run towards the seesaw. Harry follows. Of course.
They go on the seesaw (Louis isn’t very pleased by Harry always staying at the top and tries to kick himself up with very little result) and the slide even though it’s for little kids and they climb the monkey bars all the way to the top as soon as some kids that were there have left. Then Louis demands Harry come with him to the swings, so Harry does.
Harry swings higher than Louis, at first, but Louis gets the hang of it soon enough (Harry wonders if he’s ever been on a swing before) and starts kicking properly, higher and higher until the chain starts making a clacking sound. Louis whoops and cackles with laughter the whole time. Every time Harry looks, he’s smiling wide and bright, his hair all over the place. He looks happy, maybe happier than Harry’s ever seen him. He glows so much that Harry thinks of the sun.
They swing until their legs ache, until Harry looks at his watch (it’s actually an old watch of Gemma’s, all purple and flowery, but Harry doesn’t mind) and sees it’s past twelve. He remembers he said he’d help his mum cook dinner today, so he slowly swings to a stop, digging his heels into the mud below the swing. Louis notices and stops swinging too, eventually stopping just like Harry had done.
Louis looks at him. He looks messy and bright and real. Harry has no doubts left. They haven’t met that many people today, but he’s sure all of them have noticed Louis. He paid attention and saw them looking: not in a strange way, like the way he glows is weird, but just how they’d look at Harry. Also, Louis got into an argument with a girl on the monkey bars earlier. Harry’s fairly sure real people can’t argue with made-up ones.
“You have to go, don’t you?” Louis asks.
“Yeah,” Harry says. “Sorry.” His legs are really tired, but he’d quite like to stay. He hopes Louis knows this.
Harry stands up from the swing. His feet sink into the mud a bit. “Today was fun,” he tells Louis. Louis nods, still grinning. Harry’s about to turn away when Louis hops off the swing, too, and– he comes right up to Harry, but he doesn’t stop there. Instead, he hugs Harry, properly hugs him, wrapping his arms around him and squeezing a bit. It’s lovely, even though it’s quick. It feels like being out in the sun even though it’s cloudy today.
“Bye, then,” Louis says, and Harry says bye back, and he watches Louis hop back on the swing and start swinging again, the chain creaking a little. Harry walks away hearing it behind him. When he’s nearly home already, though, about to push open the gate, he cranes his neck a bit as he looks towards the park and thinks he can still see Louis there, swinging up and down.
Harry’s never really minded school all that much. It’s not boring all the time, and he makes friends there so he has people to play with. Also, he’s in Year Four now, which means his classroom is upstairs with the big kids. It’s all a little bit exciting.
He has one big thing on his mind, though, and that big thing is that he has no idea what’s going to happen with seeing Louis once school starts.
School means being out all morning and a bit of the afternoon. School means doing other things in the afternoon, too, like art or music or football lessons. (Even though Harry doesn’t think he’ll be signing up to those ever again.) School means, on the whole, a lot less time to be visiting Louis every day like he’s been doing all summer. So even though Harry generally doesn’t mind school, this year he’s actually not looking forward to it at all.
(Once or twice, he tries to do magic again, like he used to do when he was little. At night, he shuts his eyes tight and wishes for more days until September arrives. He never gets them.)
His mum takes them to buy new crayons and pencils and folders, pens and second-hand textbooks for Gemma, keeping last year’s school bags and lunchboxes because they’re in okay shape and it’s best if they don’t buy new ones. Everywhere Harry looks, it’s like it says SCHOOL in big capital letters. On TV, on the ads on the bus, in Gemma’s Girl Talk magazines. And he still hasn’t told Louis about it.
It’s actually Louis who brings it up in the end.
He’s been going out on his own, Harry can tell. Once or twice, he’s looked for Louis all over the park and the trees and found nothing. Also, he tells Harry about the things he sees, the people he talks to, the dogs he pets. Harry wonders if people are asking him any questions he can’t answer, like “who’s your mum and dad.” Grown-ups want to know those things sometimes, even if it’s someone they barely know at all. But Louis seems happy enough when he tells the stories, so Harry decides it’s okay. Even if he’s maybe a little bit jealous that other people get to spend time with Louis, too.
They’re sitting on top of the slide one day – ever since Harry first persuaded Louis to come out here they’re at the park a lot – and there’s three days to go to September 2nd, which is the day school starts, when Louis asks him, “So are you going to school then?”
“Yes,” Harry says glumly. He wonders how Louis found out, but he doesn’t ask.
Louis kicks the top of the slide. “D’you think I could go too?”
Harry thinks about it. It’s weird to imagine Louis in a school uniform sitting at a desk. Harry isn’t even sure he’d be able to sit still that long. Also, he realizes he doesn't actually know what you have to do to go to school. He’s never felt like he had to find out. It’s sort of like a mum thing. “I don’t know,” he tells Louis. “I think you have to sign up somewhere, but I don’t know where. You could just try going. Maybe they’ll let you in.”
Louis hmmms and kicks the slide again. “Maybe I can go to school with you.” He smiles at Harry as he says it. “Anyway, even if they won’t let me, you’ll still play with me, right?”
“Duh,” Harry says. He’d much rather be here with Louis than at school, anyway. He tells Louis this, and then adds, “Maybe I’ll skip,” with a smile on his face that he knows is naughty. Louis seems pleased by the idea. Then, he seems to decide the conversation is over, because he stops kicking the slide and pushes Harry down it instead. Harry laughs and Louis slides down too, and they get stuck at the end until Harry staggers forwards and collapses onto the ground. Louis follows, roaring with laughter. Maybe Harry will skip school after all. It definitely seems worth it.
He also doesn’t like the fact that it’s only his mum who’s walking with him to school. Gemma goes to secondary now, and she’s old enough to walk there with her friends. It feels weird but in the bad way. Harry tries to cheer himself up by thinking of his classroom on the top floor. It works, a bit.
They’re at the gate now. His mum stops, and just for a moment, Harry wishes he could hug her legs and cry and tell her not to go like the little kids do sometimes on their first day. But he doesn’t, of course, because he’s big now and he doesn’t do those things. Also, Harry likes school. It’s just that he doesn’t really want to go.
He hugs his mum goodbye, and she gives him a big kiss on the cheek and tells him good luck. Harry nods. He walks past the gate then, all by himself, last year’s bag hanging off his shoulders even though there’s nothing in it yet. He sees people on either side of him but no one he recognizes and for a moment he feels scared, actually scared– but then he spots Tess over by the drinking fountain and it’s okay, everything’s okay, he can breathe normally again.
He sits with Tess on one side and Greg on the other during assembly, and later on when they climb the stairs (the stairs!) to get to class he gets put into the Cubes table with people he already knows and a new boy with nice eyes. Also, Sam is in the Prisms and the Prisms table is right next to the Cubes, so he’s not alone at all, he has friends and nice people all around him. So it doesn’t even make sense at all that his thoughts keep going back to Louis all day, over and over. Is he okay? Is he alone? Is he at the park or somewhere else? Harry doesn’t know, and he doesn’t like not knowing.
“Yeah?” Louis is busy finding pebbles on the ground and tossing them at the tree opposite to the one they’re sitting next to. He isn’t looking at Harry, but Harry knows he’s paying attention. “How was it?”
Harry shifts. “It was okay,” he admits. “I saw my friends. My other friends, I mean. Also, we get a guinea pig for class pet this year.” Much better than last year’s goldfish. All it ever did was swim around and it got sort of boring in the end. “D’you still want to come?” he asks Louis curiously. It’d be weird to have Louis at school with him, but not a bad weird. He could talk to him all the time. Also introduce him to everyone else. Harry thinks they’d all really like him. He’s pretty sure it’s impossible to not like Louis. Plus, he glows.
Harry frowns. Although maybe Louis’s too old to go to school with him anymore. Maybe he’s supposed to go to secondary with Gemma already. Harry’s not sure he likes that thought.
Louis shrugs and doesn’t answer the question. Well, okay.
“D’you wanna play?” Harry asks him, because he’s spent the whole day at school already and he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore, especially when he’s here with Louis. But Louis shakes his head no and throws another pebble at the tree. Harry would ask what’s wrong, except Louis doesn't like it when he does that, so he doesn’t ask anything at all. He just looks at Louis’s glow to try and figure it out on his own. It’s sort of dim today, and not as warm as usual. That’s really not a good sign. He hopes it’s better tomorrow.
He gets his knees dirty and everyone laughs, but he doesn’t mind because he’s not paying them any attention anyway. He jumps right back up and flat-out runs to the fence that goes around the whole of the playground, because he needs to see– and, sure enough, he gets right up to the fence and Louis’s face on the other side is unmistakable.
“Louis?” he whispers, stunned, because he doesn’t know what else to say. Louis looks sweaty, like he’s been running, and there’s something about his face that’s just off even though Harry doesn’t know what it is. Still, it’s Louis, here and with him. Harry squishes his forehead against the metal of the fence and hooks his fingers through the spaces in it.
“Harry.” Louis makes a face. “I tried to go in and they wouldn’t let me.”
Harry’s tummy feels heavy and unpleasant suddenly. He never told Louis, but he sort of expected that to happen.
Still, he needs to hear about it. “What?” he asks Louis. “Why? Did you try the–” he gestures, “the thing where you disappear?”
Louis nods furiously. “Yeah. I tried that the second time. Only I tried to go into a classroom and I accidentally did it so people could see me now.” He frowns. He glows, but not really in a good way. “I– they didn’t throw me out right away.” He fiddles with the metal on the fence, not meeting Harry’s eyes. “They tried to ask me some questions, you know? Like, what was I doing here, where were my parents, and that. So I ran away and they couldn’t catch me.” He looks pretty pleased with himself for a moment before he deflates again, looking down at the ground.
Harry– Harry doesn’t know how he feels. Just, Louis is sad, and that is not okay. He pushes himself closer against the fence, trying to get closer to Louis– and then he feels hot all over, and suddenly the bit of the fence his face was leaning on isn’t there anymore. Harry looks down. It’s melted, and it’s run down the side of the fence and is now making a puddle on the ground, like rainwater.
This could be a good thing. This could help Louis sneak into the school. The only problem is that the gap is barely big enough for Harry to put his head through.
Louis looks at the gap in wonder. “Brilliant,” he breathes. “Harry, that’s genius.” Louis fits an arm into the gap and wriggles it around, glowing brightly. Harry reaches out and tickles the palm, giggling. Louis swats him away, but he’s smiling too.
“Okay,” Louis tells him, “now you just have to make it bigger and then I can go in.”
Harry’s never been able to use magic at will, but he tries now, he does. He focuses on the gap as much as he can, he closes his fists tightly, he shuts his eyes and screws his face up – but nothing happens. The gap stays much too small. Harry’s eyes prickle with tears. Why can’t he ever do magic when it actually matters?
“Louis,” he says, blinking hard. He can’t let Louis see him cry. “Louis, I can’t do it.”
Louis looks at him blankly. “Of course you can,” he says. “You did it before, just do it again, right? It’s not that hard.”
“No, it doesn't–” he concentrates harder, but still nothing, he’s still letting Louis down, “it doesn’t work like that, Lou, I can’t, I can’t do it.” He’s going to cry. He’s going to cry right here in front of Louis and it’ll just make everything worse. He wipes at his eyes angrily.
“What d’you mean you can’t?” Louis isn’t smiling anymore. “Come on, Harry, you can. Just do it again. That’s all.”
Harry shakes his head miserably. He tries to breathe deep but he can’t, he keeps making stupid hiccupy sounds, and everything’s going wrong, everything's going wrong– and then he hears the bell go off. No. Oh no.
He glances back towards the playground. Katie and Zoe and everyone else who was skipping are putting the rope away now, and people are climbing off the monkey bars and stopping their football games, and he can’t leave Louis here.
“Harry?” Louis asks. If Harry didn’t know better he’d say he was scared. “What’s going on?”
“I have to go,” Harry tells him, panicky. Louis’s eyes widen. Then they narrow.
“You have to go where?” he says suspiciously.
“To class,” Harry says helplessly. “I have class now. I’m so so sorry.”
“Oh, right,” Louis says. He doesn’t look friendly at all. He looks mean. “To class. With your friends. And you won’t let me in.”
“Lou, no, it’s not–”
“Okay,” Louis says, as if he hadn’t heard Harry at all. “I’ll just go, then.”
But Louis isn’t listening. He turns away even though Harry’s shouting after him and he starts running, really fast, even though Harry’s yelling at him to stop. Harry so desperately wishes he could make the gap bigger now so he could run after him, even though he’s never been able to outrun Louis, but the gap stays like it is so Harry stays where he is too, his hand reaching out through the gap and his eyes all wet and itchy.
Then, he gets angry.
Because he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t, and he told Louis, and Louis didn’t believe him and got mad at him instead. So he can stay mad. Harry’s not going to look for him anymore. He’ll make Louis come and find him instead and show him that Harry doesn’t need him around. He’s not going to chase after Louis anymore. That’ll show him.
(His resolve wavers a few times, though. What if Louis never wants Harry around again? What if he finds some new friends that aren’t little kids like him? What if he disappears? Each time, he tries to ignore it and immediately goes off to play with the other friends. See? Harry can have fun without Louis perfectly well.)
So he stops looking for Louis. He goes to the park with Sam and all the rest, but he pointedly does not look at the trees ever. Louis will come back and say sorry. Harry’s sure he will.
And so one day when Harry’s walking home from the park (he’s only sneaked two glances at the trees today, he’s getting better at it) he hears a strange sound and suddenly Louis is appearing right next to him. Harry jumps. Louis looks like he’s tripped on something because he falls to the floor in a heap right after appearing, and he lifts his head and sees Harry looking at him in shock. His eyes widen in panic and he screws them shut, presumably trying to make himself disappear again. He flickers a bit, but stays very much there, so he looks up at Harry again and groans.
Harry cannot possibly be mad at him anymore. “Hi,” he says. He can’t keep the smug smile off his face. “Were you following me around?”
Louis picks himself up off the floor and blinks. “What? No.” It’s really not very convincing. “I was just, um, practicing.” His face lights up then. “I got into school!”
Harry’s eyes widen. “What?”
Louis nods enthusiastically. “Yeah! Not yours, another one, but.” He pushes his hair out of his eyes. It’s getting quite long now. If Harry grew his hair that long his mum would have a fit. “I’ve been practicing. I can do this thing now–” He chews on his lip. “I mean, it’s not the same as the other thing. People see me. They just don’t remember me after. It’s easier.” He grins wide. “So now I can do whatever I like and no one notices.”
“That’s so cool,” Harry breathes. He’s envious for a moment. He’d love to be able to do that, do magic whenever he wanted. He’s wondered about Louis’s magic a few times, if it’s like his or different. Maybe this means he’s not like him after all.
“I know,” Louis grins. “So I just, like, go into whatever class I want and do what they do. The little kids are cool. They do colouring-in.”
“That’s much more fun than what I do,” Harry says, pouting a bit. It’s true. Being older is nice, but it also means school is much more boring. He misses when he used to do stuff like dressing up. Does Louis dress up if he goes with the little kids? He pictures Louis trying to fit into little-kid costumes and giggles.
Louis walks back home with him. Harry thinks this means they’re okay. Louis doesn’t say sorry for being mean to him, but Harry doesn’t say sorry for not making the gap bigger, either. Harry’s forgiven him anyway. Being with Louis again is so nice that it’s impossible for Harry to stay mad at him. In fact, he’s so not-mad now that when they get to the gate outside his house Harry tentatively asks him if he wants to come in. (He’s sure his mum won’t mind.) Louis says no, but Harry thinks it’s a different kind of no than usual. Louis doesn’t sound quite so sure of himself when he says it. Harry smiles secretly while he’s walking up to his front door. It’s only a matter of time.
Harry goes to school, and he thinks Louis goes to school too, and they’re not together as much anymore because Harry does things like homework and art lessons and visits his school friends’ houses and Louis goes off to do things Harry still has no clue about. (Does he have other friends now? Harry wonders sometimes.) But they’re still friends. They’re very much still friends, and Harry hasn’t told Louis but he’s pretty sure Louis counts as his best friend now. Sam and Greg and all the rest – they’re okay, they’re nice, they’re fun. But it’s not like how it is with Louis. It’s never like how it is with Louis.
Because Louis is there always. He’s wild and he’s unpredictable but if he’s not mad at Harry Harry always knows he’ll be able to find him if he looks for him. And Harry thinks about it and realizes that it’s not just that he likes playing with Louis because Louis is good at it, but also because when Harry plays with him it’s like Harry gets better at it too.
There’s also the magic thing. Harry’s friends know about it, but Harry knows they don’t really get it. Okay, he’s pretty sure Louis doesn’t get it either, but Louis is magic. In what way, Harry still doesn’t know, but the important bit is that he is. And having someone like that is lovely. Whenever Harry makes something happen, Louis doesn’t ooh and aah like his friends do; instead, he just looks at it closely and smiles knowingly at Harry. It makes Harry’s insides feel all warm.
So being with Louis is different. It’s something Harry can’t really put a name on, but– he and Louis, it’s like they’re really good at being each other’s friends. Like how Louis can sometimes know what Harry’s thinking even when he doesn’t say it out loud or like how Harry sometimes knows what Louis’s going to do even if it’s something strange and crazy and unpredictable. It’s nice, it’s better than nice, and whenever Harry is with him he just knows Louis is his best friend, because anything else is out of the question.
But Louis doesn’t want to meet Harry’s other friends. Harry would think it’s because he doesn’t like them very much, but he doesn’t want to meet Harry’s mum and sister either. Harry’s told him to come over a million times and he’s always said no, and the one or two times Harry's asked why he’s refused to answer. It’s worse because Harry’s mum keeps nagging at him, too; ever since he told her about Louis she’s been telling him to invite him over and he’s always had to tell her that Louis doesn’t want to come. Whenever he says this and Gemma’s around she doesn’t say anything, but the look on her face says it all. Harry’s not stupid. he knows she still thinks Louis is a made-up person and that Harry makes excuses so he doesn’t have to admit it. Harry is dying for Louis to see his room and his books and his Legos and his Lord of the Rings posters, but he also kind of wants Louis to come over to prove Gemma wrong. He’s not having much luck so far.
“But why don’t you want to come?” he asks Louis while they’re both in the park, swinging idly. Louis shrugs. “No, real reason,” Harry says.
Louis starts kicking his feet into the ground and pushing himself higher. Harry reaches out and grabs the chain, stopping the swing. The chain clacks and Louis almost falls off. He glares at Harry. “What’d you do that for?”
“Answer me,” Harry pouts.
Louis huffs irritatedly. His hand comes up to run through his hair, which has been sitting on his head in uneven chunks ever since Harry tried to cut it for him last week with his school scissors. (See, that’s more proof that Louis is his best friend. Sam would never let Harry cut her hair.) “I’ve told you, I just don’t want to.” Harry opens his mouth to argue because he’s been thinking about this and coming up with the most persuasive arguments he possibly can, but then Louis mumbles, “Your mum’s gonna ask questions and I don’t like them, okay?”
Harry almost falls off his swing. “So if I make her not ask questions you’ll come?” he asks excitedly.
Louis shrugs and starts swinging again. Harry doesn’t stop him this time. His mind is racing. He needs a plan.
That evening, when his mum gets home, he asks her, “If I convince Louis to come over do you promise to not ask him any questions?”
She looks up from the spaghetti she’s cooking. “What?”
“I talked to Louis today,” he explains patiently. “He said he doesn’t want to come because he doesn’t like people asking him questions. So you just have to promise you won’t and then you can meet him.”
His mum looks amused. “What kind of questions?”
Harry thinks about it. “Well,” he says. “Questions like ‘are you staying for tea’ are okay, I think. Just don’t ask him about his mum and dad, or why he glows, or anything like that.”
His mum nods. Her face still looks like he’s said something funny, though. “Deal,” she says. “Bring him over whenever you like. On weekdays you know I don’t get home until six, though, so if he wants to come over–”
“I can make toast if he’s hungry,” Harry says quickly. “Or get Gemma to make anything else.”
His mum laughs. “Okay, then,” she tells him. “I do look forward to meeting him.”
Harry looks at her suspiciously. He still can’t tell if she thinks Louis is real or made-up. Well – it doesn’t really matter now, anyway. Louis’s going to come over and he’s going to prove all of them wrong. Harry will make sure he does.
Louis blinks and doesn’t move. It’d taken Harry a while to even persuade him to come (“I didn’t even say I’d go! I just said I don’t like people asking me questions”) and now he’s stock-still in front of the gate. He’s never this still. He must really not like questions.
“Come on,” Harry says again, and he takes Louis’s wrist and leads him through the gate and up to the door. Louis doesn’t complain, at least. Harry takes that as a good sign. He knocks on the door and glances at Louis. For a moment, Harry’s sure the look on his face means he’s going to disappear or run away. Or both. But then the door opens, and Gemma’s face pops out, and Louis is very much still there. Harry squeezes Louis’s wrist for reassurance. Gemma’s eyes are wide.
“Who’s this?” she asks Harry in disbelief. Beside him, Louis tenses. Wait, that’s right– he forgot to tell Gemma not to ask questions, too. Whoops.
“This is Louis,” he tells Gemma confidently. Gemma’s eyes go even wider. “Can we come in now?”
Very slowly, Gemma swings the door open and steps out of the way. She looks at them as they go in, Harry still holding Louis’s wrist. “But I thought he was…”
Harry grins, smug and wide. “I know you did. D’you wanna go upstairs?” he asks Louis, and Louis nods, looking relieved. Gemma’s still looking at them in disbelief as they go up the stairs. This is the best day ever.
Louis jumps on Harry’s bed one more time and then collapses onto it, face-down and giggling. He’s sweaty and flushed and glowing bright and Harry knows jumping on the bed’s not allowed but his mum isn’t home yet and this feels like it’s worth it anyway.
“I know,” Louis mumbles into Harry’s pillow. “It’s funny when you’re annoyed at me, though.”
Harry kicks Louis’s foot from where he’s sprawled out on the bed a little further along. “You suck.”
Louis only giggles again and kicks him back. Then he looks at the bedding thoughtfully and starts to roll around in it, making himself a cocoon like a caterpillar-butterfly. He seems curiously fascinated with Harry’s bed, Harry thinks. It’s almost like he’s never seen one before.
Louis finishes rolling himself up and looks at Harry upside-down. “Hey, why’d your sister make that face when she saw me?”
“Oh, that’s just ‘cause she thought you weren’t real,” Harry says dismissively.
Louis’s face goes serious. “What? Why?”
“I–” Harry frowns and realizes he actually doesn’t know how to explain. “I think because I told her you glow? She wouldn’t believe me so she thought I was making you up.”
Slowly, Louis unrolls himself, and when he’s sprawled out on the bed again he inspects his own arms and hands. “But, like,” he says, looking like he’s concentrating hard, “you also do things, right?” Louis never calls it magic. “So does she think you’re not real either?”
“I think she doesn’t,” Harry says. He’s never thought about it, but it would be very weird for Gemma to think he was made-up too. “But she can see me, and she hadn’t seen you before, so.”
Louis looks at Harry. He looks like he really is trying to understand. “So am I real, then?”
“Yes,” Harry says immediately. If he had any doubts left, Gemma’s reaction proved everything.
Louis is now feeling his body, his arms, his chest. “But how do you know?”
Harry thinks about it. He supposes he could tell Louis about people seeing him, and about how people don’t actually see you if you’re not there. Or that him being here now proves he doesn’t just exist in the trees. But neither of those things sounds much like proof when he thinks about them.
So he does something else. He crawls up to Louis and he puts a hands on Louis’s chest, feeling around. Was it the right side or the left side? Harry can’t remember, so he feels all over, just in case. He finds it just as Louis asks him what he’s doing, and he grins wide.
He takes his hand off. “Okay, feel there,” he tells Louis.
Louis does and frowns. “I don’t feel anything.”
“You do,” Harry tells him. “You just have to pay attention.” He frowns, takes Louis’s hand and moves it around, pressing down. Louis’s eyes widen.
“Okay,” Louis says. “Okay, I feel it.”
“That’s your heart,” Harry tells him.
“I knew that,” Louis says. “I go to school, remember?”
Harry does remember. He doesn’t know what Louis actually does there, though. He’s asked him to come to his class a few times, but Louis always says that he likes it better when he gets to go in whatever class he likes and that he doesn’t go to Harry’s school, anyways. Harry just assumed he did colouring-in with the little kids all day. Do they learn about organs and bones and things in Reception?
Anyway. “If you can feel your heart beating you know you’re alive,” he tells Louis. “So there you go.”
“Cool,” Louis says, but there’s something like relief on his face. The next thing he does is jump up and start jumping on the bed again, though, so Harry can’t be too sure.
Harry’s spent the entire afternoon expecting a chance to show off his toast skills, but Louis hasn’t told him he’s hungry, so.
Anyway, it’s past six now and Harry drags Louis down the stairs as soon as he hears the front door close, because Louis’s not getting out of meeting his mum. He doesn’t look too happy about it, but not in the panicky sense, just in the sulky one, so Harry thinks he’ll be okay.
And he is. At first, Louis seems – not shy, Louis’s never shy, but just, like, not wanting to talk at all. But Harry’s mum smiles at him in her mumsy way and says (not asks), “You must be Louis, then. Harry’s always talking about you,” which makes Harry’s face get a bit hot because that’s embarrassing and he doesn’t talk about Louis that much, anyway.
But his mum is lovely to Louis, actually, and before Harry knows it Louis’s right back to his usual chatty self. He somehow ends up staying for tea, and it’s amazing to see how nicely he fits. He joins the conversation like he’s been there forever and not just an afternoon; even Gemma seems to like him when she’s gotten over the shock. (Harry’s still smug about it.) It’s weird, but a good weird, because Harry’d never in a million years thought he’d get to see Louis sitting with his family and telling the story about petting that dog he’d told Harry the other day. But he is here. And he could be here more often, Harry knows. It could be like this – maybe not all the time, but. Enough times to get used to it.
Maybe. If his mum still agrees to not ask questions. If she still lets him be friends with Louis even though she knows nothing about him. Harry gets an urge to cross his fingers, just in case.
Harry’d say the only time he sees Louis get tense at all is when it’s time to go. He can’t stay the night here, Harry knows. He also knows he’d probably love to, judging by the way he was looking at Harry’s bed before. Has Louis ever slept in a bed? Does he even sleep? Harry’ll have to ask him at some point.
Anyway, so after they’ve finished his mum asks Louis, how’s he getting home? Will his mum pick him up? She can take him home if he wants. Harry sees the way Louis tenses up and decides that was probably one of the questions she wasn’t meant to ask. So he quickly says, “Oh, he lives right next to us, he’ll just walk home.” His mum, thankfully, looks convinced, so that’s how they end up where they are: Louis on Harry’s doorstep, Harry on the other side of the open door, not wanting to shut it. It’s just– it’s been the best afternoon in ages. He doesn’t want Louis to go.
“That was nice,” Louis says, quietly, like he doesn’t want Harry’s mum to hear.
“I told you,” Harry says. Louis smirks at him. Harry slaps him on the arm. Then, a bit more hesitant, he asks, “Where’re you gonna go now, anyway?”
Louis shrugs. “Just–” he makes a vague gesture with his arms and then drops them, and explains nothing else. “You know. Wherever.” What? Harry thinks, and he’s going to ask for details but then Louis says, “Can I come back, then?”
“Of course,” Harry says, shocked Louis even has to ask. He’s planning to sneak Louis in as often as he can now. If his mum liked Louis as much as she seemed to, maybe he won’t have to sneak him in at all.
They say goodbye, eventually, and Harry shuts the door but he can’t resist opening it a crack to watch Louis leave. His glow is visible as he walks all the way down the road. It’s nighttime already – the days are getting shorter and shorter, which Harry always gets excited about because short days means winter and winter means Christmas and snow – and the stars are out, twinkling high up in the sky like they’re saying hello. By the time Harry looks back down at the road, Louis is gone.
“So where does Louis live, anyway?” his mum asks him the next morning as she’s walking him to school.
Harry almost trips over his own feet. Oh no. If she starts asking him Louis questions he’s going to have to make everything up. “Just, you know,” he says vaguely. “Around.” A sudden flash of inspiration comes, and he quickly adds, “Near the park.”
“Oh,” his mum says. “Is that why you’re always so eager to go, then?” Harry nods seriously. He’s being convincing, isn’t he? He glances up at his mum and she’s smiling. Good. “I can see why,” she says. “He’s lovely. A little on the chatty side but…” She looks at him in her mum-way. “You look happy when you’re with him. He looks like a good friend.”
Harry fidgets a little and looks down at his feet. “He is.”
Is she going to stop asking him now? Harry fervently hopes she does, crosses his fingers inside his coat pocket, but it doesn’t seem to work, because then his mum is saying, “Do you think I could talk to his mum someday, then?”
Oh no. This is not good. Harry thinks furiously and tries to act normal. “Er,” he says, his heart beating fast, “um, maybe not.” He realizes he probably needs to explain why, so he hurriedly says, “I don’t think Louis would want you to, I mean.” Which is true. “I, um– he says she’s not very nice.”
Harry’s mum is frowning, but they’re finally at the school gates now, so Harry sees his chance. “Okay, bye, mum!” he says quickly, and hugs her goodbye. She hugs him back, and Harry goes into the school gates before she can ask him anything else. Good. That was close.
He’s walking into the playground when he realizes his mum hasn’t asked him how come Louis glows. He frowns. That’s probably the strangest thing about Louis, right? So why? Now that he thinks about it, how come he’s never seen anyone look at Louis like the way he glows is a weird thing? Maybe they’re used to it. Maybe there’s glowy people somewhere out there that Harry’s never seen. Either way, Harry’s not going to ask his mum about it. Just in case.
Being at home is nicer when Louis’s there. Everything is nicer when Louis’s there. Even Harry’s magic works better, he realizes. He does more of it, and he changes bigger things. It’s even better than when he’s with Miss Wheel and she’s trying to help him use it. Harry doesn’t know why, but it doesn’t matter.
Harry doesn’t ask his mum if Louis can spend the night at home. She’s never let anyone stay without talking to their mum first, not even Sam, even though they’ve known each other since they were little babies. So he can’t risk it. Louis never asks, but Harry knows he wants to.
But then the snow comes.
Christmas is near now, but they’ve only had ice so far, not snow. Harry doesn’t like ice very much. He’s fallen and bumped his bum twice already, and his friends laughing at him hasn’t really helped. But he wakes up one Sunday and he looks out of the window and there’s snow, actual snow. The sky is white and the roofs of the houses are white and the backyard is white and Harry gets so excited he tries to run down the stairs and out of the door in just his pyjamas, because he wants to see. (His mum intercepts him and says where do you think you’re going, young man, though, so he’s forced to have breakfast and put on his coat and gloves and winter boots first.)
And then after he’s run around and made a snowman and thrown snowballs at Gemma, he suddenly thinks what about Louis?
Has Louis seen snow before? Does he even know what it is? And, wait, what’s he going to do now? Maybe there’s a reason people ask questions – maybe there’s a reason grown-ups want to know if Louis has a mum and dad, if he has a house. Because they’re things someone needs. For the first time, Harry tries to imagine living without a house, without anyone to look after him. It makes him shiver.
So – there are so many things Louis doesn’t have, then. He doesn’t have a family, he doesn’t have a bed, he doesn’t have any clothes apart from the ones Harry brings him – sweaters and gloves now, enough to keep warm during the walk home from school but definitely not to sleep somewhere all alone. Harry sits on the steps of the backyard door and thinks hard, panicking a bit. Does Louis eat anything apart from what Harry brings him sometimes and what he eats at Harry’s house? Did he ever have a house or a family or has he been living outside ever since he was little? How come he doesn’t have a mum or a dad? Harry’s such a horrible friend. Why did he never think of all this?
He doesn’t know what to do. He can’t even tell his mum. Harry doesn’t know what happens to children who have no house, but he’s never seen any of them here. If he tells a grown-up about Louis they’ll take him away. He can’t let them do that.
What’s Louis doing right now? He must be so cold. Harry has to go and find him.
But his mum catches him on the way out again. She tells him off for not taking his boots off to come into the house and leaving snow everywhere, and then she seems to realize what he’s doing and tells him there’s no way he’s going out in this weather. Harry looks outside and sees the snow has started falling, bits of white that the wind throws against the windows. He’ll try again this afternoon, then. He has to find Louis. Somehow, he has to.
He makes it past his mum after lunch, but the snow has really picked up now, and as soon as he opens the front door he gets hit in the face by freezing-cold wind and snowflakes. No. He squints, trying to see past the road, but he can barely make out the rows of houses on the other side.
He’s never going to find Louis like this. He wouldn’t be able to see him if he was outside the gate right now. Even trying is no use, he knows this, but when he steps inside and closes the door behind him it feels horrible. It’s like he’s giving up.
The snow doesn’t stop all afternoon. His mum checks the school website and finds out it’ closed tomorrow. Harry would usually be happy about this – it’s like early Christmas holidays – but today he goes to bed and cries until he falls asleep.
That was a horrible dream. He’s glad he can’t really remember it, because it was awful, awful. It was so cold. And there was also Louis, Louis and the cold, and something else, something terrifying… something that was coming to get them.
Then, there’s a noise.
It comes from the window. Harry’s s scared he can’t move at all. It’s coming, it’s coming to get him, maybe it’s gotten Louis already and it’s his turn now. Louis. Louis, who’s out there in the cold. Harry can hear his own heartbeat, fast in his ears and terribly loud. He dimly remembers he can do magic. Where’s the magic now? Why can’t he make it go away?
The noise of the window comes again, louder. Harry can’t move. He can’t get away–
–but then he hears something else. It’s not a tap like it’d been before – it’s a word. Harry’s shocked for a moment – it can talk?– but then he forces himself to look right at the window. Oh. He feels weak with relief, and he loosens his hold on the covers a little. It’s a person. And its messy hair and small-ish figure and the way it glows gently against the night very much confirms it’s Louis.
“Harry!” It’s one of those whispers that are like a shout at the same time.
Harry collapses out of bed and runs over to the window. The glass is cold. He fumbles with the latch and struggles to pull it open, and when he does, icy wind blasts into the room – he shivers furiously in his pyjamas – and Louis falls through it.
Harry slams the window shut, forgetting to be quiet in case his mum’s awake, and looks at him. Louis’s soaked all over. His hair is all stuck to his face and his clothes are dark and wet and he’s making a puddle on Harry’s bedroom floor. He’s not even wearing any shoes. But he’s not shivering and he’s glowing softly, like Harry’s night-light when it’s on: he lights the darkness up. It’s like he’s not even cold at all.
“Hi,” he whispers to Harry when he meets his eye. “Can I stay here tonight?”
“Of course,” Harry answers immediately. He looks around wildly. He doesn’t know how to handle this. Where’s he supposed to start? “Are you cold?” he whispers urgently. “Hold on, I’ll get you some dry clothes. And a towel.” He opens his wardrobe and squints into it through the dark. Louis comes up behind him, though, so he can see; he grabs dry comfy clothes and puts them down on the bed. “Those are for you,” he tells Louis. “I’ll get you a towel now, hold on.”
He quietly sneaks out of his room and brings a towel back from the bathroom for Louis, because he has so many questions, of course he does, but he has to help Louis get warm first; when he hands Louis the towel he takes it with a weird little smile and starts taking his clothes off and drying himself. (Harry doesn’t know what to do with the wet clothes, so he sneaks out to the bathroom again and dumps them all in the bathtub while Louis’s getting dressed. He’ll sort that out tomorrow.)
“Are you still cold?” he asks Louis when he gets back.
“What?” Louis says.
Harry frowns. It wasn’t that hard a question. “Are you still cold?” he asks again. “I mean, you can get in bed if you like. I guess you’d be warmer like that.”
Louis smiles. “I’m not cold.”
What? “What?” Harry says. He was in the snow all day. How can he not be cold?
“I don’t get cold,” Louis announces proudly. Harry just blinks. “Look,” Louis says, and he reaches out and touches Harry’s hand. Harry feels a jolt. Louis’s hand is warmer than Harry’d been when he was in bed. He doesn’t understand, but it’s wonderful.
Louis just smiles at him, and Harry holds his hand tighter. It feels so nice. Harry’s eyes suddenly feel droopy. “You can stay here,” he tells Louis. “‘Course. Come on.”
Harry gets into bed and Louis slips in after him, mumbling something about how the snow’s nice during the day, really, but he doesn’t like it at all at night so that’s why he came here. Harry only pays a bit of attention to it. He can’t remember if he’s ever slept in a bed with a boy before – Greg’s mum has always made him a separate one every time he’s stayed over – but it doesn’t really matter anyway, he decides, because this is Louis, not some other boy. He’s warm and glowy and safe. He’s not talking anymore, so Harry closes his eyes. He curls up into Louis without really meaning to, and Louis just moves a little so they fit better. Harry falls asleep like that, not even remembering there’s snow outside.
Louis isn't there the next morning. But Harry wakes up with a strange wonderful warmth inside, and there’s wet clothes in the bath and his biggest hoodie isn’t in his wardrobe anymore. It was real, then. Harry hopes he comes back.
(He wakes up sometimes from nightmares in the middle of the night. Louis’s asleep most of those times, but he still glows gently. It makes the darkness not look so dark. It makes things better.)
Harry worries, at first, that his mum will notice. He doesn’t know what she’d do if she did, but he knows it’s better if it doesn’t happen. But then Louis explains that if she ever came in while he was there, he’d just do the thing he does at school. Harry thinks he understands now: it’s not that people don’t see Louis, it’s that they forget about him the moment they stop looking at him. It took a lot of practice, Louis explains, sounding quite proud of himself. Anyway, his mum comes in to check on him one time when Louis’s there, and she says hi to him as if it were completely normal for him to be there and doesn’t even look at him before she leaves, so. Harry knows that it works, even if he doesn’t know how.
Louis staying over becomes one of those things that happen so often you just know they’re going to be there, like breakfast in the morning or a bath instead of a shower on Sunday night. Harry sort of forgets it wasn’t always like this. He supposes, then, that it won’t always be like this. Maybe Louis will stop coming once it’s not so cold anymore. He doesn’t like to think about that.
But the snow goes away eventually, and Louis stays.
He’ll sometimes catch bits of his mum’s conversations with her friends. They say things like oh, how long has it been since that? Six years already? It’s like they’re always surprised by time passing. Harry doesn’t understand how whole months, whole years can pass without you noticing. It’s such a long time. What do they do to make it go by so quickly?
The days pass and the months pass, and the weather changes, from sun to rain to snow and back again. He knows this. He notices this. But it seems so huge, all of it, especially when one year ends and the next one begins (it takes ages for him to stop writing the old year on the dates in his school notebooks). He goes to school and he gets holidays from school and he sees his friends and goes to their birthday parties, watching them turn a year older. He moves from Year Four to Year Five to Year Six, and his sleeves get too short and his shoes get too small and the pencil marks on the kitchen wall where his mum measures how tall he is get higher and higher up. Relatives tell him how much he’s grown, even though he looks in the mirror and sees himself exactly the same as always. And his birthdays feel a little bit strange, too, apart from hugely exciting; he has to spend at least a week after each one telling himself, I’m ten. I’m ten years old. I’m a person who is ten now. He grows, but he doesn’t feel like a person who is growing. He just feels like himself.
If he ever thinks of a future where he’s older, it’s hazy and far away. (He thinks, now, that he’d like to be a zookeeper when he grows up. Also, having lots of babies would be nice. But that’s for when he becomes an actual grown-up, and there’s so much time left that he doesn’t have to worry about it.) It’s something that grown-ups, he’s noticed, don’t really do. The future is as much a part of their lives as the moment they’re in now.
So that’s how it is. That’s how it happens. And as things change, slowly, without him really paying much attention to it, his magic also changes.
It becomes less strange, more focused. Harry doesn’t notice right away and can’t possibly tell when the change started, but it’s like this: it does what he wants it to more often now, instead of being strange and accidental and nonsensical. Where before he made trees twist and furniture float and and the pavement crack, now he can make the dishes clean themselves sometimes, or make Gemma’s bedroom door disappear when he’s mad at her. It’s great. (But he maybe worries every so often, in secret, because the big things – the really big things – he can’t do them anymore. He hasn’t made it snow in ages, and the things he changes look like they’re getting smaller and smaller. It can’t mean anything, though. Maybe it’s some sort of compensation? He gets to do what he wants now, but he can’t do really big things anymore. Or not. Whatever.)
He has no one to talk about it with, anyway. His mum doesn’t understand, and Miss Wheel, for all that she’s his magic teacher, has yet to do magic in front of Harry. She probably doesn’t even have any. His friends don’t really get it either, and he doesn’t talk to Gemma about these things. And then there’s Louis, of course, there’s always Louis, but– he doesn’t like to talk about that. Even though he’s magic himself (Harry assumes) it’s… not like that. They aren’t friends because of the magic, they’re friends because of everything else.
Louis still very much glows, though. It’s just who he is, he’s just like that, and Harry more or less takes it for granted after so long. It just– it makes sense for Louis to glow, Harry finds himself thinking sometimes. He’s loud and he’s bright and he’s unpredictable and magic and brilliant. If someone has to glow, that someone has to be Louis. Harry knows this even though he’s not exactly sure why he does.
Maybe it’s just because they’re best friends that he thinks it. Harry’s never had another best friend, so he’s not sure how the rules work. With Louis he doesn’t need them, anyway.
They don’t play as much now, maybe because they’re older and don’t do those things anymore. Every time they go back to the park, or the trees, the only kids they see are little ones – smaller than Harry, definitely smaller than Louis. They still have fun there, though, because they’re best friends and that’s what best friends do. And, privately, Harry thinks Louis still goes into the trees to sleep the times he doesn’t climb up to Harry’s window (he’s still very good at climbing) and sneaks into his room. His mum has never caught him there. Louis likes to brag about that whenever he can.
So it all goes on. Harry turns eleven, and he finishes his last year of Primary, which is exciting and a little bit sad, but other than that he doesn’t really feel like things are changing that much. He looks back a couple of years and there’s a difference, of course there is, because back then he used to be a little kid and now he’s not – but here, now, things stay mostly as they are. Knowing things have changed isn’t the same as things changing right now, and even though things changing is sometimes exciting, things staying the same is nice, and safe, and Harry doesn’t mind it at all.
He’s never had a family. Harry thinks how terribly lonely that must have been. What did he do before he met Harry? What did he do when he was little and had no one to look after him? That’s why he’s so good at taking care of himself, Harry knows. If he always knows what to do and how to do it, better than Harry can, it’s because that’s what he’s always had to do.
Harry also knows that Louis isn't a normal person. It’s not really the magic or the glowing, because Harry can do magic too so he’s never thought of it as especially weird. But there’s other things: how he never gets cold or sick and rarely gets tired at all, how he doesn’t seem to need much food or water either.
Louis usually doesn’t like to talk about himself, but sometimes he’ll tell Harry little things at night when it’s just the two of them. He hasn’t always lived here; he comes from somewhere else. He likes being outdoors more than he likes being in buildings. (Harry doesn’t ask, but he does wonder how come he comes to sleep with him, then.) And he also asks questions that let Harry know how much he doesn’t know, how there are normal everyday things that he doesn’t quite understand. Maybe it’s because he never had anyone to teach them to him. Why do I sometimes see things happen when I’m asleep? What happens when people die? Why do people love each other? He asks them quietly, like he’s embarrassed about it. Harry explains as best as he can. It’s harder than it looks like.
So it’s like this, then, when he realizes:
The window is open because it’s summer and it’s dark outside and Harry’s lying belly-up on his bed and Louis’s looking out, leaning out of the window. They’re not talking. Harry watches Louis and wonders what he’s looking at. He cranes his neck and tries to see, but there’s nothing apart from the yellow light of the streetlamps and the row of houses opposite and the sky, big and dark blue and starry. Harry makes a grumbly noise and rolls his face over onto the sheets.
“Where I’m from,” Louis says suddenly, not facing Harry but looking out of the window, “it was different from here, you know?”
Harry rolls onto his back again and looks at Louis upside-down. “Yeah? How?”
Louis glances at him and shrugs. “Dunno. It wasn’t– not like this. It was different.” He sounds frustrated, like he can’t quite explain it properly. “Some things were better there. And the people, they were…” He trails off, looking like he’s thinking hard, and then shrugs again. “I can’t really remember much.”
“How come you’re here, then?” Harry asks, because Louis sounds like he doesn’t mind talking about it.
Louis half-turns his face, so he’s not quite facing Harry but not looking away, either. “I don’t know,” he says. “I just remember, like– I was there, right?” He glances out of the window, up at the sky, like he can’t help himself. “I remember being there. And I remember then I was here but– the bit in between?” He frowns hard. “I can’t– I mean, there was a load of light, I think, and then– I don’t know.”
Which is weird, and not like any journey Harry’s ever heard of. Still, it should be easy to just pass it off as one of Louis’s strange things – there are a whole lot of them already, one more wouldn’t actually matter – but he can’t quite do it. It niggles away at the back of his mind, like it’s something he should be worried about. He has no idea why.
There’s a pause, and then Louis carries on talking. It sounds like something he wants to get off his chest. “I only remember the trees. You know, the ones next to the park?” Harry nods, because what other trees could they be? “Um, I was there for a while. And then you showed up, and then. You know.”
So– was Harry the first person to see Louis here? It makes sense. Harry doesn’t like it.
He thinks back to meeting Louis for the first time, back when he was eight. It feels like it was ages ago. Remembering it, he feels like he was such a little kid. He thinks back to going off into the trees and playing on his own. Why? He can’t remember. Was he upset about something?
He was, he remembers dimly. He was upset because… because, right, he’d had those nights he spent crying because he realized everyone was going to die. It was ages ago, but he still doesn’t really like thinking about it. He remembers the horrible helplessness, and the panic and guilt, and how lonely the house felt at night… and one of those nights, hadn’t something happened one of those nights that he should remember?
He looks at Louis, who’s leaning out of the open window again, his elbows on the windowsill, looking up at the stars. The sight feels oddly familiar.
“D’you miss it?” he hears himself say, even though he has no clue why he said it at all.
Louis turns to face Harry. He looks surprised at the question, but not upset. He glows gently, brighter than the streetlights outside. “It was… nice,” he says. “I just– yeah, sometimes I just want to go back.”
Harry knows him. He knows just from looking at Louis that that means he does miss it, very much.
Maybe, Harry thinks, that’s where Louis’s parents are. Maybe he’s here all alone because he doesn’t know how to get back to them. (Harry remembers going on his first overnight school trip back when he was little and crying all through the night because he missed home. He understands, then, why Louis would want to go back.) But why can’t he get back to them? How could he have travelled so far on his own and not been able to go back? Maybe he got lost, but it’s been ages now. He could have told a grown-up and asked them the way.
“Louis,” Harry says slowly, frowning, “where are you from?”
It’s the sort of question Louis usually refuses to answer. Harry finds himself hoping, for some reason, that he doesn’t answer it today either.
But Louis answers. He stretches out his hand a little and points up at the sky. “Up there. Why?”
For a moment, Harry is completely baffled. What? How? What does he mean? Maybe he lived in a really high place. Like a tower, or a skyscraper. But as Harry’s opening his mouth to ask, frowning, it hits him.
It’s like putting puzzle pieces down into place. The glowing. The climbing. The magic. Louis always being confused by everyday things, normal things. Not getting cold, or eating; not being able to go back to where he came from. And that night, that night when Harry looked out of the window and saw so many stars, and did the biggest magic he’s ever done, and looking back and not being able to find the star he was looking for–
His stomach feels like it’s dropped out of his body. No. No.
“Harry?” he hears Louis say. He blinks, and he realizes Louis’s face is right up close to his, looking at him strangely. “Harry, are you okay?”
Harry looks back at Louis and forces himself to nod. He’s never felt more like a liar in his life. He hopes Louis doesn’t notice.
For the first time, he finds himself hoping Louis doesn’t stay the night. The knowledge weighs him down, heavy and terrible. A star. A star. Louis is a star, and he’s here because of Harry. How can Harry sleep next to him when he knows that now? But Louis stays, of course. When they get in bed, Harry has to roll over and face the wall to avoid looking at Louis, but he’s still terribly aware of the warmth beside him, of the glow Louis casts around the room.
Harry screws his eyes shut and tries to think about anything else. He can’t. Because the guilt he feels takes over everything, controls all his thoughts so he can’t get away. He curls in on himself, crossing his arms over his belly, the sheets rustling as he moves. He did this. He did all this to Louis. How can he ever make it right again?
He took Louis away from everything he knew. He made him come here, alone, without a home and without having any idea where he was at all. He’s the reason Louis has no family. He’s the reason Louis will never go back to where he belongs.
In that moment, Harry would do anything to fix it. Even if it meant Louis leaving him. He wants Louis to be back home again, wants it so badly he feels like he could burst with it– but nothing happens, no magic comes, because it never does when he really needs it, does it? Wasn’t it supposed to change things when he really wanted them to change? He knows that right now there’s nothing he wants more than to make things right. So why can’t he?
Harry wants to cry. He wants to cry so hard he shakes with it, wants to shout and kick things and rip things until this terrible ache inside him is gone. But Louis is here with him, his breathing already slow and steady, and Harry can’t do that now.
So he curls in further on himself and digs his fingers into his sides, and can do nothing but squeeze his eyes shut and try not to notice the warmth of Louis beside him, a star, a star.