Niall never really knew his parents. All he knew where stories people told him, the people who looked down on him, people who didn’t like him; just like they didn’t like his parents. Stories about alcholism and drugs, about the love that never existed and the relief when Niall was finally taken away, into the system.
Niall wasn’t sure how he was supposed to react to these stories.
He didn’t like the people who told them, and he wanted to believe it meant that they weren’t true, but he could never be sure. There were people like him around him, in the house full of children with dead parents, parents who couldn’t take care of them, parents who didn’t want to take care of them, and they were told the same stories he was.
It didn’t really matter, Niall told himself. He was still there, whatever the reason for it was. And he knew for sure that his parents were alive, so if they didn’t care to see him, to contact him, then he didn’t care enough to think about them.
Instead he created himself something else to think about. Friends and worlds, that only belonged to him, that no one else could reach, that no one could shatter. He built himself a new life, that was better than the previous one. It wasn’t actually real, but it was what he could bear.
He was a happy child, people said. He smiled a lot, laughed a lot, and he didn’t get into fights with the other children. What people didn’t say was, that the smiles and bursts of laughter were only for himself, and the lack of fights was due to the lack of interaction. Niall spent his days in his room, talking to a small stuffed baby penguin, a scruffy black-and-white picture on the wall and a tiny plastic soldier, standing on the edge of his night stand. He told them stories, lived them, and the adults said that if he weren’t crazy, he could’ve been something great.
(Only Niall knew he already was great. He was much better than the other kids, he was unpredictable, his own person, not like them, made in the same mold, identical faces and souls after another, identical names, identical worlds.)
When Niall went to school, the adults sighed in relief. The boy seemed to have a brain, and he did well, better than most of the kids. Teachers worried about how he didn’t seem to want to play with the other kids, but the adults said it was only because he was shy, even though the truth was that they were boring, and waste of his time. Niall never told this to the adults, he ignored their grey faces and stuck to his world.
Niall didn’t spend less time with his friends, the penguin, picture and soldier, now that he had school, but he taught them more about the world, instead of just making up stories. Not that he gave up on the stories – he had more to think about, more to understand, more to learn and use, more to sculpture his world with.
And when he was thirteen, his world was perfect. That was also when it began to crack.
It wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t. He took care of his world as best as he could, and his best was the best there was. It was just, that one day when he came home, and there was something there, that hadn’t been before. It had come unexpected, and it’s face wasn’t grey as everything else’s.
The boy sat on the edge of a bed with ugly brown covers, and stared down at his hands until he heard Niall drop his backpack on the floor. He had longish, brown, curly hair, and when he raised his gaze, Niall could see green eyes behind the locks that had fallen on the boy’s forehead.
”Who are you?” Niall asked.
He didn’t like not knowing. He didn’t like not knowing, not when usually he knew everything.
”I’m Harry,” the boy said and sighed.
”You don’t look like a Harry. You look more like Alex.”
The boy snorted. ”Well, that’s not my name.”
Niall stared at the boy until the colors became too bright and he had to look away.
The boy. Harry. He wasn’t Niall’s imagination, but he wasn’t part of the real world either.
”People say you’re crazy.”
Niall didn’t look up from his physics book, just flipped another page and ignored the green eyes that were staring down at him. ”I’m not.”
”I know. That’s just what they say.”
Niall snorted. ”I know what they say.”
Niall had become to know the feeling now, the restlessness, that creaped under his skin when he wanted to know something, but couldn’t find it out just by observing. It was like curiosity, almost like the feeling when he got another book in his hands, but it had more itch in it, that didn’t leave him alone until he scratched it so it bled.
”Why are you telling me then?”
”I just wanted you to know that I know. That I don’t care.”
Niall cocked his brow as he looked up and added as much mockery in his voice as he could. ”And why would I care about what you think?”
Harry actually smiled. ”You talk to me.”
It was so true that Niall couldn’t get back to reading, not even if the boy disturbing his mind left a second after his words, leaving them to pollute the air.
”What do you think about the others?”
”What do you mean?”
”The other kids. Like Shannon, what do you think of her?”
Niall rolled his eyes, gathering the plates from the kitchen table and carrying them to the sink, where Harry was his arms elbow-deep in soap water.
”I don’t know any Shannon, they’re all shapeless mass to me.”
Harry threw a doubtful look at him and then another plate into the cabinet. ”Have you even looked?”
”Of course I have. I see every one of them every day, but they never caught my attention, they’re like a blur in my vision.”
Harry hummed thoughtfully. ”Then I guess you should get glasses.”
”Who is this?”
It was frightening, the sight of Harry sitting on Niall’s bed, legs bend under him, fingers brushing the plastic soldier that had only ever been touched by Niall.
”I know it’s yours. But who is it?”
The boy had suddenly crawled under Niall’s skin, made him cautious about everything around him. He had taken his privacy, his world, and flattened it between his palms, forcing it to face the reality.
He had become what Niall feared, a factor he couldn’t control.
”What do you mean ‘who’. It’s only a toy.”
”Don’t lie to me, please.”
Maybe it was the sadness in Harry’s voice that blinded him, or maybe he just really had become crazy, but he sat down on the bed next to Harry and reached for the toy and rested it on his palm so the other boy could see it too.
”His name is Liam.”
Niall shrugged. ”He looks like Liam.”
”And this, then?”
Harry held up the stuffed penguin.
”Because it looks like Louis?”
Niall smiled. ”Yeah. And that,” he pointed at the picture on the wall, ”is Zayn.”
Harry laughed. ”It looks more like rubbish to me.”
To his great surprise, Niall found himself laughing too. ”That’s because you’re not really looking.”
Niall started hearing rumours. He wasn’t sure what to think about them, they made him feel scared, and happy at the same time, confusing him and causing him to lay awake in his bed until the clock ticked past three.
Niall is not crazy, they said.
Niall had always been crazy, that’s what they had always said before. He had always been different from the others, and now what? He was becoming like them? He didn’t want it.
But he wanted Harry. The cause of the rumours, of course. It was because, for the first time, probably ever, Niall talked to someone other than himself. But it was only because no one had ever been worthy of his words. No one had ever been colourful enough, with sharp edges and clear details, like Harry.
Niall hoped, that in the end, it was the two of them, and the rest of them. That Niall was crazy, but so was Harry, and that’s why…
Only Harry had always known Niall wasn’t crazy, just like Niall had too. He was different. Smarter.
”Is it because I don’t look like Harry?”
”You said I look more like Alex. Is that why you’re talking to me? Because I’m not what you thought I am.”
Not angry, not accusing.
”Yes. But also the colours. Your colours, I mean.”
”I’m not inside your head, Niall, explain to me.”
”You have a brown hair, green eyes and pale-ish skin, and none of them is close to grey. They’re what the yard looks like when it’s sunny, while others’ colours are like these rooms in dim light.”
He couldn’t tell if his explanation had really cleared anything. He waited for Harry to tell him to continue, but he never did.
”I stand out.”
Harry nodded. ”So do you. I can see them, their colours, I mean. But I think yours are the brightest. I guess… I guess I have an idea of what you mean.”
Niall could feel the knots of fear slowly opening and melting into the air of his lungs, exhaled into the room, out of his body.
He didn’t even notice that he spent day after day without visiting his own world. The world that had slowly started to become empty and silent, letting everything spill into the real world.
And when he did notice, he was too busy staring into the laughing green eyes, to really care.