‘Can you hear any music?’

Sam ignored Hat and gazed out at the little grove. The summer breeze brushed against her legs, not hot enough to make her want to move, but not cool enough to make her want to lean in. Sweat threatened to drip, but instead her skin pricked and her clothes itched. 

The brook in the middle of the grove would have babbled if it had any energy. It didn’t. It was lazy and hot. The breeze broke the surface of the water, causing gentle ripples in the still and silent corner of the world. The grove that housed the watery brook seemed to have gnarled and twisted its way into existence. Trees curled and curved in, up and over, and boulders pushed the earth aside. Hat tuck his spidery legs underneath and settled down on a mossy rock. Silence enveloped him. 

‘It’s just so lovely.’ Sam reached for her phone, but couldn’t find it in the early evening gloom. ‘It’s too dark, isn’t it. I won’t get a photo now.’

‘Yep. Even if it were light enough, you wouldn’t catch her. She’s not that silly.’ Hat flicked his wings out wide.

‘Okay,’ said Sam. ‘Then how do I get proof?’

‘Proof!’ Hat snorted. ‘Your little scientist friend needs so many things. Too many things!’ He shook his head. As he did, colours mixed and coalesced in the pulsing veins of his wings.

‘So, why even bring me here? We need evidence. Not more stories. Still, look at this place. I think he’s right. He’s getting close.’

The colours drifted free of Hat’s wings and into the air, before falling away to the ground. Blues, greens, greys and reds spread across the grass-covered ground and slipped into the ripples of the water below. Wave after gentle wave washed the colours away.

‘Did you even hear me?’ said Hat.

‘Yes. But what can I do? Oh! Would a night-vision camera help?’ 

‘Nope. She’s not that sort of faery. She’s real. Realer than real. She won’t get caught.’ He curled his wings in tight. ‘Not like that. And that’s not what I meant.’

‘So, what did you mean?’

‘I meant did you hear what I said about the music?’

‘No. Sorry. I ‘spose I wasn’t really listening. It’s distracting and beautiful here. But, I can’t hear any music. Would it attract her?’

Hat laughed. Not his usual lighthearted laugh, but a wry and wistful snort. ‘Yep. I guess it would. But like a lioness drawn to her cubs. She’d feel need. And if it was a trap, she’d feel anger,’ he said. ‘Yep. You’re so inventive you lot, aren’t you.’

‘Hat?’ Sam looked at her friend. His eyes shone, dark and black. Deeper than in the full light of day. Not mischievous. Something else. ‘Are you okay? You’re not sad are you?’

‘Sad…’ Hat seemed to roll the word around on his tongue. He gnawed at his lip, his white teeth shining. He whispered it again. ‘Sad.’

Sam drummed her fingers on her knee. Neither of them had ever been very patient and Hat often enjoyed making her wait. But, this didn’t seem like one of those times, so she kept quiet. As she watched, he uncurled his legs, swung them down and tapped his ruddy heels against the stone. His wings shimmered and fluttered, strangely out of time with his tapping.

‘Mm. Yep. Maybe I am,’ he said. ‘Answer me one question, will you?’ 

‘I’ll try.’ She’d tried to answer his questions before. She’d also got into all sorts of trouble before. He was her darling friend, her greatest treasure, but he was also the cause of almost every little complication in her life. She’d long ago realised you never just said ‘yes’.

‘Good enough,’ said Hat. ‘Why have you never told your scientist friend about me?’

‘Mitch. His name is Mitch. You know that.’ She brushed some dirt from her shorts. ’You said you wouldn’t let me introduce you. You said you’d stay hidden so there wasn’t any point in trying. I mean, how could I?’

‘Not the question!’ Hat leapt to his feet and pointed at her. ‘You know the question. You’ve never told! Not one word. Not even a hint. Why?’

Sam had started to lose sight of him in the darkness and, Hat, probably realising it, lit up. A small glow phosphoresced around his hair, like a blue flame in the wind. 

‘Because—‘ she glanced away from his uncommonly solemn face and said, ‘Because I think he’d never let it go. He’d chase you down. He wouldn’t hurt you, but you’d be his new mystery. You’d need to be solved.’ She looked back at him. ‘He’d capture you and examine you, only so he could understand you,’ she said. ‘And—

‘And?’

‘And you might vanish from my life. I don’t want you to be solved. I don’t want you to disappear. It’s not that I want you all for myself, but if it’s only with me or not at all—‘ she shrugged. ‘Then I’ll take whatever I can.’ 

A shooting star shot across the sky and, for a moment, the sky lit the little grove with silvers and moonlight blues. Sam and Hat watched it soar and watched it die.

‘Make it, Sam. This one’s yours.’

Sam shut her eyes and wished. She opened them, surprised at the words she’d found there. 

‘What did you wish for?’ he said, beginning to smile.

‘I can’t tell you.’ She tilted her head. ‘Can I?’

‘Yep. Of course you can.’ Hat took to the air and flitted in front of her. He tapped her on the nose. ‘Trust me!’ 

‘You’re the least trustworthy faery I’ve ever met.’ Sam tried to bat him away, but he was gone before she got there.

‘I’m the only faery you’ve ever met.’ He stamped his foot on empty air and crossed his arms.

Sam started to laugh, but despite his playful words she knew his mood could quickly flip to anger. It was part of what made him wonderful. Made him real. She half-grinned, half-smiled.

‘Well?’ he said. Hat spun gently in the air.

‘I wished that he won’t ever find you,’ she said. ‘That’s stupid. Why would I wish for that?’

‘Because you LOVE me.’ He laughed and danced around her head, blue fire trailing behind him.

As she watched him dance, the silence of the grove started to press in on her. She sort of wanted to go, but it was so calm and beautiful, she also wanted to stay. She got up and wandered over to the edge of the brook. 

‘You know I love you. But I don’t L-O-V-E love you. That’s just weird.’ She knelt down and looked into the waters of the brook. The stars and evening clouds reflected back, making the grove seem like it held the entire universe.

Hat drifted down and landed on her shoulder. 

‘What’s this got to do with the faery Mitch is trying to find?’ Sam gazed at the water and, on it, Hat’s multi-hued reflection. ‘Is she worried because he saw her? Is she scared?’

‘Nope. She’s more complicated than that. More old. More powerful.’

Sam stretched out her legs and dipped her feet into the surface of the too-cold water. The small, cool shock thrilled her and she wiggled her toes with delight. Hat seemed to be at ease in this place. His usual way of dodging her and her questions had all but gone. He was barely the impish fool that she knew. Knew and loved. The looming trees and the silence weighed on her again. There was something here. A presence beyond anything she could explain.

Hat rested against the nape of her neck. 

‘Is she dangerous?’ said Sam. 

’Nope. But, if you think about what she holds, about what we might lose, maybe yep.’ Hat’s wings had turned a vibrant blue. An alarmed blue that outshone his pale-flame blue hair. The river was alive with the dancing fire of his reflection.

‘Lose?’ Sam sat and listened. There were sounds here, but they were disconnected. The sounds of life were disheveled. Messy. There was a terrible disconnection. What was the word? A discordance. A something. No, an absence. An absence of something that filled her heart every day. 

‘It’s so quiet here,’ she said. ‘Too quiet.’

‘Yep. You see? You can hear it, can’t you. Hear what’s not present to be heard. What’s missing, Sam? What would we lose?’

‘Music,’ she said. ‘There’s no music?’

‘There’s no music.’

Sam, speechless, sat and stared at the water. 

’She couldn’t. Could she? Just because she left, music would leave? Just like that? It wouldn’t vanish with her. Surely.’

‘No music, Sam. There’s no music. Not here. She’s too powerful for it to work this close. This grove is like the centre of a sound wave. She’s the boom the moment before the sound. Music can’t exist in here. There’s just no room.’ 

Sam realised that that’s what the feeling had been, like being trapped inside a bubble. But, not really. Not exactly. There were echoes of noise, but no music.

‘The music on your world is here for her and because of her. And if she left, there’d be no music anywhere. Think about it. No beats, no hums, no birdsong, no song. Nothing. Now or ever again. So. We have to protect her.’

‘But Mitch wouldn’t hurt her!’

‘That’s probably true. At least, he wouldn’t mean to hurt her.’ Hat shook his head. His wings fluttered against the side of her neck.

‘No, he wouldn’t allow it. He’d protect her.’ Sam sometimes thought she didn’t know much, but she knew this. She knew Mitch well enough for that. 

‘I know he wouldn’t want to hurt her. He just wouldn’t be able to control what happened. And we’d hate to let that happen to him. And to this world. Your little scientist friend is a kind soul. A good man. I can see that. We all know that. We all watch him. That’s how we know.’

On the last syllable of Hat’s words, the forest blazed with light. Colour streamed from every branch and every stone. Faeries filled the void. More faeries than even her overly fertile imagination could ever hold. Sam jumped to her feet.

‘Oh. Oh, would you…’  She couldn’t think straight. ‘Hat! Look!,’ she said. ‘Look at you all!’ Sam sat upright, ready to stand and leave. ‘Mitch would be so happy. I’ve got to get him. He has to see!’

Sam felt a tiny hand on her cheek. 

’Nope. You can’t. Don’t you get it yet? It’s why we watch him.’

Sam stared at the vibrant colours of the grove for a moment. She said, ‘You’re making sure he can’t discover her. That’s it. Isn’t it. You’re trying to stop him from ever finding her.’

‘Yep. It’s also why you have me.’

‘What do you mean? I’m just some sort of duty? I thought we were friends.’ She surprised herself at just how hurt and churlish she sounded. But, dammit, she had thought they were friends.

‘Oh, Sam.’ Hat launched himself again and flew around to face her.  ‘Any of us could have done this work. I chose to. I volunteered. I’m your friend. From now until the day the music dies. If Mitch finds out, if he discovers her; if she’s exposed. She’ll leave. No warnings. No demands. She’ll just go. And she’ll take the music with her. We’re the forest of the sounds. We’re here to protect her. And to protect her admirers, including your little scientist friend. She feels his attention, and his affection. But she’d destroy him. She’s strong. Full of the terrifying force of life. It pours from her. She’s the inside of music. Your kind take her raw power and stitch into the beautiful things that we hear. What they do with it; it’s why she stays. Why we all stay.’

‘So, if he uncovered her…’ Sam said, staring at Hat, his face red and alive.

‘Uncovered her? Nailed her down? Examined her?’ He waved his hand away. ‘She’d be gone. Yep. All of it. All gone.’

Sam watched the forest of glowing faeries. She knew it was true. Felt it. 

‘Yep. I know you know. I know you feel it too. What we might lose.’

‘I can feel it. I can’t not feel it. It’s too much.’ She thought of Mitch. Her dear friend, and his lively, enquiring mind. Of him never finding out. Never knowing. ’But what do I do? I can’t hide this from him forever.’ 

‘Nope. That’s for us to do. Forever is a very long time. For you, there’s only now. This moment; this decision. What are you going to do, Sam? Help us to protect her? And the music. Or is your dear friend’s curiosity worth so much more?’

The grove glowed a gentle red, and with it, Sam’s tears.

‘I’ll help. Of course I’ll help. What else could I possibly do.’

Sam left the grove, and on her way home, she hummed a sad little song. You know the one. You’re probably humming it now.

In the distance, music started to play.