Chapter 1: [I'M THE KING OF EVERYTHING]
She gives life, and she’s looking at the sun.
That's how a god becomes but a man, and how a man from the bottom falls further.
She seems like a simple girl, from what Luka can see at The Border, lyre in hand. And he is nothing if not a god fond of simplicity. He’s come to be used to it, since he was given his assignment all those ages ago. When you’re left with the dead and a third of the Earth, you get used to anything, once all the grim grey and solitude settles into your bones. And that’s why he’s here at all, really. To survey, between what is his completely and what is his partially, all the colors and the fresh air, the bright blue of the sky and the grass that pokes at his ankles where he dares to step out from the caverns. To get away from the grey for once.
At least, for a moment, he can afford himself that. And what a blessed moment it is.
Luka doesn’t dare step out into the meadow or anywhere beyond where light touches dark and life touches death; The Border, and the darkness he can easily recede into, are too familiar for him to venture past it. And he’s sure the sun would boil him besides. He doesn’t dare interrupt either, especially with the company the girl keeps around her. But he can watch to his hollow heart’s content as she weaves bright flowers together and hums to herself, as she adjusts the layers of her pale pink robes and her dark, dark hair to fit a crown of them upon her head. The other girls—nymphs, to be sure—coo and praise her handiwork, but it’s not what mesmerizes him in the end. It’s a little bit of a lot of things: the way she takes their compliments in quiet, modest stride and returns to her own devices with the softest smile; the way she reaches for the grass and the earth and lets fresh blossoms sprout to replace the ones she picked before; the way she closes her eyes, and tips her head up, and lets the sky kiss her face and all the warmth of midday seep in.
It’s as though she embodies spring itself, and would find withering away inconceivable.
How often does she come here? Does she ever come alone?
Why hasn’t he come more often, if it means seeing someone like her, even if from a distance?
Would she…? Could she…?
Before Luka can even think about plucking out a melody on his lyre, a couple of the other girls point upward, and the one he has his eye on follows their gaze, her crown sliding just a bit backwards. She looks curious, and peaceful, and… and almost hopeful, with her hands clasped to her chest. It only takes a flick of his own gaze toward the sky to see what they’re all so excited about: a pair of fiery horses, with Adrien at the reins.
Of course. Adrien. The golden boy who only got the sun because his father gave it to him.
At least in death, Luka finds a little comfort in spite.
From his chariot, Adrien leans over and greets the girls with a delicate wave and a wink. To his credit, he’s never been particularly flirtatious—just overly friendly in a way that only comes off as flirtatious—but perhaps anyone would feel that way if they were practically untouchable. One would never guess that he held any kind of kinship with Gabriel in the heavens, or that the far-too-serious Félix, who carried a quiver like his life depended on it and only ever showed his face at night, was his twin.
The girl blushes, healthy and demure and beautiful, while the others call to him and wave back, and she has to shade her eyes to get a good look at him. Within moments, Adrien is gone again, though he’ll return in a day’s time, and the girl tears her eyes from the sky and lets her hands fall limp in her lap. The others poke at her, play with her hair, even joke around and make fun of her, and if she laughs, it sounds weak to his ears. The commotion dies down, and they each return to their play, and the sadness of something untouchable in the curve of her lips isn’t lost on Luka.
In fact, it’s mesmerizing. Almost as much as the curl of her hair over her shoulders, the contrast of light and dark. It speaks to him. It must, when he’s known melancholy well enough to know its language on a regular basis.
His heart and his fingers speak before his mouth—which, really, has always been the case, though he’s never known anyone else to know it. Little by little, he cradles his lyre to his chest and plays a slow tune, rife with an eerie, tempting air, for no one but himself.
The girl looks up, and catches his eye.
It almost startles him, though not enough to stop the tune in his hands. She wasn’t supposed to know. She wasn’t supposed to see.
And yet she’s still looking.
And yet he’s still playing.
She breathes in slow—he’s acutely aware of things like these, right down to the last one everyone draws—and clutches the blossom in her hand to her chest. She moves as fluidly as he plays, and it’s like nothing he’s ever seen in any spirit, or nymph, or perhaps even in the oceanic power of his mother. It’s so cautious and purposeful all at once, and he can see everything, every shift of bone and muscle, every slip of her robes over fair skin. Even the hard, enthralled glitter in her eyes and the parting of her lips as she begins to crawl toward him. Like she would dare, over all other beings, to come so willing to meet him at The Border. Like she would dare to—
She jerks back, perhaps suddenly aware of where and even who she is, or who he his. She staggers away, falls into the company of friends who console her and coddle her and remind her that anyone could take her if she strayed too far, and haven’t you heard how Death waits for us at The Border and steals us away?
Which Luka takes in a quiet stride of its own. And he can’t quite tell if it’s modest, or prideful, or if he takes offense. Somehow, he’s learned to find all three in his reactions.
The shifts in her expression are something even he can’t describe. It feels like something that he’s seen in hundreds of mortals as they cross into his realm: a shame with layers of intrigue hiding underneath, waiting to be seen by those really looking for it. It’s evident, at least, in the way she keeps looking to him as she continues to weave the flowers around her, or grow more among the grass, and as he continues to play. Even more so when, as she’s retreating for the day, she finds his gaze at The Border and holds it, just as deeply as she holds her own breath, until her name is called again.
What he wouldn’t give, he thinks, to touch the immortal petals in her hair without consequence.
“You must have something bad in you,” his sister told him, “to have a look like that on your face.”
He sneered—because that’s what Death does instead of smiling, and what did Juleka know anyway, beyond commanding the waves of La Haine and collecting coins under the tongue and rowing his clientele toward him?—and said, “You must have forgotten. Everything in me is bad.”
He doesn’t know what kind of look she was talking about; she never deigned to tell him, only rolled her eyes and took her trusty oar back to the river. He has little time for mirrors besides, when his element discards appearance and decorations and takes everyone as they are, without discrimination. Whatever it is, it’s a look he’ll swear to wear only in his own company.
He does know this: it’s worth going to The Border again, and again, and again, to see Marinette with the life in her hands and the flowers in her curls.
He doesn't go every day at first; that would be desperate, and he knows better. He knows patience. And it’s easy to keep his distance anyway, to nudge her from afar and make his presence known every so often with little more than the pluck of a few strings. It’s worth the way she meets his eyes in the middle of the day, when the sun leaves her bittersweet and the flowers and fruits seem to do little to console her. Everything in the way she carries herself, from the pastel colors of the robes she gathers around herself to the almost-perpetual apple blush that lives in her cheeks to the effortless way she kneels and moves around the meadow, screams of curiosity. Betrays intrigue. Tells him she’s looking for a moment to toe the line, because all this distance and giggling is getting monotonous no matter how many colors she can blend together.
There’s nothing wishful to think about it. Nothing to doubt. Wordless observation always lends itself to spotting these sorts of nuances.
But the more he sees of her, the more he wants to see her. And the more he finds himself toeing lines, to. Just for a few moments a day. Just to play a song after the sun passes her over.
It’s the day she comes alone that has his stomach churning—which until now was something he thought only mortals were capable of. And if she’s come to see him, and him alone, she makes no indication of it, and looks much more like she’s come to find peace of her own, or create it herself. And if there’s one thing he knows, from observation alone, it’s that she could create most anything, if it could please her.
She makes her place in the grass, tends to the flowers around her and tucked in her hair, takes in the touch and the scent of them like she’s never seen them before. She looks to the sun when it calls to her, and when she smiles her whole face shines far more brightly than he knows it ever could. Two fingers touch her lips, like she’s considering blowing a kiss toward the sky—and she holds back, and her hands slip down to her lap again, and she sighs. And for someone who’s nearly tuned out the moans and cries and pleas of the dead after all these ages, Luka would swear it’s the saddest thing he’d ever heard.
Then she pauses, and begins to braid her hair, and she hums to herself. And for the first time that he’s at least aware of, his breath catches, and his grip on his lyre tightens.
It’s the melody he’s been playing for her, all this time.
He dares to stand out in the entryway to his realm, with his hand on the cavern wall—dares to come out into the sun—and clears his throat to get her attention. It startles her, and her hair unravels in her hands. But as soon as she meets his gaze, she seems rooted to the spot, unable to move. Her eyes go a little wider, and she sits up a little straighter, and she dusts away all the wrinkles and weeds in her dress, like she’s presenting herself for royalty.
Well. He supposes he is. He’s just never been made to feel like it.
Finally, finally, she gets to her feet, looks around her at every angle, and then takes the first step forward. And then the second, and the third, until she’s made her way to The Border. She’s… small, up close. Delicate like a doll, like the beautiful souls he allows into his Paradise. And her eyes are so much bluer, and her skin so much like porcelain, and all the blushing little colors in her come to life. One touch, it seems, and she could waste away before him.
She’s still looking up at him, dead-on, where most would know to tear their eyes away. “You were watching me,” she says. Such a birdlike voice, full of all the calm of the West Wind and all the purpose of the East.
Such quiet defiance. How fond of it he is. “You heard my song,” he tells her. “No one ever does.”
It seems to surprise her; she scrambles for the right words to speak. “Then what does it mean that I do?”
“Perhaps that the Earth is no longer meant for you. Perhaps that your time is coming. That’s what it means for most.”
Fear shifts something in the way she stands before him, or maybe it’s simple uncertainty. “Are you going to take me away?” she asks, soft and low and dangerously curious. “Isn’t that what you do? Wait until the perfect time and steal souls away?”
Luka inclines his head, and shades his eyes. “Is that what you desire?”
She stumbles over her words, and the first hints of a smile curl the corner of his lip. “I don’t take the dead, and certainly not before their time,” he tells her. “I only rule them, and they come to me. But I suppose mortals have their own ideas of me to make themselves feel better.”
“And if I told you I wasn’t mortal?”
He looks her up and down, to the splashes of color in her robes, to the pale columns of bone and ichor that must keep her together. “Of course not,” he hums. “No mortal commands spring quite like you do. Not even if they tried.” He takes a step forward, almost towers over her. “And it means you must have as little to lose as I do.”
She gasps, inaudible to anyone but him, and leans back on one foot. But she doesn’t look away. And she certainly doesn’t run. It’s pleasantly disconcerting. “Marinette,” she says, soft and musical. “That’s my name.”
“So I’ve heard from your attendants,” he says. “Luka,” and the gaze he holds might be far more intimate than a simple kiss on the back of her hand.
“Luka,” she repeats. His name isn’t supposed to sound so vibrant; what kind of power does she hold, to inject even a name with the life it doesn’t deserve? “Why don’t you ever come out into the sun?”
He looks past her, out into the empty clearing where it seems the flowers trail close behind her, eager to sprout around her ankles. In the space between them, he holds out his hand, black-gloved and sharp with claws, and curls each finger in one at a time under the sunlight. “I think you know.” He says it more to his fist than to her.
Marinette looks almost guilty about it, in the moments that she finally averts her eyes and stares at his hand, like she must be responsible for what her attendants tell her and warn her against. For never venturing to find out the truth until now. But blame is a complicated thing when preconceived notions weave themselves into the everyday, and leave the source near-impossible to trace. “Were you banished?”
Luka shakes his head. “Not banished. Assigned.”
“Is that so…” She hums in thought. She must be thinking of Gabriel. “Then… will you come here again? To see me?”
“Have I not come faithfully?”
She blushes, as pink as her dress, and bends down to pick a flower at her feet. “Then, would you take this to remember me by?”
He lowers his lashes, and doesn’t dare to touch it. “I’m afraid it wouldn’t last in a world like mine.”
“Then I’ll leave it here.” She leans again, and lays the blossom at the entrance to the cavern, a splash of white against dull greys and browns. “So it will last. And so you think of me when you come.”
His gaze drags up her form, until he meets her eyes again. “Why would I not?”
Her cheeks bloom from rosy pink to deep scarlet, and she tells him she has to go, even when he asks if she can’t stay a while longer. Her father will worry if she’s gone away for too long, she says despite the want in her eyes, and she doesn’t want to find out what would happen to the grains if he did. There’s a certain grace to the backward way she walks, the way she refuses to turn her back on him. Whether it’s fear that he might take her away, or fear that he might disappear if she looked away and back again, or the simple pure desire to keep her eyes on something that intrigues her so, she never discloses.
But there’s a playful hazard in getting to guess. And Luka supposes he might like to take his chances.
It’s something like a dance between them, these times they meet and yet do not. When Marinette has her usual company doting on her, he lingers in the entryway, with the lyre in his hands and a tune at the ready, and never steps further than the flower she left behind. Whether or not it’s meant to be a boundary between them, he treats it like one. He only makes himself known with the music he knows only she can hear, and watches for the curve of her smile, reserved only for him, when the melody floats her way. She still looks to Adrien when he passes them by, and there’s still a touch of something sad in her expression when he leaves again, and Luka has the odd feeling that he’d never be able to persuade that away. Not for a girl who stands on her toes for the sun, looking like all she would ever want in her stretch of endless time is to touch it.
Luka knows what happens to people who come too close to the sun. They end up roaming The Medium, in the end, because they never learned to take the middle road when they were alive to try it. So far it’s only the one, but who is he to warn those who would spite him or run away?
He knows the conflict in her eyes, too, whenever she looks his way through her lashes. He can see how she reaches up for the sun, and how at the same time she’s somehow delightfully aware of how close to the ground she is.
Sometimes, she naps in the company of her attendants, with the warmth of the sun on her skin and her head in the lap of a tan girl with auburn hair. He finds himself wondering, more than once, how she must feel to be so close to a brother of his, and so close to him without their ever touching. And whether she would ever tell her attendants of the time she skirted with Death. And whether she would ever tell them about all the times she must be willing to do it again.
And whether she knows she would find a partner in him to dance, most every time.
On the few blessed occasions that Marinette is alone, she waits for the sun to hang low in the sky before she comes to him at The Border, with all the buzzing excitement of a girl breaking the rules and none of the sense of consequence. It can’t be more than an hour that they meet on days like these, but it seems to stretch far beyond that, and feel like a fraction of a second, all at once. But perhaps that’s only the immortality talking. She brings more flowers to his doorstep, leaves little sprays of blossoms there, reminders in her wake. They might even be attempts to cheer him up; as far as he knows, he’s only smiled with his lips the one time, but he must have done it a thousand times in his heart.
She carries conversation well enough with him, too; her questions are hardly ever too intrusive, and it seems not to matter what they’re talking about so long as they’re able to do it at all. Or so long as she’s able to keep him company, if the quiet that hangs between them while he plays melody after melody is any indication. If the way she inches ever closer, never crossing the threshold her flowers have set, is any indication.
Just before the sun sinks into the dark and he recedes into his own, she bids him goodbye with her usual spring smile and a crown of fresh petals upon her head, and she walks backwards out of the meadows. And every time he wonders if it might be the last time he ever sees her. If someone, somewhere, is catching onto her adventures or his daily temporary neglect of his realm, and if they might snatch her away the way everyone seems to think he does in the blink of an eye.
For an afternoon, he thinks the last time comes sooner than he anticipated. The meadow is empty, even as Adrien drives his chariot overhead. There are no girls to speak of, no new life, no giggling attendants. Only the grass and the dirt and the blossoms of yesterday, the echoes of a youth he’s tried so hard to grasp for. And for those hours when it’s only him and The Border and the white flower by his foot, the world seems to lack a little more color than usual.
Luka waits until the sun is gone and the wedge of the moon makes its appearance among the stars, and even beyond then. He’s dipped down into the Underworld every so often to make sure everything is as dull and dreary and finitely infinite as usual, and that Juleka’s getting the pay she’s owed, that the good are at peace and the bad are left in their well-deserved torment. And he’s sat at The Border played for no one for hours otherwise. He wouldn’t be surprised if the wind carried his music all the way out to the sea for only his mother to hear, and to long for him over the distance between them.
It’s as he’s gathering himself up to find solace in a darkness all his own that there’s a rustle in the grass, not quite animal, not quite unexpected guest. He turns toward the Earth, and there is Marinette, in the middle of the meadow, huddling under the light of the moon and sauntering toward him all the same. She drops to her knees, drinks in the sight of him like she’d never get full with her delicate little fists in her lap. So innocent, she looks. So ripe, if she would ever let herself be taken.
“You waited for me,” she breathes, like she’s only just remembered how to speak.
“Of course I did,” he tells her, so soft and unassuming only she’d be able to hear, and he’s acutely aware of how close she is to touching him, if he only let himself inch forward. “And you came back.”
Marinette frowns. “Did you think I wouldn’t?”
“I think most sensible folk wouldn’t, mortal or otherwise.”
“Then I suppose I’m not very sensible.” She smiles, as much at him as to herself, and brushes her hair away from her eyes; the moon does well to light up her skin and let the night complement her just as stunningly as the day does. “Being young forever allows me that, doesn’t it? Or, if mortals console themselves with their own thoughts as much as you say they do, perhaps most who only think they’re being sensible would avoid you. Isn’t there more sensibility in knowing what’s really worth being afraid of?”
“And what,” Luka says, “is ‘really worth being afraid of?’”
Marinette pauses to think. “I don’t know,” she admits. “I don’t know that I’ve ever been afraid of anything. I think I’m too curious for that. Or maybe it’s that I’m a little afraid of everything, because I’ve never really had the chance to find out.”
“You’re an odd girl, aren’t you?” Luka moves with a cold fluidity, the kind that threatens and comforts all at once, as he steeples his fingers together under his chin. “I can’t tell if you’re utterly foolish or clever beyond your years.”
“I’ll take the benefit of the doubt if you’re willing to give it.”
“Oh,” he says from somewhere deep in his chest, a smile hiding somewhere in the layers of his voice. “I’m in the business of parting with things.”
There’s a relative silence between them, and then Luka speaks again; he doesn’t know what prompts him to, but perhaps it’s all this dancing around and almost-but-never-quite touching that gets to him, opens him up. “I thought you might be. I thought you were at first. Most beings are. Something like this…” He reaches for one of the blossoms around them, brushes it with little more than a black fingertip, and watches it shrivel and rust under the contact. “Who wouldn’t be afraid of it? Who wouldn’t think someone who deprives his surroundings of life isn’t evil? Do you know the kinds of sacrifices mortals make for me?” He laughs, almost breathlessly. “They’re few and far between, and only from those seeking revenge, or out of spite.”
“I don’t,” Marinette says, so soft he’s sure the wind’s already carried it away before he’s had a chance to hear it in full. “I’m not afraid of you, and I don’t think you’re evil. I think…” She pauses, touches the same blossom to revive it again. How cyclical. “I think you were just given a certain lot that almost no one wants to deal with. And maybe you didn’t want to deal with it, either. But you do. You’re in the business of it, you said. And it’s… admirable, how you bear it.”
“And what,” Luka says, “are you in the business of?”
A smile spreads slowly across her face, and she glances up to the top of his head, where a crown of carved bones has weighed heavy for almost as long as he can remember. She sits up straight, full of grace and purpose, and reaches for the crown, laying it down on the dusty earth, and he holds his breath the whole time, like he might sap her strength, too. And yet there she is, lifting the circle of flowers off her own head and setting it upon his. He didn’t think it was possible for her eye to glitter any more. “Revival. Cycles and second chances. And for what it’s worth, I think life suits you just fine.” She shrugs one bare shoulder, lowers her gaze out of respect, though she shouldn’t need to. There’s something so refreshingly honest about her words, and about how she adds, “If you want to take it.”
How she gives him a choice.
Luka can’t remember the last time his face burned so hot. It must have been centuries ago.
In the days that follow, he doesn’t know what she looks like when she looks at the sun anymore, so seldom does he come to The Border when it’s still out. He’s only there long enough to meet Marinette’s bright spring eyes, and pluck a few strings, and make a promise with a hand to his heart. And then he dips back into his own world to survey all the life he doesn’t have, and to glance once or twice toward the flower crown that withered as soon as he descended into the dark, that he keeps in his chamber all the same, for nights to come. That he wishes were still as alive as she is.
She seeks him out more often in the night, comes to the meadow when the moon is waxing and the stars are shining, practically floats to him once he plays the notes that tell her that he’s here. They talk in hushed tones for an hour or two—just long enough to enjoy one another’s company, but not so long that she would worry about her father discovering her absence. She shows him the blossoms in her clothing, how she weaves color and fragrance so easily into everything she is and does; he plays his lyre, sometimes somber, sometimes dreamy, to fill the empty spaces between them, to find some joy in the way she relaxes before him. He tells her, once, about what happened to her crown, while staring at the new one on her head, and rather than mourn it, her eyes light up with the relief that he kept it at all.
And every time she shifts closer, he draws back, chest tight and hands clawed and tendons bulging through his skin. Every time she reaches for him, he pulls away.
“Why do you do that?” she asks one night. She doesn’t seem offended, but she doesn’t seem delighted, either. It’s the unique, timid sort of curious he’s seen so much in her. “Why do you pull away from me when we’re together?”
At first, Luka doesn’t know how to answer. It’s not that he doesn’t have the words, or how to say them. He simply isn’t sure that she wants to hear it, for all of her thoughts and opinions and businesses. So he hesitates, his eyes still fixed on hers, before he tells her, “You have so much life to give. I won’t be the one to take it all away from you.” He glances behind him, down into the blackness that takes him home. “There are rivers down there. A place that bears fruit and happiness for some. But I’ve surrounded myself with plenty of death, in the end. That doesn’t mean that you have to, too. It doesn’t mean that I have to take you down with me.”
Marinette considers him for a long moment; he’s aware of how her gaze drags over him, up and down and up again. “I won’t go down with you yet,” she agrees. “But I’m too curious, I’ve told you. And I couldn’t go home tonight not knowing what your touch feels like.”
“Not Death.” Her eyes flash. “You, Luka.”
She says his name so rarely, if at all, that it feels almost too intimate to hear. It catches him off-guard, and he’s never known his hands to twitch or tremble—he’s always had to be too certain of everything to ever falter like that—but they do now. Still gloved, his fingers brush her cheekbone, his knuckles caress the line of her jaw, his palm skims her shoulder and the column of her neck. She’s soft, and warm, even through the fabric, and he doesn’t realize he’s holding his breath again—that he has the breath to hold—until he draws his hand back.
She’s still alive. She’s still intact. She’s immortal, to be sure, but he touched her, and she’s alive, and the girl who heard his music still surprises him at every turn.
Marinette catches his hand, as he releases her, and holds it by the wrist—not too gentle, not too firm. Her thumb presses into his palm, and she watches him as if to ask him for permission. He nods, just faintly, unable to tear his eyes away, and little by little she peels his glove back to reveal pale, almost ghostly-looking skin. She could probably see every pulse of his ichor in the veins in his hands, if she looked for them.
“This is what I want to feel,” she whispers, almost breathing, his glove a void in her otherwise colorful lap, and she raises his hand in both of hers to caress her cheek. Her eyes flutter shut, and she inhales like she’s been born all over again, and she gives him the freedom to trace her bones, touch every hollow and smooth plane and perfection. And she’s alive as he squeezes her shoulder, alive as her pulse quivers under his fingertips, alive as he carefully fits his thumb into the curve under her lips.
He thinks, as she brushes his hair from his eyes and unpins his cloak and dares to feel out the ridges of muscle in his arms with her body so close to his own, that he must be alive as she is.
“Come,” he tells her once, with a glance tossed behind him. “Would you spend a night with Death?”
There’s a difference, that is, between a stolen hour or two in the night, and the entire night itself. The former’s become commonplace by now, and time is such a fraction to a soul like his that he can’t quite tell how much of whether merely days have passed. The latter is an adventure, something they’ve only touched on in conversations and among fleeting brushes of bare hands. Something he knows she’s wondered about, if all the times he’s caught her peeking past him into the darkness he knows so well is any indication. If all the morbid curiosity that bleeds into her voice and the sparkle in her eyes is any indication.
So it’s only fitting that, eventually, Luka asks.
He’s holding out his still-gloved hand to Marinette as he rises to his feet, and he wouldn’t be surprised if she rejected him. After all, she’s said more than enough with a single not yet, and he’d hardly consider it a risk worth taking, whether she’s afraid of him or not. But she looks down, and back up again, and she lays her hand in his, ever a contrast against all his black. Even despite the rustle in the bushes a ways off, which startles her and freezes her in place for a passing moment. It must be nothing more than an animal, because that’s all they ever hear of it.
“Just one,” she says, at once cautious and eager, “so long as you have me back before sunrise.”
“For someone like you,” he says, “I can promise that.”
He helps her to her feet and over The Border—which is a more anticlimactic crossing than he expected—and her hand never leaves his as he leads her down the winding stone steps. He adjusts to the dark easily, perhaps more so than most, but he’s painfully aware of every careful step she takes, every instance she could slip on the rocks or lose her way. Every time he thinks about it, he gives her hand a squeeze. And she squeezes right back, even if she doesn’t know why he’s doing it in the first place. That, alone, gives him comfort.
He could tell her to close her eyes and trust him, to open them only once they’ve hit flat ground. But he knows her to be too curious to adhere to that, and he couldn’t possibly punish her if she didn’t. He wouldn’t want to, anyway. So he keeps her near, and lets his hand slip to the small of her back as they approach, and dignifies every figure lining the pathway to the gates of the Underworld with a nod. Grief, Anxiety, Fear, War, Discord, Fury, Sleep, and everything in between—he’d be a fool to disregard those he keeps. They avert their eyes from his guest, out of respect, and even the trees with their leaves of false dreams and fluttering regrets, and the murky rivers on either side of them, seem to shrink away from his influence.
“Who are they?” Marinette asks, shifting ever closer to him.
“Everything one has ever felt about death,” he murmurs, “and every reason one could die.”
He can hear and feel her shiver. It’s utterly delightful.
The gate to the Underworld is immense, and made of stone, but he only has eyes for the round seal in the center, which is decorated with the winding bodies of snakes. He traces the seal clockwise, anticlockwise, clockwise again, and the gate separates with a glowing light—the most he ever gets to see down here.
“Come,” he whispers in her ear as he leans over. “There’s so much I’d love to show you.”
So much, and yet he doesn’t know where to start. Or he wouldn’t, if they didn’t come upon Juleka waiting along the bank of La Haine. Her boat, big enough for her to stand and a passenger or two to accompany her, is tethered to the dock nearby—as though someone like her even gets a break in the business of the dead, or grasps the concept of waiting to begin with—and she stands with her oar at her side and all the dignity of a soldier with their sword. It fills him with pride, though he knows she wouldn’t want any of his.
“My sister,” he says to Marinette, and realizes he’s still holding her hand. And that he has no intention to let go just yet. “Don’t take offense; she rarely speaks to anyone. Even me.”
“What is she doing here?”
“She’s my conductor. She brings every soul my way. Old or young, man or woman or neither or both, of whatever persuasion and whatever status. So long as they’ve been dead and buried, they all must get here through her.” He winks. “For a price, of course.”
As if she’s overheard them, or merely sensed his presence, Juleka turns toward them. Hair as black as night shades her face, and the most she does in the space they share is look to Marinette, and then to him. She holds his gaze, and then sighs and turns away like she must understand everything. Like now he should know what looking like that exactly means.
All this time they had—all this time they will have—and there are only tangents where he’ll understand her exactly.
“Are you scared?” Luka asks, out of Juleka’s earshot. “It’s… lacking, compared to what you’re used to.”
Marinette pauses, kneeling down on the bank but not getting too close, and never once letting her fingers slip from his grasp. She shakes her head. “Are there… other rivers?”
He nods, a little surprised, though he probably shouldn’t be. “Five more.”
“I want to see them all.” She looks up at him with all the wonder of a child, as though she left every bad feeling at the door with his tenants. “I want to see everything, Luka.”
He smiles, grimly, and helps her to her feet again. “Not everything.”
The land Luka surveys is dark and deep, tiered and never-ending and full of dull greys and too-dim lights. Around them both, inky rivers come together, surrounding them on almost all sides, and he guides her over them with her hand in his and her skirts lifted to her knees, as though one touch from them would keep her here forever. She watches the spirits the most, in their quiet tour—those with nothing left to lose anymore, those with no sense of progress or self-importance, or self at all, because there are no hierarchies after a life full of obsessions with them. Perhaps it’s the most equal she’s ever seen humanity. Which, Luka might say, is the only perk of ruling the Underworld. She doesn’t seem to pity them; instead, she seems to look for understanding in them. How they’ve been judged, how they spend the endless rest of their days. And where Luka might find kinship in them.
As far as he’s concerned, there’s always some kinship in the consequences of assignment.
Any time he speaks, his words echo into some oblivion. Any time Marinette takes a step forward, the flowers she leaves in her wake wilt almost instantly. She notices it on more than one occasion, when she turns back to the world she’s left behind and when she reaches to touch the fresh crown on her head, and stops to bid such fleeting life goodbye with a sad smile.
“Doesn’t anything grow here?” she asks.
“Not here,” he says, and points into the distance. “There.”
She follows with her eyes, and squeezes his hand.
They follow the path to Paradise along the river that Luka knows borders the land. All the rivers circle his land and converge in the middle—he knows it from all his years surveying the Underworld. But he also knows all the twists and turns, all the minute details, what makes each of them unique. How La Haine and La Douleur intertwine and split off, so that Juleka rows them both to make her transports. How Le Sanglot, misty and rife with salt, is the second farthest out, attracts only those souls who have been lost—spirits turned away by Juleka until their bodies have been properly buried and respected. How he’s never thought to give the farthest one a name, because all it’s good for is surrounding the world and reminding him that The Medium exists. How L’Enfer boasts the hottest, blackest waters of them all, and surges off the cliffs into Torture—a land he hardly ever deigns to visit, and for whose residents he holds no pity, even as Marinette tries to peek into the abyss. Even as the screams and moans of anguish and terror and eternal frustration make her tremble.
And how the one they follow prides itself on water so clear she can see into the bright white sands of the riverbed, so that she’s tempted to let go of his hand and kneel for a drink.
On instinct, he grabs her by the elbow and yanks her back. “Don’t—”
She gasps, wide-eyed and inches from only touching the water, and stumbles backward. “Why—why not?”
He doesn’t realize how tightly he’s grasping her until he lets her go, sees the dregs of imprints from his fingertips on her skin. It’s… exhilarating. “That’s L’Oubli,” he says. “If you drank from it, you would forget. Anyone would, and most… do so, to be reborn. To have another chance at life.”
Marinette glances behind her, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth. “Then this river and I will get along just fine.”
“I… I’d hate for you to forget everything.” Luka’s never known himself to fidget, but he does so now, even as he clutches faintly at the back of her robes. “I’d hate for you to forget me.”
They make it to Paradise together, hand in hand. It’s the one place here that boasts anything close to sunlight, to gardens and nature and peace, and Marinette is enthralled. She even takes off her sandals to feel the land under her feet, and the instant she does, she almost sinks like she’s at home. No wonder anyone would strive for this, if it made them feel half as wonderful as she looks.
Luka takes her through the fields and orchards, lets her bask in all their growth and potential and everything she was looking for, and lets her pick whatever she likes. When she comes to him at the edge of a nearby lake, her hands are empty but for a single pomegranate. He hums in thought, takes it from her, balances it on a finger for all of three seconds. “My favorite,” he says. “How did you know?”
She laughs shyly, and looks to two swans idly swimming across the lake. “Lucky guess.”
“Come,” he says again, and pockets the fruit for later. “I haven’t shown you the best part.”
The best part takes a while to get to—partly because Marinette can’t help lingering in Paradise in short bursts of just a little longer, and partly because she takes her time quietly celebrating or pitying every soul she sees, and partly because, along the way, she points all the way out to the horizon of the Underworld and asks, “What’s that over there?”
Sometimes, it seems, death has as many detours as life does.
They wind through the space, side by side, and all the awe that once lived in her expression fades away once they reach the unnamed river—and the empty-looking land that lies beyond it. She doesn’t shake this time; no fear lives in her eyes. In fact, she’s standing stock-still, hypnotized, unsettled. “What… is this place?” she asks, almost hollowly, and her hand slips away from his grip as she sways in place.
He tries to hold her steady as best he can. Why is she… reacting this way? And how is he supposed to stop it? “It’s The Medium,” he says. “The end of the world. The resting place for those who have done neither good nor bad, or too much of each—so much so that their actions even out. Or simply for those who have done good, but not enough of it. They’re too far away to land themselves in Torture, and too far away to forget and try again. They just… wait. And wander. With all the dying stars, and silence, and the sun and the moon, once a day, to accompany them.”
Marinette stares out into the void, the river all but silent as it flows, and her whole body seems to crumple and cave in under its own weight. “I don’t think I like it here,” she says, distant with a latent horror, like she might faint at any moment.
“You don’t have to,” Luka says to console her, and takes her by the hand again. Perhaps the touch will ground her. “We’ll go somewhere better.”
The forest of the Underworld is closer to the south, away from Paradise and Torture, and not too close to the end of the world. The land opens up to a thicket of trees, all of them made of wire and stone and gems that glow in the dimness, all of them steadfast against the occasional chilly breeze that rushes through and raises goosebumps on Marinette’s arms. But the awe has returned to her face, and the lights of the gems glitter in her eyes as much as they do on their wire branches, and she sinks to her knees almost in reverence once they’re in the thick of it. “It’s the closest thing we have to nature outside of the gardens,” he says. “Precious stones like these, they live under the ground, so they bend to my will, too. It’s… fascinating, what you can make when you have too much time on your hands and a sense of imagination.”
“It’s beautiful,” she breathes.
“More beautiful than Paradise?"
“Maybe.” She looks around, at these makeshift leaves, to an artificial sky that barely pokes through the branches, to his own face. And she smiles, so affectionately that he’d melt on the spot if he weren’t so cold. “But it’s certainly more beautiful than home.”
It gives him pause, to her her say something so bold, so sure of herself. He kneels beside her, takes care to drape his cloak over her shoulders to keep her warm, and busies himself with prying the pomegranate into quarters with his thumbs.
The other thing about a deep acquaintance with Death is that he knows all the hospitality that lives within it. The courtesies of escorting the newly arrived, the customs of judgment, the admittance to eternal homes. He knows how to extend these kindnesses. So with the dark red juice staining his fingers and dripping down the side of his hand, he presses a few seeds to her lips, one by one, and offers her one of the sections of the fruit. She looks surprised at first, with her eyes so trained on his, but her eyes flutter shut, and she accepts each seed he feeds her. It isn’t until she takes the fruit and sets it aside that they both notice the droplets of juice staining the front of her dress.
But Marinette doesn’t mind it. In fact, she looks entranced by it, and she catches his hand in hers to drink the rest of it from his skin. And then she pays him the same intoxicating kindness, with her thumb at his mouth and the stains all over her hands and the seeds bursting against his teeth.
She looks… dangerously regal, with flesh and blood on her lips and a crown of withered flowers on her head. Like every touch is a destruction that only she commands, and it thrills her far more than it kills her, and her startled but pleased gasp is better than any note he could play.
Like he could keep her here forever, if only she wanted to stay.
“Do you have to go?” he whispers halfway through the fruit, watching her carefully as he presses his mouth to her wrist and sucks the juice away. It’d be a shame to waste any of the sweetness.
“I have to be back by morning,” she tells him, and it echoes off the stones. “They can’t know I ever left, they’d worry.”
“Then come back. As many nights as you want. As many times as you want to see me.”
“Every night I can,” she says, like she’s suffocating and the promise gives her life. She downs one last handful of the seeds the way he knows some mortals knock back pills, and she presses her palm to his lips, and it’s as he’s sucking away the rest of the juice, his mouth and chin stained dark red, that he thinks this is worth more than mortal sacrifice or blood promises.
Luka longs for her in her absence. Which, really, is only during the day when he doesn’t resurface to steal a glance or two at her, and only very rarely at night. But it still feels impossibly long when it’s the one thing he’s waiting for. When there’s actually something worth waiting for. It’s the closest he comes to even vaguely understanding anyone confined to Torture. To the man who reaches for the fruit just too tall for him and the water that recedes from his touch, or the one nailed to the wheel of fire he thought he’d have no use for, or the girls who, night after night, try to purify themselves in an empty tub.
Understand them, yes. He might. But he still doesn’t pity them.
It’s weeks after Marinette comes back to the Underworld, dress clean and feet bare, that he takes her back to the trees made of gemstones and wires, back to the place where they sat and shared the fruit so sacred to him. With a swelling sense of pride, he shows her the single blossom—just like the one she left at The Border, but ruby red instead of stark white—that sprung up from where the pomegranate juice dripped onto the forest floor.
“Did I do that?” she asks, like she can’t believe it even though the evidence is there.
Luka gives her an amused smile; he’s been doing it more often these days, the more he gets to see her face. “Is that really so hard to believe?”
“Well, I thought…” She fumbles for words. “You said nothing could grow outside of Paradise.”
“I did.” He looks at her too long—like he could either kill her or kiss her—and does neither. “I think you could change that.”
If Marinette is flustered by his words, she’s doing a very good job of not showing it. She only gathers up her dress as she kneels beside the flower, brushing a fingertip over the petals. It shudders and blossoms under her touch, looks like it clings to her for life, and blushes a deep maroon. It gives—nothing like the stone he’s so used to seeing around these parts. She gasps, freezes in thought, reaches up to touch the flowers woven into her hair.
They’re still alive, and refuse to budge.
“Why…” she breathes, not terrified, and yet not satisfied, either. “Why now? Is it some kind of omen?”
Luka purses his lips. “It’s like I told you all that time ago. It may be that you belong here now, if that’s what you choose.”
At first, Marinette says nothing, like she must be thinking too deeply about it as she cups the flower in both hands. It seems to throb with fresh life, wants more and more of it every second she’s near, and gradually, whatever unsettling, unreadable feeling lingers in her expression fades away. “I think I might like to see things grow down here for myself,” she finally says. “It would feel like I had something for me. Something I could finally call mine.”
His brow furrows, and he tilts his head, and he slowly kneels beside her, his cloak a curtain to them both. “Marinette?”
She’s still holding the blossom, cradling it like it might slip through her fingers like sand, like she might lose it if she lets go or looks away for too long. “I’m starting to think,” she murmurs, “that you were right about the Earth. That maybe it isn’t meant for me anymore.” She smiles weakly at the blossom, doubles over to grace it with a loving kiss, and for a flicker of a moment Luka wishes he were those petals. Just to know what it would feel like. “I’ve been feeling that way for a long time.”
With a cautious hand, Luka turns her face toward him, and on instinct she reaches up to curl her fingers around his wrist. Settling into his touch, she lets her eyes fall shut, and sits more properly on the ground, and he has to wonder if her comfort comes from being right that he can’t kill everything, or from the fact that she’s the only one who knows all the tenderness Death has to offer.
“It’s beautiful up there,” she tells him, still holding onto his hand, “but it’s become so… boring, to me. It’s the same thing every day—laze around in gardens and meadows and make everything too pretty to touch, sing and dance and learn every new way to decorate my hair and my clothes. All while making sure I’m never too far away from the nymphs that take care of me, or that my father has nothing to worry about when he’s tending to all the grains and making sure all those mortals are fed every year.” She sighs, all but nuzzling his hand with her cheek. “I guess you could say growing runs in the family.”
“But you love them, don’t you?” Luka asks, daring to press his thumb to her jaw, mindful of the lone flower as he moves closer to her.
The only time he isn’t touching her face is when she leans back to peel his gloves away, and a pleased expression flits across her face as soon as dark nails scrape over her skin. It’s only momentary, though, and gives way to something more somber. “I wonder if I do,” she says, “or if it’s just something I feel because I see them every day. If it’s something I feel because living my life the way I do is no better than being a bird in a cage, or an animal in a box.”
“And…” Luka hesitates. “What about the sun?”
Marinette goes tense, and her fingers dig into the back of his hand, and his eyes might be playing a trick on him, but it almost looks like all the flowers around her shrivel up just a bit, and unfurl as she releases the breath she’s holding. “I thought I was in love with him once, from the moment I saw him. I really believed it. I’ve pined for him for as long as I can remember, even after his brother—Félix, you know?—found out and swore not to tell. He could have, for all I know… I swear they tell each other everything. Even Kim offered to shoot him with one of his arrows, to make something of it. But I… how do you really fall in love with someone you only see from far away, for a few beautiful moments of every day? What happens when the sun is gone and he’s all that’s left? Would I still feel the way I do? And besides, I…”
She has to pause. Luka can’t help meeting her eyes; it’s the only way he can tell her, without saying anything, that he’s still listening.
Eventually, she pulls her hands away, and rests them in her lap, defeated. “We’ve always been so far apart. With everything he’s responsible for, how I only ever see him when he’s in the sky… I don’t think we’re as fated to be together as the people around me would have me believe. They’ve always encouraged me to have hope—and it’s not a stupid thing to have—but why hope for something that, the less you see it happening, the more certainly you know it won’t ever come true?” She bows her head, the flowers in her hair curling inward almost wistfully, and a teardrop or two trickles down her cheeks and lands on her dress.
Luka’s heart sinks, and he takes her face in his hands, even as her tears drip down his wrists and drop to the ground. “Come on…” he tells her. “You know salt isn’t good for the plants.”
“They’re all so far away.” Even she sounds distant now, wiping her eyes with the side of her hand, and she refuses to lift her head. “They aren’t for me. They wouldn’t even miss me.”
In the forest, everything is silent except for the way Marinette cries. Even the way he presses his forehead to hers and lifts her head so their eyes can meet. Even the way he thumbs her cheek and permits her to look away if she needs to, and delights when she doesn’t. The only thing that breaks the silence is how he whispers, “I miss you, you know. I miss you all the time,” just before he pulls her mouth to his own.
The kiss is as sweet as he always imagined it, soft and tender and so loving it makes him dizzy with all the ichor that rushes to his head. He can’t help unraveling her hair and threading his fingers through it, or clutching at the silk of her robes wherever he’s able, or skimming his hands over what bare skin he can find, because winter kissing spring is invigorating, and he never wants to stop now that he’s had the taste of it. And, if the way she crawls into his lap and settles her hands around his neck is any indication, neither does she.
He almost doesn’t want to open his eyes when he pulls away. No, he wants to keep holding her hands, lay her back, press her to one of the trees and let her have every loving way she pleases with him. But he wills himself to look at her, the flush in her face, her hair in disarray, her lips shimmering pink and aching to be kissed again. She’s wrapping his cloak around the both of them now, locking herself in with him, and he’s always had the feeling that black suited her, but it’s never looked so beautiful on her before now.
“Look,” she whispers, so hoarse he can barely hear her, and before they can meet in another kiss he catches the blossoms beginning to sprout around them, pink, gold, white. The red one alone is the only one of its kind, and it sticks out like a sore thumb. “Now you can’t miss me anymore.”
He smiles, his laugh little more than a breath against her lips, and draws her down with him.
“I have something for you.”
Luka mentions it offhand, when more time has passed and the night isn’t quite young, when Marinette is busy putting together a makeshift garden close to the entrance of Paradise. She said she wanted to start off small, in a place that might be a better guarantee for things to grow. There are only sprouts for now, the beginnings of crocuses and orchids and cliff roses, but she seems to have so much faith in them, and already she’s been talking about experimenting with fruits and vegetables, if he’d let her.
But not grains. She’s joked on more than one occasion that it’s out of her jurisdiction, and that she’s tired of it besides.
Honestly, he doesn’t blame her. Browns and beiges are so drab compared to what she can bring here, and for the Lord of the Underworld, that’s saying something. And besides, he’s having much more fun admiring her as she works, recreates life with her hands and cares very little about getting them dirty. Hearing her hum one of his songs—the first one he ever played for her, in fact—only serves to make him more certain in his decisions.
And so the words come from him, rip away from him, without his ever intending to say them out loud—at least, not yet. And he has no choice but to live with them. But he would choose to anyway, in retrospect, and that makes all the difference.
Marinette pauses both work and song, turns and smiles up at him affectionately, still spring among all this indescribable season, and claps the dust and half-stale earth from her hands as she stands up straight. “What is it?” she asks, as sweet and musical as the day she first came to The Border to speak to him.
It warms him, on the inside, and he lifts her knuckles to his lips before taking her home.
In all their time exploring the Underworld together—following the timeless routine of the dead and walling off eternal punishment from earshot and discovering things even he had never known—Luka’s never taken her up to his palace. He’s never needed to, and she’s never been particularly fascinated in it, except to ask about “that building up above their heads.” She’s always been a woman of the open air, for as long as he’s known her. And for that same span of time, she’s had an inexplicable hold over him, a charm he wouldn’t give up anything, not even for the assembly and company of his fellow deities.
It isn’t as though they’ve done him much good these last few centuries, anyway.
He has to take her through a winding passageway and up a staircase, far above the imprisonment of his inmates. But her soft little hand never leaves his, even with the leftover soil on it, and she trusts him just as deeply as the first night he invited her in. Only when they reach the palace—a somber black void of a building, supported by columns of iron and steel—does she let go of him. She cranes her head to stare in wonder at the grand entrance, which is engraved with the familiar snake emblem from the front gates, but she doesn’t tremble or cling to him the way she did the first time she overheard the Torture, or came upon those weeping, wandering souls along Le Sanglot.
She stands like she’s ready for whatever may lie beyond the doors. Like she’s allowed to own it, mesmerized though she is. And she touches the seal for herself.
Luka smiles, and presses his palm to his heart, and allows the doors to open for her.
Their footsteps—the only ones in this vast, lonely place—echo off the walls, except where they’re muffled by dark maroon carpet, and almost instantly, Marinette seems taken with it all. She doesn’t stray very far from him to explore, even though it’s exactly what brought her down here at all. Her robes billow behind her as he takes in the dark pillars, the grey stained glass, the single chandelier of perpetually lit candles that brings out her shadows more than her highlights. It’s the instant she lays her hand on the simple bone banister and looks at him over her shoulder, though, that he stops, rooted to the spot, and stands up a little straighter. And his mind goes hazy.
His teeth sink into his lip.
She belongs here after all.
“Where are we going?” she asks.
Her words are soft, and command equality—Where are we going? instead of Where are you taking me? But he feels like he could hear them from ages away. Like he could, would, fall to his knee at the drop of a hat for her. He’s at her side in an instant, with a hand splayed over her back, and he guides her up and up. “Come,” he whispers, and he takes her to his chamber with his fingers curled into her robes.
Once the heavy door closes behind them, Marinette hangs back, giving an almost nervous stare around the dark room, at the heavy brocade draperies, the iron and velvet lounging chairs, the low table with its steel platter of pomegranates, the bed that needs no introduction or formality. Luka lights the candles around the room with a swirl of his fingers, and the flames dance, illuminating their faces and their clothes, though his seem to swallow it all up. It’s after he’s unpinned his cloak and laid it aside, and as he’s rummaging through a nearby drawer, that she takes first one hesitant step, and then another. Her footsteps betray her, and he can still see her out of the corner of his eye.
“Why…” She pauses, starts again with her hair twisted around her fingers. “Why did you bring me here?”
“Because,” he tells her, and coaxes one hand away to press his lips to her palm. “It wouldn’t be right for me to give you this so publicly.”
In his hands is a rose gold crown, light and adorned with diamonds and pink sapphires and dark red rubies, all of them shaped to form flower blossoms all around. With his eyes on hers, he holds it out to her, and takes a step closer. “A choice,” he says. “Your choice.”
Marinette’s eyes go wide.
“I wouldn’t ask for anyone’s permission but yours,” he tells her in the almost-dark like he’s rehearsed it countless times. “I don’t keep much company with me—you know that as well as I do. But yours, I’ve enjoyed. Yours, I want. You’d be able to do as you please here, whatever you feel gives you purpose. You could try to make as many things grow as would make you happy. If they won’t have you above, then I’d have you below. And with your consent, I wouldn’t be in the business of parting with you. So, come…” His breath hitches, and he holds out the crown a little further, enough that he could lay it in her hands if he wanted to. “Would you rule this place with me? Would you honor me, and be my queen?”
He’s not so close that his eyes would cross if he tried to look at her, but he is close enough to hear her shudder, to see the pinpricks of tears at the corners of her eyes. He’d wipe them away if he good, but gives her the power to do it herself. Slowly, and by the light of every candle in his chamber, she kneels before him, closes her eyes, and bows her head, loose curls spilling over her shoulders.
“Crown me,” she murmurs, “My Lord.”
For someone who gives life, again and again, she must have snatched all of it from him in this moment. With every drop of caution and precision, Luka fits the crown upon her head, and lifts her chin to meet her gaze, and helps her to her feet again. “A queen of mine,” he says, “stands on equal ground. And sometimes higher.”
She blushes a bright, shimmering pink, and finds his hands to hold. “You really are mine?”
“All of this is yours,” he says, and squeezes gently. “All of me is yours.”
He seals it all with sections of pomegranate, thumbs and palms pressed to mouths as they feed one another, and he kisses the juice from her lips. Their hands are still stained red from the fruit, and he’s more than sure it’s smudged across her robes when he holds her close, but it’s hard to care about when he’s setting their crowns side by side and mouthing hungrily along her neck to the music of her sighs.
“I said I would have you,” he whispers against her jaw, one hand firm at the small of her back and the other coaxing away the strap of her dress. “Will you have me, too?”
It might be the dark, or the candles, or the high of such an intimate wedding, but her eyes have never looked so blue to him before. She swallows, and shivers, and reaches for the front of his clothes, pulling him close as he lifts her and walks her backward. “I brought you life,” she whispers back, with her hands closing delightfully around his neck. “Now bring me death.”
In his bed—their bed—his queen draws the curtains around them, and unravels above him, and fills his room with music and bright red blossoms.
Chapter 2: [I'M THE KING AND YOU'RE THE QUEEN]
here's the second half!! i'm so excited that people have enjoyed this little story. i've put so much effort and research and love into it, so i'm so happy you get to read the rest now!
in case you'd like it: this is Super Mood Music for this part.
Marinette wakes, and she is home.
“Home” isn’t her soft, lofty bed with a gentle spring breeze bringing her back to consciousness. It isn’t the loving, yet caging looks from her father just before he tells her to do everything at her leisure, and never to stray too far. It isn’t the countless meadows where she’s spent her time, or the nymphs who keep her company and braid flowers into her hair, or the songs about spring and new life. It might not even be the sun to her anymore, or those few moments when she gets to see it. Not so much, anyway.
Home—now more than ever—is her head nestled against a cool chest in the dark, and quietly laced fingers, and the heavy blankets that pool at her waist when she sits up and tries to comb her hair back into place. It’s the lazy mouth at her waist, and then at her wrist, all the way up her arm to her shoulder, it’s the feeling of foreign, loving hands on her skin, and then it’s the gentle tug of her body on top of another’s.
It’s the sleepy, contented smile Luka gives her as he swims into vision, and squeezes her hands before his own travel up and up and down and down, and he tells her in earnest, “I think I’m beginning to like this view of you.”
Stars and seeds, he’s her husband.
And it’s the smile she returns as she catches him by the wrist and kisses his palm, just before he beckons her down to meet her lips with his own.
“Are you leaving?” Luka asks her. He’s busy brushing her hair from her shoulders, raking her over with his gaze, revering her all over again in spite of the flickers of worry in his eyes. “To see your father, to tell your attendants…”
He’s cradling her cheeks, but Marinette manages to shake her head anyway. “These souls are my attendants now,” she tells him, and attempts to crawl off to grab her still-stained robe from the floor. “And I should go pay them my respects.”
“Stay,” he says, and tries to pull her back into his arms, and she doesn’t particularly resist. It’s hard to, when a charming deathbed is so conceivable now.
“We have things to do,” she reminds him. “A land to rule, spirits to attend to…”
“And yet I still made time in all this,” he says, “to attend to you.” He’s slipped into a grin now, coaxed her back down to him and the covers over their heads. “And I know exactly how I want to use that time.”
It takes a while, getting used to being called Your Majesty, or anything else so formal. She’s gotten accustomed to My Lady, simply by virtue of being her father’s daughter. My Lady was sweet, and innocent, the dainty address of those who knew her family and not her, who sang to her and giggled in her presence and blew her kisses, who sought to protect her instead of letting her live. Your Majesty carries a weight to it, a responsibility, and seems to come almost naturally to all these wandering spirits. No matter whether she walks along the river or among the orchards in Paradide, as soon as they see her, they freeze in place, knowing something deep inside themselves without knowing how they know it, and they bend to her, and weep for her mercy. And they call her their queen. Majesty.
They’re such pitiable, wispy little things, and it takes a certain kind of strength for Marinette to soothe them back to their feet and whisper, “Rise. You don’t need to bow to me. This is your home, and I am your caretaker, and I will let nothing harm you.” And it’s all they need to be a little less aimless, a little more assured in their wandering, a little less hollow in the way they weep for themselves.
Sometimes, she can feel Luka’s proud gaze boring into her back. Other times, she feels nothing, because he’s left her to herself. She calls it a privilege, an honor, a breath of fresh air. He calls it a right, and common decency, and he tells her to find all her places, to find whatever makes her curious and gives her purpose and makes her happy. Nothing will take her away here. Nothing will close her in.
The spirits tell her their stories of all the ugly things she’s never known, and may never will: loss of children, a lover’s painful rejection, miscarriages and war and disease, pride and jealousy and self-destructive wrath, mind-numbing despair and plagues of the brain that tempt people to their own demise. Sometimes they don’t need to say anything; sometimes they only kneel at her feet and vibrate in their own sadness. Sobbing. Sometimes they stumble toward L’Oubli in front of her very eyes, drink deep from their hands and disappear back into mortality for another chance at existence, without ever letting her say goodbye first.
As long as it takes to get used to all this heavy-handed deference, it takes longer for her heart to stop breaking for all these mortal regrets.
In the shadow of Marinette’s care they come to call her a number of things, which seem more respectful than her name and yet not as stiff as Your Majesty. “Caretaker.” “Guardian.” “Mercy.” “Death Mother.” Even Juleka—her sister-in-law, yes, that’s right—picks up on them from time to time, whenever they cross paths. They’re the sorts of names that align with what her father’s been called all these years. The sorts of epithets that are best accompanied by an altar she does not keep, and a priestess who hasn’t quite grasped all of her secrets, and offerings she would have no use for. The sorts that people write poetry about, and she’s sure she hasn’t gotten there, and probably never will.
It matters little to her. What she has here—the rivers, the orchards, the palace—is enough to please her.
And, as she’s noticed, whatever is enough to please her is enough to please Luka in turn. He tells her so in the private company of his palace, or of their bed, when they huddle close and she tells him about the stories she’s heard, the corners of the Underworld that she’s visited, the fingernail-sized blossoms that betray every path she takes. He gives her his full attention, with awe sparkling in his eyes and tenderness in every touch, and calls her “my queen” at any teasing opportunity. But it works well enough when she calls him “my lord” right back, and practically glows any time he laughs and pulls her close.
Death is lovely when he laughs, Marinette decides. Even if the sound is hollow, and strikes unnameable terror in the hearts of others. Even if it’s inconceivable. He laughs when he’s around her, he laughs only for her, and she cherishes it as closely as the crown upon her head, as closely as the name she’s earned.
“Do you ever get homesick?” Luka asks her once, when the world is quiet and they only have to focus on each other. “All this dark and regret and sorrow. You aren’t tired of it?”
“Is Adrien tired of the sun?” she asks. “Is Lady Anarka tired of the sea?”
He smiles and nuzzles her shoulder, perhaps in remembrance of his mother. “You haven’t answered my question.”
It’s partly because she doesn’t want to, and partly because she doesn’t feel like she needs to. He’ll find his answer soon enough, when she’s meandering through Paradise with a bittersweet expression and swirling life around her feet. Or when she’s got her hands in the dirt in every attempt to bring forth real trees and real roots, just to see the elated, grateful look on his face when she brings him homegrown food. Or when she tips her head toward what she hopes might be the sky, only to see grey and more grey, and the gemstone forest glows just a little brighter in sympathy, like the trees are trying to copy the sun for her sake. She chalks it up to muscle memory, these sudden drops in her heart—lets herself miss, and then lets the missing go.
For now, she only pulls him closer in the night, and tucks his head under her chin, and just before his arms snake around her waist and his lips find her collarbone, she murmurs, “I am home. This is my place, and that is my crown, and you are my lord.”
He squeezes her hand. “And you are my queen.”
This is the way for what must be months. She doesn’t know how long, exactly.
All she knows is when it stops.
When her father’s voice echoes down the cavern, and leaves her ichor running cold.
“Who is it?” Luka asks, but he looks like he doesn’t want to know. Like he wishes she didn’t know.
Marinette’s starting to think she wishes she didn’t know, either.
The voice comes again, barrels down the steps from The Border, cold and sharp and almost scared. It stops them both on their stroll along La Haine, and even the spirits around them don’t dare make any sound. Like something might snatch them away, in a moment where, for once, they might not want it to—as though the snatching can only happen by their own consent.
She’d rather enjoy the irony of it all, if she weren’t so rooted to the spot. If she weren’t shaking at Luka’s side.
“Who is it?” he asks again. “What’s happening?”
Marinette draws in a breath, gives his hand a squeeze, and lets go. “Stay here,” she whispers. “I’ll go on my own.”
“And what if something happens to you?” His voice is as resolute as the hard gleam in his eyes. “I couldn’t live with myself if that happened. I couldn’t be stupid enough to let you go alone.”
“Do you trust me?”
Luka studies her carefully, from the black robes she’s claimed for her own to the withered flowers on her head—a keepsake from the first time she visited the Underworld. His gaze softens, but only a little, and he nods before reaching into one of his pockets to pull out a bronze ring. It’s a signet, decorated with garnets to look like half of a pomegranate, and he takes her hand in his to slide it onto her finger and kiss the jewels.
“You’ll come back to me,” he murmurs, and Marinette can’t tell if he’s making a plan for her or reassuring himself.
“I’ll come back to you,” she whispers back—a plan, a promise—and squeezes his hands. And lets go. And she tries not to think about the branch that snags in her robes and tears them on her way toward the cavern. She’ll have them mended later.
The pathway to The Border is half-familiar, only because she can’t remember the last time she traveled this way. She almost wonders, for all the time she’s spent here, if it’s worth remembering anything and everything she left behind, when she has a whole world at her fingertips. If it’s even worth climbing these steps at all, or if her father would very well descend in to Hell just to get her out.
No, she tells herself, rubbing the garnets under her thumb and gathering up her robes, rips and all. She’s coming back. She is queen, and she’s coming back. She’ll explain everything at The Border, and her father will attend to his land and his mortals, and she’ll attend to hers and what’s left of them, and all will be well. All has to be well.
All this, until she squints into the light, and freezes in place, and starts to tremble all over again, at the sight of her father’s burly form in the cavern entrance. And the grey. And the snow. And the dead white blossom, limp against the rocks.
Marinette doesn’t know what to do first: try and fail to nurse the blossom back to life, or gather her robes around her against the cold, or stare into her father’s pale, gaunt face. Has he ever looked so… hollow? Like someone scooped all the life out of him? Has he ever looked so alone? So… scared?
“Papa,” she breathes, and she isn’t sure if she’s relieved to see him, or overwhelmed by being found, or—horrified—at the wasteland behind him. What is this place? This isn’t the meadow she’s so used to. That place was full of life and color and song, sweet girls and unraveled braids and soft petals from fruits that came so naturally. This… this is nothing. This is what Nothing looks like. The trees are little more than gnarled black branches, void of all their leaves, let alone their fruit. There’s no grass to be seen, under all this white, and the Earth feels like it’s cracking, and everything looks like it could attack her, if she isn’t careful.
This isn’t her Earth. This isn’t her home.
And maybe this isn’t her father, if he’s staring at her like he doesn’t recognize her. If he’s staring at her like she’s got smudges of death on her hands and can’t wash them out.
“Marinette?” he says, like he’s searching for her—no, like he’s searching for someone he used to know in her. Like he’s waiting for that someone to spring out, and say she’s missed him, and beg him to take her home. But whoever that someone is, Marinette isn’t sure she knows her anymore. Or wants to.
She takes a step back, and clutches at her dress, right along the tatters from the stray branches, for some kind of nameless security. “Where did you—how did you—?”
“You’re all right,” he says, like he can’t believe she ever could be, and crosses The Border, and gathers her up in his arms. And for some reason, he looks all the more alive for it. “Oh, thank everything, you’re safe. Come, he can’t get you anymore. He won’t take you away again.”
“What—” Her heart sinks in disbelief, and it seems like the more she tries to struggle or tell him to let her go, the tighter he holds onto her. And he tells her to come along, and it sounds too perfect, and not at all inviting. It’s the kind that tells her he might very well never let her out of his sight again. The kind that says she’s supposed to belong here when, maybe, he doesn’t know the first thing about her anymore. That if he only remakes her in the right image, she’ll be herself again. She’ll make everything right again.
She shouldn’t have come. She shouldn’t have left. It was only that she didn’t know, she didn’t know what would happen if she didn’t. If he’d come down himself and yank her away from her own land. Her land. Her home.
She wants to go home. She wants to go back. She told Luka to trust her. She promised she’d come back.
She presses her thumb to the ring, and the flowers on her head come sickeningly back to life, and she starts to cry, and she starts to scream. And her father holds her closer against the cold, and he tries to soothe her, and he says, “I know, I know, I’m taking you home.”
It’s as she’s wiping her eyes that she tosses her head toward the now-colorless sky, and in the few cursed moments that Adrien passes overhead, he smiles knowingly, with his hand to his heart, and gives her a salute.
Marinette wakes, and she is not home.
She doesn’t quite know where she is at first.
She doesn’t quite know who she is at first.
The first morning, it takes her ages to open her eyes, because she stayed up impossibly late, clutching the ring to her chest and weeping. She hoped, stupidly, that it might open some line of communication to the Underworld. That she could tell Luka exactly what had happened to her, and that she could be rescued, really rescued. But it didn’t matter what she did, how hard she rubbed it, how much she cried. Her chamber was quiet, and Luka didn’t come, and he probably never could. Probably never would. The night comes flooding back to her, and she can’t bring herself to move. She can’t even bring herself to cry properly. The tears simply leak from the corners of her eyes until she decides to rise, and then they merely trickle down her cheeks, springing fresh no matter how many times she tries to wipe them away.
The first morning, there’s a chill coming from the windows, and as she moves to close them, she catches sight of the crocuses peeking through the snow. The frost beginning to melt away. The faint color spilling into the sky.
Spring is coming back, life is starting again, and for the first time she’s aware of, she doesn’t want much to do with it.
So she shuts all the windows, and draws all the curtains, and scorns the daylight for shining through. And she sits in her bed, in the pastel, flower-adorned robes she left behind, and tries to mend the ones that make her queen. And no matter how much she stitches them, no matter how much she tries to make them look as good as new, they never really feel whole to her. They’re little more than a void of rumpled fabric, and she can’t bring herself to hide it away. And she can’t bring herself to put it on again, because garments like these are not for the Earth.
Someone like her is not for the Earth.
The mornings that follow feel the same. Every day, a little more frost melts away, a few more blossoms poke out to greet her and thank her, a little more blue fills the sky and keeps the sun company. And every day, she closes the curtains and paces her chamber and rubs the ring in longing, as though this might be the time Luka can come get her, can connect to her and tell her exactly how to come back to him. Her father always checks in on her all the same, and thanks her for bringing life back into the world with a kiss to the top of her head, and encourages her to go outside and see the nymphs who haven’t visited in so long. Because, really, it’s not as though he’s keeping her locked up in here, even though she supposes he very well could.
It’s just that he’s keeping her locked out of her home, pleading her to never leave his sight, because he couldn’t bear to lose her like that again, and that’s just as bad. And she doesn’t want to risk sneaking to The Border on her own again, in case it becomes cyclical. Or in case he—or worse, Gabriel—did something to keep her from getting back in.
So there isn’t a point.
And so here she stays.
What an odd way to kill someone who cannot die.
It must be months before all the snow clears away, and the birds start singing at the windowsill, and Marinette finally dares to open the curtains to a world she used to be so familiar with. Her attendants are waiting below—they must have been coming every day, just hoping for her to see them and come to them. They laugh and cry and call to her, beckoning her down, these beings she called her friends once upon a time, when perhaps she only thought them so because they were the only ones to spend time with her. And though her body feels like lead and the flowers feel so fake, she goes down to meet them. They gather her up in their embraces and in their tears, and lead her down to the meadow hand-in-hand, and they sing her their welcomes, and she tries not to cry all over again, because Luka might hear it.
Something in her itches to go to The Border. Just to try. Just to see what would happen. It’s right there, in broad daylight. If only she could…
But they never let her out of their sight. Don’t even let her look toward it. They’ve missed her too much, they say. Doesn’t she know how long she’s been gone? Hasn’t she noticed how short the days were, how beautiful they are now that she’s back?
She pauses, with irises in her hair and her hands folded so limply in her lap. “How long was I gone?”
The girls look among each other, but it’s Alya who speaks. It’s always Alya who speaks. “Don’t you know?” she says. “It was something like six months.”
Six beautiful months of surveying her land and soothing her spirits. Six beautiful months of toeing the riverbanks and springing fresh food from the ground and finding solace in the gemstone trees. Six months of unlearning all her empathy as she walked past the Torture, and falling into it all over again when she peeked into Paradise. Of comforting the weeping ones, and bidding farewell to those too impatient for their own mortality,. Of balancing a crown of permanent flowers on her head, of being the guardian and the childless mother, of bedding Death Himself and whispering all his secrets back to him among laced fingers and tangled sheets.
Six months that Luka didn’t have to wait for her at The Border, or long for her in the daylight, and only whisk her away at night for a few hours at a time. Six months that she didn’t have to worry about what her father would do when he woke up.
How many months did Luka spend waiting for her before? Would he wait for her now?
…Is he waiting for her now? Has he been, all these days, all these mornings or nights, and did she simply miss him out of her own grief?
When her father’s attendants—her babysitters, perhaps she should call them—aren’t looking, she steals one glance at The Border out of the corner of her eye. And then another. And a third. All these small bursts, just to search for the shadows of her husband.
Her husband who isn’t there, when she looks just a little too long.
And she rocks back and forth and begins to hum, almost manically, every song she’s ever heard him play. Like if she does it long enough, he’ll hear her from below, and he’ll finally come to his senses and bring her back.
Alya is the one who notices her eyes welling up, and follows Marinette’s gaze to The Border, and pulls her close, unable to follow the melody but soothing her all the same. “I know,” she says, threading her fingers through her hair, careful not to dislodge any of the blossoms. “I know you were scared. But you’re safe now. You have us, and you’re safe now.”
When was she ever scared?
“Look,” Alya says, nudges her, points a reassuring finger upwards.
Marinette does, with all the notes stuck in her throat now, and above them is Adrien, golden as ever and guiding his chariot across the sky. He waves down to her with something like a relieved expression, and he doesn’t take his eyes off her except to control the fiery steeds ahead of him and the sun just behind.
Before, her heart would have fluttered, and she would have thought about it all day, carried it with her into her dreams while the attendants cooed around her and reinforced all her fantasies the way they do now. She would have sung about spring and sunshine and wished to be up there beside him. She would have held his hand the whole time and perhaps stolen a kiss or two and looked down on how small the world was, waving down at everything she knew.
Now, she feels… nothing. Almost nothing. Except for maybe her heart sinking deep into the pit of her stomach. And the music dying away before it ever reaches her lips.
And a curiosity, for what he must have said or done.
And a dark, fiery, angry longing, for what he took away.
Her hands clench into fists, as small and tight and powerful as she can make them. And she rises to her feet, still looking between The Border and the sky and there’s power in how Alya’s grip on her slips.
Adrien passes, and she watches him disappear into the distance, and she has to go home. There are new robes to put on. There’s a story to tell, and trust to gain, and somewhere to go.
And Luka’s already told her exactly where.
Marinette supposes that when these mortal folk talk about following one another to the ends of the earth, they don’t mean it literally.
And she supposes that when she felt the same about Adrien, once upon a time, she didn’t mean it that way, either.
It took nights of silent appeal for strength and stealth in front of the fire in her chamber. She pleaded, and begged without words, and she rubbed at hopeless angry tears until her mother appeared in the hearth at twilight, and covered her as she doubled over crying. Her mother lifted her face, steadfast and patient and holding all the welcome of the world, and in the few moments she was there she waved a hand behind her, then clasped both of Marinette’s and told her to go. There was no protest, no argument, nothing but a knowing support and a closeness of the heart that no god or father could break. Nothing but, perhaps, the love a parent should have given. She only looked to her mother once, and waited for the nod, and stole into the almost-dark in her mended royal robes.
Luka took her to The Medium once, and only once. The resting place for those who have done neither good nor bad, or too much of each. The place where they wait and wander, with no punishment and no reward and no second chances, with all the dying stars and the silence of space to accompany them.
The place where, for a few critical moments a day—moments that are neither blessed nor cursed—the sun and the moon meet.
She’s never been since—made it a point, really, to avoid the place, and never cross the nameless river of the Underworld—but her body seems to know where to take her all the same. It’s as though she’s known her world so much that the place comes to her naturally. She doesn’t know how much of the Earth she’s crossed, how many clouds she’s had to push through. She only has her eyes on the horizon, and her skirts billowing behind her, and she feels much more like the queen of the death of day than the death of all things, but she’ll take it for all this ugly despair she’s had to carry all this way.
Marinette takes a breath and kisses her garnet ring, and crosses the river that feels more like a sea without an end, and steps into the end of the world.
The first thing she notices is how deafeningly silent everything is. It’s as though she’s dipped her whole head into the river instead of simply crossing it. There’s no breeze in the atmosphere, no rustle or crackle in her footsteps, nothing but the low rumbling of the cosmos that she can only try to replicate if she closes her eyes too tight. Even when she gasps, it’s like the land takes it away. It must be, she thinks, the remnants of what everything used to be like before Tikki and Plagg came together.
The Medium was a blinding black void, more solitude than any other part of the Underworld, when she stood outside of it with Luka. All things considered, she might have fit right in if it didn’t make her so uncomfortable. Now, it’s a blend of reds and pinks and oranges that are slowly dying away—a bath of sunlight she has to reach before it’s gone. It’s just bright enough, now, to see those few-but-far-between souls, the ones that are good for something but not the best, pacing in their own nothingness. Wandering. Waiting.
How many times have they seen the sky like this? How long have they been listening to the beginning and the end of everything?
With the ichor pounding and pulsing under her skin, Marinette takes one step forward, and then another, and then she breaks into a run. She doesn’t care how much she stumbles over herself and has to gather her dress and try again. She only knows that she can’t slow down, that the day is ending and the night is coming and she can’t bear to wait all the hours it will take for Felix and Adrien to be together again. She has to chase the light. She has to get to it before it goes.
A spirit notices her, and then another, and out of the corner of her eye they come at her. She’s never seen anything move so fast, or latch onto her so hard, or stare at her with such sunken, desperate, needy eyes. She screams, and no sound comes out no matter how many times she tries it, and she’s left mouthing at them.
It’s only when she shrieks, “Unhand your queen!” that the silence breaks, and they let her go like they’ve been burnt.
She sprints away, and they sprint after her, reaching for her—these wispy hands in the almost-dark—like she could ever save them somehow. She runs until the world gets brighter and darker, and brighter and darker again, and she shield her eyes and closes them and—
And there’s Adrien. Tending to his horses, golden as the day he was born.
And there’s Félix. Sharpening his arrows, so cold and ethereal in the way he glows in the dark that Marinette can’t help but stare.
“You’re here,” she says, her voice echoing into oblivion. It feels like she’s tearing through existence as she comes to them, crossing through a glass where the spirits who clung to her can only stop short.
Instantly, both boys look up from their handiwork; she can’t tell if they’re horrified or relieved to see her. They might even look like they don’t recognize her. Adrien is the first to drop his brush and run to her, and he stops short just like those spirits. Like he doesn’t know if he can touch her. He never has before.
His hand twitches, and his fingertips brush against her knuckles, and he feels like sunlight. “You’re safe,” he murmurs. “I was so scared for you.”
He reaches to cradle her cheek, and though his touch is soft, and tender, and everything she’d ever hoped it would be, she has to swallow down a sick feeling that rises in her throat. It’s Adrien, sure, but Adrien is not her husband. Adrien didn’t show her the world and everything it has to offer. Adrien didn’t sing to her, or beckon her out, or cherish her. He only…
He didn’t do anything.
She takes a step back, trembling, just as Félix languidly approaches them, his hunting dog at his side, and slings his quiver across his chest. He looks at her like she should be grateful for something, but she has no idea what. “Why?” she asks. “What do you mean, I’m safe?”
Adrien and Félix share a look that Marinette can’t quite decipher, but the one they give her is full of pity. “You were taken,” Adrien says. “You were abducted into the Underworld by… Luka.” He wrinkles his nose at the name, but looks like he’s trying to pretend he didn’t; it isn’t lost on Marinette. “Félix saw everything. He told me to tell your father, since I could reach him better. Though if I were him…” He shoots a glare at his brother. “I wouldn’t have waited until I was asked six months later if I knew anything.”
She looks over to Félix, who’s looking bored as ever and rubbing his nails against the sash on his cropped robes. “You’re welcome,” is all he says. His dog curls up beside her feet, loyally wagging his tail, as if to tell her he’s bound to protect her, too.
“It’s okay, Marinette,” Adrien says, getting her attention with his hand on her wrist. “You’re safe here. You’re home. He can’t get you, unless…”
Her chest goes tight, and she freezes at his touch. “Unless?”
“Unless you ate something,” Félix cuts in dryly, examining one of his arrows like he intends to threaten her. Or worse, threaten Luka. “But I don’t know what kind of rotting flesh would be so appetizing down there.”
Marinette holds her breath, and her thumb digs into the garnet seeds of her ring. Her nose starts to burn, and her hand unravels from Adrien’s grip, and she sinks to the ground in tears with her face in her hands.
Instantly, Adrien is kneeling at her side, his hands on her shoulders, squeezing so gentle it makes her sick all over again. “What is it, Marinette?” he asks, so softly she’s not even sure Félix can hear. “What happened to you down there?”
She’s shaking so much she can barely speak at first, and she cradles her ring close to her chest. “Thank everything,” she shudders. “I can go home.”
Félix looks at her incredulously. “What are you talking about? Stars, he must have messed up your mind worse that we thought. Adrien, don’t worry about this anymore, I’ll take her back and—”
“You’ll do no such thing!” she screeches, so loud that nothing can swallow it up. Behind her, she feels every spirit go still. In front, Adrien and Félix are stunned into silence.
Marinette staggers to her feet, fists clenched so tightly her knuckles are going white and glittering with her own essence. She must look so wild to the two of them, the hair-raising, maddening Queen of Death she truly is. They’re scared of her, cowering before her, and she revels in it. “Understand this,” she hisses. “I don’t want to be here.”
The twins look to each other again, then back at her, like they’re afraid of speaking and of incurring her wrath by not speaking all at once. Only Adrien is brave enough to do it, in the end. “No one wants to be here,” he says. “No one likes The Medium.”
“No.” Marinette is hardly calm, and her face is pleasantly streaked with tears. It feels like destruction is crackling in her palms, and she wonders how much of it her husband endowed upon her. “The Earth. This land isn’t for me. These fields aren’t mine when I can make my own somewhere else. My season is mine, and I will take spring where I want it. And I will take it below, where it will be loved, and cherished, and where I will be, too, where I can make it. I am tired of fashioning something out of what’s given to me. I’m tired of everyone else’s expectations—no, don’t touch me, Adrien!”
His hand curls back, like he’s been stung, but he doesn’t speak. Félix almost looks… impressed.
But this isn’t for Félix. And this isn’t for Adrien.
“This,” she seethes, “is mine. Not some fate I’m resigned to. And you will let me have it.”
Both boys stare, dumbstruck, and barely find it in themselves to nod.
Her body begins to relax, though only a little, and she turns to Félix with all the hardness in her eyes instead of in her stance. “Lead the moon,” she says softly, her voice cracking with fatigue, “and take me to my father.”
She doesn’t want to know how one gets to Earth from The Medium; it’s a blur she doesn’t remember, or is sure the twins have repressed in her memory, and it’s one secret she’s happy they keep. She’s already been there long enough for any god’s lifetime, and she’s sure by the time she’s out of there that she pities all the spirits she left behind far more than anyone in Torture. At least their end is definite. At least they don’t have to wait for anything.
Félix is silent the whole journey back to her father’s home. She’s never really known what to make of him, in all the time she’s known him. He’s cold and brooding most of the time, wild where his brother is refined, black-and-white where Adrien is warm and gold. Silent in the way he whisked her away, and staring when Adrien shrunk back and couldn’t bear to look at her when she bade him goodbye. Still, he must trust her so much to never once look back and ensure that she’s following him, all the way to the fields in front of her father’s modest temple.
“I’m sorry,” he says, folding his arms tight and staring at the ground. “For misunderstanding.”
“You didn’t know,” she tells him. “And I wasn’t exactly around for you to ask. You did what any worried one would do.”
“I wasn’t worried.”
“Ah,” she teases, “so that’s why you waited six months to tell them.”
It takes a long time before he looks at her. “You love him so purely, it’s almost sickening. Father only knows how many times you’ve sung late into the night just hoping he’ll look at you for more than a minute. Waste of time, if you ask me.” He shrugs. “But I wouldn’t be a brother to him if I didn’t give you a chance. If I didn’t do what I could to give you both that chance.”
For all her chaos before, Marinette goes soft at the edges. She bends, only to pick a white morning glory—the kind that only bloom under the slivers and wedges of moonlight—from a vine winding around her ankle. “I did,” she says, tucking the blossom into his robes at the chest, “but not now.”
Félix plucks the flower and breathes in deep, then puts it back on full display. “You have so much love in you,” he murmurs, quiet in the night but oh-so-knowing, and she’s sure it’s the softest she’s ever heard him. “You would have gone hand-in-hand with him if you’d only had the patience for him.”
“Perhaps,” she says. “But I had too much of it, and he had no time to give. And I can’t wait anymore. But it isn’t so bad.” She twists the ring on her finger, and her heart goes still. “Death waits on me now. I’ll be going to him soon enough.”
“Death must really be something,” he drawls, twirling an arrow between his nimble fingers, “for you to want to go to him so badly. Just don’t forget your father, too. Don’t leave him so abruptly, we’ll be stuck in a wasteland all over again.”
Marinette smile sadly at him, and unwinds the vine from her foot. “Goodbye, Félix.”
“Goodbye, My Lady.” He pauses before he goes, just long enough to take her hand in his and kiss the back of it. And if he weren’t so stiff in the way he left with his hunting dog at his heels, and if he didn’t scorn Kim’s arrows as much as he did, she would have thought that once upon a time, he might have been in love with her, too.
She waits until he’s disappeared into the forest ahead before she cuts through the grains and slips into their home, walks the simple marble tile that greets her like an old friend and passes her hand over the columns she used to weave in and out of when she was too young to know anything outside of them. She goes to where her father is still sleeping, graced by her mother’s influence. She pulls his covers back, and kneels at his bedside with her hands in her lap, and she waits, too. Except it won’t be long, and she knows what’s coming at the end of it.
Truthfully, she’d be lying if she said she didn’t miss him in these last months. Perhaps it was merely the distance that made her understand it.
She doesn’t know when he became who he is now. She only remembers times when she was young, perhaps a century or two old, when her father would carry her on his broad shoulders as he did his daily work. Or when he took her to the meadows for the first time, and told her all this land would be hers to inherit one day. She never had to ask for it; she simply had to grow, and it would all be hers. She could relax as she pleased, give life wherever she wanted to, sing as many songs and braid as many braids and keep as many girls company, so long as she was safe.
Or when she asked, “But what if I want to do something else?”
And her father gave her a confused smile, and ruffled her hair, and said, “But why would you ever want to?”
Maybe that explains everything, in the end.
In the quiet, she thanks her mother for her aid, and her father stirs beside her, the sleep lifted from his eyes. He looks to her, and smiles, and brings his hand to her cheek. “My daughter,” he murmurs. “Have I told you how wonderful it is to finally have you home?”
This touch doesn’t leave her feeling sick. Instead, she nuzzles into it, holds his broad, callused hand close, as much as her heart starts to sink under its own weight. “Papa,” she says, and shifts to light a candle or two by his bed. “Death has crowned me and made me a woman.”
Something in her father’s expression shifts as he sits up. Maybe it’s disappointment now. Maybe it’s confusion. Maybe it’s even fear. “Death can’t get you here,” he says, still holding her face as she kneels before him.
“I need to go to him,” she tells him, and gives his hand a squeeze before he brushes her loose hair away from her eyes. “I want to. He’s fed me, and crowned me, and I let him do it. I asked him to. I wanted him to.” She closes her eyes, and bows her head, and this time, she refuses to cry. “The Underworld is my home. And this is my path. I have to go there as much as you have to keep the Earth fresh. But I’ll visit, I promise. Those who are living it deserve to feel life as much as those who don’t have it anymore, and…”
She doesn’t tell him about L’Oubli, or about those she knew once upon a time are somewhere roaming this land now; that seems like a secret best kept to two deities.
Her father looks like his mind is in a whirlwind—no, that it is a whirlwind. He’s quiet for a long time, processing by candlelight everything she’s told him, but the first thing he says to break the silence is, “Since when did black suit you so well?”
She laughs, softly, and draws her robes in with pride. “Since I decided to become queen, Papa.”
“And when was that?”
The heat of her ichor rises to her cheeks, and she’s sure he can feel it. She presses her thumb to the jewels in her ring again, longs to taste the fruit she’s come to love. “Since the first seed he placed in my mouth. That was when I knew.”
Her father’s eyes widen, and his gaze drops to the ring, and slowly he puts two and two together. “Then,” he says, “stay with me until the pomegranates are ripe, and then go to him.”
“And until nightfall.” She probably answers him too fast, but she’s too eager to go back to care. “You’ll have me during the day the rest of the time, and I’ll go to The Border at night.”
“The nights will be colder without you,” her father warns.
She smiles, and holds both hands to her face this time. “The nights will be fine,” she whispers, “and so will you.”
Her father strokes both her cheeks with his old, weathered thumbs, and watches her with something loving and bittersweet. He only looks away long enough to peek out the window, and then he turns back to her. “Four hours left until morning,” he says. “Go to him.”
With an elated sigh, she throws her arms around him, kisses all over his face, and promises she’ll be back by dawn. She gathers up her robes, and blows out all the candles she lit, and she runs out of the temple, as fast as her legs will carry her, with little regard for the memories of these temple halls. She’d probably run all the way to The Border if not for the golden deer waiting patiently outside the field.
Marinette breathes out.
She mounts the deer, and it darts without fear across the land, all the way to the clearing she knows so well. She’s sure to thank it with plenty of kisses, too, and time to graze when they finally reach the meadow. Because if she’s out of breath from clinging to it, then she can imagine how tired it is from running, no matter how holy. And she stands on her toes at the mouth of the cavern, clinging to the rocks and willing that single white blossom back to life and humming, humming every desperate lyre song she knows so that it echoes off the stone, anything for Luka to come back, to see her, to find her—
It’s halfway through the second song that Luka emerges from the dark and freezes on the steps. Without the volume of his cloak he looks more gaunt than usual, like he hasn’t gotten a decent night’s sleep in months. Like he needs to cling to everything around him just to survive the nights. He stares her up and down, and his hands start to shake, and he runs to her just as she’s starting to collapse.
She crosses The Border with a single step, and the flower she left behind so many moons ago curls to life just as Luka throws his arms around her waist and holds her close, his crown tumbling down the steps into the void. Nothing else is worth question or thought; the only thing she wants to register is how his fingers curl with a deadly grip in the robes he gave her, how warm it feels when he breathes relief into her neck, how his mouth burns as soon as it meets hers. “You’re here,” is all he whispers, so frantic in the way her lip catches between his teeth, and then he’s ripping off his gloves and grabbing at her clothes and pinning her to the cavern wall, kissing her and hoisting her up as she eagerly jumps into his arms. She clings to him, digs her heels into his back and yanks at his hair, and they make love toeing the line of her life and his, of night and day. And when they’re spent he lowers her slowly, and she slides to the cavern floor with a sore back and a hazy mind, and he slithers on top of her, still holding her close, still panting against her skin.
All this, from but a man who was once so afraid that he might kill her with a touch.
He did, she thinks, but only in the right ways.
“What are those?” Luka asks once he manages to catch some breath, nodding weakly toward the spread of red-black blossoms decorating the entryway.
Marinette’s still cradling the back of his head, sighing at every lazy kiss he drops where he can reach. “Dahlias,” she whispers. “But I’ve never seen them that color before.”
He crawls between her legs, and latches his arms around her again, and grins against her jaw. “Lovely work,” he says.
"How long was I gone?" she asks.
"I don't know. I don't want to know." And then, “Come back with me. Tell me everything. Don’t go.”
She does tell him everything, holds him close at The Border and threads her fingers through his hair. She gives him all the details about the misunderstanding, and The Medium, and the conversation with her father. Right down to how it felt when Adrien touched her for the first time. Right down to when Félix took her home. And he listens with rapt attention, still clinging to her, sometimes pausing to press his lips to the ring or to her cheek. By the time she’s done and their conversation starts to die away, the dawn is starting to peek over the horizon, and the look she gives him is nothing short of melancholy.
“I’ll be back tonight,” she promises, with a hand on his cheek. “keep my crown and wait for me then.”
Luka’s eyes are glittering with something sad as the dark recedes from the mouth of the cave. “Must you do this?” he says, and it makes her shiver and want to throw everything to the wind.
“It’s not that I must.” She thumbs the wrinkles from his forehead and the frown from his lips, as much as she can. “It’s that I will.”
His expression melts into something adoring, among the flowers and the dew. “That’s why I adore you,” he murmurs as he helps her stand. “All your power lies not in what you do, but how you choose to do it.”
In a passing of hands, she presses one of the black dahlias to his chest with the promise that it will live with him, and slides her arms around his neck in a farewell kiss, and he waits for her to whistle for the golden deer.
There are three things she sees before she takes off toward home: the way Luka cradles the dahlia close to his heart and admires the ones at his feet, and the way he begins to hum the song only she has ever heard, and the slow ascent of a chariot she pays no mind.
The Earth is starting to waste away before Marinette’s even left the temple. It would be amusing, how her father mourns for her so early, if it weren’t so sad.
For six months, she’s kept her agreement with him. She’s used the days to survey the lands surrounding and help them flourish while he does the utmost to feed his people and bestow greatness and secret knowledge upon those who would worship him and his daughter. She’s taken part in the mysteries that lead her mortals to peace in the afterlife, combed the land for those she’s lost to forgetfulness and reincarnation and brought them back to her. She’s kept her usual company, and taught them the songs Death used to charm her, about stars colliding and the all-encompassing universe, about love and pain and everything The Medium could have sounded like, if it ever could make sound. They beg her for stories about the Underworld and about her husband, but she keeps them sealed behind a knowing smile and lulls herself through the afternoon with the memory of his lyre and his touch—comforts herself with the reminder that it’s coming again soon.
In the nights, once her father was asleep and unable to miss her or dread her going, she slipped out to the meadow she knew so well, where her husband was waiting for her so faithfully with her crown in his hands. They shared soft words and melodies among the flowers, and he held her for the few hours she allowed herself to sleep, and when she woke it was already daybreak, and the chill of the night reminded her to head home again. Sometimes he would bring her a black dress or two, fashioned by her subjects, to remind her as much as the ring did that she was as much from below as she was from above. Sometimes he would come with a pomegranate hidden in his pocket, for them to share and drink from, to admire the juice as it dripped to the earth and dyed her black dahlias red at the edges. Sometimes he would invite her down to the Underworld, just to check on her keep and put everything in order, but it was never for very long. Never long enough to grow much, or to join him in their bed. The morning commanded everything, and by the time it came she remembered very little of what had come before.
It’s an agreement, to be sure, and her initiative to boot, but it’s never gotten easier. Especially when her father begins to miss her long before her time, and the nights only shorten because of it.
It’s never gotten easier, but she’s learned to make it work.
On the day of her departure, her father already has tears in his eyes. He isn’t weeping, like he must have been in all those months she was missing. He only sits at his throne, quiet and solemn, while he keeps his tabs on what the Earth can bear in these remaining hours before the despair hits him. He only lifts his gaze to her when she approaches, dressed in black and wearing her ring and withered flower crown with pride, and she stands before him and waits for him to speak.
There’s a sad smile tugging at the corner of his mouth, and his hand curl just a little too tight around the armrests. “I never really knew what to make of you from the moment you were born,” he says with a chuckle. “You always wanted to push the rules. You always wanted to ask so many questions. So many what-ifs. So many experiments, so many new things. You just couldn’t stand things being just the way they were. You were always looking for the reasons in everything. You wanted something to change… just because you wanted to, or just because you thought it would make you happy.” He rises, and descends the steps to her, and cradles her face in his large, working hands. “Now I understand.”
Marinette closes her eyes and leans into the touch, reaching up to hold his wrists. “Understand what, Papa?”
“What you were meant for, all this time.” Her father presses his lips to her forehead. “You were meant to stand in two worlds and bring them together, Marinette. You were meant to find what you could cut out for yourself. It’s the only thing that could ever make you happy.” Another kiss, this one to her crown, and another to the hem of her inky black robes—the closest he’ll ever get to death himself. “I’m sorry. I only wish I’d known that before. I wish I could have given you what you wanted, instead of leaving you so unsatisfied with everything around you.”
This time, she’s the one to tear up as her eyes flutter open again, and she helps him stand. “If you did,” she tells him in a whisper that echoes off her childhood walls, “I never would have been able to find it for myself.”
He lets her go because it’s the right thing to do, the necessary thing, and she leaves him with a single, undying pomegranate for his altar, and one of the wilted flowers from her crown. Tokens of her memory, and the reminder that she’ll return to him soon enough. It takes ages for her to finally turn her back on him, but she takes the sight of him smiling as a parting gift.
There’s a certain power that comes with leaving ice-cold decay in her wake, even though she isn’t sure whether it comes from her father’s longing or from the death she wields herself. All she knows is that with every slow, graceful step she takes toward The Border, the land feels a little colder under her feet, and the grass looks a little more shriveled. The Earth cracks under her feet, and the flowers die away as soon as they bloom, and she swells with pride and does nothing to hide the fatal curl of a smile on her lips.
The golden deer is waiting at the edge of the fields, ears twitching patiently and eyes glittering as much as its fur. She’s never seen it in broad daylight, but she adorns it with a kiss, and tells it to take care of Félix and her girls, and lets it go to the sound of a whistle above her head. She looks up, and there’s Adrien, driving his chariot across the sky and waving down to her with a dopey, almost apologetic smile. She gathers herself up, and draws herself to full height, and blows him a kiss farewell. He makes a gesture as if to capture it, and sits back with his fist to his heart, and he rides alongside her as she journeys home.
He blows her a kiss as they part ways at her meadow, and she stores it somewhere in her heart. She doesn’t bother to look up again, only walks among the dahlias and the white blossom on the rocks—the only things to stay alive as she crosses them—and begins her descent. She’s never walked this path on her own, but it’s as though the stone makes it easy for her, as though the dark is greeting her and keeping her safe as it swallows her up. She finds flat ground soon enough, among the grey light of her domain, and everything one has ever felt about death, and every reason one could die, bend to her in reverence. Her skull buzzes with the murmurs of their welcome, and she rests her hands on the great seal holding her back from home.
Clockwise. Anticlockwise. Clockwise again.
And the gate to the Underworld parts.
There is so much she needs to see.
There is so much that relieves her as soon as she sees it.
The ground is cool under her feet, and the wandering spirits come to her like moths to flames. They kneel, welcome back their guardian, their Death Mother, and she helps them rise, one by one. The tepid waters of the rivers continue their flow, as though they were never bothered by her presence or her absence. She follows each of them until they touch another, and she changes her path, consoles the weeping souls of Le Sanglot, holds only pity for those inhumane folk on the other end of L’Enfer, bids another goodbye as she drinks deep from L’Oubli.
She isn’t sure if it’s at La Haine or at La Douleur that she comes across Juleka; it really could be either. But she pauses at the riverbank, and Juleka stops her boat and her charge. She digs her oar into the ground, brushes her dark hair back from her eyes. “Sister,” is all she says in greeting, flipping her latest coin and pocketing it, and she’s gone down the river as leisurely as she came.
Marinette smiles, and continues on.
She’ll tell Luka, sometime in these months, that she has given the outermost river a name, and it is La Fin. But sometime isn’t now.
He’s exactly where she thought she would find him: strolling among the gemstone trees, trying to fashion one or two more out of emeralds and topaz and peridot. They bend to his will, and he rises with them in height, and it isn’t until she kneels and murmurs, “My Lord,” that he turns toward her. His eyes light up, just like the jewels, and she’s risen just before hs gets to her, and he embraces her like he’ll never get to again—like this is what he fears now, instead of killing her—and sways back and forth with her in this artificial forest.
“I’ve been starving,” he says, and lifts her up.
She beams down at him, her arms slipping around his neck. “Not literally, I hope.”
He fumbles, and sets her on her toes again. “Nothing’s tasted the same since you left,” he confesses. “It isn’t as good as what you’ve brought. Not even Paradise comes close for me these days, and…”
He kneels, like every spirit, like every feeling, like every reason, and presses his mouth to her palms in a hungry respect. “I’ve craved you,” he whispers, cracking.
How exquisite, to have Death on his knees for her.
“Come,” she says, and lifts his head. “There’s more I need to see.”
They go, hand-in-hand, across the rest of the Underworld—even to La Fin, even to the darkness of The Medium, though they only stay on the outside, because Marinette prefers some volume in her silence over a complete void. She peeks into Paradise again, runs among the orchards that remind her of her father and waves down the mute swans gliding across the lake, and it isn’t until Luka catches her cheek and turns her head that she dares to look back.
There are flowers there. Glittering behind her. Swelling in her soul.
What good is dependence on fate and her father’s despair, and her own exclusion, and her longing for the sun, when she commands all this?
“You seem happy,” Luka points out, and reaches for her hand.
Marinette lets him take it—“I am happy”—and smiles in his direction as he leads her toward his palace, blossoms in her wake. It isn’t until the doors are closed behind them, and she feels all the confined familiarity of the columns and carpets, that she turns to him.
“What would you have me do now?” she asks.
Luka squeezes her hand, and lets it go to cup her chin. “Whatever would make you happiest.”
“And if you would make me happiest?”
He blinks a couple of times in surprise, and withdraws his hand. For a moment, she wonders if she might have upset him, or if she’s said too much. But then he tugs off his gloves with his teeth, one at a time, and holds her face in his cold, fragile hands, and he says, “Then I would consider myself far luckier than anyone dead or alive.”
Her smile only grows under his touch, and she closes her eyes just as he presses his forehead to hers. The bones of his crown tangle with the flowers of hers, and she takes in every breath he lets out. And there’s no one around to hear them, but he still keeps his hollow, rumbling voice to a whisper when he says, “Come. Would you let Death take you now?” He squeezes her waist, and takes back every gasp. “Would you honor me?”
The Border is far from their bed, but the Earth hears her consent.