The wings of the Shintaro are all sleek lines and silken feathers, painstakingly crafted down to each individual vane. The Shintarans glide effortlessly through their city on them, robes neat and unruffled, nary a hair out of place when they take off and land again. They are a stunning display of craftsmanship and technology, way beyond anything that Ninjago has ever seen.
They also are completely bare of heart-colors.
See, in Ninjago, people are born with pure white wings. As you grow older, and grow your family and friends, their heart-colors (the unique patch of color hidden on the feathers near every person’s back) appear on your feathers. Zane has the color of his creator spattered across his right wing. Kai and Nya have each other’s colors covering their mantles. Jay carries both sets of his parents’ colors, and Lloyd has each of the ninja’s colors staining his wings so violently that he looks like he was in some sort of studio accident.
And Cole? Cole’s left wing, near the wingtip, is painted in the rich gold of his father. His left bears the faded orange of his mother. Across the backs of his wings, the rest of the ninja’s colors wrap around his coverts like a warm blanket.
Vania has just been crowned queen of Shintaro, and the coronation celebration is going long into the night. Cole watches her from the edge of the crowd, smiling at the way she is completely unselfconscious as she dances in the middle of the room with Chompy spiraling around her feet. She catches his eye and her face lights up; she breaks from the circle and flings herself towards him. Cole loses her in the crowd, but by the frantic strings of apologies and yelping he hears, he has a pretty good idea where she is.
“Cole!” she shouts, when she finally breaks through. “I haven’t seen you all night! Have you been avoiding me?”
Cole laughs. “Never, my queen,” he says, winking exaggeratedly when he uses her new title. “You’ve just been busy.” He grins wide. “I get it, I get it, what’s a little old ninja to the queen of an entire country?”
Vania pouts. “It’s not like that. Everyone wants my attention, but you guys are my friends. And you’re leaving soon, way before everyone else!” A glint of an idea enters her eye- the same look she had before leading Cole to a drainage tunnel and whipping a set of torches from nowhere. “It’s too noisy in here for anything, let alone talking. How about we go for a little night time flight?”
She hikes up her skirts and marches through the crowd. Cole laughs a little disbelievingly. He follows her out, out onto the terrace, wings pulled close to his sides to prevent them being jostled or stepped on. “Wait, can you just leave like that?”
Vania smiles with all her teeth. She signals to an attendant and they reappear with her wings, attaching and securing them to her back. “What do you mean?” she asks, cocking her head playfully to one side. “I’m the queen! I can do what I want!”
“Hey, works for me,” Cole says, grinning back. He lets his wings unfurl to nearly their full wingspan, an impressive eighteen feet with his flight feathers outstretched. “Just don’t start whining when I fly circles around you.”
“Hey, that’s not nice!” She narrows her eyes at him. “Just for that, I won’t let you win now.”
“Oh, so you were planning to originally?”
They take to the sky, chasing each other around the spires and drifting lazily through the moonlit clouds. Cole marvels at the way her wings cut through the air, silent and smooth like a knife. His own are built for power and speed but not so much for grace. He’s sure they make quite the picture above the partygoers. That is, if any of them bothered to look up.
As their flight comes to an end, they alight on the highest balcony overlooking the courtyard. Vania releases her wings, something that used to shock Cole before he got over it through repeated proximity and exposure. His own wings he splays behind him, their motley of colors nearly twinkling in the low candlelight.
“I used to think your wings were so funny-looking when we first met,” Vania says suddenly.
Cole glances up at her sharply. “Huh?”
She smiles and sits down gently beside him. The night air is cool and a slight breeze tugs at both of their bangs. “Your wings,” she says again. “I mean, I still do. They’re entirely too much wingspan for any one person to have.”
“Better to catch you with,” Cole replies, the winner of their earlier game of tag.
Vania rolls her eyes. “Not just the size of them though. I couldn’t believe how colorful they were! There are so many different colors that your wings were kinda ugly.”
“Thanks,” Cole deadpans. “I’m really feeling the love.”
“Exactly!” she exclaims. “They’re the colors of the people who love you, right? I almost didn’t believe my tutor when he told me that, but I couldn’t think of any other reason why anyone would dye their feathers that way.” She hesitates, one hand held in an aborted movement towards his wings. “Can I- I mean, would you mind telling me about them?”
Talking about heart-colors isn’t necessarily a taboo subject. Most people just prefer to keep their relationships and stories more private than not. Looking at Vania’s hopeful face, half-illuminated orange by candlelight, Cole finds that he isn’t most people.
“Yeah, sure,” he says, scooting over so he can fan his wings out. “So you probably could have guessed, but all these ones are the other ninja’s.” He points out Kai’s sienna, Jay’s pretty blue, Zane’s periwinkle, Nya’s warm maroon, and Lloyd’s bright green that make up the colors on his coverts.
“This one’s my dad’s,” he says next, stretching out his left wing so the gold catches the candlelight. “Both of my parents’ colors came in together, of course, but he saw his first because it was a little bit darker than my mom’s.” He can remember it now, through the haziness of his three-year-old-self’s memory: his dad’s face hovering over him, eyes wide and face caught in some unidentifiable emotion.
Reverence, Cole thinks now, years and years later. It’s the same look Kai’s mom and dad give him and Nya when they work side-by-side. It’s the same look he gave baby Wu, captured and immortalized forever on the tiny polaroid he keeps tucked away in his drawer.
Vania is watching him with a soft expression on her face. Cole sighs, drawing himself from his memories. He stretches out his other wing, wrapping it around his front so the color is on display. “And this was hers,” he says softly. “My Mom’s.”
“Lilly,” Vania echoes.
Cole nods. The color on the tips of his feathers is faded now, looking peach instead of the vibrant orange of his childhood. “For a long time, I couldn’t bear to look at it,” he admits, staring at the floor. “I’d catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, and I hated it so much. It was a brand of everything I’d lost, taunting me with how much it hurt.”
Vania seems to glow in the candlelight. “What changed?” she asks.
Cole shrugs, feels how it costs him to be so nonchalant about it. “The color started fading,” he says simply. “And I realized that remembering, even though it was so painful, was so much more important that losing her forever.”
Vania is silent. She hovers her hand over his wings, silently asking permission, and when Cole doesn’t do anything to stop her she drags her fingers gently over soft feathers. Cole angles his wing so the vulnerable inner parts aren’t exposed, but other than that the petting feels nice. It’s been so long since someone other than himself touched his wings like this- the ninja, for how much they love each other, are perpetually running off on some hairbrained adventure or another and don’t usually have time for group preening.
“That’s it,” Vania says eventually, hand stilling over his coverts. “That’s why I changed my mind about your culture’s wings.” Her gaze travels somewhere toward the right, somewhere toward where her technologically-flawless and meticulously-kept wings rest against the railing. Technologically-flawless, meticulously-kept, and completely bare of heart-color. “I wish, sometimes-”
She cuts herself off. “It’s not good to think about what-ifs,” she decides firmly, fixing a smile on her face. Still, her fingers linger a second longer in his golden feathers. “It must be nice, knowing that you are so loved.”
Cole closes his eyes. The breeze washes over his hair, carrying with it the slight sounds of the party and his team laughing from below.
“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, it is.”