On Raglan Road of an autumn day
I saw her first and knew
That her dark hair would weave a snare
That I might one day rue
He appears on the third day of her lowest of lows, when stress and pressure finally drives her to idleness, a listless stupor that she passes in her island of a bed.
Marinette lies in the same pajamas she’s been in since coming home to her apartment four days ago. She idly wraps herself in the bolts of fabric meant for her final collection, meant for her dress form, not her. But she makes a clashing cocoon around her anyway and waits for inspiration like metamorphosis, for something beautiful and strange to emerge out of her crawling and alive. But when she finally bursts out, her legs flailing, her face splotched red, hardly the type of rebirth any documentary narrator would call miraculous, she finds the same dreary bedroom swathed in bluish-gray dusk. The rain outside is on repeat, playing the only song knows over and over again. Her tower of dirty dishes is getting tall and impressive. The spools she had arranged by hue then saturation surround her like soldiers in siege. Her dress form is naked and vulnerable.
She considers a repeat performance - longer this time until she thinks of something or until she suffocates on her own artist’s block - when she hears clattering on the balcony. The frat boys on campus like to test the invincibility of their youth by throwing themselves up walls. Parkour, they say. Nature weeding out bad genes, Alya says. Marinette sighs and wonders what poor buzzed freshman she’s going to have to take to the hospital this time. She throws back the curtains and sliding door and stops at the sight of him. It. Him.
He is naked, give credit where it’s due, but he’s not the fumbling eighteen year old she imagined. He is hunched at the far edge of her balcony like a child, curled over his knees, picking seeds out of her bird feeder, his fingers raw in the diamond pattern of the metal holder. But it’s the wings, the ones folded over his back, twitching when he manages to fish out a sunflower seed, that has her in a silent daze. A dream, she thinks, but the rain is too loud. She would never be able to sleep through this rain. He doesn’t notice her, too busy scrabbling at a seed with intense concentration. He stops, looks up, continues, stops, and then turns to her. His hair is muted gold wet and plastered over his eyes, but she still sees them. Large green eyes - too young for the broad angles of his face - glint with the reflection of overcast skies, mixing into an eerie silver, into something not quite human, something less like a him and more like an it.
Her senses come back, first as a trickle and then a flood that storms through her veins with liquid panic. Her chest rises with a scream that she just manages to clamp a hand on. He doesn’t take kindly to her sudden fear. His wings flare, water and feathers flying off in little whirlwinds. There’s danger, a threat, in those wings. But his human side tells a different story, nervous twitching eyes and hands tightly hugging her bird feeder to his chest.
“Hey,” Marinette says, adopting feathers to her voice, the quiver only slight. “Hey. No no it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. I won’t do anything to you. Are you hungry?” And she laughs a little, unable to tamp down on the hysteric quality to it. She’s turning into her mother. She meets someone - something - positively outrageous, something mythical, and her first instinct is to feed it. She reaches behind her, hands blind in their search as she maintains eye contact, and brings around her bag of bird feed. She dumps half the bag onto the ground and takes slow careful steps back until her hips hits the railing, her hands up and open for his peace of mind.
His wings bristle and flap irritably, but he edges to the pile on palms and knees, his fingers like a bird’s beak pinching into the pile and back to his white chapped lips. He eats the seeds, shell and all splintering loudly in his mouth. Her gums tingle horribly at the sound, and the words slip past her in a whisper.
“What are you?”
But he gives no sign of understanding, and he stares at her, even as he eats, with the wild hunted look of animals. The rain intends to deafen. Breathing is relegated to a luxury, and she takes such shallows gasps that she worries that she’ll hyperventilate and send him back into another anxious spell. But he settles and grows used to the sight of her, perhaps just another prop on her balcony. His hands alternate with the task of feeding, and his eyes lazily wander to her chest where the ring she wears on a chain rests on the shelf of her clavicle. It’s a plain silver ring that she bought at a flea market, cheap, too large to fit anywhere but her thumb.
“Do you like this?” she asks and unhooks the chain from her neck. His eyes follow its pendulum swing, wide with wonder, seeds dropping from his hands with little plinks to the ground. She keeps the chain in her hand, uneasy that he might gobble it down like the bird feed. She wouldn’t even begin to know how to perform the heimlich maneuver with those bulky wings in the way, but she worries for nothing. He slides over to her, precaution thrown to the wind at this new toy she has to offer, and he eagerly holds it up, admiring the flash of light when he flicks his wrist. He coos and hums at it, his wings folding over each other like a puppy wagging its tail.
Marinette can’t help it. A tension that’s been building in her since she saw him, since she started her collection, balloons and then explodes. She laughs, a sound too harsh in her ears after speaking in soft flutterings. His plumage flares, and he blinks at her in surprise, but he’s hardly perturbed. Rather, he looks at her with the same fascination as the ring.
“Here,” she says and scoots closer to him, so she can clasp the chain around his wrist like a bracelet. Just a precaution in case he decides he’d rather have it in his stomach. His hands are gritty and speckled with dirt, his nails broken, and his skin unspeakably and inhumanly cold. Simply touching his hand raises bumps along her arms, but she knows better than to shiver. She knows now that he reflects fear.
He mumbles nonsensical music as he jingles the chain around his arm, and then he parrots her laugh, a brash honk that surprises her, all the while shaking his wrist for her to see. She smiles at him, and he parrots that too, perfect teeth boldly on display, his muscles trembling with the unfamiliarity of the gesture.
“Now what to do with you?” Marinette asks him like he might at last speak to her, but he’s mute with wide glassy eyes that stare longingly into her apartment, at what she suspects is the shiny metal bowl sitting on her desk.
“Okay,” she says uncertainly. She gazes at the mortar of muck and leaves caked along the barbs of his feathers. A beetle burrows out of his plumage and back in. “But only if you take a bath.”
All those years of figure drawing prepared her for this moment. There’s nothing like having to stare intensely at genitalia for hours at a time biweekly to help you get over the awkwardness of helping a bird-man (man-bird?) take a bath. The nudity isn’t an issue, but the flailing arms and flapping wings are a completely different matter. By the time they’re done, an exhausting two hours later, Marinette might as well have taken the bath herself she’s so waterlogged. She slumps into her desk chair in front of her computer, a towel covering her head and new pajamas keeping her warm and dry.
Her new companion makes a home of the pillows and blanket she tossed onto the floor, cobbling together a human sized nest. She convinced him to wear last-minute boxers that she had shorn from an old pair of pajama pants, but that seems to be his limit on clothing. When she tried to pull a shirt over his head, he had pitched a whine so shrill that a dog from the next apartment over began to howl. Just boxers it is.
Thankfully he loves her quilt. It’s wrapped around his shoulders, pitched like a tent, snug around his neck and with a little opening so his hands can freely spin her metal bowl. From the back he looks like a mountain topped with blond snow, a small breathing mountain, his wings lungs that move its chest to life.
It’s soothing, but she pulls away to her computer. She starts simple. Person with wings. The internet shows her images of angels and videos of idiots jumping off of their roofs with cardboard wings. Real person with wings. Hoaxes, suspiciously grainy pictures, and “One time I saw…” narratives. She rubs her eyes after skimming the fifth story of winged men with swords of silver and booming multi-layer voices and halos that make it impossible to look at them straight on. Her bird-man is much more simple. Quiet coos and curious hands and a fascination for the pulse of light in metal.
Marinette isn’t sure what she was expecting; some hidden cult for everyday people who just happen to house winged persons perhaps. People who can tell her what to feed him, where to put him to keep him comfortable, how long he’ll want to stay before flying back out. She throws her head back and lets out a frustrated sigh. Her lips purse with a reluctant smile when she hears him mimic her, not mocking, simply trying it out for himself.
Her fingers type it out idly. Angel . Glaring beacons of light and babies on clouds. She looks back at him, swaddled in his blanket, falling asleep while sitting up. It’s the closest she’s seen yet. In small ways, he’s like the children photoshopped with wings, all to do with long lashes and messy curly hair and nothing to do with the wings on his back.
She closes the laptop, and he jolts awake and blinks sleepily at her, pulling the bowl underneath his blanket like she might take it from him. She laughs softly because he can well have it, she doesn’t mind. She sits across from him against the foot of her bed, her crossed legs to his crossed legs, her feet skimming edge of his quilt. “So did you fall from heaven then?” she asks more as a lullaby than a question, and then she grimaces at how much of a pick-up line it sounds. Predictably he has no answer for her, but he mirrors her expression, his teeth too bared to be a proper grimace and entering the realm of a strange cheery snarl.
She wonders if that’s why he’s so enamored by shiny objects, because he’s like them, an honest reflection of his surroundings.
He leaves his nest with his cape of a blanket, the tails dragging behind him, and he settles down next to her. Their sides are flushed. He has an innocent disregard for personal space, but she expects it at this point. She’s more startled when he rests his head on her shoulder and coils her hair in his fingers. He’s surprisingly gentle. His fingers bow with reverence to her hair much like to the ring and bowl, and he croons a nameless song into the strands. She sees what he sees, the golden lowlight streaming down her hair like sheets of water every time he runs his finger down. She wonders how bright and good the world must be in his eyes if he can find beauty in such mundane things.
She leans into him to watch, and he lets her, taking no mind to her weight. He’s still as cold as ever, and she’s starting to think it has less to do with the rain and more to do him. It’s like cuddling up to an ice cube, one that likes to sing lullabies and gently rake her scalp. She thinks that she’ll never be able to fall asleep curled up next to him.
It’s the last thought she has before drifting off.
She was wrong. Her lowest low is not as low as she is now.
“I’m dead,” Marinette mutters into hands clasped like a prayer, eyes wide and gazing into the void of her future. She finds peace in knowing her fate. What are the four stages of grief? Well, the last is Acceptance, and she’s there, accepting her own death. “I’m dead. I’m pretty much in the ground.”
Alya snorts beside her on the bench. It’s a small bench. Really just meant for one person plus maybe a small child, but they’re making it work. Marinette sits like she’s waiting for death row and not like she’s waiting outside her professor’s office. “Mari, he’s your advisor, not the grim reaper. The most he can do is be disappointed in you... Really loudly.”
Marinette lets out an impressive mix of a sob, a laugh, and a gasp. A solasp.
“It’s what happens when you pick someone you admire as your advisor.”
“But… but have you seen the man’s last collection? He’s a certified genius. Have you seen what he does with cut-outs. It’s magic, his-”
“Balance with skin and cloth and the illusion of bareness and yes yes I have seen it. I have seen it. I have heard it. I dream about it, Mari, and I’m not even a fashion major. He’s a genius, but geniuses aren’t easy to work with. It’s a lot of expectation you’re putting on yourself. Plus, Juleka was telling me how she once saw someone leave his office crying, and wow,” Alya says with mild awe at her own callousness. “That is not the right thing to say right now.”
Marinette laughs derisively.
“Okay, this is what you do.” Alya scoots closer to her if that was even possible and leans in. “You go in and say it boldly and proudly. Professor Agreste, I don’t have anything for my thesis collection even though the whole thing is due in a month . But don’t worry. Because then the world will explode into tiny little pieces and the people who do manage to escape the explosion get lost in the void of space.”
Marinette groans and buries her face into Alya’s shoulder. “Why do you do this?”
Alya laughs, the small vibrations comforting as she pats Marinette’s head. “Because you’re panicking, and it really isn’t that bad. You always get tunnel vision and imagine the worst case scenario, but perspective is nice, isn’t it? Imagine being lost in space.”
Marinette does imagine being lost among the stars, the deafness and cold, and she thinks it wouldn’t be so bad. Sound doesn’t travel in space. She wouldn’t be able to hear her idol chew her out. Alya pinches her nose and sends her plummeting back to Earth.
“Oh god, you actually think it would be better. Look, just be honest. Tell him that you’re stuck. You even put yourself in a social exile for a week so you could figure things out, and you’re still lost. By the way, it’s not exile if I get a text every hour about how much you hate your brain.” Marinette frowns and checks her phone, and what do you know, a text almost every hour on the dot, all of the screaming variety. Maybe she should have majored in being a clock instead. She flops back on Alya’s shoulder.
“Anyway, he’s here to guide you and it’s not like you haven’t been working on it.”
Oooooh, Marinette winces. Alya is always sound in her reasoning, but this one not so much. It’s hard to concentrate on a collection when your first priority is to bird-man proof your apartment so your bird-man doesn’t hurt himself. With the right amount of imagination, anything can become a health hazard, and Marinette has imagination in spades. She hisses with guilt and slowly peels off her best friend.
Alya, the woefully perceptive reporter she is, picks up on it immediately. “You have been working on it, right?”
“I’ve been kind of preoccupied by something else. A guest at home.”
Marinette stares like she’s only really seeing Alya for the first time. After angels, psychics don’t seem so implausible.
Alya laughs. “Your phone. You’ve been looking up stuff like bird diets a lot recently.”
“Oh, right, right.” Marinette says, heaving a relieved sigh. She nudges Alya with her elbow. “So nosy.”
“Didn’t know it was a secret. Do you need help? Believe me , you get to know a thing or two about animals when your sister brings in every stray she sees. I can come by and bring bird-”
“Nooooo.” Marinette says, and then she tries to laugh it off. “No it’s okay. He’s just… he’s not really a pet store bird; he flew in through my window a few days ago. He’s just a bit wild, and he gets anxious around things he’s never seen before.” That’s not exactly true. More like he has insatiable curiosity and a two-year old’s compulsion to touch anything and everything, especially the things that could kill him. And at least, a two year old is small; he has the towering height of twenty-something year old man and can reach things even she can’t reach. For the time being, she’s hidden all the shiny knives in a locked cabinet.
“Okay,” Alya says slowly, and she knows something is up. Marinette is a terrible liar, and she carries guilt like a boulder on her shoulders. They’ve known each other for years, and it’s an unspoken code that they tell each other anything and everything. But Marinette can’t share this. She has a feeling that even she isn’t supposed to know about his existence, whether it be an angel of some sort or some genetic experiment gone wrong. It’s not her secret, but she’ll keep it for him. Plus, she couldn’t even imagine the consequences of putting a rabidly knowledge-voracious journalist in the same room with a mythical creature. Far far in the future, she’ll repent and tell all, but only long after he’s gone.
Marinette offers a little shrug of her shoulders, a sheepish smile that says it’s out of her hands, and Alya returns it with a quirk of a smile. “It’s fine,” she says. “I can still give you some stuff if you want. We have toys and a perch. What breed is it?”
Marinette stammers. “A mix?” Between a human and a bird. At least, that one’s not so much a lie.
Before Alya can press further, Gabriel Agreste emerges out of his office. “Mademoiselle Dupain-Cheng? We have a meeting scheduled.” Alya gives her a thumbs up, and Marinette hurries into the office, mildly relieved to get away from Alya’s questions. She’ll take Gabriel Agreste’s temper to an Alya Cesaire interrogation any day. The right fear really does put the world into perspective.
Marinette walks into the apartment, a bag of groceries swinging in the crook of her arm. From the living room, she can hear the sounds of cartoons, dramatic music and 3-D children shouting as they fight off monsters. He’s sitting too close to the screen, cross-legged with the quilt around him, his gaze wide and unblinking as though he thinks the whole thing might disappear with a blink. And maybe he does. That’s a thing. Children have to learn object permanence.
It’s nice, she thinks, coming home to someone. The lights are all on. It’s warm and doesn’t have that musty smell that abandoned rooms gather. She comes home to the sounds of people talking, even if it’s not him. He’s almost always in front of the television. And if he’s not here or wreaking havoc in her stuff, he’s taking a nap in her walk-in closet where he's moved his nest. She finds comfort in that regularity.
“I’m home,” she says as if he’ll understand, and he makes a quiet distracted noise in reply.
She swings by the living room, just long enough to lift him by the arm, his ring-bracelet jingling, and drag him further back from the TV. It’s routine, an odd thought that anything should be routine with an angel. Nevertheless, he complies wordlessly, too distracted as the episode reaches its climax with a giant beam of light that washes over a low pixel-count world.
Satisfied that he won’t go blind, she goes into the kitchen and puts rice on the stove. He’s been surviving off a diet of bird seeds and nuts and fruit, but she doesn’t know how nutritionally balanced that is. They’ll start with something easy on the stomach, congee. It’s warm and simple and reminds her of sick days whiled away in the comfort of home. Her mother usually adds an egg to give it a rich creaminess, but Marinette hovers over the carton and struggles over the ethical dilemma of feeding a bird-man an egg.
She thinks of asking him if he considers that cannibalism when he bounces up behind her and snakes his arms around her waist. It’s his usual greeting since he saw a commercial featuring newlyweds. She doesn’t mind it. It’s simply the kind of affection he adores, and it reminds her of a hug from a child. “Oh good,” she says and turns to him to ask about eggs when he plants a wet sloppy kiss onto her lips.
Cold is her first thought, and then it’s forgotten, forcefully shoved aside for the second and third and then thousandth. Colors, every color known to man and then ones only found in dreams, buoy her up higher and higher until she could choke on the thin air. And she lies in the seam of a dress made of sky and space. Gravity in the draping, stars in the beading, nebulas in the lace. Celestial bodies weave midnight around her, fold bolts of the cosmos around her, and she willingly drowns in that beautiful darkness. I was right, the thought rises like a bubble. Space really is deafening.
And then he pulls away and she sucks in air like she’s been underwater for hours. Her eyes dart around, grounding her in her kitchen, the pot boiling on the stove, the old mini fridge her mother bought for her in the corner, the overgrown plants on the windowsill. She barely avoids stepping in broken egg, the shell scattered in pieces across the floor and the yolk slowly spilling into the grout. She stares at it and wonders when that happened.
He isn’t breathless the way she is. He smiles, an easy gesture once he started practicing it every time they met eyes, and he looks back at the television screen in the living room, paused on two characters kissing. The whole thing was an innocent reenactment, and he hardly knows what it really means. He leans in for another kiss, and for a second, she wants to let him. She wants to see colors only known to God, sounds that no human has ever heard, but she stops herself, very afraid, feeling distinctly that she’s toeing the edge of a cliff. Instead, she kisses his cheek, soft and simple, and he’s equally ecstatic with that.
“You want an egg?” she asks weakly and holds up a new one from the carton. He sings a little tune and flits away back to the television, and she stands there, still lingering in the afterimages of his kiss. She tightens her grip on the egg, reminds herself where she is, and sets about to clean the mess up.
She cracks an egg into a bowl, taking his song as not a no. The yolk breaks and seeps into the white, and she feels a little bit like that. Like something inside her that she wasn’t aware of is leaking into the rest of her.
She whisks the eggs quickly, erasing any sign of the whites.
They lie side by side in bed. Come night time, he comes to her like that first night and slots his body to hers like pieces fitting together, the closet too big and lonely compared to space in her arms. She makes preparations, wears multiple layers and the fluffiest socks she can find to combat his naturally unnatural body temperature. It’s the quietest war two people have ever waged.
He’s long lashes and pale skin and soft breaths against her neck. It’s moments like this when she can see his wings clearly, not hidden in the mountain he makes of himself. They’re not the pure white wings that she has seen on angels on the internet. Rather they’re gray with tips of tawny brown, speckled with dots like freckles across a nose. The young feathers, though, the ones that look like down from her pillows, are a soft cloud white underlit with the pink of a dawning sky. She combs her fingers through them, the only part of her body she leaves bare so she can relish in his softness. He hums in his sleep and hugs a little tighter.
Her eyes fall heavy with sleep as she gazes at the feathers, still brushing the back of her nails against them, and in the space between waking and sleeping, a shooting star flits across her thoughts and and lands with a fire that sets them ablaze. She jolts awake and looks at his wings with new eyes. She needs to find pen and paper. She needs to hurry before the fire dies down. She slips out of the bed, resisting the urge to wrench out of his grip, and rushes into the living room for her notebook.
This is it, she knows deep in her gut. This is the idea crawling and alive that she suffocated for.
The continuation of Matchaball's birthday present. Big thanks to Peregrxnans for all her lovely beta work for both chapter 1 and chapter 2. Thank you for catching all those typos!
I saw the danger and I passed
Along the enchanted way
And said let grief be a fallen leaf
At the dawning of the day
Marinette’s hands tremble as she lifts the plastic off the dress form. How dangerous, she thinks, to release a whole universe into a small studio, but Alya wants to see the new dress and secretly, Marinette wants to, too. She sweeps the plastic away and feels the whoosh of planets blow her by, electrons skittering at her ankles. She doesn’t know if other people feel that mysterious wave, but Alya, at least, rises to her feet as if the dress had beckoned to her.
“Wow,” Alya mouths soundlessly, like the air is too scarce to support speech. Marinette understands; it’s the dress. The dress has black holes that suck in colors and light and air, and there just isn’t enough for you.
“Yeah, I know,” Marinette whispers. It’s not conceit. She knows - in the same way Alya knows, in the same way the other students whose steps stutter as they walk by know - this dress is something otherworldly. A full-length dress taken in from a tapestry of stars, white-beaded constellations, sheer galaxies with bright nuclei of skin, a cape like wings dyed violet-black with space. Marinette runs her hand down the dress form, her fingers catching on tulle and three days’ worth of embroidery. She traces her favorite, a planet with an encircling ring that separates out into darkness.
“Wow,” Alya says again, and Marinette nudges her in the ribs this time. Say something else, she means, but her throat is too clogged for words. Alya frowns and elbows her back, and Marinette returns that. They exchange elbows back and forth, piling on unspoken words, faster and faster, biting their lips, trying to hide the growing smiles that threaten to swallow their faces.
“Mari, this is-”
“So you like it? It’s good?”
“It’s more than good! It’s-” Alya clenches her hands, at a loss for words.
“I know! I knooow!” Marinette half-whispers half-squeals and flails her fists against Alya’s shoulder, her only other outlet if she doesn’t want to burst eardrums with her triumphant scream. Still, she attracts people’s attention, and the other students stare at them with expressions ranging from amused to annoyed. Alya drags them to a more secluded corner.
“You’ve seen it walk, right?” Alya asks, vibrating with anticipation for the details. “How does it wear?”
Marinette closes her eyes and still sees the bright spots twinkling behind her lids. “Like she’s walking among stars.”
It’s one thing to see it on a dress form, but watching it on a model, watching it move, is like watching the universe turn, celestial bodies making their elliptical pilgrimages. She could hardly look, feeling like she had happened upon something secret, something sacred.
Planets and stars are named after gods for a reason.
Alya sighs just imagining it and shakes her head with wonder. “Talk about busting through your block.”
Marinette huffs a laugh. She looks at the dress, each time feeling like the first time. Despite the literal days she poured into it, she barely knows it. Usually, she’s acquainted with her clothes to the point of marriage, and after days of adding and editing, adding and editing, she wants nothing more than a divorce. But this dress she stares at for hours, and still she tastes the question on her tongue - who are you?
“It’s all a blur. I don’t feel like I did it. It almost made itself.”
Alya rolls her eyes and flicks Marinette’s nose. “Hey, don’t be so modest. You made this, so own it.” Marinette wants to correct her, but where would she begin? How does she explain without sounding crazy that sometimes making this dress was an out-of-body experience, that she would watch herself sew and think vaguely it wasn’t her but an alien that looked like her at the machine? She can’t, definitely not without sounding crazy, so she doesn’t.
“Only six more to go, right?”
“Six more?” Marinette parrots as she gathers the plastic. “Oh, you mean the collection.”
“Of course, the collection. This is for the collection, right?”
“I wasn’t even thinking of it when I made this. I wasn't thinking at all.” She pauses to stare at the dress before rolling it down the form and putting it on a hanger. “But it would make a good finale, a good showstopper.”
“Mari.” Alya takes the dress from her and brandishes it in all its glory. Marinette can’t help how her eyes are drawn. “It’ll turn heads.”
Marinette laughs and takes it back, putting it in plastic and briefly wondering at the universe infinitely expanding inside. “Six dresses. Three weeks. It’s not like they have to be as nice as this one. I could probably do it,” she says. “If the ideas keeps coming.”
She should have known better. Inspiration likes to flit from shoulder to shoulder; it’s too quick to leave, too fickle to depend on.
“If the ideas keep coming,” Marinette scoffs as she crumples her latest design and tosses it onto her bed. It rolls off the other side, and her bird-man leans over the edge to get it, his wings flapping erratically to balance him. It’s three in the morning, but he insists on staying up with her, refuses to sleep if it won’t be in her arms. At least he’s made good use of his time, unlike her; he’s built an impressive pyramid using all the ideas she’s tossed aside. What started as a silly project is now beginning to look like a monument to her failure. He finally plucks up the ball and places it at the top of his pyramid. What a success! Now all they need is a parade and a truck-load of confetti, and they can all celebrate the return of her artist’s block.
“Yay,” Marinette mutters listlessly and mimes waving a tiny flag. Feeling just the slightest bit vindictive, she blows a raspberry at him, and he perks up at the noise and puckers his lips to mimic her. He doesn’t recognize the petulance; he only sees the game in it. His nose scrunches as he tries and only succeeds in spitting on her pillow. Her pettiness fades with a soft snort; there’s no point in picking a fight if the other person doesn’t even know what a fight is. Instead, she goes to him and sweeps his bangs from his face, appreciating his cold skin after sitting in one place for too long.
Outside, the night sky is murky and woven with dark clouds. No one would see them if they went out for a moment.
“Want to go for a walk?”
It’s their code for going up to the roof. The apartment doesn’t have staircase access to the shingle-topped roof, so the trip itself is always an adventure. Or an embarrassing disaster waiting to happen, depending on who you ask. Soaring into the sky in the arms of an angel(?) is romantic in theory, but that only works if said angel can hold your weight. Her bird-man has floppy noodle arms which are great for hugs, but useless for any fanciful notions of being swept into the night.
Rather, they adopt something she calls the koala system. She wraps her arms around his neck and her legs around his waist like an odd koala, and he holds her as tight as he can. Then they leave the rest to fate, hoping that his flimsy wings will hold out long enough to pass the cover of her balcony and then the extra eight feet up to the edge of the roof.
As he sets her down on the roof, she can’t help but think that his wings are hypocritical. They can’t handle the extra baggage of her albeit gravity-prone body, but the moment he lets her go, he blows upward on the wind as if he’s a feather. And he’s no feather; Marinette knows from digging herself out from under him in the mornings.
It doesn’t matter, she supposes, as he rides a gust up to dark burgundy clouds, releasing all the pent-up energy that he’s gathered while sitting in a one-bedroom apartment all day. Even the possibility of falling three floors into the dumpster below is worth it to see him in his natural element. He spreads his wings to their full span and navigates spirals and dips, backlit by a waning half-moon. He’s a show-off; she knows because he never wanders too far and he always looks back, searching for what she imagines is the crescent moon of her smile.
Marinette waves, not knowing if he can still see her when he’s so high up. He rolls up into the clouds until she can’t see him anymore, but she likes to imagine him dancing among the stars and kissing the moon before he eventually decides to come back down to her.
It’s a funnier picture when she remembers he’s wearing the cat boxers.
She laughs to herself and stares up at the hazy purple sky, the light pollution in Paris blotting out the stars. She wishes she could see them. Or rather, she wishes they would come to her, wishes they would drip down so she might cup them in her hands and drink inspiration directly from the source.
A heavy sigh slips past her lips, and when she closes her eyes, her mind travels the same well-worn paths: eight-pointed lights and swirls of clashing colors and the confirmation that she’s dried up. She shrivels and finds deserts inside her where there should be oceans. God, she’s so tired. “I don’t know anymore,” she whispers to herself, tasting the iron of desperation, a symptom to a disease she doesn’t want to acknowledge.
She would be perfectly content curled up into herself, but her bird-man has different plans. He sails in and tackles her, flailing wings and all. Definitely not as light as a feather. She gags on bits of fluff and glares up at her assailant. He blows a raspberry at her, properly this time, and mirrors her glare. It’s obvious in the flap of his wings and in the purse of his lips that he’s upset she stopped paying attention to him.
“So spoiled,” she mutters, before bringing his head down into a hug, lightly combing through the wild disarray of his hair. “So tell me,” her throat hums against his temple, and she wonders if cutting out the middle-man of sound waves and ears might help him understand. “Have you ever had a heart-to-heart with a star? Do they have any words of wisdom for the poor fashion student?”
But of course, he doesn’t understand. Instead, his hands wander to her pockets, no doubt looking for food. Marinette learned the hard way to bring snacks on these trips after one time he got hungry and swooped mid-dive straight into her bedroom. He fishes out the orange she brought for him and grins as he hands it to her to peel. Sometimes, she feels little more than a trove of food for him, supplier and prep all in one, but it’s hard to say no when he looks at her with such bright imploring eyes.
“Wow, I’m such a sucker,” she mumbles as she makes quick work of the orange and hands him the fruit. He chomps into it, paying no mind to its natural divisions, juice running down the corner of his mouth. She stares at the peel that she kept intact, a small achievement, and wonders at the petal skirt it makes. She sighs and balls up the peel like she would one of her designs. “What’s wrong with me? Why is it so hard?” she says more to herself than him, but he cocks his head as if he’s listening. “Just last week it was so easy. I was overflowing with ideas, and all I had to do was take my pick. Maybe I did too much too fast. Maybe I’m burnt out. What do you think?”
He wilts under her gaze, taking her sadness as his own. Shame flares up in her, shame that she would teach him sadness of all things. He offers her half of his orange, and she takes a slice before handing it back. She leans in, places a kiss on his cheek, and then blows a loud trumpet against his skin. He jolts up, and his eyes sparkle with surprise. And for the briefest of seconds, she thinks she sees something in him that she’s never seen before. Warmth creasing the corner of his eyes, complex in the way his usual transparent happiness isn’t. But it’s gone before she can commit it to memory, and she wonders if it even happened at all.
He leans in, and she knows he’s about to give a kiss. It’s his solution to everything now; if he’s bored, a kiss, if he’s in trouble, a kiss, if he’s happy, a kiss. She loves the affection, but she’s careful to avoid direct contact to her lips. Sometimes in her quiet moments when she’s not thinking of anything in particular, she can taste remnants of that first kiss, spacedust and asteroids and sunspots lingering on the corners. The taste is seductive where he isn’t, a flavor that begs repeating. The memory thrums, reminds her of the drought inside her, reminds her that one sip can quench her parched throat. What does one little kiss hurt?
Here’s your fallen star, says the alien in her head.
And so he leans in to kiss her, and she lets him.
He tastes nothing like stars and everything like citrus.
Marinette wonders why she ever thought designing was hard.
Making clothes is as easy as breathing. Her hands lay down cloth and rise with dresses, sewing and embroidery fluid and natural, and sometimes in moments between blinking, she doesn’t see fingers so much as clacking needles and thread. Designs flow out as smoothly as the ink in her pen. She’s so filled with ideas, a cup on the cusp of overflowing; inspiration is just a matter of dipping her hands into the cup and splattering on the page. How easy, she thinks. Why was this ever hard? she thinks.
Her life takes on a routine where she spends most of her time in the studio. When she leaves the apartment, she always makes sure to say “I’ll be back.” His eyes are too round and sad to say anything but. He’ll hold tight onto her and mumble lonely sounds, but she still has to go, and he’ll finally let go with a parting kiss. He gets the comfort of her lips, and she gets a rush, a euphoria that slips down her throat and fills her up just a little more.
And she forgets the slightest bit how sad his eyes are.
Marinette is working on the skirt of a dress when Nino wanders into her part of the studio.
“Food delivery,” he announces, setting down a plastic bag with food. “Courtesy of Alya. She would have come, too, but she’s in the middle of a paper.”
“Okay. Just a...” She trails off as she stares at the dress, scanning the balance on both sides.
“No. No seconds or minutes or whatever you’re going to say. Alya told me you skipped lunch.” He takes a scrap of fabric, sticks her needle through it, and sits her down in a chair.
Marinette blinks and then laughs as he opens the Chinese take-out for her and places chopsticks in her hands. “Who needs parents when I have you two?”
Nino sits across from her and whips out his phone. He catches her raised brow and snorts. “Alya wants a video of you eating because she thinks you’ll try to worm your way out of it.”
Marinette huffs and grumbles about overprotective parents, but she plays along anyway. She waves to the camera when Nino gives her the signal. “Hi Mom! As you can see I’m doing the thing where you put food in your mouth and swallow.” She takes a spoonful of rice, chews, and opens her mouth for the camera to see.
“Ew,” Nino says flinching back. “You realize I’m seeing this in HD.”
“In all its beautiful HD quality,” she laughs. “By the way, I hope Nino is getting paid for his work. Otherwise, I might have to organize a union for him.”
Nino turns the camera to himself. “I didn’t tell her to say that, Chouchou.”
“Is what he says!” Marinette shouts before he stops recording.
He leans over and musses her hair in retaliation. Marinette laughs and almost chokes on rice. “You, monsieur, are whipped.”
“Says the girl who played matchmaker.”
“What can I say? I have a good eye for these things.” She munches thoughtfully on broccoli and follows Nino’s line of sight to her dress. She smiles because he usually doesn’t take interest in clothes, even when he tries. He’s supportive, but he certainly doesn’t find joy in talking details. “What do you think?”
His eyes soften as he takes in the dress in its entirety. “It’s beautiful. You’ve really outdone yourself. But,” he says as he stares at the lemon and orange appliques and blossoms growing up like vines into the torso. “Weren’t you going with a space theme for the collection?”
Distantly, she recalls the bitter flavor of ground asteroids and the spicy sting of sparking galaxies, but it’s overpowered with sweet oranges and sour lemons and honey blossoms and the cotton candy of bright spring colors. Once upon a time, she must have known what space tasted like, but that in itself feels like a myth. “Yes,” she says slowly. “I guess I forgot. But isn’t this dress wonderful? It popped into my head, and I couldn’t not make it. Do you know what I mean?”
Marinette isn’t sure if Alya would understand. She has her feet firmly planted in the ground, and she rarely follows flights of fancy, rarely lets whimsy guide her. Nino, though, looks like he understands as he stares blankly at the dress, not really looking at it, seeing another memory in it. “Yeah, I do,” he says. “Like nothing matters but getting this one thing down as fast you can. Otherwise, it’ll be gone before you know it, and you don’t know if anything as great will come to you again.”
“Yes,” she breathes. “Exactly.”
Nino shakes his head as if clearing his mind, as if he needs to forcefully bring himself back. “Yeah, I know. But you have your collection due in two weeks. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it’s crunch time, Mari. Can’t get distracted like this.”
Marinette disagrees. She’s not being distracted. Yes, she’s not working on the collection, but she’s never been more focused, never seen things come together so effortlessly like clockwork. She wonders if he does know this exhilaration in creating for creation’s sake because it’s not something that you can simply let go. But she says none of this. She stuffs a piece of beef in her mouth and waits for the moment to pass.
Nino offers her a smile. “I’m not your dad, but I’m worried. Alya is, too. You’ve been so intense with all of this that you haven’t been taking care of yourself. Collection aside, schedule some time for yourself.”
Marinette looks at the dress and only now realizes how the edges of her sight are fuzzy. For a second, colors blur, and something cuts a line past her eyes, a red flash gone between blinks. She rubs her eyes. She hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in a week.
“Yeah. Maybe you’re right,” Marinette says, closing her notebook. “I didn’t realize I was so tired. Sorry. Being a bad host, but I think I’m going to skip out ahead of you.” She slips out of the seat and pecks Nino on the cheek goodbye. He laughs and ruffles her head.
“Go to bed, Mari.”
She salutes and makes her way out of the studio.
Marinette opens the door and expects the usual - lights on, the sound of the television blaring, her bird-man running up to her and greeting her with a kiss. Instead, she finds the apartment shrouded in darkness, the only light the setting sun peeking in through the kitchen blinds. It’s completely silent, and her stomach bottoms out with the heaviest dread.
“Hello?” She says, the silence too uneasy to speak louder than a whisper. She circles the living room as if he might jump out to scare her and laugh that child’s laugh when he manages to catch her by surprise. She pokes her head into the kitchen and the bathroom. “Hey! This isn’t funny,” she calls louder, so he might hear from any hiding spot he might be lurking in. She regrets that they never established a way to call for him besides hey and you. It had never mattered before. He had always been right next to her.
She opens the door to her bedroom, and it hits her like a crashing wave, emotions so strong that she doubles over and clings to the knob. She knows it’s him, knows that he’s the source of this deep heavy sadness that makes her throat raw and her eyes water. She knows he’s in the walk-in closet; she feels it like the epicenter of an earthquake.
Marinette wades her way to the closet, flinching as wave after wave of emotions, thoughts, ideas, all not hers - distinctly not hers - bring her under again and again. A palette of blue bleeds into her sight, dark colors that run chills down her sides, reminding her of deepest depths of the ocean where only skeletons lie. She thinks of clothes, invisible, weight without meaning, vulnerability at its worst. He cries inside, and it’s the very sound of hearts rending in two. She could make music with that sound, songs that people empty themselves to, songs that hollow them, and she should write it down - hurry! - while her ears are still ringing.
That thought - the absurdity of it, because she doesn’t even have musical training, has never wanted to make music in her life - brings her to herself briefly. It’s long enough for her to charge the last few meters to the closet door, and she throws it open.
Her chest pangs at how much he looks like the first time they met. He’s hunched over his legs, face to his knees, his wings folded around him, the blanket he usually carries with him a crescent moon at his feet. His hands tremble, holding tightly onto the ring, the chain of which he somehow managed to claw off.
“Oh,” Marinette breathes, and he whirls to her, eyes wide with fear and tears flowing down his cheeks. She has never seen him so heartbreakingly human. And for a second, she has that one traitorous thought like a hum in the back that if she kissed him now, she would be inspired for years to come. She scowls viciously and wrenches herself to clarity.
She pulls him into her arms. “What’s wrong? No no. Don’t cry. What’s wrong?” He grips her tightly and cries harder, and she whispers the musical nonsense he loves, lullabies that she’s learned from him after weeks of holding each other. His sobs lessen to hiccups, and she hums and coos at him. “Yes, yes. You’re okay. You’re okay.”
She’ll hold him as long as he needs her to, wrap him in the safe bubble he needs. She wonders if she did this to him, if she broke him like this, but then she hears the raucous calling of birds, distant and too faint while she had been fighting off his emotions. She would have ignored it if not for the sudden tapping of glass and his immediate flinch. She kisses his hair and pries away to look outside the closet. Out on her balcony is a flock of black birds, cawing incessantly. One pecks at the glass as if it wants in. She furrows her brow and starts to make her way over when she finds arms around her and her bird-man furiously shaking his head, afraid.
She runs a hand over his hair. “It’s okay. I’ll be back.” But he refuses to let go, and she’s reminded of their ritual when she leaves every day for the studio. She wonders if those words don’t bring him comfort, if they remind him of loneliness instead. She turns and pulls the blanket over his head, runs her fingers along the edge until her hands meet his cheeks. With his nose bright red and his face flushed and the blanket framing him like a veil, he looks like a crying bride. “Hey,” she says, quietly but firmly, imploring him to understand her tone if not the words. “Believe me. I’ll only be gone a minute. Just wait for me.”
He stares at her at length before he nods and curls into a corner with his blanket. Marinette smiles before leaving to see what’s happening on the balcony. When she opens the door, the birds fall silent, and they all turn towards her. They’re less like birds and more like shadows that have heard from a child what a bird is, hazy in the corner of her eyes and solid full-on. How eerie she would have found them a month ago, but there’s something in the gleam of their eyes, that blank-page look that her bird-man came to her with. She stays wary, but she isn’t afraid.
“Shoo,” she shouts, waving her hands at them. They flap their wings but mostly stay put. She scowls and hates the possibility that she might have to get aggressive. But then she sees one of them eye the bag of seeds. She grabs it and reaches in, showing off the food inside. “You guys want this?” Their eyes follow her hand as she moves it side to side, and when she’s satisfied that they’re all interested, she tosses the seeds back in the bag and then throws the bag as far as she can, well into the territory of the next building’s lawn. It spills into a big beautiful pile of sunflower seeds and safflower and millet, and all the birds dive for the food.
“Don’t come back!” she calls after them and goes inside. She crawls in the closet and finds him curled on his side, his body a giant comma, waiting for her to complete the sentence. She lies down next to him and finds the opening to his face. He peers at her with large wide eyes, like he can hardly believe she’s there.
“Hi,” she says. “I’m home.”
He throws off the blanket and tackles her, burying his face into her stomach. Relief comes off of him in waves, and she thinks of the colors of a bright sky and the smell of a summer breeze. She eases into the feeling, his catharsis her own, lazily running her hands along his wings.
Yes, she thinks. This is the usual she so loves.
Marinette wakes up to fingers running down her cheeks. She peers through sleepy eyes at a face so soft with fondness her breath hitches. They lie side by side in the closet, face to face in his nest. Their hands are intertwined between them, which doesn’t seem terribly odd until Marinette remembers her hands are bare. She feels a fluttering of warmth, like a chick perched in the gap between their palms.
She wonders how long he’s been able to do that. Since when did he stop absorbing her heat and start producing his own?
He leans forward and nuzzles his nose against hers, and he almost lures her back to sleep.
And then he speaks.
“Marinette,” he says, her name a sigh on his lips, a sleeping word he drops in the world of the waking. And she, wide awake, catches it, at a loss of what to do with this whispered heartbeat.