The campus quad was all but empty by the time the twelfth chime faded from the clock tower. Only the last few stragglers remained, frantically gathering up their belongings and scurrying to class before their professors would notice. The college was small, intimate, but enough that the more shrewd procrastinators could slip through the cracks. After a few more minutes, even they had left, and the wide lawn echoed with the sound of wind and loneliness.
It was strange to see the campus’ favorite ecosystem utterly devoid of life, and yet this time of day also happened to be the when a particular species rarely found outside the library or the dorm would dare venture into the world. A young avian was scurrying down the sidewalk, their near-desperate gait suggesting several invisible monsters at their tailfeathers. It was clear that the student was unused to being in public for any period of time, their heavy jacket bundled around them despite a clear sky and warm sun overhead. Even the hood was tugged up, hiding vibrant stripes of white, black, and sunshine orange that few ever got to see. Their shoulder bag, rather than slung over their shoulder, was instead cradled with the feverish protectiveness usually reserved for ill infants. Had there been witnesses, the poor thing would have turned heads, but it didn’t matter. This particular student had a quest to fulfill.
Down the sidewalk, past the Student Union, and toward the fish pond they ran, dark eyes lighting up at the sight of a lanky, dark figure, half seated and half perched at a bench by the water’s edge.
The figure’s head turned, and a pair of dark, beady eyes fixed upon the interloper. Had he lips, he would have smiled. Another avian, this Damian was taller, lankier, and less chromatic. With a slash of milkwhite across his throat in a sea of gray and black, he had a perpetually neutral expression. This was not helped by his utterly drab peacoat, barely differently colored than his feathers.
His voice trilled out, faintly accented and foreign in their land. “Zion. It’s good to see you, though I’m shocked to see you this far from your spot in the library!”
“Desperate times!” Zion chirped in reply, closing the extra distance and crashing the little party. Casting off their hood and showing off slightly more of their Firecrest plumage, they no longer looked worried or scared. Now, they looked alive.
“That they are. That they are.” Taking note of his companion’s attire, Damian clicked his beak in disapproval. “Why on earth are you in that heavy thing?”
Zion blinked, before shrugging slightly. “It’s not that hot, really. I’m comfortable with it on.”
“No, I mean why are you still wearing it? It looks like a Serbian machinist’s uniform and smells like the Crimean war. You know there’s a thrift store just down the street? I’d be surprised if that ratty old thing lasted the semester.”
Zion stood there a moment, fighting off self-consciousness, before repeating curtly. “I’m comfortable with it on.” Before the older bird had the chance to reply, Zion sat down quickly next to him on the bench and started rifling through their bag, their voice distracted. “So, how are your students?”
“The usual,” Damian replied. “Always complaining about something or another. I grade too hard. I’m not approachable. I’m too hard to get ahold of.”
Zion cocked their head. “Wait, don’t you have office hours after lunch?”
“Why do you think I’m here?” Damian replied, not missing a beat as he looked Zion dead in the eye without a glimmer of irony in his face.
The Firecrest fumbled for words, before giving up after their digits closed around their target, and they chirped in joy as they tugged it free. A small, red notebook. Crisp and new, with a single line of immaculate text upon the front. Zion held it out proudly to their companion, who accepted it with a puzzled churr. Damian held it up to his face nearsightedly, studying the title.
“The Felicity of Dusk? ”
Zion nodded excitedly. “It’s pretty skeletal right now, mostly just outline, but there’s bits of dialogue here and there that I really liked. Stuff I had to write down before it fell out of my head. I mean, inspiration comes so infrequently, and when it comes you have to write first, edit later. That’s what they always say, and I-”
Damian had lifted his wing early on in the little symposium, silently begging his young friend to stop talking, but Zion continued chattering like a hen in the house. Damian felt exasperation and pity, his friend had atrophied even further during their time at the school, having apparently forgotten entirely how to interact with others. Zion would have kept talking until the end of days had Damian not lifted his wing the rest of the way, holding a feather up to their beak.
“Zion. Zion. Just…Christ. What is this?”
Zion looked confused before their eyes perked up and they spoke once more, albeit less rapid-fire. “It’s a short story in progress, though it might make it to full novel length if it leads me there! I started writing this at the beginning of the semester, and I’ve finally figured out where it all goes.”
“I see…” Damian’s apprehensive reply trailed off as he opened up the notebook, starting to scan through the first page, filled with the most primordial of notes. “A girl ventures in the woods to find a friend, only to be led into a world…young adult fantasy, I’m guessing?”
Zion chirped again, face alight with enthusiasm. “Yep! I know that it’s not quite your field, but I also know this genre’s a particular favorite of yours.”
Had he lips, Damian would have smirked. “I should have known. I’m guessing you’ll keep pecking me ‘til I pass my judgement.”
Zion replied with that infuriating ‘what do you think’ look, and Damian nodded slightly, flashing an attempt at a supportive expression before budding his friend to take a seat. The Firecrest immediately perched themselves upon the bench claustrophobically close, and it took a glare from the Kingbird to put some breathing space between the two.
The older bird liked Zion. He respected the Firecrest deeply. He also lacked the patience to keep up with his friend and their rapid shift between emotional states. These moments of extremity were few and far between; mostly their conversations were comparable to pulling a cat from a tree. Damian had been fighting beak and talon to break his friend from this cycle of anxiety and crippling introspection, get them to participate in more than the worlds upon a page. The moments Zion did wake up, they would talk about fictional characters like they’d all just had tea and a scone. Damian was tired of this cycle. Tired of watching it and tired of reliving his own tenure in that phase, at that age. He knew how painful it was to be broken of this by time, to be pushed from the tree before he was ready. He decided this was as good a time as any to give his friend a little nudge, help the young bird on his way back to the earth.
And so, with another sigh and a silent prayer for strength, Damian lowered his head and skipped ahead until he found the first real page.
This is the story of a little girl. Found when lost. Found and sought.
- - -
The story was not half bad. It was less of an outline and more a multi-chaptered stream-of-consciousness, with dialogue and action and notes and doodles crammed together. Every idea that came was immediately recorded, saved from being forgotten and lost. Some strange grammatical choices and run on sentences were littered around, yet they were mostly inconsequential. Damian looked to the story, not to the mechanics. His eyes kept darting to little spots of text, lines of pure gold that Zion couldn’t hold back.
I did not know where they had come from, or where the land of their stories could be found, but it was there that I knew my heart had to lie, where my feet must eventually travel. It had to feel like home, where else could I find her rest?
The little girl had been forced to move away from home by her parents, into a big, ancient house in the middle of the woods. She loved the estate, but still hated her parents for forcing her out of her old life, and she rebelled and avoided them at all cost. They couldn’t understand her, couldn’t show her what she needed to feel happy.
His smile infectious, a joy reflected in the faces of all his kin, wove a tight web around me, and the world no longer seemed to press upon my shoulders with such great force.
In the right margin, a little drawing. A little body, lithe and long, delicate and spindly. Tentatively male, safely androgynous. He had appeared to her first in a dream, but came to her in person after she had run from the house in a fit of anger. He had dried her tears, spoken to her softly, and taken her large finger in his little hand to lead her through the forest. In one magical night, he introduced her to all his brothers and sisters.
They danced for me, spinning and winding around above, drawing pictures through the sky and connecting the stars. A menagerie of celestial beasts they presented, a zoo of new friends, there and gone in an instanst.
Damian held back a snicker at the spelling error. Zion must’ve been having kittens as they were writing this.
I spread my wings wide, elated and proud. This was their gift to their girl, a gift that I had prayed for since my mind was gifted to me. I shed my pale arms and legs as my feet left the carpet of my bedroom. He opened the window, and with no more effort than lifting a feather, I took to flight. The night air was cool, the frantic beating of my heart sending heat and excitement through all of me. This was it, this was my chance and my dream. Since I had first dared to follow my friend deeper into the woods.
She had bloomed into something new, leaving all she was behind and unfurling her wings. She fled her home, fled her world, and soared into the sky among a sea of bright faces, silver laughter, golden stars. She was finally taking flight, hurtling toward a world where she was happy. Where she was loved and cared for. Where she didn’t have to be scared or worried.
Where she was free.
- - -
Damien’s short comment woke Zion up in an instant, their vibrant feathers ruffling and beak wide with joy.
“It’s rough, sure. But the girl seems sincere, and you caught how kids feel at that age. You’ve got a nice sense of imagery too, at least in what I’ve seen here. There’s some pacing issues at the beginning, I think you jump into the supernatural a bit quickly, but that can be spaced out pretty easily with some dialogue. Maybe some background about her last home? Also, I see some of the doodles you’ve done of your fairies. You did a nice job of not just relying on European Romantic tropes and Walt Disney, I’d be interested to see them fully rendered on a page or canvas.”
To Zion, this was music. A melody growing in tempo and energy that they could feel through their feathers. This was validation, this was encouragement and advice. They had always hoped they could do it, finally write something after reading so much, and now-
“I guess it’s kinda sad, though, isn’t it? That ending?”
A discordant note, and the song changed, some of the glow leaving Zion’s face as they tilted their head. “Sad?” Their voice still held the previous elation, but a little too much force was held behind it.
“Yeah, it’s sad,” Damian repeated obliviously. “I mean, in the end, as she spreads her wings and takes her friend’s hand, she’s just whisked out from the bedroom window and into the night. No note, no message, nothing. She vanished.”
Zion hurriedly spoke up. “Well, she’s in a hurry to start her new life, where she’s hap-“
“And then what? Her mom and dad wake up the next morning and wonder what happened to their little girl? They wonder for the rest of their lives? They think she’s run away, or dead? Why’re they getting that lot? I mean, they didn’t do anything wrong, did they?”
“Umm…” Zion nervously reached for the notebook, eyes scanning whatever pages they could see for somne kind of answer. “I guess…they are kind of mean? Well, not mean, I guess. They’re overbearing. And that’s…not easy.”
Zion was convincing nobody fast, and Damian tittered softly. “It’s just my opinion, of course. You have written a lovely little story. It just seems rather selfish to me, just abandoning everything like that.”
“Sel-“ Zion gulped, choking on the word. They struggled to keep their composure, but their feathers were heavily ruffled and their voice was growing labored. “Well, yes. She didn’t have abusive parents or whatever, that’s too cliché, but…but she’s not wrong for wanting to be happy, is she? She’s trapped in a life she doesn’t want to be part of, she’s hoping for better, and she’s been given an opportunity to be loved! And safe! And why can-“
Their voice broke, raising in pitch to a near-squawk. “Why…why can’t she just get what she wants?!”
“You can't always do that! ” Damian snapped, cutting Zion off sharply. His voice was not harsh, but it was firm. “You can’t just flip a switch and suddenly start a new life, not when there’s a life still there being left behind! There’s a life and a world going on all around us, and to abandon it all? Leave behind all who care about you? Who have put effort into you?”
“Buh…b-but-“ Zion stammered, trying to keep the glisten out of their eyes.
“But nothing! That’s how it works in reality, Zion. People aren’t just islands at sea. We are cities linked by roads, by nation, by citizens, and by love. If you were to just vanish off the face of the earth, guess what? You’d be missed! We’d be left without you.” A sigh, and Damian looked Zion in the eyes. “It’s easy to dream of flying away, when you’re barely hooked onto the ground. There’s so much life to be experienced. And you’d never know it, Zion. You’d never know it because there’s a whole world outside your dorm. It’s time to grow up.”
The clock tower rang out, and Damian groaned softly. “And now I actually need to go do my job. If my advisor catches me late again, he’ll feed me my expulsion papers.” He rose to his feet, seemingly ignorant to Zion starting to fall apart by his side. “I have to go, but hit me up next time you venture out this way. And remind me, there’s a Literature professor I’ve been meaning to introduce you to, he’s an older fellow, but he seems like he’d be a kindred soul. All right, see you later, my friend!”
Zion sat there, stunned, chest heaving and fighting back tears, frustrated and hurt. They looked down at their little book, crafted with such love and enthusiasm. They had held it with such reverence before, taking care of it even as they had scribbled notes feverishly in it for weeks. But now, after all that Damian had said, their conviction had begun to waver.
Is this what I want? Is this what I want to tell the world is right? Is this what she would even want?
Looking back down at the book, the love was not there. Now, they felt disgust. The doubt began to ferment into self-loathing. A sense of failure. All because of the damn story.
Eyes glancing back up at the water, their arm tensed, preparing to throw.
“I’d keep that little story of yours, my friend!”
Damian’s voice echoed across the field, bidding Zion turn. The Kingbird stood facing him, a twinkle of a smile in his eyes, and he called out once more. “Maybe it’s time you did your own escaping! Maybe you’ll find something outside these dorm rooms and libraries and hedges? Maybe something you’ve been looking for!”
Damian turned, walking away just as the doors opened across campus and students began to pour out into the quad, calling over his shoulder just before he was swallowed up by the crowd.
“Maybe then you’ll find that ending!”
- - -
Zion’s elbow accidentally connected with their satchel, and they let out a amelodic squawk as papers and books went tumbling across the hotel room’s floor.
In an instant, Gustav appeared in the doorway, the older Wood pigeon startled to see his friend kneeling on the carpet, gathering mementos and belongings like they would up and scurry away. “What on earth happened?”
“Nothing, really!” the Firecrest’s voice, not quite deeper with age but definitely bearing more weight, was annoyed and frustrated as they tried to reassemble their portable life. “Just clumsy. We need to hurry, the train will leave soon.”
“Not soon enough for a heart attack,” Gustav churred, straining as he knelt and aided in the search. “Budapest will still be there if we miss our ride.”
Soon, the mess was reassembled, the Firecrest starting to put everything back in idiosyncratic order. Something was missing however, the pigeon able to tell by his friend’s increasingly frantic breath and darting eyes. His own scanned around, eventually noticing a corner poking out from under the small hotel bed. “Zion?”
Following his gaze, Zion gasped and retrieved the trinket, sighing in relief. Gustav cocked his head, not recognizing the small, red notebook. Well worn, clearly used to being yanked out and stuffed back in that little bag.
“What’s this little treasure?”
Gustav’s curiousity only increased as Zion seemed to stiffen, a level of shyness suddenly present that he had not seen in years. Their voice was muted as they held the book carefully, “It’s just a story I started writing. Long ago.”
“Really?” Gustav chuckled as he rose, helping his friend to their feet. He peered at the cover, squinting at the smudged title. “The Felicity of…of what?”
Zion hurriedly held the book to their chest protectively, glaring at their older friend. After a few moments of silence, a dismissive response. “The Felicity of Dusk.”
“I’m sorry,” Gustav replied, slightly confused. “Have I hit a nerve?”
A little more silence, and Zion deflated, beak drooping in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be…yeah. It’s something I started back at university, and I’m told it’s good. I’ve worked on it for a long time now. I just…have issues with the ending.”
“Oh, really?” Gustav chuckled again, before helping Zion finish packing up. They’d already stayed a few too many days in this town, and they were both itching to escape once more. They still had no heading to their journey, only a desire to go see more. With the last of their bags packed, the two pocketed their keys and prepared to head downstairs. At the door, the pigeon paused, turning back to Zion.
“So…how does it end?” Gustav asked, looking expectantly to his friend.
Zion didn’t speak, instead looking back to the well-worn pages. Crinkled and scrawled out in anger. Pressed back flat and carefully restored. Recopied and added to. Erased. Preserved.
“I’ll tell you when I know,” the young bird replied, glancing out the window. In the moment, they could see the stars and flapping wings, before stowing the notebook away once more.