Caótica Belleza (por lo sentido y lo sinsentido) - Tiptapricot (2024)

1.

Marc Spector is a good man. That’s what he’s always been. Maybe not the best son, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. He liked all the right things as a kid; Star Wars, transformers, space, cars. He wore shorts and stopped himself from crying when he scraped his knees. He worked on his Bar Mitzvah speech with pride and made sure to speak it clearly (even if he doesn’t remember the day as more than a blur now).

Boyhood was a space he perfected. He had to. There was no other way to survive the childhood around him, and no other way to exist than in the shape he was told to. Which was fine. He got good at that. Steven may have tried to escape what they were, but Marc embraced it. He was the son that survived, the son that failed, the son that could never do right. But he tried, at least. He likes to think he got some of it right.

Then, he grew from a Son to a Soldier, shaved his hair in a hotel bathroom on the way to recruitment and learned the intricacies of shouted orders and rigid backs. He learned because walls and rules were all he had to hold on to. He learned, and then realized he already knew.

The marines were different in some ways. They were men that grinned and made lewd jokes and grabbed each other in choke holds, but the rest was the same. It was just guns and bullets instead of bottles and belts, and comrades who would hit his head against the bathroom wall if he said something too wrong instead of a mother who would.

So, Marc adjusted. Just like he always did. Just like he was good at. Different people, different places, but the same steps to follow to stay safe. It’s easy to take needles when you already know how to be a pincushion.

Manhood became a comfort after long enough, something to mold himself around. Marc grew into a better smile and a jawline that any guy would die for, and slid into the American dream with all the force of a popped grenade. Marc Spector slung his arms over drinking buddies and nicked himself while shaving and pissed in the dirt, and no one batted an eye. Because boys would be boys, and those worth their salt became men.

Maybe Dad would have objected, would’ve said study, faith, and community were the real staples to build himself around, but… well he wasn’t the one on the ground in Iraq, was he? He wasn’t the one surrounded by American masculinity and all its expectations, all its pressures and pushes to grind oneself down into nothing, to drop his prayers and stop being kosher and pretend that he liked the violence, because that was how he remained a perfect cog. And really, he did enjoy it. He did. He did.

Nothing is without regrets, of course not, but in the end, Marc was safe. In the end, for all that conflict could be safe, he managed to get through it. He did himself right in the Marines and they liked him for it, and that meant something. A level of security. A level of affirmation.

But…

Son became Soldier became wandering the streets with half a canteen of water and a splitting headache, and then Marc became Mercenary. Became back alleys. Became shaving his head in a hotel bathroom with shaking hands this time because his hair was sticky with dirt and blood and the shower made him sick and no way was he going to ask Frenchie for help, and—

Things changed again.

Just another adjustment. Just another tweak to his edges. He knew how it worked by then.

—Don’t make eye contact with the contractors, but do with the prey.

—Accept beers, and cigs, and kick off your boots if you’re talking with the company for an evening. Leave if the alcohol makes your eyes wet and your knees weak.

—Push each other around, but flinch away if anyone touches you a bit too softly.

—Don’t let them know about Steven.

Marc had to remind himself to speak like he was angry (even if he wasn’t), and remember hardness extended past sit reps and stake outs and into casual conversation (even if he didn’t want it to), and that friendship was a fine line he was not allowed to cross (even if he wanted its intimacy so badly, even if it was hard to keep up the routine with Frenchie’s calloused fingers massaging his shoulders, and a little laugh in his ear, and the profound sense of safety in his voice, and—)

f*ck.

It doesn’t matter.

That was then. This is now.

Marc rolls onto his side, staring across the bed at the warm body next to him. It’s morning still, his thoughts floating loose and light like a handful of old butterflies.

He’s a good man by now, he thinks. Not a good person, no— hell no—but a good man, right? He’d better be. He’s damn well put in the work for it.

Marc reaches out, careful not to disturb Layla in the late glow of sunrise as he rests his hand on her shoulder. She doesn’t feel real. Warm and soft and a bit sweaty. He traces his finger up to the dark curls around her neck, thumbing a lock idly as his chest squeezes. Part of him still thinks she must be a dream, and yet here she is, and so is he.

That must mean something, right? Marc Spector is a good man, because how else could he become a good husband?

Husband.

Marc smiles at that, shifting forward to press further against her back, tugging her gently against him. It’s a word he likes. It feels like an accomplishment. Work hard enough and eventually there’s rest, right? Follow protocol closely enough, and eventually you can improvise? This must be it. He hopes it is.

Marc nuzzles forward to kiss Layla’s shoulder, feeling pride in his position, in getting to covet gentle intimacy like this. His fingers splay over her skin, large and scarred, but relaxed as they move. It’s the type of movement he cherishes in private, where he can Be and Not Be at the same time, where this kind of touch is acceptable.

Softness on the inside, but don’t let it out.

Be tender in thought, but don’t extend it to others.

Hold it in. Hold it in.

Marc squeezes his eyes shut and tries not to laugh. He can love Layla just fine this way from the inside, he’s sure of it. That’s where everything else stays anyway. And if he keeps going, keeps trying, maybe she’ll be convinced one day that he’s exactly who he says he is.

(A good man, instead of the flawed amalgamation of them trying to be one)

***

2.

Steven is strange.

Post-Cairo is a mess for plenty of reasons (the least of which being the bruised jaws they get every morning because Steven can’t seem to break his restraining habit), but Steven is a good thing. Most of the time.

Sometimes Marc thinks life would’ve been easier if they were talking like this the whole time—coordinating where they can, working on flares of memory and emotion with empathy instead of fear—but others… Others, he’s not so sure.

Steven Grant is, among many things, an agent of change. And change is never something Marc has taken to kindly.

He doesn’t like Steven’s knack of poking around in their brain. It can be helpful, sometimes, when he takes a measured look at something that’s bothering them and makes it stop, but most times it’s just… exhausting. He’ll tiptoe too close to an old trauma, or ask too many questions about who and what may be happening upstairs, and Marc finds himself wanting to push forward and do everything right and easy and normal again.

Some things are better left untouched. He learned that a long time ago. But Steven… hasn’t.

He gets them a copy of Tomb Buster a few months into settling. Marc doesn’t even know where he found it (it was a rare tape even back in the bargain bins), but he does, and the eBay box arrives at their door one weekend morning, and Steven is the one to open it. Marc comes to front with blurry impressions of colorful packing tape and hands moving wondrously over the cover. And their cheeks are wet. And their chest hurts.

Steven is absent for most of the day afterwards, but that’s alright. With all the nasty things pulled up from the muck and weeds of their brain with this, it’s hardly a surprise. Marc has learned how to weather days like these. He’s gotten very good at making himself an anchor.

Steven does surface again late in the evening, with a bright, casual attitude and a craving for tea. Marc lets himself float in the background while Steven goes about his business, brewing himself a nice mug of something spicy smelling and grabbing a bag of chips, before plopping down in front of the TV. He pushes the tape into the player with a slightly unsteady hand, and… it plays.

It’s an odd experience, to see it again. Half the scenes Marc still has memorized, and the other half feel… wrong. Like they’re two steps to the left from what they should be. Dialogue plays out twisted from how Marc remembers it, or… how he remembers repeating it, and there are a few characters he doesn’t remember being there at all.

He slips away after the first half. This is for Steven, mostly, and they don’t need all the angrysadwistful feelings that watching it again boils up in Marc.

Not that he doesn’t feel them. Not that he doesn’t put a book on the tape the next day so he doesn’t have to look at it in passing. But that’s his baggage, not Steven’s.

It’s another week before they actually talk about it. Steven sparks a conversation about some of the smaller things—props and costumes and cheesy lines—and then it meanders into talking about what it was like to see his source again.

“It’s odd, you know?” he mumbles, Marc floating somewhere behind their eyes as he talks. “I don’t really feel like I am him anymore, at least not in a literal sense, but it’s still like… I dunno. Baby pictures, or like… a weird dream.” He shrugs vaguely to himself, and Marc hums as he slides forward to tighten the bolt on the new chair they’re building.

“I think I forgot some of his accent?” Steven muses. “But I also don’t want the exact same one? I dunno… It’s weird, innit?”

Marc hums again, and pushes them up from the living room floor.

Steven watches the movie a few more times over the next few weeks, and on a Tuesday that they’re feeling especially light and loose, he tugs Marc up front in the bathroom. He’s got one fist combing over their scalp, tugging every now and then with a quizzical look on his face.

“Marc?” he asks. “Have you ever considered, like, growing this out a little?”

“No,” Marc answers easily. “Why would we do that?”

Steven’s mouth thins, and he ruffles the front of their curls a bit. “I dunno. To try something new, I guess. I’ve been… I’ve been feeling like mine should be longer.”

“Oh.”

There’s a distinct swirl of feeling that washes back, aching lightly in their chest where all the tender things rest.

“Source stuff?” Marc asks.

Steven smiles. “Yeah. Just… makes me happy to think about, I guess. Euphoric.” He pops the curve of the C.

Marc shifts against their eyes. “I mean it’s… I dunno Steven.” He feels tense, uncomfortable in their skin for a reason he can’t place. “We don’t really… do that.”

“Why?” Steven asks, idly smoothing a bit of their hair down into makeshift bangs.

Marc twists in place again, floaty and strangely off center. “We just don’t, I dunno. We’re a guy.”

Steven pauses for a moment, face contorting into a confused look that carries something distinctly judgy, and then Marc feels a brush of humor against him. “No, yeah, I guess that makes perfect sense for you…”

“What do you mean ‘for me’?”

“Ohhh I dunno, big macho man, scared of a little mix up,” Steven mumbles pointedly. “Long hair a bit of a boogie man for you, yeah?”

Marc rolls his eyes and their hand falls down to tighten on the sink. “Oh, come on, it’s not—”

“Yes, it is,” Steven cuts in, their brain sparking up around the edges immediately, “and you know it’s kind of funny actually since—”

“Steven, the texture would be weird and people are gonna look at us weird,” Marc pushes, “and—”

“—if you think about it our connections of fashion and gender are just the colonial constructs we’ve been brought up with and our ancestors didn’t exactly—”

“—I just don’t want the hassle of it cause—”

“—think the same way so I don’t think it’s a big deal, and pony tails would look good on us anyway and—”

“Steven, I don’t want to do it, it would look stupid and we would look stupid and it’s not what we do, it’s not what I do and I don’t want to look like some—”

“Oh, Marc.”

“—some guy who lost control of the f*ckin scissors and forgot how to be a m—”

“Marc.”

Their thoughts fizzle out suddenly, forced from a rush of feeling into something calmer. Their chest is heaving, their face swimming in the mirror like a whirlpool. Or maybe the glass is shifting for them.

“Marc,” Steven says again, running a hand down their arm, numb and distant, trying to ground. “We can always cut it, okay? But I’d… I’d like to try?” His voice is quiet. “Just for a little. If you’d be alright with it.”

A knot curls into itself beneath Marc’s heart, balled up in the lung tissue and the bright red veins. Hard to swallow. Hard to taste. But a thread uncurls, just for a moment.

Marc takes a deep breath, and feels the body settle under him.

“Yeah… ok...”

***

3. (Eng)

Jake likes to talk while he works, especially on days out in the cab. It’s a bit surprising, considering his usual levels of reservation on the inside, but Marc supposes it’s something about the road. Jake always feels more at ease in the body when the engine’s running. He’s more in his element, more… himself.

He mumbles and hums and comments on the songs playing from the radio. He chats with guests and to himself and to Marc. He narrates snippets of traffic and yells at bikes when they cut through red lights. He reads street names and store front signs. He teases Marc for never paying to ride along.

Before all his Jakeness settled, this kind of interaction was less than pleasant. There was a lot of yelling and switching and headaches and time pouting away from front, but that’s… behind them now. Jake has found his place among the oddballs and the blankness, adding Sense and Warmth to places that were empty before.

Nowadays, Marc gets to listen to him tell stories about his travels, and float alongside his drives around London, and see all the lost work days and coffee runs he never knew he was missing. And they hurt less. And it all hurts a bit less.

“El camión de la basura casi choque contra nosotros cuando yo empezaba por primera vez,” Jake says casually.

They’re pulled over at a curb for a quick shine, Jake’s sleeves rolled up and the summer sun heavy on their shoulders. He’s working over the exterior of the cab methodically, the green of the microfiber cloth dulled by grit and grime.

“Piensé que tal vez por que fui adaptando a el carril izquierdo, fue mi pinche culpa,” he continues, “pero no , eso azno no quieró parar!” He gestures wide before going back to wiping down the doors, rubbing a bit more aggressively. “Todavía tengo el video en mi camera de salpicadero pa’ enseña lo, pero el polis aquí no va a hacer nada por mierda.”

Marc chuckles, floating easily against the corners of their consciousness.

“Would going to them even be a good idea? I can’t imagine our license is legal.”

Jake huffs, raising a brow. “Registros y nombres, definitivamente no, pero yo, el taxista, tomé el pinche examen.”

“Yeah?” Marc shifts forward enough to get a better sense of Jake’s gloves and the sound of chatter on the sidewalk.

“Joder si.” Jake smirks. “Si fuéramos a regresar al casa, no me iba a manejar hacía atrás. Trabajé mucho para esta mierda.” He sniffs idly, like he’s about to brag. “También es más rápido de mapas, es bueno para conocer estas calles y cosas como esos. Nadie sabe dónde el pájaro te iba a enviar, si? Salvé nuestro culo…” he shrugs, “diez? Quince veces? Solo con saber cuál lado de la ciudad estábamos en.”

Marc laughs again, before feeling a slight jerk behind their eyes as Jake hisses and drops his cloth.

“Coño…” he mumbles. He moves to take off his glove, their skin prickling like mad, and Marc is lost for a moment on what the sensation is. Jake breathes a sigh of relief when he gets the leather off, thumbing over a chipped piece of nail polish hanging off his pointer finger. “Carajo, no me gusta cuando está mierda se engancha,” he breathes, clicking his tongue. “Lo que sea.” He flicks the piece off, shaking their hand out.

Marc stares from three layers too far away at the movement, taking in the slight spark of purple as Jake’s hand catches in the sun. It’s like the flash of a butterfly’s wings.

“When did we paint our nails?” he asks, the question coming in intent more than words. He feels like a pool with a stone just thrown into it.

Jake hums, crouching to get the cleaning cloth. “Uno o dos semanas pasado, yo pienso. Steven nos compró algunos colores nuevos.”

Marc twists further in his own confusion. “When did we get nail polish?” he asks softly.

Jake laughs, popping the cab door open so he can step up to reach the roof. “Marc, ha estado en el baño pa muchos meses, wey.”

“Ah.” Marc curls in place sheepishly, a wave of embarrassment running up their spine. He’s been around less than he thought, hasn’t he?

“No mames has hecho lo,” Jake says, picking up on the strange swirl of feeling bubbling around Marc. “Estás cansada, amiga. No one blames you for taking a break.”

Marc bristles, the wording catching on his edges. “What?” he breathes.

“Oh,” Jake begins, “uh… Woah…”

The sound echoes forward and back, their hands pausing in a sea of light and air; black leather braced on black car metal and a bare hand brushed with dust and purple glitter.

“Golpeé algo?” Jake mumbles finally, nail tapping slightly on the car hood as their balance returns. There’s a playful tinge of curiosity to his voice, the question washing back against Marc like fingers rifling through old files, trying to figure out something in his head. There’s another wave of blurriness between their hands and eyes, and then Jake chuckles softly.

“Ahh, no. ¿Te pillé desprevenido, doña?”

Marc feels like a lump of sinew, tender and hard at the same time. He feels angry. He feels disrespected. He feels like he’s coming undone.

“Cállate, wey,” he grumbles.

Jake just laughs again. “Puedo sentir el estrés en nuestros pecho y manos, manita. He estado pendiente de nosotros para mucho tiempo. You think I don’t notice this stuff?”

Notice what? Marc doesn’t know what Jake’s talking about. He doesn’t know why he’s still here.

“Eso no es nuevo pa’ mi, sabes?” Jake mumbles. “Estoy aquí, si? No soy un hombre, en realidad no soy nada, pero tengo el aspecto de uno.” His back straightens dramatically before relaxing. “Y también, esto es, para divertirse, sabes? Como un acto. Es, ah…” He shrugs. “Es gracioso pa’ mi, confundiendo la mierda de la gente.”

Jake steps back off the car and grunts as he crouches to grab the rest of his things. “Pienso que todos nosotros tenemos pinches cosas raras pasando, sabes? Tú también, incluso si tú finges que no hay mierda molestándote y estás como una línea recta. Solo necesitas salir tu cabeza sobre esto. Pásalo bien y todo eso.”

He slips his glove back on and rubs his hand on their thigh a few times before tossing the cleaning equipment in a small compartment under the front seat.

Marc is a boat with no anchor, only vaguely aware of the hot headrest against their neck as Jake slides into the driver’s seat. There’s a thread trying to keep him there, wavering and warm, and he holds on to it.

“Live a little, Marc,” Jake mumbles. He’s trying to make it feel safe, he’s trying to make the idea feel so safe. “Esto es nuestro cerebro, hermana,” he taps a finger on their temple (a finger that’s holding a treasure beneath the cloth), “and it’s never really been dialed to one setting.”

***

3 1/2.

There’s been someone else fronting with Marc lately.

That’s not really a new occurrence. As their system has expanded, more and more people have found their way into the driver’s seat, and it’s left less room for him. He wasn’t made for a big, crowded house crammed into his brain with children and wolves and living suits and ghostly floorboards. He wasn’t made for change. So he’s kind of… shrunk away from it all. Maybe a bit too much, honestly.

Not that it’s all been his choice. Marc has to push himself into existence every damn time he wants to use the body now, and the energy it takes feels tenfold from what it used to be. So he doesn’t do it much anymore. And if he does, he needs a partner to fill in the negative space around him to keep him there. The others are kind about it, at least. They pretend everything is fine, pretend he’s not drifting apart at the seams and further into obscurity, pretend like he’s still there when, really, he’s just an outline in the shape of a man these days.

But it’s ok. Marc shares his days with Steven’s smile and Jake’s headlights, with the easy banter and the grounding weight he’s learned to find in them, and he’s content with that. Sometimes it’s others—littles or fragments or protectors he doesn’t know the names of—but the days pass either way, and they live on.

It’s just that… lately, someone else has taken up that spot.

She’s new, she has to be, because everything she’s doing is new. She hasn’t spoken, Marc hasn’t got a name, but he knows she is there, because she has to be. He can’t explain the waves of desire that wash through him otherwise, the bright spot he can feel in the back of his vision that curls around his hands and eyes and makes him Want things that are unlike him to want. It’s like being stared at from the backseat of a car. He can tell she’s watching, but she just stays there, in his throat and behind his eyes, pressing and pressing and urging him to do things he doesn’t understand.

Nail polish and lipstick. Google searches he deletes from their history as quickly as the results load. Lingering touches on their hair and the soft skin on their nape. He starts feeling uncomfortable in their skin, like he can’t fit in it right. It only happens some days, but as time goes on, Marc finds his mind wandering to those lingering feelings and moments more and more. Jake teases him about it (Finally blooming, are we?), and Steven leaves space open to talk, but Marc never takes it.

He just… doesn’t like that they see this as something. It isn’t him wanting these things, right? It isn’t him pausing at their dresser, and cringing at the feeling of stubble, and gravitating towards their lighter, redder shirts instead of the greys and blacks he usually does. It’s someone else. It’s something separate, he knows it is, and it’ll pass.

But they talk like it isn’t. They talk like this is real, and it’s starting to make Marc antsy. He feels like a cornered gazelle, trying and failing to see where the crouching lion is. Is this all some kind of joke? Jake won’t say if he knows who’s been hanging around Marc, and he always carries this sense about him like there’s a bigger picture floating inside their head, so… is there? He doesn’t know why everyone seems so serious and casual at the same time. He doesn’t know why this… all of this is bothering him more than the passive influence he feels from others. He doesn’t know what they see that he doesn’t.

(And… well if Marc pauses to look in the mirror at the longer hair Steven managed to wheedle them into, and there’s a moment of contentment in the way it falls around his ears, then… that’s his business, and no one else’s. And it doesn’t mean anything. And it’s fine.)

Someone else has been fronting with Marc.

(‘See me,’ she says, but he doesn’t know where to look.)

Someone else has been realizing she wants more.

(‘I’m right here,’ comes the response, but here is nothing. Here is the darkness of his eyelids and the tingle on his skin. Here is no one.)

***

4.

Sun stretches across the living room floor, twinkling with dust motes and casting long shadows onto the bookshelves. Marc (though it’s hardly Marc in control at all) is floating in Steven’s desk chair, arms lost at his sides and breakfast long forgotten. He isn’t thinking. He isn’t there much at all, really, until he is. Until, like rousing from sleep, he Wants.

Marc’s brows furrow, eyes darting around the room as his mind plumes into conscious thought. His eyes drift back to their dresser, breath catching with the thoughts that rush forward of cloth and color.

Skirts. He wants to try on one of their skirts.

Which. Is new. It’s not just a passing thought, either, but a spark of action, a decision that has made up its mind. His knees bend, his knuckles squeeze on empty palms, the skin distant, and he—pauses. Already halfway out of his seat.

That… can’t be him, right? Maybe Steven is…? No… Marc wiggles a vague touch back and curls around nothing. No warmth, no soft grey and blue. Steven isn’t here right now. Steven isn’t him. But he wants to try on a skirt.

And… he wants try on some of the eyeliner Jake got recently, and stand on his tiptoes so he can mimic high heels, and paint their nails again—G-d, yes, something deep red this time, or maybe a nice blue, and—

What is happening? His brain feels like sludge.

Marc shakes his head, squinting against the tilt of the room. It’s like he’s thinking twice, each line of thought overlapping with someone else’s and trying to squeeze into the same space; a venn diagram bulging into a balloon.

He grunts quietly, pushing the rest of the way up and shuffling across the floor. Their socked feet push stray grains of sand out of the way, their footfalls heavy and arms swaying, until he finds himself in front of their dresser.

Is this what you want?

I don’t know.

Can we try?

Handle. Pull. A piece of starry cloth unfurling in his hands, taken from the top drawer and slipping over his fingers like water. The world takes a breath. Marc’s thumb pinches over the designs for a moment as his brow curls down again. His knees creak uncomfortably when he steps in through the waistband.

Oh.

His breath shivers out through his lips.

Oh.

He probably looks silly—a grown man standing in the middle of his apartment with a blue skirt falling over his sweatpants and his hands sweatier than a stakeout in summer—but… f*ck if his chest doesn’t bloom.

Marc shakes his hip to the side experimentally, hands balling up with happy tightness as he watches the cloth swish and shimmer around his legs, patterned with constellations and little moons. He laughs, light and breathless, and does a little spin, bouncing slightly to unseen music. A grin spreads across his face, and then she—

Ah.

Nausea crashes into joyous abandon. Marc Spector recoils from front as the energy keeps on surging and their stomach drops and their heart feels free and—

f*ck.

Back into safety, back into the place of non-being, back where the specter rests his eyes.

It takes a while until he can see again. When their eyes do finally fade into view—a distant screen stretched across the black—Marc realizes they’re sitting on the edge of their bed. Their legs are swinging. Something loud has been put on in the background.

“Oh hey you, you’re finally awake!”

The voice rings out in a saccharine pop of color, pinkness diving through the dark and taking hold of him. Immediately, Marc is wrapped in the taste of chapstick and a feeling of warmth, whoever has found him tugging him forward until he’s forced to let out a breath he forgot he was holding.

It’s… jarring to say the least.

Their bed is plusher underneath him when he settles, the music that’s playing sounding brighter than it should. And…

There’s a girl standing to the left of his vision, just inside his temple. He doesn’t have to look at all to know her, to see the image that pushes itself forward, finally clear and fully realized. It comes with ease this time. She comes to him.

Her hair is curly, spilling over her shoulders and bleached up to the dark roots on her scalp, a few strands escaping the sequined headband that holds the rest of it out of her face. She’s got braces and freckled cheeks, a wide smile, and eyes that crinkle at the corners when she grins. The rest is a mash of things, inexact and detailed at the same time. Peace signs printed over a spaghetti strap top. Embroidered butterflies falling down one pant leg of her jeans. A layered skirt. Cuffs that sit wide over her heels and the plastic jewels on her sneakers. She’s a child. She’s a pop star. She’s a magazine cover. She’s a young woman who shares his damn face.

“Hello!” she greets again.

New, new, new, Marc isn’t good with new.

“Hi,” he says aloud, and almost immediately regrets it. His voice sounds too low as it rasps over his tongue, too distant, and it makes him want to swallow his throat whole. Marc presses his lips together, hands balling up on his thighs, and tries to reach back again to find someone else to handle this. But all he runs into is—

“Sooo, I’m Marlena-Haley Russo,” the girl introduces, flitting around until Marc’s fingers loosen against his palms. “I’m new here.”

‘Yeah, I’m Marc,’ ‘Welcome to consciousness,’ or ‘Do you need me to answer anything?’ would all probably be great things to say right now. But instead Marc stays quiet, eyes wide and blurry as he stares at the floor and Marlena drifts around in a blur of pink and orange and green in his periphery. She doesn’t seem to mind the silence, chattering away all on her own.

“Do we have any floral socks?”

“I want to dance but we’re too heavyyyy!”

“This skirt is cute.” Their hands run over their thighs appreciatively. “Do we have others?”

Marc jerks out of his stupor with a grunt and manages to half-move half-drag their body over to their dresser, giving her free roam of the options he grabbed from before. She squeals in delight, her laughter heated like sunlight in their chest as she digs in. She moves so easily, internally and out… Why… why can’t he be like that?

Marc shakes off the thought immediately.

It doesn’t matter. This isn’t about him right now. This is about someone different. Never mind that he can’t pull his eyes away as she dresses them in frills. Never mind that she doesn’t feel new like he thought she would. Never mind that when (s)he bumps too close, or talks too loud, their edges mesh in a flood of familiar memory.

(Mom’s hand resting on their cheek, the smell of the perfume on her wrists a comfort. Avuela tugging them into her side on visits for Pesah, whispering “ Kerido…” into their hair, old rings gleaming on her fingers. Sun in the streets of a city Marc can’t recognize. The sky open, snippets of fresh pop music zipping by them. Women with blonde hair and bright eyes and why can’t I be that? A cramped college dorm. Sweet air. The flicker of Shabat candles and blessings on a lonesome tongue.)

Marc is too old for their skin in that moment. He feels made for elastic bracelets and chewing gum, hair ties and glossy nails, not this. Not creaking bones and leg hair that prickles against their socks and a boy that’s too old to change. Too old to try to.

Marlena keeps moving, always in motion, and Marc can only watch and try not to get dizzy from it. From her, from this, from his own burning thoughts. She feels like a concept come to life, loud and girly and sweet, and there is something in her that Marc wishes desperately to wind between his fingers and never let go.

She isn’t him. He can feel that now, just like he thought. He can feel that divide between her sun and his stars, but it’s not… it’s not the relief he wanted it to be.

“Next time that Layla comes over we should totally give each other manicures. Our cuticles could use it…” Marlena hums, and a deeper echo of it vibrates on their lips. “Maybe a movie too? Or a bigger makeover?”

Mirror. When did they get to a mirror?

“I’m not the best with makeup,” she prods at their cheek, “but I dunno… We’d be pretty with it.”

We.

Me?

“You’re already very lovely, Marc,” she says offhandedly, eyes sparkling in her internal image, and Marc tries not to think about the reflection of her smile on his own face across from them.

“Why are you here?” he finally asks, the question coming suddenly. It’s unprofessional and, perhaps, unkind, but he can’t… think.

Marlena’s face twists in confusion, before she huffs, smiling again. “Because I am! Because I want to be. I think you want me to be, too.”

No. He doesn’t. He can’t want that.

This all feels like a dream, a fugue state of unreality, a place where Marc can’t stop thinking about girlhood, and the edge of yearning in her memories, and the way their noses look the same, and how easily her hands could be his, and…

And…

Marc sighs and runs a hand up his arm. And that he wants… some things… himself…

His throat twists as he swallows, and he allows the grip squeezing there to loosen just a bit.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he whispers, managing the smallest kindest grin he can manage, and inside, Marlena glows just a little bit brighter.

***

5.

The air is cold here. The moon base’s dome warps the heavens above into an eyeglass staring down, and the stars beyond it stretch into infinity.

“Let me guide you, ok? It’s easy to spiral here. Este pinche lugar es raro.” Jake tugs Marc through the crowded streets of the compound, grip firm on his arm despite the world around them feeling like loose dust. It’s all chalk and gravel, and Marc can feel the ground beneath them flaking away as they pass over it.

“Allá, yo pienso…” Jake mumbles, pulling Marc into an elevator that climbs two stories in the next second.

He said this would be good to try, the whole “stepping out of the usual areas of the headspace Marc inhabits and meeting more parts of them,” thing, a way to get him connected to their world again. Especially this one, Jake told him. Especially here.

Most times when Marc isn’t around he isn’t anywhere . Sometimes a room, or a couch, or adrift in warm emptiness, but he has no space on the inside, and he’s never been here. He didn’t even know this was here.

He feels like he’s dreaming, half awake as he’s pulled through the motions and imagining what he wants to make the ground feel solid and his boots feel tangible. And technically that is what he’s doing, but he’s also Here, and Here is a Place. In their mind. In a cosmos. On the moon.

Stop.

Door.

Jake slides it open and leads Marc into a control room overlooking a wide stretch of shipyards. The tarmac is populated with white cruisers, their crescent wings sharp in the artificial sunlight and the workers milling between them moving like glassy ants. Marc feels like a memory on wheels.

“Commander Spector,” Jake greets, the accented words rousing the air across from them into a stern looking man. He glances back from his monitors with interest, and a spark ripples around them when Marc meets his eyes. Mental. Physical. The walls curve closer.

“Ah, Lockley, I thought I’d see you around soon.” It’s the body’s voice, but deeper, a tilt to the edges that makes Marc think of Kirk and static screens. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is . Another ally of mine from the cruiser.”

Commander nods, shaking the room like a gently settling snowglobe, before turning back to the side of his ship. The tarmac is suddenly warm under Marc’s feet, and he stumbles at the change. Jake steadies him.

“Nice to meet you, miss. I hope the reason for the visit this time isn’t too dire.”

“No, no.” Jake’s grip tightens on Marc’s arm as he speaks. “We just picked up some irregular activity. Wanted to see what we could do to help.”

Marc watches as Commander’s hands move around the fuel gears, his suit knuckles dense and bulky. He’s imagining this, he thinks abruptly. He is imagining the gasp he lets out and the chest that shakes with a higher voice. He is feeling a daydream melt apart at the seams.

“Marc…”

His nails are smooth when he looks down, his legs muscled. Long curls float around his ears as he turns to Jake, to the dome, to the mirror watching from above. A woman. His chest flutters under an old blouse, foreign gloved hands numb around his cheeks as they try to find him. Something cracks in the dome above and Marc fastens his helmet as the cruiser roof hisses closed, looking back briefly at the two visitors still standing on the landing strip, unbothered by the blaring alarms. A woman in white. Jake talking and moving.

She’s in a car seat now. The stars have taken her eyes.

More memories shake loose beneath them, roiling under her heels like rising ignition. There is light in her throat where her tongue should be. His hands shake on the steering wheel as the bay doors open.

“Hey.”

Commander leads them down the stairs to the ship yards, Jake’s arm in hers. Her pin skirt sits uncomfortably on her hips and she adjusts it. Jake gives her a glance and she shrugs. Her heels crunch on glass at the bottom and she stops, kneeling in a plummeting motion to the earth to see the face staring back.

Wide brown eyes and—

“Hey!”

—Dark red lips and—

“Marc, necesitas pon’ tus ideas juntos pa’ mi.”

—Was this all his fault? And—

“Mierda.”

—Up. Up. And—

Away.

Marc sways on the edge of their bed, his hand falling back to keep them from tipping over as Jake’s tail lights retreat back into the dark blue depths of their mind. He swallows, throat dry, and blinks at the blurry mirror across from them. A heavy hand presses against his sternum, the skin there slowly registering as his own. He rubs it a few times, trying to shake the tightness there loose from the bone.

He pushed them too hard. He wasn’t meant to, and he didn’t mean to, he just…

f*ck.

Marc sucks in a breath, muttering another soft swear as he closes his eyes and falls back into the sheets, resting briefly in the warmth of a body far, far away.

***

+1.

Jake and Steven have gotten very good at understanding Marc Spector.

It’s an earned skill. It’s taken sweat and tears and a lifetime of sharing the same brain to get here, and even then, they aren’t perfect. Still, they can recognize Marc’s cues for anger, his penchant for avoidance, his restraint and exhaustion. They’re a part of him and he’s part of them (and all the other profound discussions of plurality Steven could muster up if he tried), and so… they notice when things change further.

First are the differences in Marc’s internal image. He’s around more often for one, actually existing in the inner world and interacting with it, even if it’s a softer kind of presence. They see the deeper shade floating around his edges one day and the style of his hair the next. Not the rough, clean, military cut he’s always seen himself with (even after they grew their hair out), but buns, ponytails, even styled curls.

Next are the outfits they put on that none of them remember. The colors are always too restrained for Marlena’s tastes, but not the cut or accessories Jake or Steven go for, either. It’s not someone new dressing them, Jake’s sure of that. They’ve had a few splits in recent months but it’s mostly been fragments or the solid forming of parts that have been floating around for decades. This is different. This is finding more simple earrings and rings in their collection, and blue shadow on their eyelids, and chapstick smeared on the corner of their mouth. Like someone stopped. Like someone got scared.

There’s an unsaid understanding to it all, really. Womanhood is never said, never explicitly, or… well not in Steven’s case, he supposes. Jake doesn’t hesitate to nudge Marc towards talks about the feelings and process of gender discovery—meetings and jokes and more serious mental sit downs and all that. Steven hears quite a lot of it second hand, the bleed through of anxiety and relief mixing into his memory like oil on water. Jake always reassures him that the talks have been good afterwards, rubbing his knuckles and leaving extra notes around to cheer him up when Marc makes them feel especially on edge, and he appreciates that greatly. Steven himself is taking more of a gentle approach, wanting Marc to come to him if she wants to, but he can’t discount the effectiveness in Jake’s strategy, either.

(“Escucha, ella necesita sacarse la cabeza del culo. Solo ‘toy ayudándola!”

“Yes, I know.” Steven chuckles to himself, sighing under his breath as he leans back on their inner couch. “G-d we’re messy, aren’t we…”)

Marc never does talk about it himself, though, even in Jake’s little coaching sessions. It’s clear he doesn’t really want to, and that’s fine. That’s Marc. They know Marc, but Steven still wishes he didn’t feel as embarrassed to open up about this kind of thing as he clearly is. Hell, he’s already part of a system with its own complicated gender history, surely he knows he slots in just fine.

But…

“What if I’m just like her?”

It’s another snippet Steven catches one night, the words mumbled through a hoarse throat. He comes forward to feel the safety of Layla’s chest and her arms wrapped around them. Roles and clothes have been thrown aside for something different, for a pause and a question that’s tender to the touch. But Layla is warm under the covers, her presence an anchor. Steven can feel that Marc doesn’t want her to leave.

“Well… you’re not, for one,” Steven hears Layla say, her fingers combing through Marc’s long curls, ruffled and unwashed and well past shoulder length now. “And you can remember you’re still your own person. You’re still Marc.”

Marc pulls back to look up at her when she says it, jaw tight as she traces a finger over his hairline. Steven feels a prickle of affection ripple back through his chest.

“You aren’t just something she made, ” Layla continues. “You aren’t… her. She doesn’t get to… what, take something else from you? Just because she was a bitter example?” The blankets shift as Layla wiggles down, making eye contact as she cups Marc’s cheeks. “No. Not on my watch. Not to my girl.”

Marc’s breath stutters, the knot there unfurling on the next exhale as the threads catch on her tongue.

“This all feels so stupid,” she whispers.

“I know,” Layla mumbles, a thumb brushing against Marc’s crows feet. “But it’s not.”

Marc sighs, and her eyes squeeze closed as she swallows thickly. “Yeah… yeah, ok.”

“Ok?” Layla smiles. “Ok. Good girl…” She bumps against Marc’s forehead, skin hot for a moment before she dips forward to kiss her.

Their brain bleeds into euphoria, safe and solid and sparkling on the edges, and Steven finds himself drifting in the easy pleasure of it until their eyes grow distant and the moment fades.

The next steps come more steadily after that. Jake and Steven still wait to prod (ahem, Steven waits and Jake immediately starts bragging about winning a bet to one of their internal protectors), and Marc remains… Marc. Just different sometimes.

He’s more comfortable in his slacks and button up one day, and melts into a simple summer dress the next. Jeans and a tee. A romper that’s smooth over his freckled shins. Marc Spector is a man. Marc Spector is a woman. Marc Spector is tired and relieved and confused and makes their brain quite the mess for a few months, but none of them mind. Jake knows she just wants it to be easier, just wants the nice simple boxes she’s inhabited her whole life to adjust to a new, perfect structure, but tough luck.

“Bienvenidos a la fiesta, cariño, necesitas crear tu propia divertida ahora.”

Marc ends up picking out a dual set of fronting indicators after enough convincing, and they become a wordless way to make his feelings clear without having to confront them in a big way.

(Because, in Jake’s words, “If you have to say you’re a woman every time you want to say it, we’re never gonna talk again. And I’d like to before the next decade is done.”

“Jakob!” Steven elbows him in the shoulder, before looking at Marc with a slightly lopsided smile. “I mean they’re not… wrong, mate.”

“Oh shut up, both of you.”)

Not that Marc can really argue with them. She already had trouble asking to do their Shabbat prayers herself, and they really don’t need to dissociate out of their mind around live flame again, so… work arounds it is. Even if they make her feel like something that’s being gawked at. Even if speaking up about wants and needs still feels like some novel way to be called a bad name through gritted teeth.

It’s… hard to be kind to yourself sometimes. Relief, as it turns out, is very difficult to hold on to when the world always feels like it’s trying to kill you.

But Marc tries. G-d she tries, and it is worth it. It is worth it for all of them.

“Are you ready to go?”

Marc glances back from the mirror, heart swelling at the sight of Layla standing by the doorway. She’s dressed down in a brown pantsuit, the sleeves an iridescent purple floating down from her shoulders like waves. Marc swallows.

“Yeah,” she rasps out, looking back at the mirror one last time to flick a lock of hair out of her eyes. She still feels nervous. Jake got them done up, and in private the lipstick and heels feel fine, but… knowing they’ll be out in public is… different.

“Well then, Miss Spector,” Layla’s hand winds over Marc’s shoulder from behind, turning her around. “Let’s see how quickly we can make the town jealous.” She flashes a smile, winking conspiratorially before tilting Marc’s jaw down into a kiss. Marc hums against her mouth, hands beginning to slide around her waist to keep her there when Layla pulls back, face alight with mischief.

“Come on then,” she whispers, pecking Marc’s mouth once more before moving towards the door.

Marc stands dumbfounded for a moment before her mind catches up with her.

“Hey!”

She catches Layla by the hand and drags her back, grinning as she laughs loudly and stumbles into her arms, the sound swallowed against Marc’s lips as she ducks to kiss her deeply again.

“Not getting away from me that easily…” Marc breathes when they part. “You still have to hold my hand. I haven’t… adjusted to concrete yet.”

Layla snorts, her eyes flicking up and over Marc’s face for a moment. She doesn’t speak as she cups her cheek.

“You really do look lovely,” she murmurs, thumb running lightly over Marc’s jaw. “I meant it.”

Marc smiles, chest twisting at the words, and a few helpful hands press forward to keep her in place. Her next breath stutters, but she manages a smile.

“Yeah, I know… I think so, too.”

“Good.” Layla’s hand slides down into hers. “Then let’s do this.”

Marc Spector was a good man. To others, for a time. He served that purpose. He performed it well. And now? Now she Is. And the world has continued. And her life is not over by a long shot.

Caótica Belleza (por lo sentido y lo sinsentido) - Tiptapricot (2024)
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