“You’re an idiot. You’re the biggest idiot in Raeleen and I’m revoking our statuses as family members.”
“‘Ey.” Nikki shoved Vanna against his bed frame.
“I’m not talking to you,” he muttered. “Hold your breath.”
She did as instructed, and he pressed a damp rag of hydrogen peroxide to her cheek.
They were in Vanna’s bedroom. His house was built right above his family’s coffee house, so everything smelled like freshly brewed coffee and sugar. His room was small because of this, just like hers, but unlike hers, his was neat. Books stacked nicely around homework done three weeks ahead of time. His room was smart and overwhelming with expectations to know everything.
“Your parents will find out about this, you know,” Vanna said. “You can’t hide anything in that house.”
“I tripped. What do you want from me?”
“Maybe you shouldn’t have been chasing a robot. You have to stop starting things, Nikki. You have a family to take care of. What if he was leading you into a trap? What if you got hurt?”
“I thought he’d give me information on Derek and Kevin.”
“He wouldn’t have been able to. I’m pretty sure divulging secret Asilo documents isn’t in his programming. You need to be careful near him.” He placed a bandage over her cheek. “This’s the last time I’m doing this for you. I’m done swooping in and patching you up every time you act out.”
“I never ask you to, ever.”
He just rolled his eyes at the obvious and put away his bandages.
He probably could’ve been a doctor if he wasn’t so afraid of blood. He’d had his medical equipment back before they’d ever been introduced. Back in the day, she was a bastard, biting people and starting fights. Her instincts had overtaken her and she’d broken teeth without remorse.
It’d taken Vanna to change her. She’d come to the coffee house one day after being sent home for starting a fight. She’d run away with a lost tooth, blood everywhere, and he’d actually cried for her. Not because she’d been sent home with a detention— he always had perfect attendance—but that she would forever have a missing tooth that would cause her pain for months after. It’d taken seeing another person upset for her for her to understand her self-worth. Her fights didn’t start and end with her, it affected her loved ones.
And she was still mucking things up for everyone who still cared about her.
Vanna turned around and started clearing up his room.
Nikki watched. His ears were folded down. “Hey.”
She paused. While he cleaned his bedroom of blood and mud, her sharp eyes caught his bony wrists. His wristbands usually covered his wrists wholly, but that evening, whether from playing baseball or from worrying about the only cousin he had left, one had slipped down his freckled skin.
“’Ey, you’re bleeding.”
Without looking at her, Vanna immediately covered up his wrists. He turned rigid as he held himself. “Huh?”
“You’re …your wrists,” she said. “What happened? Was that from playing baseball?”
He didn’t answer. He wasn’t even looking at her.
Nikki’s ears fuzzed up. While fretting over herself and relationships, she’d unknowingly stepped into territory she wasn’t equipped to handle.
“Those…aren’t recent,” she said, knowing how scars worked. “What happened?”
“It’s nothing,” he said.
“But…” Her mind was both blank and reeling from questions. “What did you do?”
His ears flattened hard. “Look, you take your sadness out on your family, I do this. You have no right to judge my coping habits.”
“Coping—Did you make those cuts on purpose?”
He stayed quiet.
“Look, what does it matter to you?” he snapped. “It’s just something I do, and both of my moms and your parents know already, so you have nothing to hold against me.”
Nikki fell back, appalled. Not against him. She had self-destructive tendencies to deal with her own emotions. She’d made holes in walls to give her anger a mark on the world.
But she never hid it. She never pretended like everything was fine when her life—their lives—were falling apart.
She thought she was accessible to her family’s feelings. She’d tried so hard these past few years to be approachable, to show her love when it was so hard for her to do so.
She stepped back from herself. This wasn’t about her. She needed to help him, now, right now, even if he didn’t want it. “Why’re you hurting yourself?”
“It’s none of your business.”
“Is it because of Kevin? Is work becoming too hard? I’ll talk to your mom for you, I can—”
“Nikki, stop.” He caught himself from raising his voice. Stop talking about it. Don’t bring it up. Just forget it. It’s not—”
“Of course it’s a big deal! We’re family. You could’ve talked to me about this.”
“I couldn’t talk to you about it!”
“Why not? We’re all dealing with Derek and Kev in our own ways!”
“This isn’t about Derek and Kev!”
Timed rhythmic knocks hit the door. Before Nikki could devise a cover-up for why they were yelling, Vanna’s moms walked in.
Morgan stood smiling with two hands on her plump sides. She was a golden monkey crossbreed who always wore a smile even when a customer was screaming in her face. She wore thick glasses due to her poor sight and a hearing aid in one ear due to an injury from her youth.
Vanna’s other mother, Del, was Nikki’s mother’s sister, the connection that made them all family. She had the same brown and white hair as Derek and Kevin, though she took upwards of an hour every morning styling herself to look like a model. She took care of bakery deliveries and often had a wind-swept look to her makeup and hair.
Morgan stepped over an empty coffee cup to enter Vanna’s room. “Studying for a test?” she asked. “You two seem to have quite the competition brewing. Heard you all the way downstairs.”
Vanna fixed his wristbands back over his wrists.
“That it, then?” she asked. Like Nikki, her voice strained to be emotionally supportive. They both knew they weren’t the best at dealing with their loved ones’ feelings. “Everything fine?”
“Yeah,” Vanna muttered. “Sorry, for shouting.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” Del said. She was tall, over six feet, and had a low voice that made her seem wise despite her never saying much.
“Take a breather, yeah?” Morgan said. “Your mom and I will be free later tonight. If you’re both still up, we can tune into a program. I’ll make crackers.” She nodded to Nikki. “Guess you’re staying over, yeah?”
Well, she couldn’t go home with a healing patch over her cheek.
“I’ll ring your mother, then.” Morgan pushed Del out with a smile. “Nice cheek,” she added to Nikki, and left.
“Thanks,” Vanna said, “now they have even more to worry about tonight,” and left downstairs shortly thereafter.
Nikki didn’t get families, especially Vanna’s. She liked them, they were nice to her and offered her mother, father, and Vanna a job at the coffee house, but they were so off to her. What kind of parents acted that way when their child was hurting? If she’d found out that her child was hurting themselves, she would’ve done something. She would’ve shown that she was emotionally available, and if she couldn’t, well, then she wouldn’t have taken on a whole child to care for and raise. Why didn’t they care, and why didn’t Vanna want to talk about it?
She wasn’t living in his shoes. She’d never know. She’d just have to show that she was there for him, ready to listen when he was ready.
Kicking her feet and making the floorboards creak, she followed Vanna downstairs.
Morgan and Del had closed up the coffee house for the night. Pink stools balanced on top of turquoise tables. The menus had been collected and filed behind the cash register and the checkered tiles had been scrubbed. The croissants, muffins, and strawberry cakes they were known for were now in dark fridges, waiting for tomorrow’s open.
Nikki peeked around the staircase into the living room. Their first floor was connected to the sales floor by way of two swinging doors. It was dark on this side of the house. The radio was silent. “Where’d Del and Morgan go?”
Vanna ran his hand over the counter.
Clicking her tongue at the silent treatment, Nikki squatted to the customer fridge and stole her favorite order: a bowl of premade buttered noodles and an iced mocha frap. This combo usually calmed her down, but now, she shoved her chair out of the way and slammed her bowl down so hard that noodles slipped out. She wanted to throttle Vanna sometimes, she swore to the Above.
Vanna kept busy by reorganizing the fruit basket in front of the register.
Nikki’s lips touched her lid. “Where’d your parents go?”
The cash register closed. Off in the distance, Nikki’s ears perked to the sound of machinery overworking in the kitchen.
Vanna’s stubby tail pressed up against the counter. “I’m going to bed.”
“So why’d you come downstairs?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either, that’s why I’m asking.”
“Why’d you do it?” he then asked. “Why chase after someone as dangerous as Marcos? Do you do it because you want people to notice you, whatever the cost?”
“What does that mean?”
“I mean, it’s the only reasonable explanation I can come up with. You act so extremely knowing it’s going to get you in trouble. You keep freaking out our parents and pestering me about something I clearly don’t want to talk about. You weren’t always like this. You used to be smarter than this.”
That hot knife he was carving into her back burned.
“Is it because of Derek and Kev?” he then asked. “Is that why you lash out? Is that why you’re always angry all the time now?”
She abandoned her food on the table. “I’m sorry, okay? I’m sorry for trying to show you that I care. I’m sorry for taking out my anger by trying to find answers to questions none of you bother answering.”
“So you grieve by running after robots and lashing out at your parents? Is that how you want to mess up your family’s life?”
Nikki slammed her fist on the table. “I just want Derek and Kev back! Why’s that so bad? Why don’t you care about them?”
His face splintered between anguish and anger. “Because they’re not coming back, Nikki, Above. Why can’t you understand that? Why can’t you just worry about what you have now!?”
She lunged at him, grabbed his stupid scarf and pinned him. “Because all I have left is you!” she screamed at his face. “You’re all I have and you treat me like I’m this burden you’re forced to carry around because we’re family! Just because…” She couldn’t stop herself in time. “Just because you don’t love Derek and Kevin as much as me doesn’t mean you get to dictate how I grieve that they’re gone!”
Vanna cracked the fruit basket against Nikki’s head. Fresh fruit bounced over the tiles and skidded underneath tables and counters. One piece hit her in the eye and caused her to loosen her grip on Vanna, giving him enough room to escape.
He fled upstairs. He tripped going up as he cried through his anger. Their vehement conversation ended when the last piece of fruit rolled against Nikki’s sneaker.
Nikki covered her eyes, digging her short nails into her eye sockets. What was wrong with her? She hadn’t meant that. That was the build, the anger that was burning her away to her most based element. There was no way Vanna would open up to her now. She’d be lucky if they were on speaking turns come January. That was just like her, ruining everything without the means to fix it.
Nikki unlocked a window from the second floor and climbed up to the roof. The sky looked clear enough to sleep outside. The twilight air fondled her injured cheek. Bunching up her hoodie, she made a makeshift pillow and gave in to a few hours of rest, trying to forget about her disjointed life for a few hours.
Lí was thankful for many things in his life, but he was immensely grateful that tonight’s forecast wasn’t rainy.
He completed his breathing exercises through the night air. Just ten minutes of breathing. That’s what his therapists told him he needed to do. Just ten minutes a day to himself, wherever he found peace. Tonight happened to be on Pangea’s roof. His duties, meetings, conferences, existential nightmares about how he didn’t deserve anything good in his life and that living was the most selfish choice he could make—
Inhale. Tonight was good. The stars were sparkling and the traffic beneath his hotel was calming. He should’ve been asleep because he’d have to be on a plane in a few hours and fly halfway across the world for a UN meeting—
He was okay. He was helping people and doing good because the news said so. They called it imposter syndrome, the feeling of feeling like shit even though you were doing your best. But Lí’s best should’ve been better. He’d only saved, what, hundreds of people from the radiation zones? When billions were suffering? .0001% of nothing.
Great job, Lí, the voice in his head kept repeating, You’re doing jack shit.
At least Tai had finally gotten to bed. Lí had waited until his lover had passed out before he’d escaped to the roof. They’d been on and off planes and trains for weeks. Tai needed his sleep. Lí didn’t.
He lifted his left hand to the Moon. His wedding band was tightly secured on his ring finger. It shone silver, dazzling.
His hand dropped. He blinked.
Nikki, she blinked, watching through the eyes of a boy she didn’t know.
She looked left, then right. Blinked again. Breathed.
She patted her chest, her flat, masculine chest, wearing clothes she didn’t own in a body that wasn’t hers. No tail. No ears. This boy had stubble and unkempt hair, a different skin tone. He was the same height as her and had similar cuts in his fleshy ears, but…
She rubbed these hands she now controlled. However she fell asleep, she could always control her dreams. She could morph nightmares into pleasant dreamscapes and meet friends and family as she pleased.
This wasn’t a dream. She was too conscious, living in a moment she couldn’t place.
This person, whoever they were, was living a life she couldn’t control, and he was real.
She covered her—his—mouth, and looked past the roof to see where she was.
Her arms turned to jelly. She was up way too high. At least a hundred stories, no doubt. The skyscrapers around her were bright and glowed with all sorts of blurry colors. The streets were like roads for ants, bustling with tiny life, with cars Nikki had never seen, lights that were futuristic in design and shape.
She wasn’t in Raeleen. Nothing like this was even fathomable in Raeleen.
The sky rumbled above her like it was thundering, but the sky was clear. She saw the sky dots and Moon…
Stars, Lí had called them.
The sky was too clear. She could see distant stars and the whisky clouds shaping the Moon.
This world had no Barreira around it.
The rumbling grew louder, and crossing the sky, a machine bigger than Nikki’s house soared through the clouds. It was shaped like a mechanical bird. It was big and metal and loud, so loud that Nikki had to cover her fleshy ears that she could hear from.
She shuddered in fear, unable to move from her vulnerable position, until the nameless contraption flew over this unnamed city.
But it wasn’t unnamed. Lí had named them. This futuristic place was called Karita, and she was on the roof of Pangea, a one-of-a-kind hotel that housed thousands of important people. And that bird-like contraption was called an airliner, a type of airplane.
Nikki pinched her cheeks, trying to wake herself up. She’d somehow extracted those details from the boy’s brain, but she could’ve easily been making all of this up. Maybe, through her fight with Vanna, she might’ve finally concocted a dream of which she had no control.
She was beginning to learn things about Lí the longer she spent in his body. It was blurry and all over the place, like remembering a dream you’d just woken up from. He was twenty-six. He was a Taurus—whatever that meant—and had the same birthday as her.
He liked buttered noodles, just like her.
And baseball, same as her.
“Lí?” she called into the night. “That’s your name, yeah? What’s going on?”
The boy’s body didn’t answer. Course.
She stood up, careful so as not to fall even though there was a gate. She needed to get to ground level and talk to someone. Maybe that Tai person? She felt the wind on her body—his body. This couldn’t have been a dream.
She turned, hair tousling in the wind, and found all of her answers.
She didn’t know what to look at first. Floating in front of the city was a boy of about thirteen years old, and he was unlike anyone she’d ever seen. He was wearing a strange robe of red and black, with gold lining the edges. He had a long, red tail with yellow fur at the end, and stubby horns with pointed, fleshy ears. She couldn’t discern his breed without asking about it directly. It was like he was his own, one-of-a-kind breed, able to float without wings.
The way he was staring at her, lost and confused, he looked so vulnerable. It was like she was the odd one here, when he was the one defying physics.
“Lí?” the boy repeated. “Lí, is that truly you?”
“Yeah,” Nikki found herself saying. They were both speaking in the language Lí had been thinking in. Nikki knew it, somehow.
The floating boy took in the nighttime city like Lí had done, calculating his position in the dream. While turning, Nikki noticed a small birthmark underneath his right eye, but she’d always known it was there.
The boy floated closer, closer than Nikki would’ve ever let someone get to her. She stepped back, but he kept coming. His normal hand cupped her face and, before she could push him away, he floated to her level and hugged her.
She locked up. She couldn’t even think about pushing him away. She couldn’t kick him off or slap his face, because the Above knew this boy never hugged her with ill will, and whenever they were together, he hid nothing from her, from him, from them.
Lí closed his eyes. Shào, like usual, emitted a soothing aura that helped Lí cope on his missions around the world. But he needed to get back to his room. He needed to make a call to the border commissioner to make sure his team had clearance to enter the radiation zone tomorrow morning. He couldn’t get wrapped up in another issue. He had people he needed to protect.
He was one of the few, rare people that were unaffected by the radiation.
Shào hugged Nikki tighter. “Oh, Lí, how I’ve missed you so.”
A sickening feeling poured into Nikki’s chest, and she jumped back, swallowing hard to feel spit go down her own throat. His voice, while soothing, made her feel too uncomfortable to engage with him like that.
When they separated, she switched back to her true body. She made fists with her bleached hands and rubbed her rat ears through her curls. She was back to herself. Lí, for the time being, had relinquished his power over her.
Nikki stood her ground with the floating boy, who was neither friend nor foe because she didn’t know what on earth he was. He seemed more startled that she’d reverted back to her real self than she herself was. He floated a foot back.
“Who are you?” Nikki asked. “What’s going on?”
The boy gasped. “You speak the same language the humans do?” he asked. “Who are you?”
“I asked you first,” Nikki said. “I was just sleeping on my aunts’ roof when I woke up here. Where am I? This isn’t anywhere in Raeleen.”
The boy looked down several flights to the streets below. “Did you arrive with the osprey as well? Are you in the Drail Kingdom?”
“Stop asking questions about me. Where am I?”
When the boy didn’t say anything, Nikki said, “I’m making myself wake up.”
“Don’t!” He grabbed hold of her arm, actually afraid that she’d somehow leave her own brain. His grip was strong for his age. “Don’t leave. Please. I apologize. I haven’t conversed with someone in hundreds of years. I’m simply perplexed by this meeting and who…you are.”
Nikki braced for the worst.
Sensing her reaction, Shào loosened his grip but refused to let go. “What’s your name this time?”
“This time? Nikki,” she said. “Nicole Lenore.”
At that, Shào attempted a hurt smile, and those calm feelings Lí had once felt flowed through Nikki. “What a prepossessing name. Nicole Lenore…” He closed his eyes. “I didn’t think this was feasible, for you to return so early.”
“Return where?” She tempted another look over the railing into this strange city of Karita. The height and noise and lights made her legs gelatin again.
The boy laughed to himself. His voice cracked. “How do I explain—I’ve gone over this conversation a thousand times in my head, hoping to one day speak to someone.
“Firstly.” He bowed elegantly. “My name is Shào Kai, and it’s a pleasure to remeet you. I am what you might call a God, or a Deity, or a creator, depending on how your culture views creation. There’ve been many names for us, but I am a being with immense powers that’s been cursed over and over again by fate. I was trapped here in this purga…in this prison of consciousness centuries ago, meant to live out eternity in my own head. I thought I was surely dead and had gone crazy.”
He took in the scenery in a longing gaze. “I knew you in a past life, as a boy named LÍ Naranbaatar.”
“A past life?”
“A life you lived before this one. When a person dies, they are reborn into a new body. Sometimes you’ll be reborn instantaneously, other times it takes hundreds of years for the connection to be made, but your soul remains yours.”
Nikki tried pretending like any of that made sense. She kept her questions to herself, getting all the information she could before questioning his logic.
“And there’re some souls connected to us specifically,” Shào continued. “Us Deities. We call them our soulmates, as crude of a placeholder that may be.”
He touched Nikki’s cheek, and she didn’t—couldn’t—pull away.
“You were my soulmate,” he said fondly. “My courageous, helpful Lí Naranbaatar, and I have waited so many years to find you again.”
There was a connection, she felt, between them, like meeting an excited puppy for the first time and wanting to play with them.
But she didn’t know if he could snap and bite her, and she didn’t want to cross either of their boundaries to find out.
She stepped back from his touch.
Shào curled back his fingers, realizing he’d gone too far. “I apologize. Lí had warned me that I often went too far with him. I can’t seem to handle myself when I’m near you.
You mentioned a place called Raeleen. Is that what you call your homeland? Is that where the fledgling came from?” He smiled and crossed his legs in midair. “What is your world like?”
She thought about it for two seconds. “Bad,” she said. “Our leaders suck and our government’s corrupt. There’re guards everywhere watching us. There’s a lot of homeless kids who get ignored by the majority of the world, and the schools aren’t funded well.”
Despite calling out all of her world’s faults, Shào’s face brightened. “How incredible. Not for the tribulations you face, I don’t mean to make light of that. I just had no idea that my crossbreeds were still alive.”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m the Deity who governs crossbreeds. Are there any humans where you live? Do you know what that word means?”
“I don’t, but…Lí was one, yeah?” she guessed. “He didn’t have any animal features, and I think I tapped into a few of his…memories? Or thoughts?”
Shào covered his mouth in glee. “How wonderful. This’s all so incredible, Nicole. I thought I’d never be able to return to this odious world, but I can. I can come back.”
“What do you mean? How can I help?”
“Oh, Nicole.” He hugged her suddenly and tightly. “I so admire your selflessness. You’ve become such a charming young person this time around.”
“Thanks?” she said, but it didn’t feel right. If she were to believe anything he was saying, they’d technically just met.
He smiled a little smile again, one barely visible if she wasn’t standing centimeters away to see it. “I’ve only met you moments ago, Nicole, yet you’ve made me the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and I thank you for this.”
She wasn’t used to this. Being fawned over like she was someone to be admired. This boy didn’t know anything about her, yet he still acted like she was a good person. It felt dirty, thinking of herself so highly.
But she didn’t hate it. How this one boy made her feel so beloved. Her parents did their best and Derek and Kevin showed it at times, but Shào was something—someone—else to her.
She just hoped he wasn’t in “love” love with her, otherwise she’d be sick with disgust and fear of breaking his heart.
Nikki hid her hands in her pockets and stepped back. “No problem. So you know me, or you know someone who looks like me. This Lí person, yeah? Who was he?”
“Oh, he was wonderful, Nicole. He was such a kind boy. He helped so many people out of such a dangerous situation.”
“What happened to him?”
Shào’s animated face fell, reminded of something he’d wanted to forget.
He went to open his mouth when his pointed ears flicked. Alerted by something dangerous, he floated up and searched the city with a high-strung gaze.
His eyes went to slits. The shaved hair on the back of his head stood up. “She’s here,” he whispered.
He floated back to Nikki. There was a new grimness in his face. “Nicole, forget what I said. You need to wake yourself. You need to leave. She’s coming.”
“I—” He whipped his head around, digging his talon-like nails into Nikki’s shoulders.
Far out into the city, standing atop a skyscraper’s antenna, was a young girl. She had long, blond hair and a white dress that turned in the turbulent winds. She seemed to be staring right at them. Once their eyes locked, she jumped off the building and floated just as Shào did.
“Shào?” she called out. “Shào!?”
“Maïmoú,” Shào whispered, whispered as one said a curse before death.
Nikki felt the fear pouring out of Shào from a girl not much older than he was. He backed up, a hand pawing for Nikki, and once he found her, his grip could’ve snapped bone.
Time must’ve stopped with how long Shào stared at Nikki. They’d only just met, but his eyes screamed they’d never meet again, and that he’d do anything to keep that from happening.
He gritted his teeth. “I can’t teleport you from here. How weak I’ve become.”
“Shào, who’s that girl? Why’re you so afraid of her?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and disappeared only to reappear by the floating girl. Before a second passed between them and their reintroduction, he punched her hard enough for an explosion to detonate and destroy every nearby building.
Nikki shielded herself from the attack. Windows shattered and blew out like bullets. Gas tanks erupted and fires engulfed rooftops. Shào and Maïmoú were eaten by the explosion, but their attacks jumped from building to building, following them. Floors blew up, entire buildings cracked and shifted.
Maïmoú spun out in circles from the fiery smoke. She coughed out something black like tar and held her head until she got her senses back.
Then she noticed Nikki through the flames, and every drop of blood in Nikki’s body coagulated.
Nikki had never seen someone so angry at her before. Nikki, locked in a dream beyond her control, had just been given a death sentence by a Deity whose glare said she wanted her skinned alive.
Screaming threats in a language Nikki didn’t know, Maïmoú transported herself across the city and went to shatter Nikki’s skull with a single punch.
Shào teleported to her left and kicked her in the head with enough force to sever it from her neck. She flew a thousand feet back, her body clipping building corners.
Shào flinched and held his head in the same place he’d just kicked Maïmoú. His feet curled in pain.
“Shào?” Nikki called out. “Shào, are you alright?”
A second explosion sent a pile of shingles over Nikki. Through the flames, Maïmoú grabbed Shào by his collar and launched him across the city into a park. His impact left a sizable crater amongst many others.
The building Nikki was on shifted. Something during their fight had blunted the structure. She was tilting.
The sky went from clear to covered as Maïmoú, stained in black, clasped her hands around Nikki’s throat and squeezed. The air keeping Nikki alive snuffed out like a wet candle.
“Keep away from him!” she screamed in her face. “All you did in your past life was hurt my Shào, you don’t deserve him as I—!”
Nikki blinked awake. Gone were the fire and flames from the fight between gods. She was back atop Vanna’s home. The night was quiet.
She got up, processing what’d taken place in her dream, Shào’s words, Maïmoú’s wrath, before the coffee house exploded in smoke and knocked her straight off the roof.