Chapter 22: Kevin

Holding hands with a girl was one of the most pleasurable highlights of Kevin’s existence. Her hand was so small compared to his, and his warmth nestled nicely with the natural coolness of her webbed fingers.

The circumstances, however, along with the events of the week, soured these rare feelings in him.

It was still nice, walking with her. After running from the Guard and forgetting that he was now in the Asilo freely, Viper asked him if he wanted to see more of this place she and dozens if not hundreds of people called home.

He noticed it more clearly now. The Guard was avoiding them. They weren’t looking at him. They weren’t treating him like a prisoner with murderous intent, he was now a sort of…

Líder. Someone to be feared as well as respected.

He watched their bare feet cross the cement floors. Maïmoú had killed Mikhail without hesitation, all because he’d made Kevin trip. That kind of guilt would never wane no matter how many hands he held.

Viper, who’d yet to release his hand, tightened her fingers around him.

He started. They were in a dark hall that let his mind drift. “Yes?”

“Are you okay?”

He nodded and hoped she could read past the lie.

“Anything I can do to help?”

He shook his head, then realized he was being too quiet and said, “It’s okay. It’s just been…a lot, you know? From finding out this place exists to running away to, you know, being sent here in the first place. My mind hasn’t stopped spinning.”

She blew out her cheeks in thought. “Do you wanna go see the babies?”

“The babies?”

“We have special rooms for them. I like seeing them. They make my mind feel…less spinny.”

Kevin tightened his hold on her. “I’d like that.”

Viper started walking a little faster. “It’s easier to swim there, but I know the way like this.”

“How often do you stay out of the water?”

“A lot more than the others here.” She made her footsteps plop harder beside him as she took each step with care. “The Guard doesn’t usually allow us much freedom, but they take me on walks every day, both to keep my bones strong and to test to see how long I can stay out of the water. They get sort of boring when I’m with a guard, but I like walking with you. I get to be freer, I guess.”

“I’ll gladly be your ticket to freedom.”

Viper smiled to the floor, allowing Kevin room to blush and kick himself for delivering such a cheesy line. He hadn’t learned anything from Derek, the suave romantic in the family. How did one do this so nonchalantly without making a fool of oneself?

“Have you ever tried to swim?” Viper then asked. 

“A few times. Can’t say I’m any good at it. My wings are water-resistant, but the extra featherweight makes it hard to stay afloat.”

“I can’t believe that. Not that I don’t believe you. It’s just that everyone I know who lives down here can safely stay underwater for hours, so it’s a shock to know someone who doesn’t swim.”

“How is that possible?”

She opened an unlocked door. “It’s just how we live.”

A rush of cold air blew out through the door crevasse. Kevin closed his eyes as the sudden temperature change, but when he opened them back up, he nearly let go of Viper’s hand.

The walls of this room, this tall, oversized room, were tanks. On his left and right, from floor to ceiling, were unending walls of water filled to the top and extending deep into the room. Lights from the ceiling lit up the water in fantastic shades of blues and greens. Water grasses grew at the bottoms. Rooms for individual people were constructed inside the tanks.

Dozens of people swam about freely. They stayed buoyant in the center, they skirted on the bottom, which was made of this coarse material like pavement. Their makeshift rooms built against the glass allowed some of the people to sleep atop what could be described as the ceiling, perfectly curled up with their tails.

Their tails, markings, and added fins on their backs and legs, were some of the most striking addendums Kevin had ever seen on a person. Every color from jet black to shimmering gold was painted on their bodies. Green freckles, the blackest of eyes, red stripes going down their cheeks all the way across the soles of their feet. Their tails were either the tiniest little propellers to these massive, almost sheet-like designs that made them look like they were wrapped in a silk blanket.

He tried not to stare, but how could he not? These people looked and felt like famous celebrities, so beautiful and daring to be breathing underwater, when this was just a part of their lives he’d walked into. “Above,” he swore.

“Are you okay?”

He laughed in disbelief. “This’s incredible. I’ve never seen…anything like this before. Is this where you live?”

“Not in this pod. This’s W5, where half of the brackish waterborne live. Me, Tokala, and Alexi live in W4, the other half.”

“So there’re floors just for…brackish waterborne.” He said it slowly so he didn’t mess up her description. “How many floors are there?”

“Five. There’re no lakes or rivers big enough for us. They say that we’re…special.” She frowned at this, unsure of feeling wanted.

Kevin didn’t know how. The more time he spent with her, the more he was fascinated by her. Her mannerisms and knowledge and calmness and, well, face. And body. And her past and how she’d lived in this world her whole life. She could live in normal water and salt-and-pepper water? How could she breathe in water and air? If he were her, he’d think of himself quite highly, if his brain could think that way about himself in any regard.

“I think it’s incredibly special, how you’re able to do all this,” he summarized. “I never knew.”

Viper led him down the hall between both tanks. As they walked, some of the waterborne noticed them and followed. Then some became most. Fast swimmers swam around the community and brought back others to gawk at them. They spoke about him openly, pointing.

Kevin blushed and kept his head down. He felt like he’d earned a celebrity title for the wrong reasons.

One of the waterborne swam up so fast, she bonked her forehead into the glass. Scrunching up her face, she then swam up to the surface and opened a latched door similar to the one at Morgan’s. She was Tokala, the girl Kevin had seen floating with Viper the first time he’d met her.

“Viper!” Tokala took a ladder down the glass. “Viper, where are you? I am so peeved at you right now!”

At the sound of shouting, Viper tensed up, but she calmed down once she realized it was her friend. “Kala, be careful.”

She wasn’t. The last two rungs of the ladder she missed and slipped in the puddle she was creating. She shook out her white hair. “What in the Asilo happened to you? I just heard from Pippa—she told me all about it. How you ran off with that bird boy and disappeared down the East Wing. And while I’m fretting about you getting lost, I hear from Samuel just now that you’re walking hand in hand with him down the corridors like it’s no big deal! You’re becoming dangerously defiant these past twenty-four hours.”

“I didn’t mean to frighten you. I’ve been learning a lot from Kevin here. It’s been…fun, getting to know him, and having him learn about us.”

Kevin’s face reheated from a new type of pride. He stood up a little taller, both from feeling wanted by her and to show Tokala that he was still there. She wasn’t looking at him, and by the look in her eyes, Kevin didn’t know if she could. They were cloudy and pink like a morning sunrise.

“I don’t care!” Tokala said. “I don’t want you running off. That’s not like you at all.”

“Well, you just left the tanks,” Viper noted. “That’s not allowed,” she explained to Kevin.

“Oh, please. You’ve heard it from Pippa this morning. None of the Level 1 restrictions apply to us right now. See?” She motioned to empty space, vaguely gesturing to what might’ve been the guards watching them. “They were told to let us do whatever we please, but that doesn’t mean to go off smooching the boy you think is—”

Viper let go of Kevin’s hand to cover Tokala’s mouth. Whatever adjective Tokala was going to say got muffled between Viper’s webbing.

Tokala shook her off and started looking around. “Where is he? I’d like to talk to him and make sure he’s—” She yelped, noticing Kevin had been so close this whole time. “Fuck me, you’re startling. That’s not a good thing to find pretty in a person, Viper.”

“Sorry to startle you,” Kevin said. “Can you…see me?”

“I can only see a few feet in front of me before it turns foggy.”

“I’ll be sure to make my presence more known to you, then. I’m Kevin, by the way. I don’t think we’ve formally met.”

Tokala puffed out her cheeks the way Viper did, but different. Less cute. “Tokala,” she said, and walked up closer to see Kevin’s wings. “They are cool,” she muttered, inspecting him as one did a leak under a sink. “Everyone was right about that, at least.”

“You don’t hold back on what you think, do you?” Kevin asked boldly.

“Never a day in my life,” she said, the words rolling off of her sharp tongue. “And especially not when it comes to my friends. So, where’re we going?”

“The babies,” Viper said, and quickened her pace towards a door in the corner of the room. Above the door read the label TODDLER STUDY.

It was a small, sterile room with an inground pool in the center that travelled down and branched out like an anthill. Around the walls were those strange heater tanks and wetsuits, along with cabinets filled with either medical or cleaning supplies.

They walked up to the edge of the pool. Kevin peered down at his reflection. “Where does this lead?”

“Shh!” Tokala shook him and brought him back, but it was too late, apparently.

The bubbles came first. Excited bursts that rippled the water and masked what was breaching.

Two heads popped out. Gummy smiles and dangerous eyes, and chubby arms that  splashed out half the water onto the floor. The two kids looked like the same breed and age and were so delighted to see Kevin that they nipped at his fingers once they got him. All little kids did this, regardless of breed. It was their nature to bite. Even Kevin remembered being nippy up until age six.

These kids’ teeth were sharper than most, and Kevin had to keep from yelping so he didn’t startle the girls.

“They’re still teething,” Viper explained. “Their teeth are sharper than most dogs.”

“And they can’t control themselves, can they?” Tokala cradled the tiniest one. “Can you, you little snaggletooth?”

Kevin watched the other baby swim effortlessly in the water. It kicked its feet and used its arms better than Kevin would’ve ever done at that age. Seeing them dunk their heads underwater also frightened him. They lived their whole lives underwater, yet it felt unnatural to see a baby swim unsupervised. It got his heart racing.

Viper squatted down beside the pool and let her legs swing over the edge. Tokala did the same. Kevin, not wanting to feel left out, tucked his skirt around his hips so it didn’t get wet and dunked his legs in. The water was surprisingly warm. He didn’t think it was from the little ones.

Viper dipped her fingers in the warm water and made gentle circles. The motion brought out a third child hiding deep beneath the ripples, curious of the noise they must’ve heard. Wagging their tail, they then shot up from the water and jumped into Viper’s arms.

Kevin recognized the baby. It was the one Marcos had been playing with just before Mikhail had died.

“This’s Alexi,” Viper said, trying to hold the struggling worm. “She’s one of the most social babies born to us this generation. She’s a shark—” She laughed suddenly, as Alexi had found her cheeks and began pulling on them.

Kevin’s heart lodged into his throat. He’d never heard a laugh so light, like it could trounce all darkness in a room. And holding a baby while she did it, it was a double gut punch.

He took in the baby’s fins and tail and quickly contrasted it with Viper’s and Tokala’s. They all looked different, but he didn’t know the differences between their breeds yet, how they worked.

Licking his lips, Kevin asked the question in his head before speaking it aloud. “You’re really taken by her. Is she…yours?”

Viper’s smile fell.

And he hated himself for that. He’d gone too far, crossed a barrier he wasn’t meant to cross. That was too personal, what was he thinking? That wasn’t his business. He guessed he’d been around Maïmoú for too long and expected people to tell him everything about their personal lives. And they looked too different, of course she wasn’t hers.

Viper rubbed Alexi’s back beneath her back fin. “No, she’s not mine.”

Tokala nudged up closer to her friend and put a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry,” Kevin said, unsure what he was apologizing for but knowing he had to say it. “I shouldn’t have asked.”

“It’s okay,” Viper said, but her voice said otherwise.

“You don’t know,” Tokala said.

“And I don’t need to. Forget I asked.”

“You…can,” Viper said. “You can know. Down here, our populations are scarily low. Some of us are the last of our kinds. The Líders have done their best to keep us alive, but we’re very weak. Our bones are brittle and our skin and lungs are fragile to the open air.”

At that, Tokala stepped into the pool with the babies.

“Because of that,” Viper said, “we…sometimes…are asked to help keep our number up.”

‘Asked?’” Tokala repeated, and Viper hid her head in her shoulders, ashamed.

Kevin’s wings went limp. “I’m so sorry,” he said.

But Viper wanted to keep going, and Kevin gave her the space to do so. “I’ve tried with a few boys like me, but it doesn’t work. They did tests and surgeries on me, but nothing helps. They say I’m infertile.”

Tokala swam up to Viper and hugged her leg from the water, showing her support that no one else in the room could give.

“I’ve always wanted to have a baby,” Viper said. “I don’t know if it’s because I’ve been told since birth that I need to keep my population alive, but whenever I see babies like this…” She cuddled Alexi. “I want one for myself, but with my progress so far, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to have one.”

“You’re not obligated,” Tokala told her. “I always tell her this, but it doesn’t get through. It’s not right. You’ll never be obligated to have children. I never did,” she told Kevin. “I’ve told them that I have no interest in being with men and threaten to bite off their willies if they get close to me, and they listen.”

Kevin knew she was trying to make a joke and laughed too hard. “Really?”

“I will never let a man get close to me. Never ever. I’ll snap his jaw.”

“Woah.” He pretended to back up, feeling threatened. “I’ll keep that in mind, too.”

Viper forced a smile on her face, but she couldn’t keep it on for long. “She’s more…headstrong than I am.”

Kevin wanted to give her a hug as Tokala had done, cuddle up with her as Alexi could do, but all he could do was look at her and hope she could see his empathy.

His family, as well as most of the families in Raeleen, were keen on adoptions. There were homelessness problems with youth, and some couples were either same-sex or different breeds, and that ache for childbearing had to be converged to adoptions. He wanted to tell her that it was common, but this world…

It was different. They had different mindsets, and some people had wants and desires, and sometimes, that meant giving life to a child by their own bodies.

Kevin’s tongue swirled in his mouth. He had to say something, but what could someone like him say? This wasn’t his world. He didn’t have her concerns.

But he wanted them to be his, because he wanted to show that he cared. He’d just met her, but he felt a deep-rooted connection to her.

Instincts took hold, and he held her free hand. “I’m really sorry. I’m not sure what I can say that’ll help, and I don’t want to say anything that’ll hurt you, but I can’t even imagine how hard this must be, and I’m sorry you’re going through it.”

Viper nodded and moved in closer to him. “Thank you. I know it’s selfish—”

“No, it’s not!” said Kevin and Tokala at the same time.

“It’s definitely not, not at all,” Kevin continued. “You want kids. You should be able to have them. Two kids, even, three. Six.”

“Six? I don’t know if I can handle six.”

“Maybe you can. My parents had three. I have a twin named Derek and a sister who was adopted into my family. Her name’s Nikki. They had us two and still decided to have a third. She’s a rat.”

“Wait, so did your parents just nab her off the streets?” Tokala asked. “What did her parents think about that?”

“She didn’t have any. She was what we called homeless, someone who doesn’t have a home, who lives abandoned. My parents decided they didn’t want any more biological children, but they still had that parental ache, so they decided to take her in.”

“So she’s just like me.” Tokala’s sharp tail began to wag. “Is she pretty?”

“She is, and I have a twin, but he went missing…kind of. It’s a long story I’m still having trouble talking about.”

“Remember what I said. Only girls, thank you very much.”

He laughed again. Should he have hinted at the fact that he was technically a dad to a teenage Deity? That would’ve been disastrous.

Viper held his hand tighter. “Thank you for listening to me ramble.”

“It’s not ramble. You don’t deserve that kind of grief. I really hope you get to have a child. I hope you can be a mom. You’ll be great at it.”

And Viper’s smile returned, and she kicked her little feet in the water at the thought of achieving her dreams.

And Kevin would’ve done anything to help her achieve them.

The door behind them opened. The little children, surprised by everything, looked up to the newcomer.

Once the door closed, all the children but Alexi dove back into the water and disappeared down hidden paths.

Marcos’ hair was more unkempt than usual. Tiny wisps were falling into his face, and his collar buttons were undone. If he could breathe, he probably would’ve been panting.

Viper squeezed Kevin’s hand harder, and Tokala actually snarled, bubbling her rage beneath the water. Alexi was the only one excited to see him. She giggled and reached out for a new embrace.

Marcos took a step forward, then looked down at Kevin and Viper being so close. He stepped back. “What’re you doing?”

Kevin tried reading the room as quickly as possible. He knew not a lot of people liked Marcos, but he didn’t know how the waterborne thought of him. “We’re just hanging out.”

He looked around like he was waiting to see something or someone. “Where is she?”

Kevin’s heart thudded. It was like his brain had been trying to make him forget his reality.

He thought he’d seen wrong, back when he’d first met Viper and Tokala in the tank, but Maïmoú had told him otherwise. When Mikhail had died by Maïmoú’s hand, while Nadia and the guards had been searching for the murderer, Marcos and Zantl, they’d been staring directly at Maïmoú, following her movements as if they could see her.

He thought he’d be free from soulmates and Deities for an afternoon, but that wouldn’t be the case, it seemed. For the rest of his life, he’d be tethered to her and the life in which she’d sewn him.

Marcos could see Deities.

Marcos knew about Maïmoú.

Marcos, like Kevin, was a soulmate.

Kevin sat up with his wings. “Mar—”

Marcos’ wrist blade shot out, and he defended himself with it just like he’d done weeks ago when they’d first been introduced.

As if Kevin was someone to be feared.

Alexi wiggled out of Viper’s arms and dove into the water to get closer to Marcos.

Marcos kept rigid as he knelt down and scooped Alexi up. He cradled her tightly against his chest and neck as he slowly lowered his knife at Kevin’s head.

“I’m…unable to tell you what you need to do or where you should go,” Marcos said. “My programming has been updated that bars me from doing so. But I strongly suggest that you all leave and go back to your pods, and your room. We are in a state of mourning and it’s not wise to be roaming unsupervised.”

Kevin kept staring at the tip of Marcos’ blade. What could he have possibly done to agitate him like this? He hadn’t done anything to justify these actions. It was all Maïmoú’s doing.

Kevin got up properly, taking Viper with him. “Marcos, I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I wasn’t in control of what happened to Mikhail.”

“I…know,” he said. “Zantl told me everything.”

“Zantl?” They were part of this strange connection with the Deities, but Maïmoú had only mentioned it once. “How much do they know?”

The harrowing look in Marcos’ eyes made them appear alive, emotional. “Forget it. I don’t want you conjuring her up again due to whatever anger you might be feeling.”

“I’m not angry—”

“So I strongly suggest that you return to your room. Please,” he begged, more sincerely this time. “I don’t want any harm coming to anyone else.” He looked at Alexi as he said this. “Please.”

Kevin felt like he’d just been accosted for another crime he hadn’t committed. His defense was already forming about how he couldn’t control Maïmoú or how none of this was his fault. He hadn’t hurt any guards, blasted any walls down, and he hadn’t been the one to hurt Mikhail, and he hadn’t pushed Derek off the Muralha.

He wanted to ask Marcos how he was connected to the Deities like Zantl and if he, too, had a Deity who spoke to him via dreams. He could’ve warned him ahead of time about the dangers a Deity placed you in.

But Viper was trembling, and Marcos was scared, and Kevin didn’t want to be the conductor of such negativity between them. He left the room without another word.

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