Fuck snow. The flakes could turn to burning ash on his numb face for all he cared. Invisible pins and needles dug underneath his fingernails, but he couldn’t rub them warm because his fingers would snap in half. He’d already lost sensation from the neverending, two-degree winds, so who cared if he broke bones? At least he’d be warmer.
He’d struggled out of Oliver’s arms. While he was grateful for being saved from the sadistic torture that humankind relished in, he couldn’t be near anyone right now. Shoving out of his arms, Derek took to the gray skies and flew into oblivion.
He soared upwards as fast as he could. He had no destination in mind. He had no plan. The air up here hurt and burned every feather that he could still feel, but he kept going. Faster. Faster. The streaks of tears turned to fire down his cheeks.
He saw Keva, the woman who’d been hung for his crime of being alive. He saw that girl from his visions, whoever she’d been. No, she’d had a name. Hadiya, a girl guilty, too, of being alive.
His heart panged, and he hoped it’d be enough to kill him. Everything had happened so quickly, he couldn’t make sense of any of it. Maybe flying into oblivion would help. It felt safe, in nothingness. Maybe he’d call the Moon his home.
He slammed into a warm, heart-beating chest and two arms that wrapped around him. So strong yet so careful not to crush him, he could fall asleep in this embrace, if he wasn’t seconds away from shattering.
“Please,” Oliver begged, squeezing him tight. “It’s okay.”
“Let me go,” Derek argued.
“Fifty feet more and you would’ve hit the Barrier. I don’t want you getting hurt.”
Who cared if he got hurt? Physical hurt would’ve been a blessing.
Fighting safety, Derek was brought back to earth against his will, and the two of them fell into forest depths below.
Winter in a forest was another plane of existence. It smelled different, clean and crisp and colder than in the village, somehow. It sounded like it was raining, when really it was the weighed-down trees shifting the icy snow atop their branches. The dirty snow wet his pant legs and boots and stung to touch. He gathered handfuls of it and crushed the ice in his gloved hands.
Derek shoved his face against Oliver’s chest. Before he knew it, he was hyperventilating, crying. He was in hysterics and knew he was being too dramatic, which only made him cry more. He gritted his teeth until his jaw hurt. He tensed up until his feathers flared.
Oliver sat up with Derek in his arms. “Derek, I’m so sorry.” His voice wavered with honesty. “I should’ve taken you away sooner. I should’ve intervened. I’m sorry you had to witness that. I’m so sorry.”
He didn’t listen to the rest. Curling up into a ball, Derek sobbed into a man he hardly knew, letting out his anguish the only way he knew how.
Oliver pet the top of Derek’s head. He whispered soft nothings into his ear, telling him it’d be alright and that everything was fine, but it wasn’t and wouldn’t be. A woman and child were dead because of him.
Oliver sniffled and wiped his face with the cuff of his sleeve. “I’m here for you. Everything‘s going to be—”
“Stop it.” He sat up, looked him dead in the eyes. “Stop saying everything‘s going to be okay and that I’m okay. I’m not. I can’t stop shaking and crying. I’m allowed to be upset right now.”
Oliver let go of him. “I didn’t mean to—”
“I know, but you need to let me fucking cry right now. Like, why do you think you know how I feel? Because we’re mates? Because you’re mated with me? The fuck does that have to do with anything? I barely even know you!”
Oliver’s breath came out in slow, shallow puffs of white smoke. His fingers curled within the snowy grass as he looked off to the side.
Derek’s lungs hurt from shouting through the icy cold. He coughed to get it out, but it still clung to him like the icicles dangling above them.
The first sniffle from Oliver hurt the most. It was one thing to argue while you were crying, but the moment your words pierced the person, you were no longer the only victim.
And seeing Oliver cry made him feel even shittier about himself.
“Shit.” Derek touched his retracting arms. “Oliver, I’m sorry.”
A simple sorry wasn’t enough to stop Oliver from tearing up. He hid it with a hand over his eyes, but Derek saw it, felt it—the shame and regret, building.
“I-I didn’t mean to…to minimize your feelings,” he pushed out. “You’re allowed to cry. I just don’t know…how to make you feel better right now, and it’s tearing me up inside to see you like this.”
The way that a demon’s brain worked was completely different from his. While Derek’s brain and emotions were his, Oliver’s was wired with Derek‘s. If he had a good sense of how demonkind and mating worked, then whatever Derek was feeling, Oliver must’ve been feeling it, too.
Derek gave him a supportive hug, wrapping his wings around him to keep the snow away. “I’m sorry. I know you’re only trying to help. I shouldn’t have yelled.”
Oliver gingerly wrapped his arms around Derek’s waist.
“I’m just scared. Something’s happening to me and my head. I think I’m speaking with our God, or an angel.” He did what felt right and kissed the top of his head, right between his horns. His lips got lost in the thicket of black curls. “I’m sorry.”
Oliver massaged his lower back. “It’s okay. I’m sorry for…everything. I know I don’t know everything about you. I know I don’t say the right things in the right moment, but I’m trying.”
“I know. Thanks for saving me, by the way. I feel like that’ll come to bite us in the ass soon.”
“Maybe, but I couldn’t stand by when I felt your heart racing so hard back there. I needed to save you.”
“Consider me safe now.” He peeled himself away. “What’re we going to do now?”
Oliver cleared his face with his sleeve. Derek helped to push back the wet curls around his eyes. “My home is a few more miles east of here. I can take you there for the time being, if you’d like.”
A chilling wind crossed through the forest, sending a shiver down Derek’s back. If he went with him, everything would change, and his bond with the humans would have an everlasting tear in it.
As if they hadn’t torn his heart and mind to shreds already.
“I’d like that a lot, actually.” He got up and helped Oliver up next. As he dusted off his ass of snow, he realized just where they’d landed.
It was a gravesite. Fifty or so tombstones jutted out from the snow, encaged by an iron gate. Most of them were leaning over and were discolored by dead moss.
“It’s a graveyard for demonkind,” Oliver explained. “I’m sorry. I didn’t want to land here, but it’s hard to not bump into one around these parts.”
Derek turned, and through birch branches and evergreens, he saw more ghostly outlines of gravesites. A hundred tombs over here, another dozen there. They were walking in fields of death.
“Come. I’ll take you to our manor,” Oliver said, and Derek fell back into his arms.
Their “manor,” in all honesty, looked more like an abandoned, haunted castle. When they teleported back to solid ground, they were looking up at an iron-clad gate and a dilapidated, three-story farmhouse. It had termite-ridden doors, tilting pillars supporting the porch, and chimneys that were missing brick. Derek could smell the mildew from the lawn.
A steaming pond encircled the home as a type of shallow moat. Lily pads floated atop the frothy water. Chickens cheeped near the edge despite the snow coating the ground, and he swore he heard a neigh from the backyard.
“I know it’s nothing compared to the Drailian Castle,” Oliver said, “but this’s all we have left.”
“Did you used to have other houses?”
“Yes, but they’ve either been burned down or ransacked by the humans. This’s one of the last homes we have left.”
Without any bridges, Oliver held Derek and levitated him over the water. “The humans think a sea serpent lives in these waters. It keeps most of them from antagonizing us.”
Yet as they dropped down to the patio, something bubbled and emerged from the misty waters.
Wading in the pond swam a boy with a slithery snake by his side. He must’ve been a demon, with his dark grey skin and nubby horns. Both he and the snake fixated their red, half-submerged eyes on Derek as he passed. It sounded like the boy said something in mild surprise, but the water bubbled his words.
“This’s Maxwell,” Oliver told Derek. “He’s…like our own sea serpent.”
Maxwell shot an annoyed glare at Oliver as he perched atop a stone protruding from his pond. Derek noticed that he had slits around his neck that he kept hidden with a scarf. They moved with his breathing, opening and closing for air. “Did you actually steal him away from the humans? You know I was kidding about that idea.”
“I didn’t. The king just executed a woman in Devnya Town.”
Maxwell, who seemed disinterested in Derek’s overall situation, suddenly became as tense as his little rock. His red eyes went wide, and his hair turned white. Like literally, starting from the roots and working down, his dark, wavy hair turned as white as snow. “What? I-I knew he was nervous, but—What happened? Is—”
“He’s okay,” Oliver said. “Relax. Nothing happened to him or Cellena.”
“Oh.” Maxwell’s hair returned to its naturally dark tone. He got comfortable back on his smooth stone, his snake slithering up beside him. “Good.”
Nothing was “good” about it, but Derek figured that’s how demonkind acted, when it regarded their mates.
He could totally see how he and Jabel were a thing. It just worked out.
Derek left him and his snake be and hopped up the creaky steps.
The manor opened up to a wide living room and a crackling fireplace. Similarly with the castle library, this place had been carved out of wood instead of stone. Wooden tables and walls, candelabras heating up nearby bookcases. The cedar floorboards creaked when Derek closed the door.
Nearest the fire sat three demons, all his age. The girl looked like Oliver’s breed, with white skin and short, black hair. She was freckled with a million dark spots and wore a skirt that looked handmade by a child. The two others had dark skin with bright red hair, and one had wings. Giant wings just like him, but unfeathered. His were fleshy and scaled with thick, long points spreading out at the joints: a bat.
“I’m home,” Oliver announced.
The floating girl turned in surprise. “Oh, my golly! You’re actually here. Shimah, Kumo, make way!”
The winged boy hooted with approval and became airborne. He climbed to the ceiling and hung backwards from the rafters by way of his thick, strong tail. “Lookit that. Never woulda thought he’d actually come ’ere. Kumo, that’s the angel, or whatever he is nowadays.”
The other redhead looked over in wonderment. She was sitting in a chair built with two big wheels for mobility. She wheeled it around to better see him. “How wondrous.”
“What happened?” the freckled girl asked.
“An incident happened in town. Derek’s come to warm up.” Oliver led him to the fireplace. “Derek, this’s Rosaline, and the one up there is Shimah, and this’s his sister, Kumo.”
One by one, each of them waved.
“A pleasure.” Rosaline floated above Derek and kissed each of his cheeks. “It’s so nice to see you. Are you okay? Do you need anything?”
Oliver nervously rubbed down his hands. “I’ll, uh, make some tea.”
“Your shiverin’,” Shimah noted. “Kumo, hand me your blanket. Wait, can I use my fire? Are we using our powers near him now?”
“That wasn’t a problem in the first place,” Rosaline said. “That’s for humans.”
“Right, right.” Shimah flew back down, and from his hands, he produced a ball of flames. Derek flinched at the instant creation of light, but Shimah lowered it into the fire and threw it in. “That fire will keep you warm. It’ll burn for hours without going out. Perks of being us. Man, you’re really shiverin’. Are you good?”
“Shimah, give him space. Goodness.” Rosaline helped Derek over to the fireplace. Her feet never touched the ground. “Are you alright, lad?”
“Peachy.” He stripped himself of his jacket and gloves and rubbed his raw hands over the flames. He still couldn’t feel them. He couldn’t feel anything but anxiety and uncomfortable itchiness.
Rosaline took his boots and jacket and hung them up by the front door.
“Looks like you’ve seen a ghost,” Shimah said. He hopped from rafter to rafter. “Wait, can you see ghosts? Are ghosts even real, because I know I’ve seen one ’fore, and I know Maxwell reads books with ghost lovers in ‘em.”
“Shimah, hush,” Rosaline said. “Go get Yomi and Brennen already.”
“Aye,” he said in an eye roll, and flew up a tight stairwell to the second floor.
Derek turned away from all of them. Their energy was nothing like humankind. This place smelled of nature and herbs and their powers were otherworldly. Not that he hated any of that. He just needed time to decompress.
“I’m so sorry about him,” Rosaline said, who’d started cleaning up the living room. It wasn’t messy, she was just sprucing up, fixing the rug corners and angling the books on the bookshelf just right. “He gets excited very easily around people.”
“And we don’t normally have guests,” Kumo said. “Sometimes he goes into town just to get a rise out of the humans. One time, we caught him sleeping in a barn with cows. Nearly scared the old woman to death.”
Derek guessed as much, that they didn’t have guests, but the words didn’t come to him. Rosaline noticed that and draped a quilt around his shoulders.
Down the stairs came two new demons and a baby. They looked the most human if you excluded the horns curving around their ears. They sat next to Derek like sophisticated angels, graceful.
“Hello,” the woman said. Her words oozed through his ears like honey. “My name is Yomi. It’s nice to finally meet you. This’s my mate, Brennen, and our child, Noemi.”
“They’re our doctors!” Shimah flew back and lounged across the rafters once more. “Helped me more than once from accidentally burning myself.”
The man gave a low bow with the baby tucked against his chest. Derek didn’t know where to look. He had deep scars across his face that made his skin gravel-like and his nose permanently fixed to one angle. It looked like someone had gone at him with a sword and won.
Derek gave them a short bow in return.
Yomi sat down on one of the floor pillows, fanning out her long skirt like a queen. “It seems like you’ve been outside for a long time.”
Derek brought in his shivering wings.
“I’d like to make sure you’re alright and that you don’t have any frostbite. Is that alright with you?”
Without speaking, Derek showed the woman his hurting fingers. She exhaled slowly as she studied his pores.
“May I?” Brennen examined them next, then pulled out a corked vial from his pockets. Baby Noemi tried reaching for them, to which he skillfully evaded.
“We both specialize in healing the body and mind,” Yomi explained.
Brennen brought the cork to his mouth and opened wide. His canine teeth were twice as long as his other teeth were and dyed black at the tips. They sunk into the cork with little effort. Droplets of black began dripping into the glass like sludge.
“We ran out of elixir,” Yomi told her friends, “but it’ll be fresher this way, more potent. Kumo, do you need any more tonight?”
“I’m okay,” the girl in the wheelchair said, and flexed her arm muscles. She was skin and bones. “I get stronger every day.”
Yomi smiled at the obvious lie and turned back to Derek. “Our breed possesses the ability to heal. Females are able to heal the body while males are able to heal the mind and spirit using venom. We can’t work miracles.”
“Obviously,” the man said around the cork, and motioned to his fucked-up face.
“But it can provide aid.”
“Shoulda seen ’em when he first took a blade to the face,” Shimah said. “What was it, two centuries ago? Knights got him in a corner. Broke his leg to carve him out.”
“Shimah, hush,” Rosaline said.
“But it was so long ago!”
“Still, Shimah, be kind! Read the room.”
“You know I can’t!”
Brennen chuckled to himself and extracted his sharp tooth from the vial’s cork. He handed it to Yomi to give her own venom to the mix. “Despite how it looks, it’s actually very sanitary. It also tastes like metal, but it’s warm going down.”
“Like vodka,” Derek murmured.
“Easier to take than that,” Brennen said.
They were right. As Derek drank the venom, it warmed his throat and melted into his body like warm candy.
“What did they do to ya?” Shimah asked. “Did you run away from ’em?”
“He couldn’t have,” Kumo said, rolling her chair over. “There’s no way.”
“We shouldn’t be asking him so many questions,” said Rosaline. “He seems beat. You sure you’re good, Derek?”
“I-I’m fine,” he said. “Really, I just need a minute.”
“I’m sorry, lad. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. We all know the humans’ wrath one way or another. We can only imagine what happened to make you run out into the cold like this.”
Derek rubbed his neck. Even with the fireplace’s warmth, it hurt to breathe again. He couldn’t swallow because everything inside him had been burned from the cold. He couldn’t heal. He couldn’t fix himself.
Every single demon was looking down at him, judging him like some pet in a cage, waiting to see what stupid move he’d make next.
Oliver walked into the room with two cups of tea. He was so tall, blocking the only exit he saw.
He got up. “I-I need to go,” he said, and shrugged off everyone’s care for him. “I need to—I-I need to leave.” He escaped for the staircase and crawled up the steps.
“Derek, where’re you going?”
He flew up the second flight and turned the corner.
Holly was crouched at the top of the staircase, listening in on their conversation while playing with her dolly.
“Fuck.” Derek spun around her and continued running. He didn’t want her to think he was upset with her. He wasn’t upset with anybody here. How long until that venom worked?
He ran into the first bedroom he found and fell into a king-sized bed. Blankets made from what smelled like animal fur soaked up his cold and replaced it with heat.
The house went still. He only heard the wind outside and embers crackling in the corner fireplace. That was all he needed. That, and concentration. Cellena had called these moods panic attacks, which wasn’t fair. How come he had to be inconvenienced by simple feelings that didn’t affect anybody else? Why did his God make him different? What a sadist.
The blankets made of animal covered his new bout of tears. In what vague memories he had, he never cried. He had to be stronger than that, cooler, yet there he lay, sobbing about something that wasn’t his fault in a bed that didn’t belong to him owned by a family his previous caretakers hated.
Keva had been right. He was a fraud.
He passed out. Maybe for an hour, maybe ten. When he shifted back to the real world, it was dark outside, and he was shivering.
A dark figure was adding logs to the fireplace. Sparks spit up and disappeared into smoke.
The logs shifted. “I’m sorry,” Oliver said. “Did I wake you?”
“I’m sorry. I was worried you might’ve been cold with your wings.”
“They don’t normally get too cold,” he said, but didn’t disclose the fact that his toes were ice cubes. He burritoed them underneath the fur.
“Oh. Good. I’ll…see myself out now.”
Derek watched him cross the bedroom. “Wait.”
And he did, just like the humans, the royals, waiting on his every beck and call.
“I’m sorry for bailing on your family tonight,” Derek said. “I hope they don’t hate me.”
“Oh, no, no. They understand. They were just really excited to see you. I’ve been… speaking very highly of you.”
Derek looked for a grandfather clock. “What time is it?”
“About two. I’ll head out. Again, I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
Derek took a better look around the room. The bed was wide and made of oak. A writing desk held a stack of parchment and a feathered quill soaking up ink. In the closet were dark sweaters and vests that looked handmade, and above the fireplace were paintings of demon folk Derek didn’t recognize. Past friends, he guessed, or family.
“This’s your room,” he said, “isn’t it?”
Oliver paused at the door. “It’s okay. I’m taking up one of the couches downstairs. Maxwell’s nocturnal, so he’s been keeping me company.”
“Sorry.” He slumped back into his warm spot. “Sorry I’ve fucked up your schedule and bashed my way through your home.”
“And I’m sorry you fell in love with me. Sorry you got stuck with me.”
Oliver came up closer to Derek and the fire.
“You don’t have control of it, right? You could’ve ended up falling in love with a normal demon girl and not having to worry about someone like me.”
Oliver sat on the edge of his bed. “I’m not sure I’ve properly explained the process of how mating works. I didn’t just fall in love with you and worked my personality around you. All my life, ever since I gained consciousness in this world, I’ve been waiting for someone to complete me. I’ve been waiting for a patient, friendly, and loving person to show me the kinder side to this awful world. You’ve seen me—I’m a wreck of nerves, always thinking the worst and stuttering over myself. Since I got here, I’ve wanted to find someone like you. You were the only person I’d ever fall for.”
Derek hid half of his face in his blankets. This was sounding too heavy to hear after the day he had. “What if you never found me?”
“Sometimes it takes decades for us to find our mate. Back in the day, we used to hold festivals for neighboring villages to come and mingle with ours. Out of hundreds, two or three might find their mated pair. It’s how Brennen and Yomi met. It was a beautiful ceremony.”
“Well, what if your brain is wrong?” he scrounged up. “What if it’s someone who looks like me, or acts like me? What if…”
Oliver leaned over him. His hand traced Derek’s jawline until he found his cheek.
Derek melted into his palm. He smelled so good, his hand was so big.
“It’s not wrong,” he promised. “You’ll all I’ll ever love. I promise you that. Are your feelings for me wavering?”
Derek licked his lips. If Oliver could read his thoughts, he would’ve gotten his answer weeks ago. “They’ve…doubled.”
Oliver sighed in relief. “That’s good. There was a strong possibility you wouldn’t be interested in me or men. It was nice, then, to hear that you had some sort of feelings for me, or wanted to, uhm, be with me.”
“I just thought you were really hot and shot my shot. I didn’t think it’d turn out like this.”
“I’m glad it did. To think it might’ve not worked out would’ve been devastating. And you’re…” He laughed to himself.
Derek gained back the slightest bit of confidence against him. That hand on his cheek, it almost felt like dominance. “You’re gonna have to stop acting like this, otherwise I won’t be able to control myself. What’s embarrassing now?”
He covered his face with both hands and leaned forwards. “That you’re a really kind and handsome…person…so I’m glad that whatever happens next, I’m glad I got to meet you.”
Derek didn’t know if Oliver’s eyesight was as strong as his. He’d learned that the humans could hardly see in the dark, meanwhile, he could see Oliver’s face and blush clearly.
So he got worried if Oliver could see him slowly hiding his red face underneath the blanket. He felt his ears heating up, his heart thumping so hard, he thought he’d throw up. “T-that so,” he said. “Well, uh, thanks. I’d like to get to know you a bit more, too, before I, you know, make out with you again.”
“Me, too.” He played with something on his neck. “I’m not upset that I mated with you. I can tell you’re a very loving person, and I can sense that you’ve been having trouble with your identity. Just know that whoever you are, whoever you choose to be, I’ll be there to support you and your choice. I’ll always be here for you.” He got up and walked to the door. “Do you need anything else before I go? Are you hungry? Thirsty?“
“I think I’m good,” he said. “Think you covered everything I needed tonight.”
He caught a smile rising on Oliver’s face. “Alright. Goodnight, then, Derek.”
“Night,” he said, but he couldn’t fall back asleep. He couldn’t even jerk off or cry or do anything else embarrassing in this bed.
He was, for the first time since arriving in the Drail Kingdom, happy to be alive.