Kevin considered himself to have a rather adept pair of lungs. Airborne crossbreeds needed to have them, to keep them flying long distances.
With Viper and Tokala, he realized how terrible they really were, especially when underwater.
He was currently headfirst in the lukewarm water, dunked like a cookie in milk. He was sitting at the top of a large tank. His wings were grazing pipes built running along the ceiling. This was where the waterborne and guards entered and exited freely. A walkway circled each tank for friends to lounge when they needed to breathe in air rather than water.
He’d lost count of how many seconds he’d been holding his breath, but he guessed it had to be over a minute. That was pretty good, wasn’t it?
He peeked open one eye. Tokala was floating in the water, watching him with her arms crossed and a brow arched. She tapped her wrist to signal—tease him about—his time.
He used his wings to keep him better balanced over the edge. She’d bragged about how long she could hold her breath, and it’d childishly gotten to him, especially in front of Viper. He’d wanted to prove that he could live in their world.
Looking away from her, he focused on something else. The bottom of the tank spreading out in different directions, guards eyeing his weird behavior from the walkway.
Viper, swimming up towards him. Her hair, floating around her pretty eyes, her cute, innocent eyes blinking up at him. Her soft, kissable lips, right there, begging him to…
Choking on an intake of horny water, Kevin nearly drowned himself as he whipped his head back up. He pushed back his bangs and blew the water out of his nostrils. Not that he wasn’t allowed to think such lewd thoughts about her, he just wasn’t adept to them yet. Just like stepping into darkening water, he needed to trust himself before taking the plunge.
Viper surfaced. “Sorry. Did I distract you?”
He almost answered honestly. “No, no. I just can’t hold my breath like you can.”
“You did really well, though. I was counting. It was almost two minutes.”
“Who can hold their breath the longest?” Kevin asked.
Tokala surfaced to the top. “Viper can stay under for as long as she wants because she needs water more than I do. I can only hold my breath as opposed to filtering the water through gills.”
Kevin scooted up to the walkway’s edge. He dangled his foot to be closer to Viper. “So you can’t breathe in the water, but you need to be in it? How do you speak?”
“We talk in this way that lets little air actually leave our mouth. It kinda tickles our throat. Viper’s special. There’s a lot of her kind that have gills that breathe in both water and air. She can stay up there for longer than most.”
Viper nodded and climbed up next to Kevin. Their clothes must’ve been made with a special material—they were already dry, as were Viper’s skin and hair. He felt so bad for ogling, but he couldn’t help himself. Who had blue freckles? Who looked as pretty as her?
“Viper, you need to get back into the water,” Tokala said. “I know you like walking around, but you’ve been out of water for too long this week.”
Viper rubbed a hand down her arm. The skin around her elbows and upper arms was a bit flaky.
“You should come back in,” Tokala said. “Kevin, how bad is her skin?”
“It’s not bad,” Viper said. “I’m fine, Kala, it’s okay.”
She pouted. “Kevin, tell me.”
To explain how a girl’s skin looked was a test he wasn’t ready to take. “I…don’t know.”
“I’ll go in soon,” Viper told her. “One minute.”
“Do you not like being in the water?” he asked her.
“It’s not that. I just like being…up here. It’s nicer right here.”
Kevin’s dangly foot unconsciously did the doggy paddle. He was becoming closer to these people—these friends—but there was definitely something between him and Viper. The way she looked at him and, subsequently, the way he looked at her. She’d steal glances at him and he’d follow the trail of blue dots from the nape of her neck down her tail. Not only did he want to hold her hands and listen to her talk, he wanted more from her, the way he wanted to know the name of a beautiful flower in a field.
But Tokala, through no fault of her own, was always around. Either her or that little baby that Viper admired. He guessed that it’d take more time for her to open up to him alone about herself. He needed to know her favorite desserts, her favorite type of music, if she had a lover. She’d said she’d had sex with other boys to try to conceive.
He shook the thought away. “I don’t mind if you need to get into the water,” he told her. “I’ll still be here. Your health is more important.”
Viper filled her mouth with air, a challenge daring to be formed, then slowly dipped her toes back into the water and plopped back in.
She looked more natural in the water, like she was truly meant to live there. But not in these tanks, somewhere else. He didn’t know where he was seeing this, but somewhere he saw an entire world of water that stretched on for miles. It didn’t hit any buildings or trees or Muralha, but the skyline, so they could swim—live—forever.
He didn’t know why, but he saw it very clearly in his mind, even though nothing like that existed within the walls.
His fingers found their way into the water. He stirred it, creating ripples that tickled the underneath of Viper’s nose. She watched him with her mouth submerged.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hello.” Bubbles bloomed around her face. “How do you do that, with your hair?”
He looked over at the small braid he’d done in his hair that day. “It’s pretty easy to learn. Do you want me to teach you when your hair dries?”
She touched her own hair bobbing around her face. “I like how it looks on you. It’s pretty.”
His thumping heart climbed back up into his throat. He tried swallowing it down so he could hear his thoughts, but it was lodged there. “Your hair is longer and prettier, so it’ll be easy to braid.”
Overcome, Viper hid herself and swam down.
He couldn’t tell how red his face had become. His hands shook at the blatant attempt at flirting with a girl who was leagues above him in every regard. Looks, personality, brain, heart. She was so kind and normal and he was bumbly. Maybe that’s why they connected so easily: They were opposites.
Tokala, who’d been watching all this time, waited for Viper to sink before speaking. “I’ve never seen her like this before.”
“Is she okay?” Kevin asked. “Did I embarrass her?”
“What do you think? Don’t act so coy. You know what you’re doing.” She swam up to the edge. “Let me tell you something about Viper, Kevin.”
He moved in closer. Down on the tank floor, Viper was sitting with her knees up to her chin. A line of bubbles escaped from her mouth.
“I’ve known that girl since she was a baby, and I’ve never seen her so interested in another person before. There are some people down here who she hasn’t even introduced herself to because there’re certain people she can read. She’s good at that, reading people, are you’re sounding off alarm bells in her lovesick brain.”
“I-I think it’s because I have wings. She said she’s never met someone with wings before.”
“Oh, that’s bullshit and you know it.” She spat out water between her two front teeth, streaming it back into the water. “If you’re gonna go for her, then I won’t stop you. I’ll kill you if you break her heart, and if you lay a little feathered finger on her the wrong way, I’ll snap your neck faster than you can fall out of the sky.”
Kevin picked a piece of skin from off of his thumb. “Got it. I’ll try my best. But, Tokala, in all honesty, I’ve never really done this sort of thing before. I’m nervous I’ll step out of line or do something weird.”
“Well, she hasn’t done this, either, Kevin. She’s fucked before, but she’s never had a lover.”
Kevin cringed. He didn’t want to talk about that behind her back.
“Both of you are walking into new territory,” she continued, “and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can go for her, just treat her like she’s the most important person in your world.”
That wouldn’t have been hard for him to do, if she liked him back, but something was keeping him from wholeheartedly believing that.
Maïmoú, she was still connected to him. He hadn’t heard a word from her ever since they talked in that Void over a week ago. He was glad that she’d taken his advice to heal herself, but could he ever live a normal life after this? How would he explain his predicament to a girl who’d never taken a step outside?
“Tricky business, isn’t it?” Tokala asked. “You’ll get used to it. Falling in love is the easiest, hardest thing you can do.”
“You have a lot of experience with dating girls?” he asked.
“Oh, no. Not many girls can meet up to my standards. And most of them find me too…blunt, and hostile.” She frowned. “I’ll find one, one day. I won’t give up.”
Kevin looked back down into the rippling water. “I won’t give up either.”
He wasn’t a very brave person. He likely would never be and had accepted that about himself long ago. Accepting this, though, had blocked him from experiencing the world the way it was intended to be experienced. His life was forever altered and he was nervous and scared a lot of the time and cried easily, but all of that shouldn’t have impeded him from enjoying life. And that had to begin with him, taking the first step for himself and himself alone.
Standing up, Kevin took the ladder down to the first floor, where Viper was. She had her back to him, but once he knocked on the glass, she turned back around and smiled.
He waved. “Can you hear me?”
She nodded and looked back up to Tokala kicking her feet in the water. She said something to her friend, and Tokala, taking the hint, swam away, maybe to try her own luck with courting a girl.
Though she’d have a hard time finding a girl as cute as Viper.
He stepped up closer. Even though a pane of glass created a barrier between them, this was the closest they’d ever been, face to face.
Kevin freed one of his hands and touched where Viper’s face was. He didn’t know if it was infatuation or the fact that he’d never seen a waterborne before this year, but she had a face he couldn’t look away from. Trying to gain that bravery deep inside him, he touched where her lips were.
And Viper, digging deep to find her own nerves, leaned in closer and closer, until her lips were kissing the glass near his forehead. She studied his face, tracing his features with half-lidded eyes. The tiniest of bubbles escaped from the corners of her wet lips.
“I…really want to be with you,” he explained, words slipping out before registering in his brain. “I hope that’s not too weird to say, but I do…really like you.”
The bubbles stopped.
He pushed himself to keep going. “I know my life is chaotic and wild and I’m not too confident with my emotions, but I don’t wanna lose this chance with you. I wanna learn more about you, and not just what you are, but what you like. What your favorite food is. How I can make you happy. I like when you smile, and I like looking at you.” He chuckled. “Sorry if that’s weird to say, again, but that’s what I feel. Sorry.”
So close, with being confident, only to fall on his face with an apology. Being brave took time, he assumed, even if he did just confess.
Viper’s tail and fins stopped moving in the water. She began to sink, tilting to the side like a statue thrown into a river. When she came back to the world of the living, the blush that burned her face colored her ears, collarbone, upper chest and shoulders. Her eyes went wide as if he’d said something unbelievable. As if she didn’t live in glass tanks where she could always see her reflection. How could someone like him not be taken by her?
She covered her obvious face with her hands, but not even her webbed fingers could hide her feelings. Looking around for a place to hide, she took to the escape route underneath the walkway and swam away.
Kevin laughed out his nerves as he watched her flee.
“You coward!” he heard Tokala shout from somewhere in the tank. “Kevin, chase her!”
“I-I don’t want to freak her out?” he said in a question.
“She’s a fish!” Tokala nearly yelled. “She likes to be chased!”
He didn’t know what that meant, but his feet were already moving. Passing through a group of guards who were watching them, he took down a hall and gave chase.
He caught her swimming through different rooms and halls. Almost all the tanks down here were connected in some way, which made sense. Hallways were made the same way, same with streets. He ran in on families playing with young waterborne and some couples playing with each other’s hair. Viper expertly swam around them to evade Kevin and his feelings.
He used his wings to catch up with her, dragging his hand down the glass. “Hey!”
She laughed, bubbles escaping out of her nose. “Tokala made you say those things!”
“No, she didn’t! She just gave me the go-ahead to say them!”
“Why’d you say them?”
“Because I like you!”
Viper yelped in happy fear and pivoted left, down a tank he couldn’t trail.
“Wait!” Jerking left, Kevin pushed open a door that opened for him.
He came to an open atrium that spiraled up a dozen floors. Balconies and hallways were tiered above him, holding hospital wings and meeting rooms for Asilo workers. In the center was a large, thick tank that grew up like a tree trunk and spread out towards the ceiling with branches. Waterborne lounged in the open water while guards watched over them with lazy cups of coffee.
Viper swam straight up into the tank, flapping her tail like a propeller. Kevin watched in awe when his flight feathers flared. His knees bent, he pushed the tiny hairs in his face behind his ear. Opening up his wings, he took a running start into the atrium and took flight.
It was so long that he’d actually taken to the sky. Defying gravity and soaring upwards, the refreshing wind blowing through his hair and in-between his long feathers. He was rusty and grazed the glass of the tank as he flew around it like a top. The idling crossbreeds watched him like a spectacle as he met back up with Viper.
She gasped at his extended wingspan, a prideful smile showing off her teeth. Kevin copied it as he flew with her, as she swam to meet his pace. Around and around they went, sharing the spaces meant for them and making them their own.
He’d figure out a way to blend their worlds together. He’d learn to hold his breath and take the dive with her. His feathers were waterproof for a reason.
And at that moment, he understood Maïmoú’s primal desire to save him. He wanted to be with her and make her smile and make sure that nothing would ever come to hurt her again. Maïmoú had called them soulmates, two people bonded by fate who’d always cherish each other. He didn’t know if it affected normal people like Viper, but he hoped it did. He wanted to be with her forever.
A fuzziness tickled the back of his brain. It started off slow, like an incoming sneeze. Then his hands tingled. It travelled from his head, down the nape of his neck to his tail feathers, down every limb and spreading out through the bones of his wings.
Viper paused their dance. “Kevin?”
His wings stopped flapping. Something was wrong. He had to fix it. Save it. Save whatever was wrong. Save her.
A screech cried through his eardrums and made them ring. He felt his eyes shake and body drop. The sense of death, of dying in somebody’s arms and not being able to stave off the inevitable sense of slowly becoming nothing. It felt sickening and empty and lonely.
It felt like Maïmoú, at her worst.
His body crashed into the tank. He fell several flights and landed against a potted plant, cracking it.
The world shook without warning. The tank’s water shifted, spilling out gallons of water from the top.
Viper quickly swam back down. She watched as other waterborne looked around for help. “What’s going on?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
Kevin reached out in front of him, through the chaos. “Maïmoú?” he whispered.
Something—someone—sighed in his mind. It sounded animalistic, the snarl of a beast.
“I’m back,” Maïmoú announced in his mind, and all the underground lights powered off.