Chapter 31: Derek

Derek quickly gathered up the old papers and photographs and shuffled them together. “We didn’t mean to break in.”

The two strangers exchanged worried glances. The man seemed to warn the woman not to do something. They spoke in a language Derek would never understand in a thousand lifetimes. It wasn’t Drailian, wasn’t even close to it. The woman answered with coughing, wet and sickening like the ocean itself.

Holly’s eyes had turned back to slits as goosebumps travelled down her arms. Her teeth chattered, ready to scream. Derek wanted to know if she knew these people, but talking didn’t feel right in front of them.

The strange man faked a smile at them. “You must be, uhm, Derek. And you’re Holly Bennet, of course. It’s nice to meet you. My name is Tsvetan, and this is Sabah.”

Derek backed up more. He didn’t mean to stare, but not even Shào looked as weird as these people. It was like the fungus growing on Tsvetan was real. “You’re a Deity, right?”

Tsvetan strained to keep his smile. He started nervously rubbing his hands together. “How did you know that?”

Derek took in the way he floated, their weird clothing, their otherworldly features, and contrasted them with demonic ones. “Lucky guess,” he said.

Sabah rolled her eyes and gestured to him, saying something in that language he didn’t know. Tsvetan responded politely to hush her up.

“Well, uh, Derek, Holly,” he said. “I think it’s time you two head off, away from…this place. It’s not safe, you know. Wouldn’t want to be buried down here for eternity.” He chuckled. It didn’t reach his eyes. “Right?”

Right.” Derek brought Holly back. She’d turned to stone at the sight of them. “So are you two one of the humans’ God or are you some type of other—”

“Of course we’re not the humans’ God,” Sabah snapped. She had a low, commanding voice that bullied Tsvetan’s meek one. “Who do you take us for?”

Derek thought it best that he didn’t answer. Tsvetan must’ve known to, for he butted in swiftly.

“O-okay now.” He placed himself between Derek and Sabah. “It’d be wise not to get heated down here, Sabah. Let’s just take these two back to the surface and work things out topside.”

Derek, patience fading, noticed another piece of paper near his foot. He reached down for it.

Tsvetan and Sabah jerked back and gasped at the same time. Their hands tensed as if they had claws ready to be retracted.

Derek left the paper alone and slowly lifted himself back up. “Did we do something wrong? Why’re you all so afraid of us? This’s Holly’s home. Well, old home, I think. She’s allowed to be here.”

“N-no, you didn’t do anything wrong,” Tsvetan said, to which Sabah cast him a “what-the-fuck-are-you-talking-about” look. “And, yes, back before, this was…her home.”

He said that so weirdly, Derek had half a mind to call him out on being so vague. They were in an underground “fallout shelter,” from memories a catgirl had trouble placing.

“Before all that,” Tsvetan added, “let me ask you something. Have you been in contact with anyone who looks like us? Someone who’s about your age, I think, or a little younger. A boy with—”

“Yeah, Shào,” Derek interrupted. “He almost tried to kill us, like, ten minutes ago. He hates  me because I…know someone…”

Their faces had dropped. They looked at Derek as if he’d said something unspeakable, like he’d said he liked boys as well as girls.

He hid in his wings. “I don’t know much about this stuff. Shào’s been telling me I’m a soulmate and I can see you people because of it. Holly can see you, obviously.” She still hadn’t blinked. “We got thrown here and she found this room.”

He took out the papers and started filing through them. “The humans think I’m some kind of angel, which’s sort of like a human with wings, but I have a tail. Anyway, it’s someone who can talk to one singular God they call Their God, but I don’t think I’ve ever met Him before. I’ve only met you two and Shào. I don’t know what that means. Is Holly an angel, too? Is this where angels come from, because this feels creepily like the Underworld, not Heaven.”

Tsvetan ran a hand through his greasy hair. Sabah looked ready to crack a tooth by how hard she was clenching her jaw.

“What about the other one?” Tsvetan asked in horror. “Has she been in contact with you?”

“Who?”

He gulped. “Maïmoú.”

That name again. It was like a promise he’d been holding onto ever since arriving to the Drail Kingdom. Spoken by Gods, lingering in his head, that girl’s name had been with him, guiding him to some truth locked away.

And he didn’t know why, but everyone seemed afraid of this name, when it was a name given to a beautiful, young, brilliant child.

That’s what he thought, anyway, though he didn’t know why he thought this. It was like the humans’ devotions to Their God, a being they only alluded to from seeing rainbows and the births of children.

When Derek didn’t answer straight away, when he was lost in thought over a girl he didn’t know, Sabah sighed tiredly, letting her head fall, loose braids dangling. She muttered something in her language.

Tsvetan winced. “Sabah, stop. If he truly is Maïmoú’s soulmate—”

Sabah cracked her neck one way, then the next.

“Sabah, love, please, listen to reason. Remember what happened the last time she lost her soulmates. If she finds out we hurt him, she’ll go insane.”

“She won’t know.”

“Of course she will. Look at his face.” He motioned to Derek, who was still lost in a daydream. Maïmoú. Maïmoú. “He’s obviously been in some sort of contact with her. Shào likely explained everything to him. Let’s just pretend—”

“No!” she snapped, and turned her heel to face him. The loose papers flew out from a sudden gust of wind. Holly yelped and hid her head.

Sabah jabbed a finger into Tsvetan’s chest hard enough to push him back. “You and Unathi promised me. We all swore we would spend as little time as possible with these people, yet I know you’ve been visiting your soulmate across the ocean. Unathi’s in a relationship with their soulmate, Tsvetan. You think I wouldn’t know?”

Tsvetan’s jaw locked. “What about you?” he dared to ask.

Sabah’s eye twitched. “I haven’t visited him once. You know my stance on these beings. They’re parasites.”

Holly tugged hard on Derek’s jacket. Her teeth were still chattering, but as he watched her and these Deities fight, he saw her mumbling a phrase over and over again.

“This’s bad, this’s bad, this’s bad, this’s bad.”

“Holly?” Derek put a hand over her.

“It’s not a bad thing to be affected by your own soulmate,” Tsvetan explained. “They’re tied to us. We can’t change that. What we can do is help them by explaining their circumstances with us.”

“Which is?” Derek asked.

Tsvetan cast a brief glance at him before going back to Sabah. “Your heart and mind is connected to the humans’ God, but unlike the ones the humans created, this Deity is alive. Her name is Maïmoú, and she’s a very dangerous, catalytic young girl who is not yet in control of her Domain. It’s why humanity keeps suffering.”

“So it’s not because of the demons?”

“No, it’s because of her.”

Everything is because of her!” Sabah yelled. “The world was ruined because of her, because of her attachments to these animals.” She glared at Derek like a wolf with its prey. “We’re taking care of this before it gets out of hand again.”

He wanted to get another word or two in. This incredibly one-sided conversation he was getting lost in kept bringing up his name, but why? He’d never met these people before, but they’d already had such strong emotions tied to him. It was like the royals all over again, expecting so much of him when he was just one stupid person.

His vision blotted out. His feet left the metal ground. Gone was the sound of emptiness and Holly’s hands on him. He was transported away like a demon had taken him.

He blinked away frigid air. He and Holly were now outside, hanging hundreds of feet above the blue ocean. To their left were the cliffs that hugged the coastline, where he could see a tiny hole, no doubt the hole he’d failed climbing out of.

He looked down and wished he hadn’t. Waves were crashing into each other, foaming mouths chomping, tongues lapping at the chance to drown two innocent victims.

Sabah floated in front of them. She had her hands out like she was choking them, but it was only keeping them immobile.

Derek choked. Holly hissed and clawed at the invisible hand around her neck.

Tsvetan appeared seconds later. The wind was whipping his ponytail like a flag. “Sabah, what’re you doing!?”

“I’m sick of these people ruling our lives. This one”—she nodded at Derek—“is more trouble than he’s worth, and this one”—to Holly—“is just a reminder of the baby we lost.  You ask me to remember what happened last time to Maïmoú’s soulmates. I do. Her tantrum cratered northern India.”

Derek’s heart thudded. India. He knew that word. All these new words they were saying were like sparks trying to light a match inside him. Maïmoú. India. Soulmates. Past mixing with future. A time long ago, back with…

“You can’t fault her for that, Sabah,” Tsvetan said. “She is but a child. We are adults. We know better. She lost what were essentially her parents, can you imagine—”

“I cannot, nor can you.”

“Yes, you can!” A blood vessel burst in Tsvetan’s eye, and a single flower bloomed behind his ear. “I can! We did lose our child! I lost my soulmate! How dare you say that to me—what is wrong with you!?”

Derek would’ve liked to know. He had no idea what the fuck they were talking about.

The grip Sabah had on Derek lessened. He felt himself fall and tried flapping his wings to save himself. Could he take flight in midair like this? In the dark?

“These creatures have permanently ruined your forests and my oceans,” Sabah said. “Nothing is wrong with me. I am simply taking care of what needs to be done. These creatures cannot live on our—” She coughed wetly. “Why am I in the wrong to want us to live on?”

“Earth is not our world. It’s a place we live.”

Derek grunted as he tried again to save himself. These people talked as if he knew what was going on between them and Shào and Maïmoú or their history with them. He could guess here and there, imagining a long-winded, convoluted history linking all of them together. Why the fuck did he have to care?

“I can’t stand being around these creatures and talking to them like they’re…us.” Sabah shivered. “If Maïmoú finds out about this, then fine. If she can hear me”—she looked at Derek—“then this’s for your own good.”

“Wait, wait!” Derek kicked his useless feet. “I don’t understand! Why do I have to die?”

“The longer you live, the quicker Maïmoú will resurface,” Sabah said. “We’ve all felt her presence emerging back into the world. You’ve felt her, haven’t you?”

“I—”

Don’t lie to a Deity,” she warned. “I’ve been alive for 2.5 billion years, I can smell a lie forming before you even think it. I am God of all water. Every storm across any sea, every drip of water left on this dying planet, belongs to me.”

Far below them, the ocean roared. Tsvetan cowered. “Sabah…”

“No. Any more time wasted and these new soulmates will conjure those two out of their Voids. Then this planet’s doomed all over again, and I will not let us live through another extinction. I won’t.”

“Knowing Maïmoú, she’ll likely be here very soon,” Tsvetan pressed. “She must’ve brought this boy over due to her Barrier’s deterioration and is scared. Sabah, please, talk this over with Unathi. They’ll level your head.”

“My head doesn’t need leveling by them!”

“I won’t let you do this!” Tsvetan grabbed her. “You swore you’d never kill anyone without reason after the Separation. That’s what you promised us. Remember how awful you felt after doing this to the world. It was only 500 years ago. I know how fresh it is in your mind.”

He got up closer to her. “What if he was your soulmate?”

Her face hardened like she’d been backstabbed.

“Think about Marcos. I know you see him as your own child. You care for him. You’re allowed to care for him.”

Sabah battled that in her eyes, trying to refute him.

“Uh, please let us go,” Derek begged, not knowing what either of them were talking about anymore. “Let Holly go, at least. She has nothing to do with this.”

Tsvetan looked at him sadly. “She has everything to do with this. She can see us. She’s a soulmate, just like you.”

“With who?” he asked. If he was following right, Sabah was bounded by this “Marcos” person who sounded vaguely familiar, and Derek had Maïmoú. Maybe Shào had that Nicole Lenore person? Why did that name also sound familiar?

Tsvetan looked close to tears as he shook his head. “Holly is special. She is bound to two Deities, her strings of fate broken in half just like Maïmoú’s is with you and your brother. She is connected to Fate…and Ataleah.”

The names seemed to hold significance to Tsvetan and Sabah. They treated their mentions like revered Gods whispered in church. Holly’s eyes swirled with mixed emotions, knowing their names the same way Derek knew Maïmoú’s.

But that wasn’t what Derek’s mind clung to. “Wait, I have a brother?” he asked.

Something caught the Deities’ attention across the sea, and their animated, spiteful argument came to a grinding halt. Their shoulders dropped, Tsvetan looked up at the sky. The waves ate one another below them.

Sabah’s tired eyes went wide. “Shit.”

“Shit,” Tsvetan agreed, and the two of them, along with the watery hold Sabah had on Derek, slipped out and disappeared, sending both him and Holly into freefall.

He tried to fly. He tried to do the one last thing in his power to save himself and Holly. He owed it to her. But he, like with everything he did, failed. 

With his pendant close to his heart, he clasped his hands together and said every prayer he knew to any of the Deities who’d answer.

The shock immobilized him. The water wasn’t icy or freezing, but fiery. Each wave burned as he and Holly sank. He lost his breath—his lungs wouldn’t work. His heart, pounding in his ears, was being stabbed relentlessly by below zero temperatures.

He pushed himself to find air. He kicked with numb legs as he followed sunbeams. A gasp on icy air, then back underwater, dragged deeper and deeper down. Holly…

Cartwheeling through a high wave, his boot touched the melting sand underwater. He propelled himself forwards, dunking his head farther down. His knees scraped dry, glass-like sand. His head breached into bitter air. The waves  licked at his pained legs, hungry to take him back.

Derek!”

Two arms dragged him ashore. He couldn’t see who or what; his neck was frozen, locked in place so his head didn’t roll out to sea.

“Holly! Yomi, get Holly!”

“I have—Holly, please stop biting me.”

Oliver pushed back Derek’s damp hair. His breath came out in cold puffs. “Are you okay? Oh, thank our God I found you. I couldn’t sense you anywhere. My brain kept bringing me to the cliffside, but I searched everywhere and couldn’t find you. Then I felt you above the ocean and heard something splash. I thought it was a seal.”

Teeth clattering uncontrollably, Derek brought one hand to his face and tried making a fist. He couldn’t. “Oliver.”

He clamshelled his hands and brought them to his lips. “Don’t talk. I have you.”

“I-I can’t feel my hands. I can’t—Help me.”

Yomi came into focus. She was kneeling in the sand with Holly as Holly was throwing up water. “We need to get them out of these clothes. They’ll freeze to death.”

At the mention of “death,” the top of Oliver’s forehead furrowed. He buckled and sobbed uncontrollably over Derek. “I’m so sorry. I should’ve been more alert. I don’t know what hit me. Something struck my chest. I thought I was having some type of heart attack. Then I couldn’t find you and Holly, she’d sounded so scared. I’m so sorry.”

“Oliver, we need to get them back home,” Yomi said. “Now.”

“Okay. Okay.” He hugged Derek as he lifted him into the air. “I got you. You’re safe.”

;;

“Brennen, my love, restart the fire!”

Startled, Brennen fell off the couch and went for more firewood.

At the sound of the Manor front door opening, Shimah flew downstairs. “Oh, shit. Where’d you find them?”

“At the coastline,” Yomi said. “They were in the water.”

Oliver helped Derek undress and sat both him and Holly by the fireplace. Shimah draped his quilt over Derek’s shoulders and hunted for a second one. Brennen ran upstairs and came back with his darkest vial of venom. Derek didn’t question its powers this time and drank it in one shot. The other was given to Holly, but she refused.

“Holly, please,” Brennen said. “You know it’s not going to hurt you. It’ll make you feel better.”

She shook her head and started rocking.

Against the fire, Derek’s red, oily fingers burned three times hotter. He wanted to pull away, but Oliver held him firm like he wanted him to burn.

Yomi examined his skin. “We need to bring them to a hospital.”

Oliver stroked Derek’s fingers. The fire’s flames accentuated the dark circles under his eyes. What a waste of time, looking for someone like him.

“Oliver, you need to put aside your feelings and think about their safety. The humans can treat them far better than Brennen and I can.”

“You’ve treated far worse with much less.”

“Under the direst circumstances with our own kind. You know Holly won’t take our medicine. The humans will gladly take him back in this condition and treat him, and we can focus on Holly.”

The front door slammed shut and Maxwell stormed into the kitchen. The snow on his hair steamed away with his elevated body heat. “I’m gonna lose it. No, I’m really gonna lose it.”

Rosaline floated in behind him. “Maxwell, it’ll be okay.”

“No, it won’t be, Rose! We’re fucked.”

As she tried helping her friend, Rosaline looked up. “Oh, Derek. Holly.” She floated to Holly’s side and nuzzled her head with her freckled one. “I’m glad you’re both safe.”

“I’m not!” Maxwell shouted. “I just came back from Jabel’s. There’s something wrong with the humans, they’ve been in fits all day. And a riot almost broke out tonight. They were deciding on whether or not to storm the Temno Forest to get Derek.”

Derek stood up and covered his naked body with the quilt.

“Where’re you going?” Oliver asked, and Derek didn’t know. He couldn’t get his heartbeat back to normal. He needed to find a way to breathe without feeling so suffocated. It was too hot here. Why was it so hot?

Before he could close Oliver’s door, he collapsed to the floor and cried. Giant heaps of sobs burned down his cheeks as he relived the day in full. Lost, sad, lonely, confused. Confused by everything he’d learned. Ashamed for being a part of something bigger than himself, disgusted that Deities saw him as a disease they wanted eradicated. Those Deities, weren’t they supposed to make them feel wanted and loved? Not only did he feel so utterly hated, the realness of his death from that height, of hitting the water any harder…

“Derek?”

Derek covered his head. He couldn’t save his voice from drowning in his throat.

Slowly, Oliver came in, knelt beside him, and hugged him tightly.

Derek wriggled to be fully embraced by Oliver. He pushed up his feathers and massaged his back. He smelled so good, even though he was cold.

“I-it’s okay,” Oliver said, though his voice was wavering. “You’re safe now.”

But he wasn’t, he’d never be, knowing those freaks were flying around the world searching for him.

Being his disgusting, hated, sinful self, Derek brought Oliver into bed.

Their chests pressed together. Oliver tried taking off his shoes as Derek pillowed himself underneath dead animal pelts. Their hands couldn’t stay off of each other.

Oliver placed his arm underneath Derek’s pillow and massaged the back of his head. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault.”

“Is this okay?”

“Who cares anymore.”

“I do. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.” He nestled in closer. “Do you know what happened back there? On the cliffs? You were talking about a boy named Shào.”

Where could he have possibly started? “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“If it’s something related to our God, I’ll understand.”

A smile cracked his lips. “I hate this.”

“Hate what?”

“Being fawned over. It’s like there’s a reason people should care about me.”

Oliver pulled back.

“I mean, why should they? All I do is fuck everything up and make things worse.” He buried himself until his toes touched Oliver’s. “I don’t get it.”

Oliver looked at him properly. “Derek, I know you’re dealing with a lot, but I need you to know how relieved I am that you’re back. I was so sure I’d never see you again, and that I’d have to deal with this alone. I thank our God every day that you’ve come into my life and made me understand so much more about myself that I never knew.” He kissed the top of Derek’s head. “I love you.”

Derek never understood that word. He loved things, like fish and alcohol and masturbation and good times. He loved Cellena and his friends, this so-called “brother” Sabah told him he had. He couldn’t remember clearly, but he thought Shào had mentioned that he also had a sister. He guessed he loved all those things.

But his person? A man who cherished every part of him, even the weird parts, the sinful parts? What other word could describe such a bond other than love?

He let himself cry. Because he was allowed to cry. And he was allowed to feel. And Oliver didn’t make fun of him or make him feel like less of a person for doing so. In fact, he held him tighter, because he loved him, and the humans couldn’t do a damn thing to stop that from being true.

Derek wrapped an arm and wing over Oliver. “You’re dumb. You’re so dumb.”

Oliver smiled. “You’re…dumb.”

Derek gasped dramatically. “You’re dumb.”

“I’m sure that you’re dumber.”

“Who says it like that? That automatically makes you more dumber.”

Oliver’s high-pitched laugh brought them, if at all possible, closer together.

;;

  

Derek rocked on Oliver’s bed at two in the morning. He’d neither gone to bed nor gotten up in fear of waking Oliver. He tried ignoring the guilt he was feeling over not being able to tell him what’d happened. Every time he tried, he felt like vomiting. All they’d done was snuggle all day. He felt like a terrible lover, a terrible person.

The bedroom door creaked open.

He grabbed Oliver through the sheets. He wasn’t ready. He didn’t want to die at the hands of Deities or soulmates. He wanted more time.

Holly stood in the crack of the door, her amber eyes glowing. She waited until Derek noticed her before creeping in. She’d changed into warmer clothes, but she still looked frozen.

Without speaking, she crawled into Oliver’s bed and curled up inside an animal pelt.

Neither of them slept for the rest of the night.

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