Nikki dropped to her knees to catch Kevin’s body. He was still breathing but weakly. His wing was broken. She pushed back his hair to feel that the texture had changed. Broken blood vessels crossed his closed eyes like worm trails, and his finger beds had been picked to death.
All of them huddled around him. Their mother touched his face. Their father tried controlling his hiccups as he checked for a pulse. Vanna, still unable to come to terms with any of it, stood back with his moms.
Zantl broke the silence with a sigh. “Can I ever get away from you people?”
It must’ve been rhetorical, because they threw up their hands and went to sulk in the corner of the room, away from everyone they deemed unimportant.
“H-how?” her mother asked Zantl. “How is this happening?”
Zantl crossed their arms and legs and fell to the ground like a child.
“Tell us,” her father urged. “If you know what’s going on, you need to tell us.”
“I don’t need to do anything other than wait for my lover to give me the all clear that I can leave this hellhole. It stinks worse than W4 down here.”
Drowning all of them out, Nikki focused her attention on who truly mattered. She leaned her head against Kevin’s and heard his heartbeat, telling her that yes, this was real and yes, he’d come back alive. Somehow, through some type of Deity intervention, he’d been returned to them.
One of the girls who’d entered the shelter with Kevin sneezed. She was tall like Vanna, wearing comfy, baggy clothes. Her tail was thick and pointy, almost scaly, though Nikki couldn’t tell what her breed was without asking about it directly. And not only would that come off as rude, it wasn’t like Nikki could talk to girls like her. Tall, big, seemingly unafraid of where she was. Was she a Deity?
The other girl, the shorter one holding the baby, took a step back.
“What happened to him?” Nikki asked them.
“I…don’t know,” the shorter girl said. Her voice was softer than Kevin’s, like she was afraid of existing. “Is Kevin alright? Is he…i-is he dead?”
“You know him?”
“Yes. We got separated when the Asilo was coming down. I thought Tokala and I would get crushed, but then someone…or something…saved us. And then Alexi was handed to me by—Tokala, you’re alright, aren’t you?”
She asked this of the tall, white-haired girl.
“Yeah, I think,” Tokala said, “but, uh, where are we?”
“I don’t know. Kevin’s hurt. He said he’d be alright.” Tears welled up in her bright blue eyes. “What’s wrong with his wing?”
Marcos, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the shorter girl, twisted his body to break his chains. The support beam cracked.
The girl looked around the suddenly cramped room and blew up her cheeks in nervousness. The frilly thing on her back unfurled and she went for the door.
“Wait,” Marcos said. “Viper, she…I-I need her. Please, give her to me, right now.”
When nobody moved, Marcos gave a strong, firm tug on the chains binding him to the beam. The metal pieces snapped and came undone. Without any physical injuries on his wrists, he reached out for the child.
Keeping her eyes on both Marcos and Zantl, the girl—Viper—stepped up to Marcos and held out her hands, balancing the child so she didn’t make contact with Marcos. Once the transfer was complete, Viper slunk back towards the door. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I can’t—this’s too much.” Giving one last look at Kevin, she darted off into the hallway.
“Viper, wait!” Tokala said. “Did she just leave? Are there too many people in this room? She doesn’t do well in rooms. Vipes, wait!”
She moved as if she couldn’t see. She bumped shoulders with Nikki on her way out. She somewhat looked her way. “My bad.”
Nikki tried to find her voice, but for some reason, it didn’t come to her. She watched the girls leave, speechless.
Marcos snuggled the baby close, holding the back of her head as her cries were muffled into whimpers. He whispered a lullaby to her to calm her down. It seemed to work. He knew how the baby worked.
Nikki didn’t peg him as someone good with kids, but she guessed today was the day for miracles.
“Prayers being answered,” is what Lí would’ve said.
“Okay,” Morgan said, clapping her hands. “I cannot focus in this room of misfits. First, we work on what’s in front of us. Del, go.”
“His radius is broken,” she said instantly. “He looks malnourished. His blood was taken recently. There’re bruises up and down his arm, likely from his blood being taken over multiple days.”
“Okay. At least he didn’t break a bigger bone. Remember when you broke your humerus down here?”
“Right.” She wiped her face of sweat. “Marshall, Del, get one of the stretchers from the medical ward closets. Vanna, medical kit, whatever you have available. Isyra, bleach down an operating table for us to use. Not that we’re doing surgery, I just don’t know what our boy’s gone through and want all our bases covered. Nikki.”
Nikki tensed up.
“Stay…with Kev,” she decided, and Nikki had absolutely no problem with that. She had no handle on medical procedures or what needed to be done at this stage. Plus, having a passive role in helping Kevin might’ve deterred her family from asking about what happened topside.
She squatted beside her older brother as her family dispersed. She tried holding his hand. His fingers lay weakly beneath hers, unable to take them and tell her he was alright. She watched his chest move up and down.
“He’s not gonna die.”
Nikki turned. Zantl was hiding behind the pillar Marcos had been chained to. They were peeking out like a sneaking child. “He won’t die, so I don’t know why you’re all freaking out.”
“What happened to him?”
“Dunno. I was busy not being killed by you.”
Nikki hung her head. No matter who spoke to her, no matter how bratty they acted, their words still hurt because she knew it was true. She was the villain here.
Her parents came back with a stretcher. They carefully eased their boy onto the white burlap. He moaned, but he neither opened his eyes nor shed any tears. It was strange, seeing this complete other version of Kevin. Where had her eldest brother gone, her crybaby? What a change these months had made on him.
Morgan rolled him out. Nikki followed a foot behind.
“I’ll get him ready,” Morgan said as they walked. “These bird bones are some of the most fragile bones in the crossbreed texts. I think I have a splint and wrap I can make up for him. He’ll have to let it heal for a few weeks.”
“Is there anything else we should do?” Vanna asked.
“We’ll have to wait until he wakes up. Then we’ll take care of what we understand.”
That throwaway line stabbed Nikki harder than she thought it would. She hated that they didn’t have the full context of a secret she’d been keeping from them. Out of everyone down here, Marcos was the only person she could confide in.
And Zantl, if they, too, were part of this.
She and Vanna waited outside the hospital room. Her mother and father along with Vanna’s moms and a few of Morgan’s helpers were in the medical ward. They focused mainly on Kevin, but there were so many waterborne in need of help as well. People were having trouble breathing, suffering from shock, had bruised arms, broken bones. All from his doing. Because Nikki couldn’t control her Deity.
Her tail flicked behind her, hitting the wall like a grandfather clock. “Vanna.”
He turned to her, halfway. He looked like he was about to throw up.
She let go a shaky breath. No more secrets. No more lying. “I didn’t…mean to do it,” she said honestly. “I had no control over my body. It wasn’t me.”
Shaking his head, he slipped to the floor and hugged his knees. “I watched you die. When we found you on the ground, you were bleeding out from an abdominal bullet wound. I checked it just before you woke up. There’s no wound. I thought I was going crazy. I think I still am.”
“I can’t explain what happened to me without sounding crazy,” she said earnestly. “What else can I say?”
He ran an agitated hand through his stiff hair. “I just have the feeling that you’re lying to us, that you’ve always been lying to us and that there was always something you were keeping us from. I didn’t have any sane justification for these feelings and chalked it up to me being anxious, but we’ve been asking you what’s wrong for weeks. You’re not a good liar, Nikki. You have a tell.”
He looked at her, tears forming in his eyes. “I kept Kev and the fallout shelter a secret because I thought it’d endanger you if you knew too much. Is this the same problem? Are you dealing with something bigger than what we know, and you’re trying to protect us by keeping your distance?”
She figured that would be the easiest question to answer. “Yes,” she said. “I am, or have tried to. Didn’t do a good job at it.”
“Above.” His foot began tapping. “This’s like Zantl, isn’t it? All those rumors about them being special and having powers.”
“I don’t know for sure about that,” Nikki interrupted. “I need to talk to them. I’m still figuring it out.”
“Figuring what out? That you can murder people by looking at them?”
“No, that I can talk to people who aren’t there, that there’s a kid in my head who keeps whispering to me, that I see people in mirrors and reflections that used to be. Christ, Vitaliya, I’m sorry I’m scaring you, but I can’t give you direct answers about this because I don’t know what the hell’s going on anymore myself.”
Vanna unballed himself, splaying out his legs to push himself farther away from her. “Who’s Vitaliya?”
She rubbed her eyes. “No one. It’s just…you.”
He got up. “I’m not mentally prepared for this, so I’m going to go throw up.” He pointed towards the bathrooms. “When I get back, maybe Kev will be up and we can talk about this properly.”
“Vanna, I’m sorry.”
“Vanna!” Pippa, Vanna’s lover, ran down the hallway. She was covered in soot that she’d tried her best to scrub off. Upon seeing her, Vanna melted, knees giving out until she caught him. She asked him a series of questions that were washed away with the crowd. Her eyes kept darting back to Nikki. Vanna answered her with just a needy kiss.
Rubbing his back, Pippa led Vanna to the nearest bathrooms.
Nikki let them go.
The worst feeling in the world was feeling unneeded.
With her leg propped up against the operation door, Nikki watched the world continue on without her. These waterborne people had found their way into the fallout shelter like homeless into a newly opened shelter. One even came up to Nikki and asked where the nearest guard was. She tried explaining that the guards here weren’t the guards they likely knew and that she didn’t know if any of them could help them. She said it kindly, as she knew these people had just survived something traumatic.
The person had burst into tears and fled down the hall.
Nikki turned up her hoodie. Lí had told her not to worry about people and to focus on herself once in a while, but he was a shitty liar. She knew he’d run himself ragged for a stranger. He saved people from a plague, he cared more about Vitaliya and his lover than himself. It was how they—their soul—operated.
But she didn’t know these people, didn’t know their needs or what water they needed to be in. Marcos had said it was specialized water. Did she need to raid Morgan’s pantry cabinets for salt?
She slapped her cheek, pulled on her hoodie strings, and faced the world. She had to try.
A sizable number of waterborne were congregating near the cafeteria, the hub for gossip and stories. Some of the guards working for Morgan had fired up the stoves to cook up quick, bland meals: stew, beans, cups of watered-down coffee. Somehow, it still smelled like the cafeteria at her school, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It made her feel self-conscious that someone from her grade would see her down here.
She heard them sharing experiences about what’d happened. Some of them explained their escapes naturally, while others spoke about being floated away and landing in this shelter, separated from loved ones. Deities, no doubt, but who? Shào? He’d been busy controlling Nikki.
She saw a line for the water fountains. Some were pushing their way to the front for a drink.
“These are freshwater fountains only,” a guard shouted. “Saltwater-borne can only drink from these fountains.”
The dejected “salt-borne” cast desperate looks at those who stayed in line. Instead of drinking, the “freshwater-borne” splashed their faces and cuts in their neck. They must’ve been painful. Nikki saw the redness inside of them.
“How do we make it saltwater?” Nikki asked a nearby guard. “My aunt mentioned a faulty water system that she didn’t use. Have we tried using that?”
The guard, who hadn’t looked down at her, finally did and yelped. Tail tucked between their legs, they scurried away into the crowd, away from a threat. More and more people were noticing her and hiding their own tails, and children, from her.
Her legs moved on their own. They ran her out of the cafeteria and down a hall she didn’t know well. She kept her hoodie over her eyes so she didn’t upset anyone else. She wasn’t being helpful. She wasn’t needed. She was becoming a burden.
She found a ladder nailed into a wall and climbed it. It led her to a loft that overlooked the hallway, which had only a railing, an L-shaped couch, and a radio tucked into the corner. It wasn’t plugged in, but she didn’t need it to be. Curling up on the dusty couch, Nikki hid away from the world and pretended that everything was okay.
She was a terrible liar, even to herself.
“Shào,” she whispered to herself. “Why did you do that? You ruined so much, and for what? What were you hoping to gain from hurting so many people?”
Her head was as dark and empty as it had been that morning. Yesterday morning? She didn’t know what time it was down here. She didn’t even know if she could ever talk to Shào again. What if she had forced him out so strongly that he could never return? Would that’ve been a blessing in disguise, a reason for her to never see him again? It would’ve solved some of her problems, but knowing he could always come back created a thousand more for her to deal with alone.
She felt sick. Not like Vanna’s sickness, but like a sickness was infecting her from the inside. She wanted it scraped clean, but her hands were too dirty.
Someone hit the bottom of the ladder. “Ow. Who decides to put a ladder in the most stupidest place possible? I can’t even…”
Nikki saw her tuft of hair first. A ball of soft, white curls, flecked with black spots like an ice cream swirl. The rest of her came up in annoyed grunts and heaves. It was the girl that’d traveled with Kevin, the tall, beautiful girl with the scaly tail.
Nikki hitched her breath. She’d heard that her name was Tokala. She looked like she couldn’t see what was in front of her. Once she climbed up to the loft, she put her hand out in front of her, feeling for the railing and then the floor.
“Why do I have a shitty feeling that there’s nothing but ground in front of me?” she asked herself. “You’d think a tank would be up here. Everything down here smells like an old mop bucket, I can’t tell. Hey, is anyone here? Can someone tell me if I’m about to fall to my death?”
Nikki licked her lips to get them to work. “Um, no,” she stammered. “You aren’t going to die. I don’t think.”
Tokala lifted her head towards Nikki, but her eyes didn’t land on hers. She did smile, though. It was nothing but fangs. “I know that voice. You’re the person I first heard down here.”
She ambled her way over. Nikki could only assume she couldn’t see due to either an injury or birth defect. Trying to be as useful as possible, she helped the girl to the couch.
Tokala tripped and landed most of her weight atop Nikki’s hip. And lap. She was heavy and immediately knocked the wind out of her, but she didn’t care about breathing. She couldn’t.
She’d never been so close to a girl like this before. It’s why she never ventured close to them, because like this, face to face, chests pressing together for a breath, her brain stopped working. No thoughts. Just the feeling of someone touching her skin, sharing her breath. Nothing was coming to her other than the girl’s body and face and the way she smelled.
Tokala got herself together and sat a cushion away. Surprised by the feeling, she bounced a bit, making everything she had bounce as well.
Nikki felt terrible for looking, but she honestly couldn’t have pulled her attention away if she tried. She had black freckles all across her body like the rest of Nikki’s avian family, but she had pink eyes. Pink. Nikki almost fainted.
“Sorry about that,” Tokala said. “I can’t see. Blind. Mostly. Also albino. Got one cool attribute in exchange for a shitty one. The shitty one being the blindness, not the albinism.” She snorted. “Anyway, who are you, and where the fuck am I?”
Nikki looked down at how close their hands were. “Um. The fallout shelter. Morgan’s. My aunt’s. The Asilo…collapsed, and you were brought here.”
“It collapsed? Fully? What happened to it?”
“And may I congratulate whoever did it.”
Nikki choked, actually choked on her own spit, and hit her chest to get it down. “What?”
“Did it explode naturally, because there’ve been people down there who’ve wanted to blow it up for generations and could never find a way to do it.”
“I…don’t know,” she said, because of course she knew who’d done it, but she didn’t know what to say to her. She wanted to congratulate Nikki? For killing so many people? For millions in property damage? For being a criminal?
“I…did it,” Nikki confessed, “b-but it wasn’t my fault. I couldn’t control my body. Someone else was—”
“You did it?” Tokala lowered her excited voice and grabbed hold of Nikki’s elbow. She shook it like a child. “Good on you! Good riddance to that place. If everyone got out okay, then nix to all of them!”
“But you don’t understand. I don’t think a lot of people got out.”
Tokala frowned. “I smell a lot of waterborne around here. I just wound up here, somehow. One minute I was swimming for Viper, the next, blip, here I am.” She smiled a smile that looked all too right on her. She could’ve torn Nikki in two. “We must’ve all come here for a purpose. Maybe it was fate that we met?”
Nikki’s brain broke. Physically, mentally. No thoughts were coming through.
She blushed so deeply, she felt the heat cap at her rat ears. A fated meeting? With a girl? She wasn’t that lucky. No girls liked her. She was too stubborn and hard-headed. She got angry easily, she didn’t listen. And was there really such a thing about fated pairs? Lí had mentioned it, but was that really true? A perfect match, threaded through multiple lives?
Lí had had Vitaliya—Vanna—and she got that much. Their opposite personalities balanced each other out. And Lí had Tai, his fiancé, but Nikki wasn’t meant to have a forever lover. Just the thought of it…
It made her feel…
She gulped down her feelings, but they wouldn’t stay down. She always saw Derek as the lovey-dovey sibling who took in lovers like his heart depended on them, and Kevin was so in-tune with his feelings, she was jealous of his heart.
And now the opportunity had literally landed in front of her. What did one do in this kind of situation? How fast could she run away from Tokala?
Tokala giggled. “Aw, are you stunned silent? Did I embarrass you? How cute.”
Nikki’s heart skipped. Her chest hurt. Did she need to turn herself into the medical ward?
“What’s your name?” Tokala then asked. “I’ve been asking around for help, and you’re the first person to actually take the time to hear me.”
Nikki pretended she didn’t hear that. Or anything she was saying. Her voice was so light and calming. “My name’s Nicole. Nikki,” she corrected. “Nobody really calls me Nicole—Nikki’s fine.”
“Nikki Lenore?” Tokala’s heavy tail wagged. “You’re Kevin’s little sister! I’ve heard all about you. We’re a lot alike, you know.”
“Well, I’m not that little. We’re only two years apart, and all rats are small, so…” She stopped before she embarrassed herself any further. “How do you know Kevin?”
“We met in the Asilo. He was off seducing my best friend.”
“I know! I’m still mad at him for not asking me permission first. That’s, like, the biggest rule when it comes to fucking someone’s best friend: You need my seal of approval first. But what can you do? Viper’s happy. She’s the friend, by the way. My best friend. They met a while ago and Viper was head over fin for him. Have you seen her around? Small, petite, blue eyes, spiky fins.”
“Uh, the one holding the baby?” That girl and Kevin were together? In what timeline did Kevin date people?
“Yeah, and she ran off without me! She knows better than to leave me out of water. I can’t find my way anywhere on land. She must’ve been petrified to run away like that.”
“Well, she did look scared. Everyone’s terrified about what’s going on.” She brought her knees to her chest, tail over her feet. “Sorry about ruining your home.”
“Why’d you do it?” she then asked. “Was it a mistake?”
“It was! Someone else…was controlling me. I couldn’t stop it until it was too late.”
“Then why’re you beating yourself up about it? You did everything you could, didn’t you?”
“I guess, but—”
“Then quit it. You’re fine, and everything’s going to be fine.”
“It won’t be. Everyone hates me. They’re too afraid to look at me.”
Tokala tried to, looking at her forehead instead of her eyes. “I’m not. People are scared of me, too. Look at me. Sharp and fanged, with a shitty personality not a lot of people can get around. People might think badly about you, but that’s just because they’re stupid, and you shouldn’t pay any attention to stupid people. They’re stupid.”
Her hand found the top of Nikki’s head, and she petted her between the ears. “The world’s on fire. Don’t worry about things you can’t control. Just take deep breaths and you’ll be fine. When’s the last time you took a breath?”
She had no idea. She only realized then that she’d been holding it while Tokala spoke, taking in her every word. She breathed in quickly. “I’m breathing.”
“Are you?” she teased. “Come on. Take deep breaths with me. In.”
Nikki stared at her open mouth. Her lips were so pink.
She did. Held it.
“Now out,” Tokala breathed out.
And she did.
Nikki chuckled, then did. “Okay, okay, I get it.”
“Do you? Remember, you gotta breathe when things get too serious. If you can’t control anything in your life, remember that you can always breathe.”
A smile was creeping onto Nikki’s face. “Unless I’m underwater. I don’t know how to swim. I’d die in seconds.”
“Well, I’m a fabulous swimmer, much better than Viper or any others like me. If you ever go swimming, I’ll come save you, okay? I’ll help you breathe.” She leaned in, leaning Nikki backwards. “Or I’ll kiss you back to life. Is that an option you’d be interested in?”
Nikki didn’t trust her mouth for what it’d say, or having it so close to Tokala’s, so she clapped a hand over it to keep herself from answering. She didn’t want to think of such an answer with a complete stranger. Even though she felt safe around her presence, even though she was nice and beautiful and smiled at her like she was worth a smile, she couldn’t let herself fall so utterly.
If she did, she’d have to buy a ring that rivaled Lí’s.