Kevin knew where he was. It hurt to wake up and he couldn’t open his eyes, but that musty scent of a basement was all too familiar.
He awoke on his belly, neck numb, throat burning. He swiped at his eye crust only for his arm to get prickly. After a few minutes, he opened his stinging eyes.
He was in Morgan’s fallout shelter, in one of the bedrooms where Vanna liked doing his homework. He’d only spent a few evenings here, but the first impression had stuck. It was the biggest secret his family had kept from the government. They were all criminals, and he assumed he’d done a fair job at keeping that fact away from the Líders.
Blinking away eye crust, he got up to find said family.
He bit back a scream. Pain he’d never felt before twisted his fragile bones into pretzels. Something was broken, on his back, or one of his wings. Someone had placed one in a sling, curling the feathers into a natural position for the bones to heal.
His brain forced him to remember. The Asilo. The earthquake. The meeting of another Deity, and Maïmoù, holding everything up only to lose herself when she saw that her actions had broken his wing.
Pacing himself, he lifted himself up. His body wanted to rest for another year, but he pushed through it. He leaned on the metal bars of the bunk bed. His legs shook and he straightened them out. He needed to find Morgan.
Despite only being in the fallout shelter for a few weeks, he knew his way around. The halls were identical to the ones he and Viper had run through. He didn’t smell salt water, but he did see the people that carried the smell with them.
Dozens of waterborne were wandering through the halls like lost convention-goers. He’d never seen the shelter so crowded. For a second, he thought he was still in the Asilo, before he saw the Raeleenian flags tarnished with graffiti spray paint.
Down the hall came up a lobby that was the central hub of the fallout shelter. It overlooked the Drill so it was always in view and gave workers a place to take their breaks. A circle of couches, a coffee table.
Mom and Dad, arguing about something silly. Morgan and Del, switching between those conversations and giving orders from their walkie-talkies. Vanna was sitting on one of the couches with Nikki hovering over him. On the floor, sitting in their own circle was Tokala, who was giving papers to Nikki to overlook, and Viper, with Marcos, Alexi, and Zantl, hiding behind the couch with their knees up.
He teetered into the hall. Most of them had their backs to him. Zantl’s sensitive ears flicked at the sound of his footsteps, and once their eyes met, they yipped and dashed into the fallout shelter, afraid of Maïmoú’s unlucky soulmate. It took a few more steps before Mom noticed him.
He was swarmed with love. Faces crashed into his as they hugged and kissed and welcomed him back. Kevin hugged and kissed each of them back a hundred times. He might’ve given Mom one too many kisses. And loving Vanna never felt like enough. After learning about his depression and anxiety, he wanted to sit down with him and make sure he was okay in every sense. He even patted Marcos in the back, as a hug felt too intimate and a nod didn’t feel like enough.
“I didn’t think you’d come back to us,” Dad said, fighting back tears. “You were out for hours. We thought you wouldn’t—”
“Don’t say that,” Mom said. “He’s back. That’s all that matters. Del, for All That’s Above, get him something to drink. Kev, baby, are you hungry? Thirsty? Do you need anything?”
“How’s your wing?” Del asked. “Make sure not to move it around. It came to us broken.”
“And that entrance!” Morgan said. “Tell us what happened to you there. I need something to go on, and that robot unit and mute kid don’t give me nothing that makes sense.”
“Don’t overwhelm him,” Nikki said. She’d fallen back as their family barraged him with questions and love. “Let him wake up and get his bearings before you start asking him questions.”
Kevin smiled. Raising his arms, he gestured for his little sister to meet him halfway.
She walked over hesitantly. How he missed her, with her short stature, her wildly curly hair, her little buck teeth that made her smile all the more cuter. He was brought back to the first day they met, when she’d officially been welcomed underneath their family’s wings.
She plunged her face into his chest, and he embraced her in a late hug. He couldn’t remember the last time she’d voluntarily given him so much affection. She even allowed him to kiss the top of her head, pass the curls and right between her little ears.
Wriggling her face free, Nikki touched Kevin’s face, making sure she had the right boy. Then she stormed towards the kitchen. “Do we have any chocolate? He needs some sugar. He looks sick. And something cold! It’s a million degrees down here. He’s going to catch a fever.”
Mom and Dad laughed at her. Kevin had never seen them laugh together.
“Hi, Kevin,” Tokala said from the floor. “How’s your wing?”
“Oh, uh, fine. It’s good to see you. How’re you here?”
“Still don’t know. Me and Viper just poofed here.”
At the end of the couch waited Viper. He hadn’t tried hugging or kissing her. She’d changed into an oversized sweater and short shorts likely stolen from one of his family member’s closets. She was shying away from his family.
Tearing up, she came over to Kevin and gave him one of the gentlest hugs he’d ever received.
He hugged her back, cradling the back of her head. He didn’t know how much she could take, but she didn’t pull back. She even mimicked his touchy hands, holding his face, curling her fingers around his neck.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
He pulled back to look at her closely. He didn’t know if he’d ever see her again after the collapse, and now here she was, alive and touching him and mingling with his family. It was like a nightmare with a sudden happy end.
Mom cleared her throat. “Kev?”
He expected them to be angry with him. Or Viper. All of them. Too suited to Asilo culture, he thought he’d done something wrong and would get yelled at for it. But when he turned, he saw them staring at him with cunning eyes.
He separated from Viper, blushing furiously.
“What’s going on?” Mom asked slyly.
“Is this your person?” Morgan asked. “I never thought I’d see the day. Del, we should’ve placed bets. I know those longing stares into each other’s eyes from our school days. Remember that?”
“You never did that to me,” Del said.
“You’re such a liar. I was the first one to come on to you.” Morgan sighed. “What am I saying? My brain’s been fried for the past day or so. Does anyone know what time it is? Midnight? Morning?”
“Whatever’s going on, Kev,” Dad said, “I don’t care. I’m just glad you’re with us again.”
“But what happened to you?” Vanna finally asked. “What happened to Derek, and the Asilo, and these people? What happened to you?”
“We should have everyone here,” Mom said, then looked for Nikki. “Nikki, where are you?”
She came out opening the kitchen’s double doors with her butt. She held what looked to be the fallout shelter’s entire supply of dark chocolate, Kevin’s favorite snack.
They moved into one of the conference rooms that wasn’t overtaken by lost waterborne. Morgan had ordered someone to bring in drinks and cookies to accompany Kevin’s chocolate. Kevin went to sit off to the side when Morgan rolled out a chair for him in the front.
He drank a full cup of lemon tea and finished two bars of chocolate before deciding to speak. It was hard to condense months of one’s life into a cohesive storyline. What should he leave out? Where should he start? Usually, these types of talks were saved for Derek and the many shenanigans he needed to talk his way out of.
Sitting oddly on the couch so he didn’t agitate his wings, Kevin told his family everything that’d happened to him that season. He jumped around, as he wasn’t ready to talk about Derek, and he didn’t know how to bring up Maïmoú’s name. He held Viper’s hand so he didn’t lose focus. She kept quiet as he spoke, and soon her curiosity about chocolate got the better of her. The smile she couldn’t contain while she ate helped him power through.
He left out parts he knew Nikki could handle but Mom couldn’t. In his story, Maïmoú didn’t exist. Instead of being a cog in Zantl’s plans, Marcos became a sympathetic person who’d been strung along against his will.
Marcos helped highlight the Líders’ rise into madness since he knew them better than most. He talked about their experiments on waterborne and how they’d been in the works for generations. He mentioned that Mikhail was dead and Nadia had likely been killed by the Asilo collapse.
After giving Kevin a side-eye, Marcos also opted to not bring up Maïmoú directly. Hearing a government-owned robot talk about semi-invisible thirteen-year-olds would’ve made his family even more suspicious of him. Kevin saw the way Morgan watched him.
He instead tried mentioning something about memory chips and secret rooms, a girl from a forgotten time. He was very passionate about this part, the most animated Kevin had ever seen him, but Morgan dismissed it, as it didn’t pertain to Kevin’s side of the story.
“But it is very important.”
“We’ll talk about it later,” Morgan said. “We need to know what happened to Kevin first.”
“You’re just saying that because you don’t trust me.”
“Oh, no. I trust you wholeheartedly. It’s why I had you chained up when we first met.”
“Morg.” Del brought her lover’s scattered attention back on Kevin.
After mentally preparing himself, Kevin finally got to the Muralha, and he told them what’d happened. He knew they wouldn’t completely believe him—hearing voices didn’t make your story very credible. Maybe they wouldn’t believe any of it and call him crazy. But he loved them and trusted them indefinitely.
Nikki listened to every word without interruption. The more he delved into his story, the more her eyes widened in shock. It surprised him that she hadn’t asked him any questions about this part. She took it all without blinking, collecting facts and ruling out suspicions.
After Kevin finished, Morgan slapped her knee. “But how? That last part doesn’t make sense. You said someone tried hauling you and Derek over?”
“And you don’t think you hallucinated it, right?” Dad asked.
“It was real,” Kevin said. “I felt their hands on me.”
Morgan rubbed her glasses off her face. “How was Mikhail dead all this time? None of my Guards even knew, or if they did, they didn’t tell me.”
“It sounds like only a few lived to tell the tale,” Del said.
“How were they able to do this?” Dad asked. “It’s like torture.”
“It’s what they do best, I’m afraid,” Morgan said, “but if—I mean, since—there’s something over the Muralha, there’s a chance Derek’s still on the other side.”
“But Kev said he couldn’t see anything on the other side,” Mom said. “You said it was like molten rock, right?”
“I’d take molten rock over sky and nothingness,” Morgan said. “But before any of that—”
“W-we need to focus on the people still in the Asilo,” Nikki stuttered. “That’s what we need to do, yeah? Marcos said there’s thousands of people down there. We need to save them, yeah? With the Drill?”
“I don’t think you can,” Kevin said. “The roof was collapsing when we left.”
“Which means our chances of getting in are slim,” Morgan said, “and with the threat of guards and waterborne running amuck puts us in worse conditions.”
“This isn’t a hard decision,” Nikki said.
“We have to be rational.”
“I am being rational.”
“How about this?” Morgan said. “We get the Drill ready by next Thursday to plow through the Muralha. Líders are all dead, yeah, so we’d only have to deal with packs of guards who don’t have any alphas. In the meantime, I’ll send my people into the Asilo to scavenge for survivors and intel. If I find any of these waterborne people, I’ll bring them here or work out a better refuge center than what we have currently. I still don’t understand how or why all of them magically came down here.”
Morgan’s ideas relaxed a twitching muscle in Nikki’s cheek. “Fine.”
“Fine,” Morgan repeated. “Everyone okay with that? If everyone’s set, and before any of us process all of…this.” She gestured to Kevin and his friends. “We need to talk about you.”
Nikki’s ears went up.
“What happened?” Kevin asked. “Is this about the chocolates?”
“No.” Morgan, along with the rest of their family, pulled focus onto the youngest member.
“I…There’s more important things going on,” Nikki said.
“More important? You destroyed the Asilo!” Morgan said in a tone that might’ve been anger but was actually sheer bafflement. “How do you explain that?”
“I don’t know.”
“From the beginning’s a good place to start.”
“Wait, what?” Kevin asked. “Nikki didn’t destroy the Asilo.”
“You don’t understand,” Morgan said. “You weren’t there.”
“There’d been an assembly outside the Asilo,” Del explained. “Nadia came out with Zantl and the Marcos Unit.”
“So you know it was important,” Mom commented on.
“But besides that,” Morgan said, “which I can’t even believe I’m saying, but when it happened, Nikki…floated.”
Kevin looked at Nikki. She wasn’t meeting anyone’s eyes.
“And you survived being shot at,” Vanna said. “It healed like nothing.”
“And you killed—”
“Stop it,” Nikki said. “Look, I know it looks bad, but trust me, I can’t…” She turned to Kevin. “I can’t explain it clearly to you, because none of you would ever understand.”
Kevin cocked his head. His hand slipped from Viper’s only to realize he couldn’t let her go in fear of slipping away himself. He recognized that hesitance in telling the truth. Keeping earth-shattering secrets from your close ones for their own good.
Unlike Derek, Nikki couldn’t lie. The more time she spent holding something in, the more she broke. Surprise parties were always a struggle for her.
She looked ready to faint from holding in a long-kept secret.
Catching Kevin’s eyes, Nikki pulled him out of his seat. “I need to talk with Kev privately,” she said, and dragged him away from Viper, much to his dismay.
She brought him into one of the worst places in the fallout shelter: the crematorium. He’d only been here once with Derek on a dare. With all the lights off and something creaking in the corner, the two of them had run away and never came back.
Nikki made sure the door was sealed and backed him up near an operating table. Her hands were shaking. “First off: Are you okay?”
“Okay.” She looked around the empty room. “Kev, I need to ask you an important question, and I need you to not lie to me, okay?”
“Okay.” She gulped. “Do you know who pushed Derek off the Muralha?”
Kevin picked at his cuticles. How could he explain someone like Maïmoú to Nikki?
Nikki stared into the cracked tiles. “Do you know who Maïmoú is?”
The silence between them should’ve been enough, but to be polite, Kevin confessed. “Yes.”
Her face dropped. “So you’ve seen her?”
“You’ve talked with her?”
“Has she tried to kill you, too?”
His brain stuttered. “What?”
“I’m sorry. I should’ve been there to protect you.”
“What? No, Nikki, you got it wrong. Maïmoú’s my friend.” He pulled back his messy hair. He’d lost his hair tie between the fallout shelter and here. “How do you know about her?”
“She tried to kill me. She strangled me. She’s worse than the Líders. She’s not even a crossbreed.”
“No, no.” Even though he himself had been indecisive about Maïmoú’s morality, he still needed to prove to everyone that she had a good heart. “Maïmoú’s the only reason I’m alive right now. Ever since the beginning, she’s been helping me escape.” He tried calming down. “Nikki, are you like me? Are you a…a soulmate, too?”
Nikki’s face had gone yellow and sickly. Looking like she might throw up, she nodded once.
Kevin held his breath until it hurt. His little sister, all this time, she’d been battling this same war. “For how long?” he asked.
“I don’t know. I guess since birth, but I only found out a few months ago, right after you and Derek…” She backtracked. “How long have you known?”
“Right when I got on the Muralha. The voice told me her name was Maïmoú, and then everything got out of control. Which one is yours?”
“Shào?” He remembered that name spat in hatred by Maïmoú. “Above, Nikki.”
“I can’t believe this. So Maïmoú hasn’t threatened you?”
“No. Has Shào—?”
“No, Shào is…” She paused. “Well, he isn’t good, but Maïmoú is crazy.”
“Maïmoú isn’t…” He paused. “Well, I don’t know exactly how well she is, but she’s never threatened me.”
“Was she the one to break your wing?”
“No. The ground caved in around her and I fell, but she was sorry about it, I think. Nikki, she’s the one who’s been holding up the Muralha. Without her, we’d all be dead.” He took a breath. “What did she do to you?”
She rubbed her belly. “I don’t know how to explain it. I haven’t told anyone until now.”
“I thought I’d gone crazy.”
“Me, too!” She lowered her voice. “I never thought anyone would be able to understand this. Have you met Shào? He was Maïmoú’s friend, once, I think.”
“He’s the crossbreed Deity, the one who went crazy and betrayed her.”
“What? No, she’s the one who’s crazy.” She sat up on the operating table. “I can’t believe this.”
He couldn’t, either. He was so caught off guard by this conversation, he chuckled. Finally, he could share his experiences with someone who understood. “I’m glad I’m not the only one on this.”
“I think Marcos’ in on it.”
“Yeah, and Zantl. And that baby.”
“The baby? The one Marcos was holding? Why? With who?”
“Some old man, I think. I saw him in the Asilo before my wing broke.”
“Jesus,” she said, which Kevin understood, somehow. “Something bad must’ve happened to them in their pasts. I think Maïmoú did something, because she’s trapped here like a jail cell while Shào’s somewhere else. Do you also have a person connected to you, like someone from a past life?”
“Yeah! His name’s Hassan.”
“Mine’s Lí!” She finally shared his bemused expression. “I wish you could’ve met him. I think you and him would get along.”
“Same with you and Hassan. He’s just like me.” He held her hand. “Nikki, Derek’s in on this, too. He’s soulmated with Maïmoú with me. She was the one who pushed him off the Muralha. To help him,” he clarified when Nikki went wide-eyed. “She was trying to get us out before the wall broke. She said he’s alive on the other side.”
“He’s alive?” With confirmation that she hadn’t lost either sibling, Nikki sighed in relief. “Thank God. Or the Above. Whatever. So, does every Deity have a soulmate? You and Derek have Maïmoú, I have Shào. Marcos’ got one, I think her name was Sabah—he was yelling her name when he first got here—that baby has one. Zantl must have one, too, yeah? Which one?”
“I don’t know.”
Nikki leaned on the crematorium machine. “So she hasn’t tried to kill you, yeah? Has she tried to control you, manipulate you?”
“In what way?” he asked, which was probably the wrong way to ask that. She hadn’t manipulated him, right? She was trying to help him.
Nikki rubbed down the top of her hands. A frightened, guilty feeling washed over her, the kind you pulled after listening to a horror show on the radio late at night when you weren’t supposed to. “Shào…took over my body during the assembly. He used me to kill a bunch of guards.”
“He was angry. He kept yelling out the names of the other Deities, I think, who wronged him, and he kept thinking about Maïmoú. It was scary, Kev. I’ve never been more scared.”
“I’m so sorry, Nikki.”
“I’ve seen them fight,” she continued. “When they’re together, they’re ruthless. They were throwing each other into buildings and cratering the ground with their bodies. She tried to kill me.”
“Are you sure? I know she’s a little headstrong, and she doesn’t think things through—”
“Shào did everything to protect me, but Maïmoú still got to me.” She touched her throat, remembering something painful. “She choked me, Kev.”
Kevin refused to believe her, but then again, she couldn’t lie. Her stony eyes told him not to believe her but to understand a different part of Maïmoú he’d tried evading.
“Kev, I don’t think you know the real Maïmoú,” Nikki said. “Even I’m afraid of her.”
He didn’t want to hear any more. Maybe later when he didn’t have so much adrenaline shaking his hands.
“I…think I know how you feel,” Nikki continued. “My feelings about Shào are so messed up. I’m remembering things from Lí’s time where he admired him, and it screws up my brain. I don’t think we should be this close to Deities. It’s gonna kill us.”
The door Kevin thought Nikki had locked burst opened, restarting his heart. He readied himself for Maïmoú and to defend her again. It’d become in his nature, and Nikki had been the first person to tell him that this way of thinking might’ve been wrong.
Morgan came in instead. The rest of his family clustered around the gap in the door. “Uh, hello? We were just having a conversation about powers that may or may not be magical?”
Nikki pulled her Lying Face again, which looked like she was struggling with stomach problems and made her look so guilty. Kevin had a couple years on her to perfect the perfect poker face, but tonight wasn’t the night for any more secrets.
So, taking Nikki’s hand, Kevin told his family the truth.