His family took the news as well as he expected them to.
Mom was close to tears. Dad didn’t believe them. Morgan and Del had a question for every sentence Kevin got out, and Nikki tried to help by adding in her side of the story. Shockingly, talking about trading bodies with past carnations from a future that was still in the past didn’t help them make their case any clearer. It also didn’t help that Marcos kept interrupting with his own opinions and instances with Deities. Nikki had been right—his Deity was the one in control of all water, Sabah. Why was the robot connected to the Deity who could drown his circuits? It sounded too comical.
After giving up all that he knew and answering every question he could, Morgan sat down, then sat up, took a breath, and left without a word. When she came back, she slammed a pad of paper against Kevin’s chest. “So this’s all true.”
She said it as a statement, but Kevin humored her and took the questionable papers. He saw Maïmoú’s name, her picture blurred in the skyline and her debating some man in a suit.
“This must’ve been her from before,” he said, flipping through the ancient texts. “That’s her, with the long hair.”
Morgan looked over his shoulder. “That’s a picture of the sky, Kev. There’s no girl there.”
Figured. If she could only be seen by soulmates, then cameras probably couldn’t capture her. Deities were only meant for his eyes, and Nikki’s.
And Marcos’. If he could get sick, it showed in his face. He shifted his robotic weight awkwardly from foot to foot before finding a chance to break in with his thoughts. When it didn’t come, Kevin nodded his way.
“Let me find Zantl,” Marcos said, though most of them still had their backs to him. “They’ll know more about this. I’ll make them tell us. We’re done with keeping secrets.”
Morgan waited for him to leave before rolling her eyes. “I think this magic ruined his processors. So he’s in on this, too? And that baby he’s carrying around? And Derek?”
“I believe so, yes,” Kevin said.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but can you…do it now? Float and explode things with your minds?”
Kevin looked over to Nikki, who was chewing on her lip.
“I don’t think so,” he said honestly. “Since waking up, I haven’t heard anything from Maïmoú.”
“Neither have I with Shào,” Nikki said. “They might be too far away from us, or their brains might be damaged.”
“Brats in control of the world can get brain damage?” Morgan asked indignantly. “Great. Makes perfect sense.”
“They’re only kids,” Kevin defended.
“That girl is the reason Derek’s gone,” Mom said coldly. “She’s the source of all our pain for the past few months. It’s all their fault.”
Morgan left the hall again, but instead of bringing back secret documents or more clues about Maïmoú’s past, she came back with five bottles of cabinet liquor. “Rest up, all. We aren’t touching any of this until we level out our brains, and I don’t know about you, but a good bottle and a night’s rest will do all of us good. If anyone needs me, I’ll be in the galley, hopefully getting passed out on the floor.”
Without any more answers to their questions, without a more practical guide into the realm of Deities, his family slowly deflated. Morgan and Del went to drink their feelings away. Mom needed a minute by herself. Dad took Vanna to have a go in the kitchens, which were filling quickly with hungry waterborne. This left Kevin, Nikki, Viper, and Tokala alone.
Within the awkward quietness, Viper sniffled back tears.
Kevin’s heart broke in two. “What’s wrong?” he asked, as if anything had gone right yet.
“I just…it’s a lot,” she struggled to say. “I don’t know…” She started hyperventilating, her fear submerging her. “I-I don’t know what any of this means. I know about Zantl’s powers and what they can do when they’re upset, but this sounds so much different. It sounds scary.”
Tokala’s ears twitched on alarm. “Hey.”
Viper touched her gills. She was gasping now, like she was really drowning.
“She needs to get into water,” Tokala said sternly. “She needs brackish water, now. She’ll faint.”
“There were fountains in the kitchen,” Nikki said, “but I think they said it’s only for freshwaterborne. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I don’t need water to survive. It just feels good. And freshwater’s not good enough for her. If she gets put into that, she’ll drown herself. But thanks for thinking about me. That’s sweet.”
Nikki blushed and wagged her tail. “W-well, there’re other showers down here, but I don’t know if they’ll work.”
“Then we’ll make ’em work. Come on.” Tokala grabbed hold of Nikki’s hand. She missed several times before latching on. “Show me. Viper, follow us.”
“There’re other showers across the shelter,” Kevin added, pointing behind them.
“Then go bring her there first. Nikki and I will go together.” Pulling Nikki’s shoulder from her socket, Tokala left with her through the crowds.
Kevin helped Viper stand upright with both hands. “I didn’t know they were so close.”
Viper coughed. “Nikki’s…very much her type. They’ve been talking for hours, never leaving each other’s side.”
“Oh.” He’d have to ask her how she felt about that. It’d be her first love.
No other bathrooms looked quite like the bathrooms in the real world. Morgan had thought the pipes down here would burst, so she kept everyone from using them and made them use the ones up in the coffeehouse.
But Derek had been curious one night, as he often was, and dragged Kevin into one of his shenanigans. With Kevin acting as his wingman by the entry door, Derek had turned on one of the jets and tasted the water. It’d tasted like blood and rust and made a horrible sound. They’d run away before they’d gotten caught by Morgan or worse, their parents.
Kevin thought back on the taste now. Aside from the rotten taste from the unused pipes, the water tasted like W4. It tasted like Viper.
Not many waterborne had found their way to this side of the fallout shelter. Some were inside the bathroom, trying out the open showerheads and toilets. It was a communal bathroom that held twenty or so toilets, multiple showerheads, and open bathtubs that reminded him more like pools. Old water puddles stained the tiles a concerning black, but some of the people had figured out the faucets and buttons.
Kevin led Viper to an unoccupied corner of the bath. He saw a crossbreed that looked just like her. To be sure, he asked, “Is this water for brackish…borne?”
“It is,” Viper wheezed, and stooped to get in. Kevin helped take off her sweater, stripping her down to an oversized t-shirt and shorts.
It was strange to see a bath without any bubbles in it. All of the people sank to the bottoms of the shallow, salty bath, some hunching over and drinking in their needed water through their gills. Bubbles left Viper’s lips until she stopped breathing altogether, like she could’ve stayed underwater for years and been completely content with it.
Kevin sat cross-legged on the wet tiles and stayed like that with her for about an hour. He found it extremely easy to calm down when he was with her. The world had been thrown off-balance, he’d returned to his awaiting family only to cast distrust and confusion over them, and staying with her was enough. He liked watching her swim, or bop up and down, as she stayed in one place: close to him. His hands made ripples in the water. She swam closer to him when he did that.
She held his hand, when they were close enough, and he became an anchor for her. He thought he was rather good at it; he guessed that, after this, he wasn’t going anywhere without her. She’d tethered herself so tightly around his heart that she’d made grooves around it. Even if they were to separate again, he wouldn’t have been able to stray far.
It sounded too much like they were soulmates, and that made him blush in embarrassment. It felt too intimate of a connection with someone he’d only met that year, but he supposed he liked Maïmoú just as much.
Comparing his connection with Maïmoú and his adoration for Viper was and would never be a fair comparison to make.
At the turn of the hour, a crowd of crossbreeds found their way into the bathroom. The baths became so crowded that Viper was bumping into shoulders and stepping over tails.
Kevin tapped her shoulder. “Do you want to get out?”
After thinking about it, she nodded, cheeks puffed out in embarrassment, and the two escaped back into the hall.
“I’m surprised they still work,” he told her. “Do you want to try the other bathroom? I can take you there.”
She shook her head. Despite being rejuvenated with water, she still didn’t look well.
He looked away. He felt so awkward asking her what was wrong because he knew. She was confused and terrified and tired, probably hungry, and maybe even homesick for the Asilo. He couldn’t do anything to help her with a lot of those factors other than food, but she was so skinny. Did she have a certain food regime he needed to follow? What were her favorite foods?
He looked up to the ceiling, an idea forming. “You’ve never been outside the Asilo before, right? You’ve never walked the streets or gone shopping, have you?”
She shook her head and looked away.
“I can bring you upstairs to my aunts’ coffeehouse! It’s really pretty and cozy. They sell pastries, which are like sugary desserts you can eat for any meal, and coffee, and more chocolate. You tried dark chocolate, but there’s also milk chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate with berries mushed in. It’s all good.”
Viper looked up sickly at Kevin. The way she fluttered her tired eyes and how her body was still wet made his heart and brain drop to his crotch.
A pair of heavy footsteps ran up to them. It was Pippa, one of Viper’s guards.
Seeing her, Viper hid behind Kevin.
Seeing her, Kevin thought little of her. He couldn’t even remember if he had her name right.
Seeing Vanna holding hands with her bristled Kevin’s feathers in shock.
“There you are,” Pippa said. “I was looking for you. I’m trying to get a headcount of every waterborne to make sure they’re hydrated. Viper, you just found the bathrooms, right? Now all that’s left is that baby shark, Alexi. I cannot for the life of me find her or Marcos. Vanna said he ran after Zantl, and now it’s like they disappeared.”
Kevin looked over to Vanna, eyebrows knit in confusion. “What’s going on?”
Vanna nervously smiled and gestured to Pippa. “We…I mean, you know my moms. They sought the opportunity to bring in guards for her mission to build the Drill. We met and, well…” He shrugged, like it was just fated to be. “She kept good tabs on you when you were in the Asilo.”
Kevin reexamined Pippa, this bubbly, energetic girl just out of the academy. “You’ve been working for my family this whole time. And you’re dating my cousin?”
“Yeah. Guess I don’t need to hide it anymore, now that the Líders are allegedly kaput. Do you know where Zantl is? I feel like if I find one of these—what’re they called?—soulmates, I’ll be able to find the other. Ya’ll seem to cluster together.”
“I…haven’t seen either of them,” Kevin said.
“Then we’ll keep looking. I’m sorry to cut it short, Kevin, Viper, but knowing these people can just shrivel up after an hour without water’s making me jumpy.” She turned, spinning Vanna around. Vanna gave Kevin an almost sorrowful wave, like he wished he could’ve stayed longer but couldn’t, and left with his supposed lover.
How much had his family changed since Derek’s disappearance? First Mom and Dad are laughing with each other, then Nikki’s off making moves with a girl she just met. Now Vanna had a lover, a guard, a profession and class his mothers didn’t favor. He’d have to catch up with them and their growth.
But he had other people to worry about first. He pulled Viper back into the present and down a new hall. “I’m sorry, you got interrupted. What were you saying?”
“I just…wanted to know if I could lay down somewhere,” she said, “if there’re no tanks. I just want to rest my…everything.”
Kevin mentally calmed himself down. There would be a time to show Viper the world. Tonight wasn’t it. “Okay.”
He led her to somewhere without many people. The hall was nearly empty save for a few guards sitting on the floor and rocking. This was the other, lesser known set of bedrooms that Morgan had let fall to the wayside. The rooms were smaller than the normal ones and were taken up with cleaning supplies rather than furniture and pillows. The room he chose was closet-sized with a cot pushed up into the corner, hooks coming loose on the walls, and a small table missing one of its legs. Viper flopped down rather dramatically and sighed.
Kevin closed the door on his tail feathers and turned on the fluorescent light above them. It sputtered out a faint, yellow hue.
Viper buried her face in the pillow, tucking in her knees and tail and making herself small. Kevin crossed his ankles, keeping to her boundaries.
“I’ve never slept in a bed like this before,” she confessed. “I know the guards use them when they work night shifts, but waterborne usually sleep in our tanks, or rest in cots just outside of our tanks.”
“Is it comfortable, sleeping in water?”
“It feels vulnerable. Knowing guards can be watching you sleep makes me nervous. But beds make me nervous, too. Everything does.” She sighed. “I’m so tired, Kevin. All I wanna do is sleep.”
“Do you want the lights on?”
Her toes curled into the blanket. “Do you want them on?”
“I don’t mind either way.”
“Okay, then,” she said, and off the lights went, casting them in darkness. It felt more fitting for her, in a strange, calming way.
But the silence was dragging, and his brain begged him to fill it. He went to pick at his fingers before curling them into fists. “I’m sorry,” he said, voice cracking. “I don’t know what to say.”
She wiped her face on the pillow. “When you hurt your wing, you were talking to someone. That girl was Maïmoú, wasn’t she?”
“Yeah. She’s the Deity girl linked to me from the past, a girl who can do unspeakable things to the world, but who can also save it.” He stopped himself. He was doing it again. “Deities are…a difficult group of people to talk about. I’ve only met two, and I don’t know them well at all. At once they’re very protective and kind, but at the same time, they can be…hostile.”
“I’m sorry you have to go through that.”
The response came so naturally. It was normal to be thankful for someone worrying about you, but he hated that it was still tied to Maïmoú. He wondered how Hassan had done it. He’d been a father figure to Maïmoú for years. When Kevin had dreamt of his little cottage on that humid farm, he’d cared for Maïmoú, like a true father to his young daughter.
Viper’s fanned tail thumped on the bed’s rumpled sheets, and Kevin looked over to see her staring up at him.
His heart thumped with her tail.
“You wanna lay down?”
He nodded. Again, brain not where it was supposed to be. He just wanted to be closer to her, in any way. He needed to be that anchor.
Slowly, he maneuvered onto the cot, letting his wings fall off the edge.
They listened, the two of them in this space. They heard the hum of the machinery working overtime to accompany so many people. People walked by their room, ignoring their presence so it was just them. No more talk of Deities, no more threats. Only each other and their breaths warming up their pillows.
He’d be sure to show her everything. That life was confusing and troubling, but outside, rain felt good on your skin, rainbows were fleeting beauty, and going to school sucked but after-school activities with your friends was fun. Life outside the Asilo could be fun. She needed that.
He snuck a glance at her. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Are you?”
She hid her face better. “I lied. I’m not okay. I don’t think I can remember the last time I was. When I’m with Tokala, I guess it lessens, but sometimes it’s too much, you know? Sometimes I feel so heavy, and I haven’t done anything in hours.”
“What can I do right now to make things better?” he asked.
“Hug me and tell me things will be okay.”
He snatched the pillow away from her and placed it behind them. He didn’t know how far she wanted him to go or how far one could take a hug, but he didn’t care. She’d given him a chance to act on her needs and by any God’s name, he’d act on them for her.
He didn’t know what to do with his legs. He’d never held someone like this in a bed before. Sometimes he’d hug his parents’ goodnight or give a little awkward, one-armed hug to Nikki if she allowed it, but never like this. This held too much potential.
He palmed her shoulder blade, around the spiny frill connected to her back. His other hand, the one around her pillow, cupped the back of her head. He petted down her hair to dry it faster. “Everything will be okay,” he promised. “I don’t know how or when, but we’ll get through this and everything will get better soon.”
“Absolutely. There’re so many things I want to show you when this is all over. I want to take you to ice cream parlors and have dinner with my family. I want you to meet my twin, Derek. He’s always so fun when meeting new people. I want to do so many fun things with you. And Tokala, too, of course.” He swallowed back his mouth full of spit. “You’re just the exception.”
A shy hand wrapped gingerly over his hip bone. “I am?”
He closed his eyes and smelled her hair. She smelled of summer, somehow, like rays of light hitting a puddle and reflecting the bright sky above.
“I never thought I’d be able to do this with someone,” Viper whispered into him. “My past, it was…with boys, and with guards, sometimes, I was taken advantage of.”
He pulled back. “What?”
“But it’s different with you. I feel safe with you.”
“Wait, what do you mean?”
She didn’t answer. Her arms felt like dead weight over him now. “Men are…scary when they’re with me. You’ve helped me overcome my fears. I really like that about you. You make me feel like I can fall asleep next to you, and nothing bad will ever happen to me again.”
He stared past the curve of her head into the dark, shapeless wall behind her. He wasn’t intimate with people, but he wasn’t an idiot, either. He knew what she was implying.
His stomach melted down into the pit of his gut. His skin numbed up as he tried processing what to say and how he was feeling. Nothing felt right on his tongue, but he had to say something.
He had to keep his fingernails from clawing into her back. He now understood how easily Maïmoú jumped from happiness to fury. This burning, it wasn’t from fear or pain but anger. Intense, acute hatred for vile men. It frightened him how ready he was to hurt someone, and how, at first, he didn’t think that was wrong.
He still didn’t think it was. He wanted to hunt those men down like animals and make them suffer.
To combat these new feelings rushing inside him, Kevin held Viper tighter. “I’m sorry,” he said, trying to control himself.
“Now we both have painful secrets that’re impossible to bring up to people.”
He hugged her more, burying her, hoping to bury that secret in her memories, but that wasn’t how it worked. Pain and anger never faded. They were emotions you had to live through and hopefully find someone to share with. Their traumas weren’t the same—they’d never live each other’s lives—but this breakthrough in trust was a starting point.
He pressed his lips against the top of Viper’s head. She hadn’t come up for air, was only breathing in the clothes Morgan had lent them from upstairs.
She wiggled her feet again.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded. “Mhm.”
“Mhm.” Her grip over his hips tightened. “Did you just kiss me?”
“Yeah. I think,” he added, because he honestly couldn’t remember.
She pulled up, hiding her thin lips behind a sheet. “I didn’t really feel it,” she whispered. “Can you…try again? Somewhere I can feel it?”
Bloodthirst quickly dissolved and boiled into a different kind of animalistic drive. He felt a heartbeat travel down his whole body and through every feather.
Leaning down, Kevin brought Viper’s face up and kissed her right.