“What do you think?” Riku asked her, puzzling over a book from the library. The candles around them were low. They’d been working on this puzzle for hours, well after the sun set. He tapped the pages, frowning, and looked up at her. He was sitting at a table in one of the larger common rooms, while she perched on her knees on the chair beside him, elbows propped beside the book to hold her weight. She didn’t look away from the book, but from the corner of her eye, he looked tired. There were dark circles under his eyes, as usual.
“Well,” she said, humming. The spell they were examining was complicated, but she would not be beaten by a mere piece of paper. “This looks like containment here.” She pointed to one of the pieces of the spell’s mark. “But this looks like release.”
“But that puts them in conflict,” he said, tapping his fingers on the table next to the book. “Or it should.”
“We must be missing something.” She leaned closer over the book.
“Well, given how long we’ve been at this, that’s a fair guess. Look, Kairi, we should give this a rest. We can always look at it again tomorrow.” He slumped back in his chair until his head caught on the back. “Or, frankly, we should ask Aqua.”
“No,” Kairi said, the force of it surprising him, if the way he suddenly looked over at her, eyebrows drawn together, was anything to go on. “We can do this. We can.”
“Kairi,” Riku said, setting a hand on her shoulder without actually sitting up, as if even that would wear him out too much. Lines drew deep between her brow as she frowned, and she squinted her eyes almost closed when her vision threatened to blur from exhaustion. “Come on, this is getting silly.”
She finally looked away from the book and gave him an acid look. “If you want to leave, go ahead. I will get this to work.”
Riku sighed, brushing his hair behind his ear. “Fine, Kairi. I’m going to sleep before I fall over. Just don’t forget to blow out the candles on your way out.” He levered himself up from his chair like an old man and left, and in his absence the study seemed quieter. Colder.
Regret rushed in like a wave to fill the gap left in his absence, and she leaned forward until her forehead touched the table. “That wasn’t fair of me,” she said to the table, muttering it with her lips brushing the wood like a secret. “I’ll apologize tomorrow.”
She sat up again, narrowing her eyes at the book, willing the spell to make more sense. She stood away from the table to give it one more try, rubbing her hands together as she leaned over to read over the instructions again. Magic simmered up to her hands to answer her call, but there was still a block, some obstacle keeping her from completing the spell.
“Come on,” she muttered, trying to force it, pushing her will against the block as if she could break it by strength of will. The effort pulled sweat to her forehead, her fingers itching and crackling with power, but the magic only surged and sparked and burned at her hands. “Ouch— dammit!” She hurled the half-formed spell aside, yelping when it left her hands with a vicious, foaming burst, leaving a burn mark across the wall.
She jumped, skittering further away from the table. Sora peered owlishly at her from the doorway.
“Oh,” she said, shaking her head to wake herself up a little more. It was a miracle she hadn’t managed to hit him. “Sora, I’m sorry. You startled me.”
He grinned and circled the table. “What are you doing in here? It’s so late!”
She frowned at him, examining the hypocritical dark circles under his eyes that matched Riku’s all too well. “I’m just working on a spell, Sora, it’s fine.”
“Ask Aqua tomorrow! She’s really good with spells.”
“Thanks, Sora,” she grumbled. Riku had put him up to this, she’d put money down on that.
“Come on, Kairi,” Sora said with a laugh, and grabbed her wrist. Panic lanced through her like an electric shock. Her mind blurred with memories—Axel, in Twilight Town. Saïx, in the Castle, Maleficent— “Let’s go!”
—Even Riku, right at the start.—
She ripped away from him, a spell bursting out of her without thought.
His reflexes, much to her relief, were better than hers, but she clapped her hands to her mouth as if that would stop further outbursts. The fireball washed around him, flicking at the carpet and leaving a little char, but his barrier was so firm that his hair didn’t even so much as ruffle in the backblow of heat.
For a moment, they merely watched each other. She wasn’t sure what to expect. Rage, perhaps. Shock. Betrayal. He blinked at her, his eyes wide, but otherwise showing little emotion.
“Kairi?” he asked. His voice was soft. Confused.
“I’m sorry,” she breathed, only slowly lowering her hands. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean...”
“It’s okay,” he said first, leaning closer, then darting forward to try to catch her, or at least brace her shoulders, when she dropped to her knees. “Whoa, hey! It’s okay, Kairi, nobody got hurt.”
“I’m sorry,” she whispered again, pressing the heels of her hands into her eyes to steady herself.
“I know. Come on, let’s get you into bed.”
She relented and let him guide her to her room, mumbling “the candles” to him just before he left her alone. He promised to take care of it, smiling, and lightly tapped his fist to her shoulder.
She didn’t get into bed so much as fall on top of it, belatedly thinking to kick off her shoes. They thudded satisfyingly on the floor.
She rolled over to stare at the wall and forced herself to accept a creeping, terrible truth: it wasn’t the first time she’d overreacted like that. Just the scariest.
It was so hard, now, with the other three around. It had been easy enough to keep track of where people were when it was just her boys, but now there were five. Six, sometimes, when Lea came to visit. It was too easy for someone to walk up behind her while she was doing something and tap her on the shoulder. Or grab her hand to take her somewhere. Grab her shirt, tug, to ask her something. To wrap their arms around her shoulders in something that was only supposed to be a hug.
Even to sneak up behind her and cover her eyes as a prank. She’d actually elbowed Ven in the stomach when he’d done that, the week before. She’d lost count of how many times she’d apologized while he was doubled over, wheezing for breath.
She knew, objectively, that she was safe here. No one was going to come and steal her, not anymore. And even if they did try, she was better now. Stronger. She could fight back now. But deep down… deeper, where it mattered. She was still afraid. Afraid she would only be a burden, relying on the boys, the others. Again. That her own strength wouldn’t be enough. That she’d never catch up. The others didn’t have to fear the things she feared. They were stronger, better, faster. They’d trained longer, and she’d never be able to match that, no matter how many late nights she spent nose-deep in Master Eraqus’ books. No matter how many times she begged Terra to show her more advanced strikes.
The next morning she only woke up when a soft knock on her door cut through the haze of strange, stressful dreams, and even then she just mumbled something vaguely placating and rolled back over.
She grunted irritably and remained on her side, her face close to the wall.
The door creaked open, the voice that followed it clearer without the barrier. “Kairi, it’s Aqua. I’ve got some breakfast for you.”
She sighed, her voice muffled by the quilt. “Thanks.”
She heard the tap tap tap of Aqua’s boots, the tik-thump of a plate settling on the table, and then the bed behind her shifted as Aqua sat down. “Hey. Is it okay if I talk to you for a minute?”
Kairi glanced over her shoulder for a moment, then back to the wall. “Sure, I guess.”
“Okay!” Kairi’s outburst surprised even her. She flopped over on her back and hid her face in her hands. “Okay. Yes. I messed up, okay, I cast at him. I messed up, and I nearly burned his face off. It was an accident, I promise, I just... I get it. I’m out of control, I’ll figure out how to fix it.”
Aqua was quiet for a moment. “Oh, is that what happened?”
To say that was not the response she was expecting would be an understatement. Kairi frowned and looked over at Aqua. “Well… yeah. Why, what did Sora say?”
Aqua smiled and leaned her hands on her knees, shoulders lifting on a shrug. “He said he spooked you really badly, and that your casting reflexes were impressive. He said I should teach you some more advanced spells, because trying to hold you to the pattern I learned on, in a more traditional, academic, master-and-apprentice setting, was just going to limit your ability to be flexible and creative, which, since you had to learn on the fly in the World That Never Was, is one of your greatest strengths.”
She blinked, then smirked faintly. “And Sora said all that.”
“Well, no,” Aqua said, nudging a teasing elbow to Kairi’s side. “Riku said that second part. They were very adamant that we change things. They think you’re feeling stuck in our lessons, getting frustrated.”
She chewed on her lip, thinking, then looked to the wall. “Oh,” she said, her voice coming out low and a little ragged. How did they know her so well, even after all this time apart? “Yeah, kinda.”
“Then we’ll work on that,” Aqua said, grinning and patting Kairi’s shoulder. “It’s okay to let me know if you feel like you’re hitting walls. Honest. We’re all doing a lot of things we’ve never done before, but we’ll figure it out.”
Kairi sat up as Aqua stood and clasped her hands together. “Yeah... Thanks, Aqua.”
“Don’t worry about it, okay? I’ll see you for lessons later,” Aqua said, heading for the door.
Kairi chewed on her lip, half-realized thoughts whirling around each other. “Hey, Aqua?”
She turned at the door, leaning back into the room to be seen as she smiled and tucked a few errant strands of blue behind her ear. “Hm?”
“There’s something else I want to practice. With… just you and Ven, I think.”
The only indication Aqua was surprised was a tiny lift of her eyebrows, but she smiled. “Sure, Kairi. What’s on your mind?”
The new lessons wore her out more than any of the others. More than blades, more than spells. Every afternoon they slipped away to run drills in dark hallways far from where Terra sparred with Sora and Riku. Endless repetition of a few practiced, false scenarios in the gloom of a disused wing of the castle.
Arms around hers from behind, crushing her elbows to her ribs. A half-faked stomp on Ven’s boot, and while he was stunned, sliding out of his arms like a snake.
Arms under hers, crushing her chest to his armor. Her hands, slamming into his helmet to box his ears, and in the half-second's opening she could wrench back, draw her blade, and counter.
His gauntlet on her wrist as he tailed her down the hallway. A spin to face him, an air spell to his middle to drive all his breath out, then the return strike.
Over and over.
The physical exertion wasn’t the hard part, not really. It was the glove on her arm, the armored hands curling around her shoulders, that set her heart racing and her breath into overdrive. Kairi hadn’t exactly explained to Aqua why she wanted to learn hand-to-hand combat like this, but the first scream and panicked, unchoreographed fire spell to Ven’s armor gave it away pretty well, and Aqua suggested a new approach while Ven went to get water for them both.
For two days the “lessons” weren’t lessons at all. Ven simply grabbed her. Did nothing, didn’t pull, didn’t tug, just grabbed. Let her heartrate spike and her breath go tense from panic, held her until she calmed, just a little, just enough to react and slowly, precisely, move through the answering attack.
When Aqua was satisfied that she could respond without panicking, they turned to the drills. Kairi didn’t know how to tell her it didn’t work. That she never stopped freezing inside, she never stopped going rigid, tense like a bowstring, at the feeling of fingers on her wrists. She couldn’t stop the thin shriek inside her own skull. She just hid it better. Reacted immediately instead of physically stopping to process the panic.
If Aqua or Ven could tell, they didn’t let on.
She worked with them for days on end. Nothing seemed to help. She had to do something else. Something wasn’t working. Even after drilling with Ven for hours straight, well into the evening, flying through the strikes and responses until their arms were blurs and neither of them could breathe, she still felt ice in her blood and fear clenching around her throat. She stepped back, calling for a pause, and Ven collapsed backward. She pulled Aqua aside.
“I want to try something a little different.” Ven was panting for air, shoving his helmet off such that it rattled across the floor. His hair was stuck to his forehead and Kairi herself was drenched, the back of her shirt damp from cold sweat more so than from exertion. Aqua raised an eyebrow, curious, but nodded when Kairi wrung her fingers together. “I just gotta fetch something.”
“Sure, we’ll wait. Ven could use the break.”
Ven lifted a hand, wheezed approvingly, and let his glove hit the floor with a dull clank.
She stalked the castle, avoiding her boys. She slipped past the room Riku had commandeered as a study before he could look up to spot her and dodged a snoozing Sora where he was lounging on a library couch.
Terra, her temporary prey, she found weight training in one of the yards downstairs.
“Hey,” she said, waiting till he looked up from a set of pushups.
“Hey Kairi,” he said, grinning as he hopped back up to his feet. “Need something?”
“Yeah. Um. I want you to spar with me.”
Terra’s face went cloudy. “What?”
“I mean not, you know. Not with keyblades.” She bit down the sour not like I’ll ever catch up to your level anyway in her mouth and forged ahead. “Hand to hand. Self-defense stuff.” Terra’s expression still looked gloomy and disapproving and she tried again, words coming too fast as she tried to get him to understand. “Aqua’s been teaching me! I’ve been working with Ven but he’s small. You know. My size. So it’s not very…” She waved a hand, looking for a word that was more useful than terrifying because that was both untrue (he wasn’t scary, even if she was scared anyway) and would only make Terra less willing (“I want you to scare me out of being afraid” wasn’t going to do much good for Terra’s slowly healing self-confidence). “Plausible?”
Terra leaned against an exercise frame, rubbing a towel through his hair. “So you want me to run self-defense drills with you. Grabs, throws, that kind of thing, right?”
He understood! She lit up like the sun. “Yes! Exactly.”
Terra looked at her, hard, eyeing her up and down. He looked suspiciously like he was about to say no and she felt her hope start to crumble.
“Okay,” he said, hastily adding “but only with supervision,” when she nearly jumped at him in joy.
“Thanks! Come on!” She grabbed his hand and tugged, pulling him back the way she’d come. If anything was going to shake her fear loose, it’d be a bigger, stronger attacker.
She was less sure now, facing him in the dim hallway. It felt different, facing off across from him for a real fight, even knowing it was little more than an aggressive dance they both knew all the steps to.
He was exactly three paces away. But his paces were longer than Ven’s. He was further away, and it seemed like that should’ve put her more at ease (he’s even farther, she had more time to run) but it only seemed to reinforce that he was so much bigger. He’d cross the distance faster than Ven could.
No matter how fast she was, he could catch her.
Now that she was standing here with him like this, she realized Terra was even bigger than Axel and Saïx had been. Aqua seemed tiny by comparison, standing off to the side and watching them both.
How had she never noticed how tall he was?
Suddenly this didn’t seem like such a good idea.
Terra rolled his shoulder. “You ready?”
She clenched her hands into fists to hide the trembling in her fingers. There was a sound behind her but she didn’t look. She nodded, stiff, refusing to open her mouth in case her voice shook. She had to do this. She had to.
But the thin, terrified screaming in her head felt so loud.
She knew these steps. Terra would shift his foot back, into a ready stance, then stride forward to grab her. A bear-hug grab. Over her arms. That was always the first one.
He didn’t move. Why isn’t he moving.
She jolted. Talking wasn’t part of the practice.
Terra smiled, but it was sad, and he lifted his hands to show her his palms. He stepped forward once. Twice. Despite herself, she relaxed into his intent: this wasn’t the fake, staged aggressor, this was Terra, and she settled nervously somewhere between the raw, barely-bridled terror and utterly normal.
He crouched, just a little, knees bent so his eyes were on her level.
“Breathe,” he whispered, and she exhaled in a rush. When had she held her breath? “You’re super pale.”
She looked down. The carpet was less painfully compassionate than his expression. “Oh.”
That sound again, behind her, like shoes shuffling across the ground. Terra glanced past her shoulder, then toward Aqua, then at her again.
“Hey,” he said softly, and he patted her shoulder, letting his hand rest. “Tell you what.”
She looked up at him again, trying to tamp down the burning in her eyes.
“You go with Riku,” he said, nodding past her. She didn’t look back, didn’t want to see his face, but at Terra’s suggestion she felt Riku step up behind her, felt the warmth of his presence at her back. “Get a mental reset kind of thing. Tomorrow we’ll figure out what to do next about this. Okay?”
She tried to wrangle words together to answer but her head was spinning with phrases, feelings, so fast she felt ill. She nodded. Terra smiled, squeezed her shoulder, and stood up again, turning toward Aqua. Kairi leaned back, just a little, until her shoulders could touch Riku’s chest, and he set his hands on her shoulders.
“You’re okay,” he whispered into her hair, and she sighed, closed her eyes. Tried to settle her thoughts. Finally she turned, grabbing his hand before he could grab hers.
Sora was a few paces back, watching nervously from behind a statue. She sighed when she saw him, and he gave her a sheepish grin. She took his hand too, even though she let them lead.
Riku took them back to his room. She was a little surprised they didn’t go to hers, but he led them both inside and shooed them onto his bed. His room here was weirdly familiar, reminiscent of his room back on the islands in its simplicity, its sparseness, but it was warmer here, somehow. Less silver and black, more warm oranges and soft greys.
Sora hopped up onto Riku’s bed first, holding out his arms to Kairi. He was like the islander child from her memories again, warm and open-hearted as ever. She smiled, giving a sort of soft, wet laugh that was somewhere between a chuckle and a sob, and crawled up after him, curling up inside his arm to rest her head on his chest. Riku brought a candle over to his side table and lit it with a quick snap of his fingers, then slid up beside them, one hand curled into Kairi’s.
For a moment, they merely sat that way. Kairi curled into Sora’s hug, Riku holding her hand. No words. No questions. She inhaled shakily. She should probably apologize. She’d scared them, and she’d been avoiding them, and she’d been acting weird.
But words rumbled out of Sora’s chest before she could open her mouth.
They both looked up at him, Kairi significantly more shocked than Riku.
“What?” she breathed. “Why?”
“I didn’t see how much you were hurting,” he said, with a forcedly careless shrug.
Riku squeezed her fingers. “Me neither. I’m sorry too.”
She huffed through her nose and tugged Riku closer, forcing the boys to shift and tangle their legs across each other’s so she could sit squished between them. “Stop it, both of you. You didn’t do anything wrong.” They were quiet, though Sora felt like he was vibrating with the effort of keeping in his words to let her talk. “This is on me. I didn’t… know how to explain.”
“Explain what?” Sora asked, then muttered sorry when Riku glared at him over the top of her head.
She ignored the bickering, staring down at their hands where she was holding each of theirs in hers, running her thumbs over their knuckles. Sora’s hands were nocked and marked with scars. Riku’s were eerily smooth, but for the calluses on his palms from his sword and discoloration from the darkness channeled through his skin.
“I’m scared,” she said finally, and the boys both flinched, stopping whatever silent argument they were having to look at her. She kept her gaze on their hands, ignoring the hot tears finally running down her cheeks. “That you’ll get pulled away again and I won’t be good enough to go, that you’ll have to leave and fight again and I’ll be left behind because I’m weak. Or… or I’ll get captured. Again.” Sora opened his mouth to say something and Riku actually hissed at him to stop. She squeezed Riku’s fingers, looked to Sora. “Hm?”
Sora glanced at Riku, then down at her. “Kairi… that’s not gonna happen.”
She sighed. Looked away. “You can’t know that.”
“Sure I can!” he protested, turning her face toward his again with a hand, his thumb brushing under her eye. “Because you’re gonna fight with us.”
All the noise in her head ground to a halt and she blinked at him. “But I’m so far behind. I’m not as good as you guys.”
Riku made a faint noise of disapproval, almost a grunt, and she looked over at him. Sora’s hand stayed on her face.
“Kairi, you’re the strongest of all of us.” He leaned in close, and just before she protested that wasn’t true his lips pressed to her forehead, and she was glad he couldn’t see her scrunching up her face to keep from sobbing. “And you make us better just for being around.”
“Yeah,” Sora said, not to be outdone, and he curled his hand around hers where it sat in her lap, squeezing gently. “We’re so much stronger together than apart. Sure, there’s stuff we still gotta teach you. But that’s easy.”
Riku let his nose rest against her cheek, just beside Sora’s hand. “And we won’t pull you around so much, either. If that would help.”
She sniffed and rubbed her nose with the hand Sora had been holding. “Yeah,” she said, the word coming out like a breath. “Maybe.”
Sora lightly touched her shoulder, like he was asking permission, and she glanced toward him again. He leaned in close, and at the last second, turned pink and kissed her cheek. She laughed softly and he rested his forehead on her shoulder, grumbling to himself.
They stayed that way until Sora decided it was far too late at night to sit upright and they all flopped down in a tangle, her legs between theirs, her arms caught between them where they were wrapped around her like ropes rather than boyish human limbs.
And when a bit of sunlight in her eyes finally drew her out of sleep, Riku, Riku who skulked the castle sometimes like he still felt like a shadow, soundless and ever-watching, brushed her hair behind her ear, his voice soft and warm and rolling across her name in a gentle "Hey Kairi," before his fingers brushed her arm, her shoulder, her wrist, like it was both a greeting… and a gentle warning.
“Morning,” she murmured, and he tangled his fingers into hers. Not tugging. Just holding.
“New day,” he said, smiling sleepily at her, his face a mess of errant silver hair and half-open green eyes. “New start.”
“Yeah,” she said, looking up at the ceiling with a smile slowly spreading across her face. “Yeah, it is.”