It was not lost on Kairi that her friends were treating her less like a person and more like a terminally ill family member they couldn't detach their eyes from. Her hair used to be rich in color and volume, and now she wished she could pick up the clumps as they fell and glue them back onto her head somehow. She'd lost that bronze glow that every islander kid was supposed to have. And no matter how early she went to bed, by the next morning, there were fresh shadows and creases living under her eyes.
Her eating habits were nothing to gloat about. The day she first met her new father, he'd made a big deal about always eating a balanced breakfast, a sensible lunch, and a hearty dinner. "And never, ever skip," he would say, "No matter how gross you feel or how much your stomach hurts. You need to eat." She once loved papayas, and toasted coconut, and the bountiful flavors of well-seasoned shrimp. It had dwindled down to a baguette and some cheese cubes. And now, she popped a grape or two in her mouth to keep from getting dizzy.
She hadn't noticed at first; let alone her friends. When she was thirteen, she'd gone through a bout of fatigue during which prying herself from her bedpost seemed a monumental task. Maybe this wasn't so different. But one day, the shorts she used to force up past her hips and thighs sagged so low that she couldn't step outside in them. And of course Selphie had to be there to see the whole thing.
"Kairi, is everything okay?"
"What?" Kairi shrugged and tossed the shorts into her closet as though that would change anything."Yeah, everything's fine."
"Those shorts don't fit you."
"They never have."
"Because you were too big for them," she stood up from the bed, "not because they were falling off of you."
"Well I must have just lost a little weight."
"That's an understatement."
From that point on, things were weird. Selphie must have said something to Tidus and Wakka, because talking to those boys felt like talking to a caretaker. "Have you been getting enough sleep?" "What's been on your mind?" "You left a bunch of food on your plate." They used to just ask if she'd like to go fishing.
The one thing she did keep up with was her journaling. It was the only thing that helped her sort out her thoughts, which she for some reason had a very difficult time identifying or explaining.
I don't really know quite how to put it into words, but I know that something isn't right. All my friends are worried about me, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't worried about myself. I know I'm not healthy right now, and there must be a reason why. But I can't think of anything. It feels like I'm missing something or that I've lost something. But what? I'm back at home, I have all my friends, and my dad. I'm doing well in school. What am I missing?
Frustrated, she submerged her pen in the sand and wrapped her arms around her knees. She was always onto something big-so close to finding the problem. But it was a blip in her mind that would depart from her as quickly as it came.
She set the journal back in her lap and grazed over every inkblot and comma, probing for some kind of clue and hoping her memory would be jogged. Nothing. Just like all the days that had come before.
Until she noticed something that seemed off.
"I'm back at home," she slowly read aloud to herself. "I'm back. At home." Her fingers traced over the words, which she had a difficult time believing came from her own hand. "Where am I back from?"
A big breaker wave came crashing onto the shore of the inlet, and salty water gushed all the way up to Kairi's waist. She had to hoist the journal into the air to protect it from getting soaked. The sky was opening up: the grey clouds had parted, and beams of sunlight beat down on Kairi's face.
And the paopu tree she liked to sit on had been split open, its leaves scattered like a shipwreck through the shallow waves.
Struggling to keep her composure, Kairi launched to her feet and darted across the dock and over to the tree. She thought she'd be mortified when she saw the damage. But instead, she brushed the back of her hand against her forehead, wondering if she was in fact alright.
A thick purple substance was surging from the bark like a geyser. It moved so unnaturally, as though it'd travelled from another dimension or universe. And yellow eyes encompassed every inch of it.
She should've been afraid; should've fled to safety or protected herself while she still had the chance. But she wasn't afraid, and she didn't sense she needed protection. She leaned into the
tree to get a closer look. This thing wasn't her friend, she knew, but it seemed so familiar, and in a strange way, that comforted her.
"You're remembering now," a brooding voice jaunted from somewhere far off.
Kairi retreated and turned towards the ocean, which was blood orange and glistening.
Half a mile away stood the pink fox as stoutly and mystifyingly as ever with her arms folded behind her back. She was wading along the water's surface, though the water itself must have been thirty feet deep where she was.
"You," Kairi leapt down from the tiny island where the tree sat and ventured as deep into the water as she could before sinking. "Please, I know that you have the answers I'm looking for!" She'd never felt such yearning and desperation in her whole life. Tears were already streaming down her cheeks. "I know something is wrong, but I don't know what. Please, tell me."
From underneath the eerie mask, the woman smiled. Somehow, Kairi knew that she was there to help. However ancient and all-knowing the woman might have been, Kairi felt no fear.
"I can give you answers, although they might not be what you expect to find," she shook her head and stepped ever closer. "A great, dormant power lies deep within you, Kairi. And if you can find a way to harvest it, you may well alter the course of fate."
"What are you talking about?" Now she was getting frustrated. "What power? And why would I need to 'alter the course of fate?'"
"Your friends, Kairi. They need you. Not quite yet, but soon."
"Who? Selphie? Tidus and Wakka?"
"No," the woman reared her head down low. "Your other friends. Kairi, you have been asleep for such a very long time they are beginning to wonder if you will ever wake up."
Kairi's heart sank. Surely, this woman must have been either insane or a liar. But she feared that was not the case.
"Yes. Don't you remember? You came here on your own accord, to find something. Instead, you lost more than you found. But that doesn't mean it was all in vain. Here, now, I am giving you all you need to know."
Kairi did not know what to think or feel. Confusion, sadness, anger, but more than any of that, disbelief.
"What did I come to find?" was all that came from her lips.
By now, the woman was so close that Kairi could have reached out to grab her. But she kept her distance.
"I cannot tell you that," the woman sighed, "it's too dangerous. You must wake up, but you must be the one to do it yourself. If I tell you, it may overload your brain. Instead, look around you. And think to yourself. Think hard."
As her eyes glossed over the ever-changing environment, she realized that nothing about it was right. If she looked too far into the horizon in any direction, there were big black gaps where the skylines should have been. The trees and flowers were alive, though not with wind or natural movement. They curved and shifted diagonally, and it looked like there were colorful veins sprouting up and down every leaf and limb. Though she was neck deep in the water, she couldn't smell the salt. She couldn't smell, or taste, or feel anything.
The woman understood that Kairi was having a difficult time. "The tree," she finally said. "Look at the tree."
"Why? Is it the reason I came here?"
"Not quite. You came here for someone." She pointed to a rotted object on the tree, which was barely recognizable as a paopu fruit beneath all the scars and blemishes. "Do you know what that is?"
"A paopu fruit?" It was a fact she knew well, though she no longer felt sure she was right about anything.
"Yes. What makes it special?"
"The person you share it with," Kairi racked her brain, "if you share a paopu fruit with someone, then your destinies become intertwined, and you will be a part of each others' lives no matter what."
It was as though a fuse was lit in Kairi's mind. At first, she couldn't pinpoint what exactly she'd found. But by the time she finished her sentence, her mind lit up with a vivid picture of a boy she once knew.
She glanced up at the fox, a new energy and purpose glowing in her eyes.
"Don't speak," the woman covered her lips with a finger. "Turn towards the sky, now."
Kairi frowned, unsure of what that was supposed to mean. Until she spun towards the coast and a wave the size of a tsunami was looming over her, destined to shatter over her and send her tumbling back against the sand, if it didn't kill her. Its typical blue-green hue had devolved into chaos and a ceaseless range of colors.
For a split second, she considered running away. But where to? was her next thought. Back to her friends' endless worries, and her own confusion and isolation? She'd rather take a gamble with the wave than let things stay the way they had been.
So she squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her fists so hard that she felt her nails burrowing into the skin of her palms. She didn't smell salt, even as the wave cast a shadow over her body. She smelled cellophane, metal, and chemicals.
And she heard voices.
"It's a miracle! Her breathing has stabilized."
Her tongue was numb in her mouth, and she knew that if she parted her lips, she wouldn't be able to speak. Her ears rang, and then pulsated, and then went nearly deaf. She opened her eyes for a split second until she realized that static was all she could see. It nearly sent her into a panic, so she squeezed them shut again.
The whole ground, and earth, and universe, and everything around her was rattling in a cosmic earthquake. She wouldn't dare look, but she supposed her feet had lifted off the ground, and that's why she felt lighter than air, levitating above the world.
Somebody get Even in here right now. We're losing her again. Everyone, stay calm but don't give up. Check her vital signs.
Her brain had a pulse, and it was banging itself against her temple over and over again like a prisoner trying to escape. It was all so painful and surreal. She was light and deadweight at the same time; transcending reality but getting contorted beyond recognition in the process.
And as the discomfort spread from her mind and body to her heart, she couldn't help but scream.
With the scream, it was like she shot up into whatever was above, and she felt herself growing back into her body and regaining her senses. She could feel her tongue, and the crust in her eyes, and staticky hairs itching her face.
"Kairi," someone called her.
"Shhh! I thought I told you imbeciles that she will be highly sensitive and prone to fainting when she first awakens. No raising of voices, and no sudden or erratic movements."
Wherever she was, sensations overloaded her, and she had to focus first and foremost on her breathing. She doubted she'd be able to open her eyes even if she tried.
Someone's shoes clomped closer and closer until she felt warm breaths huffing against her face.
"Kairi," said a voice. Someone brushed the top of her finger with their own. "You won't be able to open your eyes for a bit. But if you can understand me, I want you to answer my questions. Tilt your head forward for yes, and backward for no. Do you remember where you are?"
She tilted her head backwards as much as she could manage. All she had to clue her in was the ice cold prongs around her wrists and the stiff cushion against her back, both of which rendered her body sore and aching.
"Ienzo, make sure you're getting all this. It's crucial we have this data for later down the line when we may really need it."
"Of course. Everything is being logged and processed in the D.T.D."
"Remarkable. Her return to consciousness truly is a miracle of science; there is no other way around it."
"How much longer?" someone asked from the other side of the room. It stirred something in Kairi. "Isn't it time she woke up?"
"Patience, Riku. Accelerate the process too much, and the girl will remain in a dream-like limbo for the next three months. Is that what you want?"
"Even, she's fidgeting in her chair now and her eyes are flitting like she's about to come out of R.E.M.," a soft voice cut him off. "What should we do?"
"The time has come," Even said under his breath. "Silence, everyone. We shall ease her back into full consciousness."
"I'll do it," Riku said without hesitation. Kairi felt a warm hand find a home on top of her's. "She'll remember me, and it's best that the first person she sees is someone she knows instead of a total stranger. If Sora can't be here to do it himself, then I will."
"Sublime," the dryness in the scientist's voice was palpable. "I suppose I will take her other hand."
"Would it be alright if I did?"
"No, Naminé. We need you to handle the data, same as Ienzo."
"I think Ienzo's got it covered just fine. After all, he's been at this longer than I have. Please," she sounded so earnest, "Kairi was the one who woke me up again. The least I can do is the same for her."
"She's right," said Riku. "Let her."
Even said nothing, but it was clear that he only barely approved of their deductions.
Someone took hold of Kairi's other hand. The difference between the two grips was astounding, yet Kairi was made to feel comforted, even in the midst of her agony and confusion.
"Now, Kairi," Even said with quiet precision. "Open your eyes."
It was like prying open a safe concealed by a hoard of chains and locks. But everything went from pitch black darkness to a hazy blue. It was painful. And blurry. But there were two figures on each side of her, and two more waiting in the background. She couldn't quite make out who those two were.
But the memories came rushing back.
"Riku," it was bizarre hearing her own voice come from her mouth. It sounded so much louder and more distinct than it had in her sleep. "Naminé."
"That was some nap you had," Riku jested, although Kairi could tell he was just trying to keep his emotions in check.
"Look how long your hair's gotten," Naminé lifted three bundles of hair up to eye level for Kairi to see. It had grown well past her chest and was the darkest it had ever been. "We cut it back some here and there, but we gave up after a while."
A chilling question loomed in the back of Kairi's mind. It was all that plagued her at this moment, yet she was almost too petrified to ask.
But she knew she must.
"How long have I been asleep?"
No one said anything. Riku's throat visibly tightened, and the others kept themselves occupied with the computer.
As always, Naminé was willing to answer the difficult questions.
"Almost two and a half years."
Kairi's heart sank.
It was not as though her time spent at the islands had been particularly blissful. Quite the opposite, in fact. With each passing day, she'd been growing unhealthier and more disconnected from her friends. But that time was real. Or it at least felt real. There were days, and occasions, and conversations she remembered. Relationships that had broken and others that had begun.
But none of it had happened. Not an inkling of it. And the last two years of her life were better labeled a perjury.
"Two and a half years?" she was on the verge of crying. "Why? Why didn't you wake me up?"
"We had no way of knowing just how deep into sleep you would fall," Ienzo chimed in as he stepped out from behind the computer. "The only other time we've conducted this kind of experiment was with Sora. He slept for a year and was able to wake up fine."
"With complications, mind you," said Even, "But because of the reality that nobodies can now coexist with their original counterparts when given a replica body, we grossly miscalculated the possibility of similar issues arising during this experiment. Yet, after your first year of slumber, your body began reacting the same way Sora's did when Roxas was still roaming free; it was incomplete, and it began shutting down. Without Naminé, you could not awaken."
Kairi found it difficult to keep up. She probably only computed a third of what Even was saying, though she trusted his knowledge. If he saw no way to rouse her from her sleep, then it probably really had been impossible.
Naminé's head hung low.
"I'm sorry, Kairi," she said, "I offered to rejoin with you several times, but everyone said that you wouldn't want that for me."
"And they were right. You shouldn't have to give up your own life just for me. I may be where you came from, but you are just as much your own person as I am my own person."
Naminé flashed her a smile so uncannily similar to her own. Others likely would've ascribed the two as sisters, if not twins. But Kairi of all people knew and celebrated their differences. Her broader shoulders, Naminé's sweeter voice. It killed her to know she'd robbed her nobody of life for so long.
"Wait! Don't start the party without us!" Shoes were clashing and clamoring in the hallway outside.
Two people Kairi never expected to see came busting into the lab.
"Awww man," groaned a guy with a mullet and the worst posture Kairi had ever seen. "She's awake already? We spent days waiting around here and didn't even get to see her wake up?"
"I told you Demyx," a woman thumped him on the side of his head.
"You absolute numbskull. I tried to tell you we didn't have time to get ice cream. But as usual, your appetite seemed more important than what really matters. I wonder if your head is as empty as your stomach tends to be."
"Hey, hey, take it easy, Larxene" he stretched out his arms and folded them behind his head, "How can you expect me to concentrate on an empty stomach? If we hadn't gone, I'd probably be passed out on the floor right now and they'd have to worry about waking me up!"
"I think I'd tell them to just leave you there."
"Wait," Kairi interrupted, "you two. You're from the organization, right?"
"Ugh, don't mention that utterly useless and incompetent institution around me," Larxene shivered and her face got so green she looked as though she might vomit. "Years and years of wasted time. An even bigger waste of time than loitering around the galaxy with all you idiots."
"They're with us now," said Riku. "A little over a year ago, we were on the outskirts of the castle fending it off from heartless, and we found them both there. They'd been recompleted. Xehanort was dead so they had no one to follow."
"It's not as though I needed anyone to follow," Larxene crossed her arms, "Let's make that perfectly clear. I was just bored beyond belief and thought, 'hey, clearly these goons are too inadequate to accomplish their own goals. Might as well help them out.'"
Kairi was about to inquire about these "goals" when Roxas came in followed by the rest of the Hollow Bastion crew.
They were all carrying boxes nearly twice the size of their own bodies.
"Kairi," Roxas let his box fall gracefully to the floor as he walked up to her. "It's so good to finally see you. How are you feeling?"
"Tired," Kairi laughed.
"After two and a half years of sleep?"
"Wow, I guess that fight with Xehanort must have really worn you out," Yuffie shuffled over to the side of her chair. "The name's Yuffie, and this is Aerith, Cid, and Squall."
"That's not important. We've actually met before, but I'm not sure if you'd remember or not."
"Of course I remember!" Kairi's eyes lit up. "How could I ever forget about you guys?"
"I dunno, two and a half years 'll do that to ya," Cid guffawed, "Make ya forget a whole lot more than that."
Everyone laughed. Maybe Kairi should've been laughing too.
But it stung like a needle to the arm.
"Say, Even. After being stuck in this god forsaken chair for three years, don't you reckon she wants to stretch her legs for a bit?"
"It's up to her. Kairi, do you feel ready?"
She could've lunged from her chair like an acrobat, as stiff and uncomfortable as the chair had been, though her legs felt like jelly and she probably would've crashed straight to the floor. So Riku and Naminé took her arms, and Roxas and Yuffie stayed behind in case they needed to catch her.
Her hips and knees groaned. They popped and cracked every other second like an old car. But the chill of the icy floor was exhilarating.
"Easy," said Riku when she started to wobble.
"How are your legs?"
"I think I'm good now."
And they let her go. She was standing all on her own.
"Anywhere special you'd like to go?" asked Naminé. "They're selling churros in the square now, and the landscaping in the courtyard is stunning this time of year. Or, do you want us to take you back to the Destiny Islands?"
"No," Kairi had never made a decision so fast in her life. "Not there." She thought for a moment. "Take me to see the sunset."
Roxas grinned at her. "I think I know a place."
The sun set red in Twilight Town; never blue, never pink. Always a mosaic of a thousand reds, clouds the color of a creamsicle hiding away the sun.
And the town itself bustled with life and laughter always. But it was a tired town too. While some folks were out having a drink, or trying to keep up with their little ones all the way to the cinema, others were fast asleep with their curtains closed and their heads buried under four layers of blankets and quilts.
Kairi had only ever visited once, but it stuck with her the way only a truly breathtaking place ever does. It wasn't just the world itself: it was the people she met there.
"Hayner, Pence, and Olette," Kairi said under her breath as they cruised down the alleyway. It was as though she had to teach herself how to speak again.
"You know, Roxas is best friends with them."
"Yeah," Riku laughed, "At first, it was only in the simulation he was in while Sora was having his memories recovered. Ansem the Wise added data versions of every living person in Twilight Town so Roxas wouldn't get too lonely. When he came back as a replica, they didn't technically know him. They had to start their friendship over again. But I hear that it's come just as naturally to him as it did in the datascape."
"Yeah?" Kairi teased, "And how do you know so much about Roxas's personal life?"
"I dunno," he scratched his head, clearly embarrassed. "I guess you could say we're friends now. In some ways, we've all had to make new friends if only to move on. I didn't have you or Sora. And I couldn't just be alone."
"And what about him? Doesn't he have Axel and Xion? Oh, and the blue-haired guy who wanted to kill me?"
"Axel and Isa have been gone now for about a year, scoping out a new system of worlds that we found. There's no telling when they'll be back. And Xion," his voice cut out. "He doesn't see her much anymore."
"I'm not really sure. I can't get him to talk about it."
"That's too bad."
Kairi kept her eyes fixed on the tram car in front of them as it whizzed around every street corner and lamppost. She'd only spent a couple months conscious and aware after Sora disappeared.
Then she wanted to go to sleep.
Perhaps she would've discovered something important in her dreams, yes. It was not an unreasonable or "unscientific" idea, as Even might say. But more than that, she didn't fancy living a life in which she'd wake up in the morning knowing she'd never see the person she loved again.
That kind of grief was enough to nearly ruin her life. And then there were people like Xion and Roxas, once the best of friends until they simply stopped speaking to each other. Stopped being friends. Just because.
She felt like crying again.
"Hey guys!" Roxas called out. He, Naminé, Demyx, and Larxene had been walking a quarter mile ahead of them. "Look who we brought!" He pointed back at Kairi as though she was some grand spectacle.
Hayner, Pence, and Olette were huddled up outside the items' shop. They'd been giggling amongst themselves, but now their old friend garnered all their attention.
"Kairi!" Olette sprinted down the street, her arms stretched out wider than a kite. She nearly toppled Kairi over on impact.
Other than from Sora, Kairi wasn't exactly used to hugs. But they felt so nice.
"Hi," she squeezed Olette tighter, "It's so good to see you again."
"'Sup," Hayner touched his temple then made a gun with his fingers, his own custom greeting of sorts.
"Kairi!" Pence grinned from ear to ear. "It's been way too long!"
"It has been," she tried damming the tears that were welling up behind her eyes and forehead. "I'm so glad to be here with all you guys."
"Ugh, enough with this big sob fest," Larxene rolled her eyes. "You girls should help this one out with her clothes. I mean look at her."
"What? Why?" Kairi hugged herself, suddenly feeling naked and vulnerable. Larxene had a way of doing that.
"That plaid nightmare of a paper sack doesn't fit you anymore," she glared at her whole ensemble. "You look like a caveman. You've been stuck in that ugly thing for two and a half years and it shows."
"Well, it is looking a little small on you," Olette turned red in the face. She didn't want to offend. "And plaid isn't really in style anymore. It's all about leather and boots now. See?" She glanced at Riku and then at Roxas. They both had on boots and leather jackets, Riku with a tight grey t-shirt underneath while Roxas had on a vest and tie. "And lace for the girls."
Naminé had clearly developed her own sense of style over the past couple years. Gone were the days of tiny white dresses and bland blue slippers. She had on a sleek and flattering red dress with a collar, long sleeves, and lace riding just up past her chest. No boots, just lace flats. And her hair was up in cute braids on the sides and a messy bun in the back. But she let some of her signature blonde hair dangle down her right shoulder, a look it was difficult to imagine her without.
Everyone there looked so on trend. Kairi had never felt more out of touch.
"We should take you shopping!" Naminé was quiet as a mouse even in moments of ecstasy. "It would be fun."
"It would be!" Olette was so giddy she could have jumped up and down. "So many cute shops have opened up! Le Frou Frou, Le Petit Chef, À la Mode"-
"Yeah, yeah, we get it," Hayner was losing his patience. "You girls go shopping for a while. We'll go throw a frisbee or something."
"You coming, Larxene?" Olette asked.
"No thanks. Why would I, a very visibly adult woman," she glanced down at herself, "want to hang out with a bunch of little girls?"
"But we're eighteen."
"Well maybe if you start acting like it you'll change my mind," she snapped, and a dark corridor opened up. "Good day, now."
And she was gone as though she'd never been there at all.
"Geez, that woman," Hayner sighed, "Gives me a headache."
"Same," said Demyx, "Especially when she uses her fist."
And so, the girls spent their evening gallivanting around the streets of Tram Common, stopping in every little outlet and boutique that caught their eye. The boys headed out to Sunset Station, where they tossed a frisbee until they (very quickly) got tired and wanted to sit down.
Kairi had an affinity for Twilight Town's obvious French flair. Everything was so frilly and elegant. Most of the stores were worked by beautiful young women who could effortlessly switch back and forth between English and French like it was second nature.
"What about this one?" Olette pointed to a little black dress that was practically strangling the mannequin that wore it.
"Oh um, I don't know," Kairi blushed, "I think that one's a little provocative for my taste."
"Why? Just because of the length?"
"Well that. And the lace, and zippers, and lack of a backside."
"Don't make her wear anything she's not comfortable with," Naminé laughed, "I wouldn't wear that either."
"Is there one you were going to suggest?"
"Well, I think Kairi should pick whichever one really speaks to her. But I don't know. I kind of like this pink one," she removed it from its hanger, "you like pink, don't you Kairi?"
"I do," she said. Or at least she did. But now her typical hot pink shade reminded her of a life that only existed in dreams. "Although I think I want something a little more subdued."
So they kept browsing, occasionally asking for assistance.
"Pardon moi," Olette would say. She spoke loudly enough for people to notice her French.
"M'amie veut trouver une nouvelle tenue."
"D'accord. Je pense qu'elle adorera cette robe."
But nothing was quite "speaking" to Kairi, as Naminé had put it. She found skirts, and tops, and leggings here and there that she liked. But when she tried them on, they didn't quite work.
Until she saw an outfit that felt like it'd been calling out to her all her life.
"Whoa, this is gorgeous," her jaw dropped.
Naminé and Olette grinned at each other.
"I think this is the one."
As guilty as it made Kairi feel, Olette insisted on paying for everything. Apparently, the munny had been rolling into her pockets ever since she started her new paid internship as a technician for the tram. It apparently paid a lot more than the bistro or Pence's independent journalism gig.
Freshly decked out (Naminé and Olette having picked up some jewelry), the girls headed to the train station to meet up with the boys. It was a bumpy and winding ride, and multiple times Kairi felt like she may vomit if not pass out. Naminé had to keep a close eye on her.
But they made it to the other side of town.
By now, the sun had nearly descended the slopes of distant mountains and disappeared for the night. It could just barely be seen peeking out. The bustling city streets had become so quaint that one could hear only footsteps and the hum of the tram car rolling by.
The sky was the color of chai tea. The cicadas were chirping, and Kairi knew then and there that even the sunsets at Destiny Islands could never compare.
"Sorry we're so late," Olette chuckled as they happened upon the guys, who were lying down and gazing up at the sky. "We got kind of carried away. But look at our girl now."
None of them took any special romantic interest in Kairi. Either there was someone else, or they didn't feel like concerning themselves with a relationship at the moment and, besides, her heart still yearned for Sora. But when they spun around to see her standing there in her clean white jumpsuit, a burgundy bralette peeking out from underneath with her long ponytail tied back in a ribbon, it could've made them all reconsider their stance.
"You look great!" Pence blurted out.
Hayner elbowed him in the stomach.
"Thank you," Kairi blushed and they all sat down together. "Roxas, this sunset is insane. I couldn't ask for a better one."
"I'm glad," his mouth was full of ice cream. "Oh yeah. We got these for you guys."
Lo and behold, there were three (mostly melted) ice creams. In keeping with tradition, they were all sea salt.
"Mmm, I don't know what it is about it," Kairi contemplated as she twirled her ice cream stick between her teeth, "but it's just so good. It's one of those things that shouldn't be good, but it just is."
"It's a universal truth," Demyx didn't look up from his sitar. "One of those things you just kind of accept as correct. Like leaving work early all the time and still getting paid in full."
"Hey, what's so funny about that?"
Needless to say, the sunset was everything Kairi dreamed it would be. But the people there made it really special. After Pence tripped and face planted to the ground when he went to throw their ice cream sticks away, they all went from silent to delirious. Kairi couldn't remember a time more fun than playing hide and seek in the dark. And when that was over with, they circled around Demyx and sang their hearts out for over an hour to the most ridiculous songs one could imagine.
"It's crazy," Kairi said to Riku about an hour later. They'd since split off into smaller groups. "This morning I was living a different life with different people. I had different problems. And all it took was a few deep breaths to make that life totally fall apart." For the first time in hours, she felt that pang in her chest again. "Like it never existed at all. Never."
All the fun she'd been having with everyone served as a fine tourniquette. It brought the reddish glow back to her face and the light back to her eyes. It stopped the bleeding and held her together for a while. But by the end of the day, it had torn and tethered away. And she remembered all she had lost. Everything she'd learned, all the apologies she'd made, the friends she'd rekindled with, her most important thoughts and deepest wishes. The last two and a half years of herself.
Riku was taken aback when she buried her face in her knees and started crying.
He wanted to console her, but he didn't know how. Knowing Kairi, she probably wanted to be talked through it.
"You were living a different life?"
"Yeah. Back on the islands."
"And we were there?"
"No," she looked up at him, her whole face soaked with tears. "None of you were there. Just Selphie, Tidus and Wakka. I don't know why. I think maybe, as much as I love you all, a part of me just wanted to start over after Sora went away. I don't know. It's just been so hard."
"I know it's been hard. But he loved you, Kairi," was all Riku knew to say. "He really did. And I know he wouldn't want you to be torturing yourself like this. He'd want you to move on, be your best self, and share your light with everyone who needs to see it."
"Thank you, Riku," she laid her head down on his shoulder. It was nice. They hadn't been this close in a long time. "I'm gonna try my best to move on."
"You won't be alone," Riku assured her. "In some ways, we're all still adjusting to change. Losing friends we never thought we'd lose, and finding friends where we never expected to find them."
"Yeah, I gotta say, I love the new dynamic but it's kind of weird," Kairi started laughing uncontrollably. There was no telling how late it was. "I mean Demyx and Larxene? And what, you and Roxas are friends now? And both a little bit into Naminé or something? And that's kind of just a normal accepted thing and neither of you are bothered by it?"
"Whoa, where'd you get that idea?"
"I've got intuition like you wouldn't believe," she teased. "You totally like her and so does he. I can sense it. It's just like Aqua and Terra"- she froze mid-sentence. "Aqua and Terra! And Ven! I totally forgot. Where have they been this whole time?"
"In the realm of darkness."
"Aqua went back to the realm of darkness?"
"Yeah, would you believe it? I tried to get her to think twice about that decision. But she insisted. Most of the worlds they went to during their time training under Master Eraqus have been lost to darkness. They went down there to see if they could bring them back to the realm of light."
"How long have they been gone?"
"About a year."
"Why am I not surprised?" Kairi plummeted down onto her back and stared up at the stars. "And I guess Donald, Goofy, and the king are on their own type of special mission?"
"What gave it away?" Riku cracked up.
"Wait, you can't be serious."
"Oh, I am."
"Wow, I see how it is. The minute I wake up everyone is gone on some top secret mission."
They stayed for maybe another half hour, then everyone headed their separate ways, stomachs full of ice cream and guts sore from laughter. Desperate to not have to return to the islands quite yet, Kairi asked about other temporary lodging options, and Naminé obliged.
"So you really live in this big castle?" Kairi asked as they tiptoed down the dark corridors and winding towers of Hollow Bastion.
"And you never get lonely?"
"Lonely? How could I?" Naminé shook her head. "There are so many people here. Aerith, Yuffie, Cid, Leon, Ienzo, Even… there's always someone to talk to. Every single day's like a new adventure. And if I want to go somewhere else, I can leave whenever I want. I'm never alone."
It was kind of mesmerizing, watching her strut down the hall, standing straighter than a statue with so much self-reliance. If Kairi recalled correctly, she used to slouch and, if she had to describe her, the words "melancholy" and "anxious" might've come to mind.
"This is my room," she said as she shoved open a lofty set of double doors.
It was a much bigger and hollower chamber than any person could reasonably live in by themselves. But somehow, she'd made it all her own. There were four walls, and each had a different giant mural on it. To the left was the castle itself, every metal tube and crystal perfectly detailed. To the right, there was the clock tower in Twilight Town, the sun shining down on it and the rest of the city bustling beneath. Kairi had never been to the place on the wall where the doors were, but it's where Terra, Aqua, and Ven were from. The Land of Departure, was it? And in the middle, Destiny Islands, perfectly captured right down to the placement of trees and flowers. It was so beautiful Kairi wasn't even bothered by it.
The ceiling was plastered with drawings that she could only assume were Naminé's best memories. There was one of her stepping outside the castle, and Riku was there, about to take her into the Gummi ship. One of Xion and her looking at seashells together. One of her at the bistro with Roxas and his friends. And so many more that seemed too detailed to adequately explain.
"These are so beautiful, Naminé," Kairi spun all around, not sure where to look. "How long did they take you?"
"A couple weeks each. I was so busy working with Ienzo that I only had time to work on them at night. But I didn't mind it at all. Now I kind of wish I had more wall space to work with."
They both laughed, and Naminé started fluffing the pillows on her bed.
"You can sleep in my bed if you want to. I'll take the couch."
"Oh no, Naminé, you really don't have to do that. I'm just grateful you're letting me stay here. I don't mind sleeping on the couch."
"Too late," Naminé toppled onto the couch and stretched her legs out so Kairi couldn't sit.
"Fine, I'll take the bed," she laughed.
"There are some pajamas in the dresser for you. Wear whichever ones you want. I have a sneaking suspicion that if they fit me, they'll probably fit you."
The girls changed and slipped into their respective beds for the night. But even though it must've been almost 3:00 AM, neither felt too tired. They chatted for a while, and when Kairi saw that Naminé had some unused journals, she asked if she could have one.
"Of course! Go ahead. I'm more of an artist than a writer."
It was strange opening a new journal and not seeing the entries she had memorized word for word. The ones about her dad, the ones about that big fight she had with Selphie. And the time Tidus and Wakka sailed with her further into the sea than she'd ever gone before. Now, she knew, she'd be documenting brand new conflicts. Brand new experiences and brand new memories.
Dear journal, she wrote softly and elegantly.
It's been the weirdest day of my life. I started this day out as a high school student battling with some mental health issues, and I ended it as someone who hasn't really been alive for the past two and a half years.
She glanced up and smiled slightly when she saw that Naminé was totally out. It'd only been a few minutes.
But I've reunited with some of the most important people in my life. How could I have forgotten Riku? We've been best friends since we were kids. And Naminé. She's kind of like my sister, but totally different from me at the same time. And we all had so much fun today. I went shopping, and I watched the sunset, played games, and sang. I haven't felt this alive in so long. Probably because I wasn't actually living. It does feel strange though. I'd be lying if I didn't say that. I miss my dad, and Selphie, and my other friends. Of course, I can go back to the islands and see them whenever I want, but nothing that's happened between them and I these past few years ever really happened. I'm glad to be back, but I still miss Sora just as much as I did the day I lost him.
Then she remembered what Riku had said. About moving on and being her best self. Being a light in the darkness.
It's what Sora would want.
But I know I'm going to get through this. I'm not alone. I have so many wonderful and supportive people all around me. We're gonna grow and figure it out together. And I'm going to be the best person I can be. Not just for Sora, but for me. I'm gonna get stronger. And wiser. And happier. By the end of it all, I won't be sick with grief or hopelessly lost like I am now. I'll be standing tall and shining light all around me, wherever I go. Just like a lighthouse.