Sora wasn’t sure how long she and Kari held each other, but at some point, Kari pulled away. She bit her lower lip, looking down at the ground; the bond they shared began to weaken as uncertainty mixed with Kari’s Core.
“What—do we do now?” Kari whispered.
Taking a deep breath, Sora looked around; the landscape was returning as she withdrew her emotional tether. They sat on the damp cobblestone street, and she could hear Vulpes and humans preparing for the morning around them; the sun’s rays were creeping over the mountains.
Wiping at her cheeks, Sora got to her feet and offered Kari a hand. “Why don’t we walk back … slower this time.” She chuckled.
Kari took her hand, allowing Sora to help her up. “Why slower?”
“I feel like we have a lot more put to bed.” Pulling back her copper hair, Sora nudged her head back the way they’d come.
Clearing her throat, Kari walked beside her; they took their time, Kari holding her forearm behind her back. “I don’t really understand,” Kari muttered, staring down at the road.
“About?” Sora noticed Kari’s spiritual defenses were slowly rising again, but it was full of fractures.
“What to do. I don’t want to be lonely … not anymore. How do I act? I’m so confused.” A quake ran down her frame. “How do I act around Eyia … I probably hurt Wendy a lot … how do I act around them?”
Sora pursed her lips, not seeing the street she was staring at. Her thoughts turned back to Mary’s concerns about Eyia and what she’d learned from her aunt; her ears twitched at the implications. “That’s a tough question. To be honest … I never thought this would happen. I don’t know what I expected.”
Kari’s brow creased with concern. “Looking back … I feel so stupid. I don’t even know why I acted like that.”
“You just wanted to get out … you couldn’t take the stress and needed some way to release it. I understand that now. You really didn’t know any better; I mean, the only people you had to learn from were your siblings. You didn’t have any other people in your mom’s forest.”
“I guess … I don’t even fully know why I feel bad about it now.”
Sora chuckled. “Let me see if I can sum it up for you; if you swallowed your pride and hate, the lack thereof would leave you empty inside. It’d basically be like putting your heart in a blender; I’d be scared of that.”
“My heart in a blender,” Kari whispered. “I guess that was really all I had … once I did abandon my pride and hate … there was nothing. I felt so lonely … empty.”
“You don’t have to feel that way anymore.”
“How? I’m scared,” Kari shivered, hugging herself. “What if … what if I feel that way again? I feel like … like I should just run.”
Sora shifted to bump into her.
“W-what was that for?” Kari asked, catching herself.
She smiled, looking ahead of them at the mountains reaching above the forest beyond the town. “Stay, I could be your hiding place. Just find me, and we’ll weather it together.”
Kari’s throat constricted. “You’d—do that for me?”
Throwing an arm around her, Sora wrapped her waist with her tails. “Just breathe. Any time you’re losing touch, I’ll catch you on the way down; I won’t let you fade out all alone.”
“I don’t want to hurt you anymore, though,” Kari muttered, fighting back tears. “I—I feel heavy, and I don’t want to weigh you down.”
“What did I say?”
“Just—breathe,” Kari repeated, taking in a big breath as she pressed her hand against her chest. “It—it helps with the weight?”
“Of course it does! I’m an expert.” She teased. Her tone dropped as she squeezed her shoulder, pressing against her as they walked. “I know everything seems out of your control right now, and you’re on the edge of giving up … it hurts to hope. The honesty hurts, and you haven’t truly dreamed in so long.”
“I’m supposed to hurt, right?” Kari sniffed, wiping at her nose with the back of her hand.
“Yup, but just know that you’re beautiful, okay?”
Kari stiffened. “W-what do you mean?”
“I know you must feel dirty, and I know you heard the whispers,” Sora muttered. “Your ears are just as good as mine … you heard people call you ugly and how you’re such a terrible person. I could feel those memories inside you.”
“I am dirty, though … a dirty wolf.”
Sora frowned, feeling the cold tingles shoot down her own body. “Hey!” Kari’s wet amber irises met her green ones as she pulled her around to look into her eyes. “Forget the lies!”
“The lies that you tell yourself and what others say about you; forget the lies that you’ll never be good enough. Get over it! We’re forgetting the past to get back on track, okay; the past won’t help us.”
“How can—how can you say that? Don’t you want revenge? I don’t understand … how can you forget the pain?”
“Because I found good friends—good friends help you move past the pain … they make you feel happy. That’s what you need, and I’ll keep offering it until you really take it. You’re scared to look inside yourself; you think you might actually find something worth saving.”
“I—I don’t deserve it...”
“C’mon,” Sora rolled her eyes. “Get over yourself! You’re not the worst person in the universe.”
Kari bit her lip as she looked away. “I guess there’s always my brother,” she muttered.
“There, see? That’s a real piece of work!”
“I heard—there was someone that said we are what we are … I’m just a wolf.”
“Are you kidding me?” Sora smirked. “You’re talking to a Vulpes, remember? Am I like every other Vulpes?”
“No, I’m not. We don’t have to be who we were in the past. You’re trying too hard to convince me that you’re not worth saving, but that’s not true! You’re worrying too much—relax.”
Taking a deep breath, Kari struggled to smile. “I’ll try.”
“Good,” She moved back to Kari’s side, pressing her palm against the small of her back to get her moving again. “We’re just teenagers! Let’s have an adventure.”
“How can you be so happy?”
“Well, I just made a new friend; there’s a start, but—she’s kind of being a downer.” She winked.
“Sorry,” Kari chuckled softly, reaching out to grab her hand; Sora accepted it with an encouraging smile.
After a moment’s silence, Sora could feel Kari’s defenses cracking. “Can you tell me what you’re feeling?”
Kari swallowed. “You really want me to say? Even if I’m a downer?”
Sora nudged her again. “That’s how we release emotions. Once you say them, let them fade away—release it.”
“You won’t regret it?”
“Not in the least.”
“Cross my heart.”
Kari breathed deeply several times, hand shaking in Sora’s grip.
“My head’s spinning … my heart feels like a ghost—like it’s not even there. I want to feel something … I still feel so far away from home.”
She paused, causing Sora to frown as she turned to face her; her nose was red as she got down on her knees, pulling Sora down. “You … you crossed your heart.”
She swallowed, Kari’s hand shook in hers. “Yes?” Sora asked, feeling a little nervous now.
“My true feelings … I’m on my knees … promise me … you’ll never leave my side?”
Sora’s throat caught as Kari’s walls collapsed, showing the desperation fluctuating in her Core. “I promise,” she whispered, following Kari to her knees.
“Cause,” Kari choked. “Cause … I just need one person. I cross my heart … I’ll die … I’ll never leave your side. So please—please don’t abandon me—I’m begging,” she cried. “D-don’t trick me—please. If it means I—if I can hold your hand, then I don’t care … I’ll follow you to hell. I just need someone—anyone … I’ll follow you anywhere—do whatever you say...”
Hugging Kari, Sora whispered, “Hey, hey … okay. I’ll be your oxygen, okay—but only if you’ll be my gravity.”
Kari pushed back to stare into her eyes, features serious. “If you die … I swear, I’ll be leaving by your side. I can’t … I can’t be alone anymore.”
Wiping her tears away, Sora forced a chuckle. “Honestly, I never thought you were like this, but okay. Still, you gotta be my gravity, okay? That means you gotta keep me grounded. I’ll be your friend for life … forever, and you’ll be my friend forever.”
Kari’s earnest features began to fracture as her lip trembled, and she pulled her into a tight hug.
“Hey—don’t b-break your friends!” Sora wheezed.
“Thank you, Sora … thank you.”
“Right,” Sora coughed, using some of her magic to clean herself and Kari up with her barriers down. “There’s s-some things I—I need you to promise, though.”
Pulling away, Kari wore a genuine smiled, noticing their cleaned-up appearance. “Anything.”
“You can never talk about bullying me … nothing. Don’t even think about it.”
“If—that’s what you require … I’ll do it,” Kari whispered.
“Do you want to know why?” Sora asked tentatively.
“It doesn’t matter; if that’s what you want, then that’s all I need.”
“Okay … that includes Wendy and Emilia. Forget the old you, and focus on the new you. I’ll talk to them myself.”
Sora slowly got to her feet, dusting herself off as she heard humans and Vulpes leaving their houses. “Okay, let’s go back. Once we’re done with breakfast, I’m going to get Ashley’s family with her. Today’s going to be busy...”
“If you need anything, let me know,” Kari said, getting to her feet and dusting her own clothes off.
“Of course … actually, when I go with Ashley, why don’t you bring those two Vulpes back to the house. I’ll see what I can do for them.”
“Thank you,” Kari said, fighting back more tears.
Sora’s tails stiffened as her aunt’s soft voice entered her mind. “Sora, I’d like to have some time with Kari if you wouldn’t mind.”
Umm … okay, but what do you mean by that?
“An Intelligent Construct; I’d like to talk to her about a few things, and this is the best time.”
Kari frowned as her eyes shifted to her tails, noticing her reaction. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah … my aunt wants to talk to you.”
“Inari?” Kari’s left eye narrowed with confusion. “I did hear something about your aunt from listening to Ashley. She’s in your head?”
“Kind of; my aunt placed an Intelligent Construct in my Core to act as a guide. She’s been a ton of help, and she asked if she could speak to you.”
“I don’t really mind,” Kari hesitated, “but what are we going to talk about?”
Sora shrugged with a depressed sigh. “My aunt’s mysterious one moment and open as a book another moment. She’s a schemer … she sets things up like … ages away—literal ages in advance.”
“Okay? What should I do?”
“Probably just leave your Core open for a moment, and I’ll make a link to your Core, then my aunt can send an Intelligent Construct through.”
“Sounds a bit complicated,” Kari muttered but complied.
Sora made the link and allowed her aunt access to her magic; Inari used a considerable amount of her energy as she sent the construct through.
Hey … that was a lot.
“Perhaps for you.” Her aunt giggled. “I only sent over what was required.”
Wait! You knew Alva, right? Did you give her something related to her mother?
“That’s a good thought! I love it when you try to puzzle things out.”
And I hate it when you give open-ended statements like that. She mumbled.
“You can ask Kari about it later, but I’m positive that she’ll share it with you. After all, she’s under your spell.”
W-what?! I didn’t cast any kind of spell on her!
Her aunt giggled. “Not all spells are magical, dear.”
Kari’s brow creased as she finished. “I can hear her in my mind … all I have to do is think?”
“Yeah,” Sora grumbled. “I can get a little annoyed with my aunt sometimes. She’s awesome, but sometimes I think she teases me on purpose … no, I know she does!”
Kari giggled. “Yeah, she told me it’s on purpose.”
“Of course it is … everything she does is calculated.” Sora sighed. “Alright, well, is there anything else she wanted us to do, or can we go have breakfast?”
“I’d like some food,” Kari chuckled, holding her stomach. “I haven’t eaten anything in … a while.”
The two of them made their way back to the building Mimi had let them stay in; Sora told Kari about Emilia and the circumstances that surrounded her birth. She felt completely at ease with Kari, trusting her with her life after touching her Core and understanding her deepest emotions.
Sora opened the door as they made it back, Kari shutting it behind them; there was a silence that followed. Ashley and Alice had already moved the tables together and set the table; they were sitting on one of the couches, and it looked like their entrance had stopped the conversation.
Nathan was sitting at the table with Mary, Eyia, and Jin. Githa was still lying on a couch in cat form, likely still absorbing the energy she’d absorbed from Emilia; she seemed to be sleeping.
Sora glanced at the stairs as Liz walked down the steps, still wearing her nightgown; her light pink hair was a mess. She yawned as she observed the silent room, sniffing as she rubbed her eyes. “Why’d it get all quiet?” She mumbled, slinking over to the table to sit.
“Liz,” Alice said, forcing a chuckle. “I think this is the first time I’ve seen you like this.”
“I just don’t feel like getting ready,” Liz mumbled, head plopping down on the table.
Ashley and Mary giggled. “I think the strict rules the seal inforced are fading,” Ashley hummed. “Who could have guessed Liz wasn’t a morning person?”
Alice’s smile turned sad. “Yeah … I guess I’ve changed a lot too.”
Sora’s ears twitched as she heard Wendy and Emilia taking a shower. Aiden was finishing up his own shower in the room below theirs. Taking a deep breath, Sora waved at the groups. “I’m going to go talk to Emilia and Wendy real fast. Be back down in a second.” She said, jumping up five stairs at a time.
She heard Kari quietly sit on a couch, likely scared to talk with anyone; interacting with her Core, Sora realized Kari was terrified of almost everything. She used to combat it with aggression, but that side of her now frightened her; she was terrified if she snapped, then she’d be abandoned.
Making it to the shower, Sora knocked on the door. “Emilia, Wendy? Can I come in?”
“Yeah,” Wendy called out.
Emila followed with, “We’re just getting dressed.”
Going in, she couldn’t help but lock onto her daughter’s mostly exposed skin; she was wearing a red bra and panties that she’d made her the night before. Wendy was getting ready to help put on Emilia’s red dress that matched her copper hair. When making clothes for the Vulpes, she’d made a large enough hole at the end of the zipper to fit their tails.
Honestly … she’s too curved to be my daughter.
“What’s up, mom?” Emilia asked, holding up her damp hair to allow Wendy enough room to zip up the back.
“I need to talk to you both,” Sora said, leaning up against the wall with a slight frown.
“What’s up?” Wendy asked while zipping Emilia’s dress up.
Sora hesitated, cheeks bunched to the side. “It’ll need to be in my Core.”
“Oh? Is it serious?” Emilia asked, turning to face her with Wendy; Wendy was wearing some black yoga pants and a casual grey T-shirt.
“I’ll explain in a second,” she said, motioning for them to sit.
They complied, clearly confused; Sora closed her eyes and entered the Outer Body Technique, created a link to them and calling them to follow her prompts. They both appeared in her Core, folding their arms.
“What’s going on?” Wendy asked, looking around. “Inari’s not here?”
“Of course I am,” her aunt said, appearing in her chair a few feet away from Wendy and Emilia.
“Hey, Auntie!” Emilia said with a wave.
Inari’s hand pressed against her chest, creasing her bright Kimono. “You’re so precious!” She choked. “I can’t wait to spoil you both rotten.” She beamed.
“Haven’t you already done that?” Emilia asked, tilting her head.
Inari took a sharp breath before a sensu appeared in her left hand, and she began fanning herself. “You’re adorable.” She breathed, clearly trying to calm herself.
“So…” Wendy muttered, shifting back to Sora.
“I don’t know how to say it,” Sora sighed.
Inari promptly spoke up. “It has to do with Kari.”
“Huh?” Both girls asked, focus shooting to her aunt.
“Well, I guess that solves that,” Sora muttered, glaring at her aunt’s perfect smile. “Yes, it has to do with Kari. I, umm … I’m kind of friends with Kari now.”
“What?” Wendy asked with a forced chuckle. “That’s not the best joke.”
“I thought she did a ton of bad stuff to you, though?” Emilia asked.
Wendy huffed. “You’re missing it, Emilia. She’s joking. There’s no way she’d be friends with that wolf.”
Sora hummed. “Well … I kind of am now.”
“You can’t be serious,” Wendy muttered. “She ruined both our lives … you even more than mine. At least I skated under her radar most of the time; her pack is a different story,” she growled.
Groaning a little, Sora made three chairs for them to sit. “It’s complicated.”
“What—is she forcing you or something? Eyia would cut her to pieces.” Wendy chuckled, not taking the seat. “We should go get some food, though. I’m kind of hungry; I think all that spirit stuff really hit me sometime during the night.”
“I’m not joking,” Sora puffed out a breath as she dropped into her seat.
Wendy pursed her lips. “Okay … I’ve got to hear this. What did she do?” She asked, dropping into her own seat as Emilia took hers.
“Yeah, what happened? It must have happened this morning, right? While I was sleeping … I can’t believe I missed it,” she mumbled, ears drooping.
Sora scratched her head, shifting her bangs back. “I know it might be hard to swallow, but Kari’s been through hell. Worse than you or me.”
Wendy’s vision narrowed. “Oh? I guess you’d know … fox magic, emotions and all, but I don’t really care. She’s a terrible person, period.”
“You remember how you felt when—when your mom signed you over to that place?”
“No,” Wendy’s nose twisted. “I don’t—I don’t want to. I already dealt with that … she can do what she wants. That’s in the past.”
“Exactly … it’s in the past. Kari broke down … she was basically going to commit suicide…”
“So? Should I feel sorry? She made plenty of girls feel that way … you included, don’t you remember?”
“Yeah … and I’m saying that I’ve forgiven her. Kari needs a stable place to learn—she’s never learned how to treat people. She grew up with only her sister, brother, and mother; she’s only known what it was like to be a wolf … she hates herself.”
“Good,” Wendy huffed. “It’s about time.”
Sora’s head dropped back against her chair. “I get it … I felt the same way before connecting to her. She felt my feelings … I felt hers, and—and she had it so much worse. She just needs a little hope.”
“Don’t expect it from me,” Wendy huffed.
“I don’t … really understand,” Emilia’s weak voice cut in. “Are you two fighting?”
“No,” Wendy mumbled, nose twisted as she looked at the white floor. “We just don’t see eye to eye; it’s like Sora’s gone crazy overnight.”
“You don’t have to like her,” Sora sighed. “I’m just asking you not to mention Kari bullying me. I understand if you can’t forgive her … it took a lot for me to forgive her. I get that you can’t—just don’t mention Kari’s past. Please…”
“Why,” Wendy’s eyes widened with a smile. “Wait, this has to do with Eyia, doesn’t it? What—will Eyia go after Kari if she finds out she bullied you?”
“It’s not just bullying,” Sora pleaded. “If Eyia knows the depth of my own feelings because of Kari’s actions … Eyia’s too innocent. She’ll see it as a personal attack against her, and she couldn’t forgive her.”
“My niece is right,” Inari sighed, closing her fan. “Eyia is a sweetheart that would give her life for those she calls sister. Jin and Sora are the first connections she’s had outside of her isolation. She is growing with the wonderful environment you all have been providing, and this could be a pivotal point in her development.”
Wendy’s lips fell as she turned to Inari. “Are—you saying I shouldn’t say anything?”
“Please, Wendy,” Sora repeated.
“No,” Inari said with passive features. “You have your agency. I’m saying that it is a critical point in Eyia’s life, and whatever you choose will affect many people; making decisions and mistakes are a part of growth … the foundation by which you build your life is decided with each interaction. Which will you choose?”
Emilia swallowed as she studied Wendy’s brooding features. “I—I’ll never talk about it. If that’s what you want.” She said, turning to smile at her.
Sora returned her daughter’s smile. “Thanks, Emilia … Wendy?”
Wendy licked her lips as she shot a glare at her. “It’s great that you forgave her … it really is, but … I’m not ready for that. Okay? I don’t know … I’ll have to think about it. Is that it?”
She ran a hand through her hair, puffing out a tense puff of air. “Yeah … thanks for listening.” She reluctantly released the Outer Body Technique.
Wendy hopped up, smiling as if she hadn’t heard her request. “Right, well, I’m so hungry. C’mon, Emilia! I heard that Ashley and Alice made a big breakfast.”
Sora forced a smile, nodding at Emilia’s uncertain stare. “Yeah, go ahead. I’ll just talk with Aiden for a moment before coming down.”
Wendy shot out of the room, whistling on her way down. “I hope she made some French Toast!”
“What’s that?” Emilia asked.
Sora slumped against the wall, letting her head fall against the wood. This might be harder than I thought. Wendy may have gotten over her mom, but Kari’s right in front of her face … there’s still some heavy scars. Aunt Inari … will she tell Eyia?
“Time will tell, but if she does, then it will cause her a lot of pain in the future.”
That’s what I’m afraid of … everything’s looking up. Everyone’s getting along … it’s like we can almost taste happiness … it’s just outside of our reach. Yes … why does it still feel so far off?
“You’ve seen a hint of it; know that it exists, and you must try. That spark of hope you brought allowed Kari to feel a warm embrace again … think about that. How long has it been since someone hugged her … held her hand.”
Her heart warming as she recalled Kari’s honest emotions, the hope in her eyes; she straightened and walked down to wait for Aiden to finish up.
She listened carefully to Wendy, but she seemed to be ignoring Kari, choosing to spend time with Emilia and Mary. Ashley talked with Kari a bit, but Liz and Alice quickly stole her attention.
Sora looked up, leaning against the opposite wall as Aiden opened the door. He was wearing black shorts, white soft-sole shoes, and a red sleeveless shirt, showing his tone muscles.
Aiden’s eyebrows rose with a smile; he’d begun to grow some blonde facial hair. “Sora, looking cute today,” he mused. “So, what do I owe the pleasure?”
“I just came to say … Kari and I are friends now.”
“Wait … really?” Aiden asked. “Even…”
“Yes,” Sora cut him off. “Kari and I went for a walk and had a good talk. She’s a wonderful—beautiful girl,” Sora winked. “You can’t say you haven’t noticed.”
“Woah,” Aiden’s smile faltered. “I—can’t argue with that. She is pretty, like all Founders.”
Sora clicked her tongue impishly. “You realize you’re lumping yourself in that category? High opinion, eh?”
“Ouch—got me there. Although, I do have quite the jaw, don’t I?” He said with a mock pose.
She giggled. “Anyways, I just wanted to let you know—oh, and Kari’s downstairs. You should keep her company.” Sora said with a suggestive wink, holding a finger to her lips.
“What are you implying … quite the fox, aren’t you?” Aiden whispered, shaking his head as he followed her downstairs. “Man,” he sighed. “I can’t believe things turned out like this; I’m still catching up.”
“You have no idea,” Sora groaned. “By the way, I feel like I haven’t had some time to talk with you. You free today?”
“Snap … eh, I’ll have to check my calendar,” Aiden said with a fake sigh. “I’m just so busy.”
“C’mon,” Sora bumped him into the wall, causing him to chuckle. “Don’t leave a girl hanging!”
“Fine, fine, I’ll take time out. Seriously, though, when?”
“When I get time,” Sora smirked.
“Fair, Fair,” he shrugged. “You are quite busy, after all. Well, first we gotta eat.”
“I bet I can eat more than you,” Sora challenged.
“I’ll take that bet. What’re the stakes?”
“Hmm—how about picking out a fun game that the group can do.”
“You kidding me? The loser has to do that … I don’t want that responsibility, so I’ll win!”
He grinned. “Okay, now you’re motivating me!”
The others greeted them with a hearty cheer as they made it downstairs.
“Took ya long enough!” Nathan called out. “We’re starving!”
Sora smiled as she caught sight of the solitary wolf, sitting at the table with empty seats on either side of her; Sora and Aiden took both chairs, smiling at the lonely wolf-girl. Mary caught the interaction with raised eyebrows, clearly shocked.
“Thank you, Ashley, Alice; now that we’re all here, let’s dig in!” Sora cheered.