Kessa fell in the water once, when she was small. She was walking the coast on the east side of the city, half the size of the rocks she was climbing, and she slipped. The water was deep, catching her with kindness and slowing her before she could strike anything. She never touched bottom, spread her hands to either side and couldn’t feel the boulder she thought she’d seen from above. Her hands slipped in cool water that hugged her like air, pulled on her arms and legs like gravity. She kicked out, spun in slow motion, and touched nothing.
The water was muddy, too muddy to show the daylight above her. She thrashed, the air in her lungs seeming to shrink. She turned, twisted, spun, and for long, long seconds there was no up, there was no down, there was no left or right or in or out. She kicked and moved and did not move, lost somewhere in the dull nothing of water creeping in against her skin.
Panic snaked into her lungs, crowding out the air and tightening her chest, while her head stayed somewhere above it, calmly swearing that there had to be a way to know which way to go. And she spun.
Kessa spun the same way inside Zackery’s instructions.
The first part was easy, easy as letting the water catch her, easy as remembering to hold her breath under the water. She opened her hands, and blue-white fire crackled out of her palms. The farther it came from her hands, the calmer it became, until it ran in ribbons of smoke around her arms, around her chest. It hugged her skin, clinging ever closer to her until it was woven through her clothes, her hair, the leather of her boots, closer to her than the air. She slowed the fire at her hands until it was calm too, floating strands of spark and cloud, heavy on her fingers. She slowed it more, pulled it back on itself and it loaded her limbs like gravity, turned invisible in its slow weight.
“Make sure it’s complete,” Zackery had said. “Don’t move until it covers you from the top of your skull to the bottoms of your heels.”
So Kessa waited for it to swallow her. She held her breath, though she didn’t have to. Air sifted in and out through the clear heat that bunched around her, as if there was nothing there, but the heat pulled with it, touching her teeth and tongue and then turning to ice inside her lungs. So held her breath, pressed slow energy up through her hands and waited for it to settle around her.
That turned easier each time she tried.
“Don’t move until it covers you,” Zackery had said. And she didn’t. Not until she was held in the dull heat of it, not until it had stayed so long that it turned to nothing but a faint pressure on her skin.
“Then move,” Zackery had said.
“Where?” Kessa asked.
“Out of the air,” Zackery told her.
That made sense, considering what she had asked him to teach her. She wanted to disappear from this air, this place, this sight, turn invisible and walk free. But Kessa still blinked at him, because if she had known how to follow that one instruction, she would never have needed to ask him to give it. She would have never stood there, leaning into every word he said. She would have just put one foot in front of the other and fallen into every dream she’d ever slept.
She had swallowed her impatience though, experienced enough with his nonsense to know there was something beneath it if she pressed. “Which way?” she asked.
Zackery shook his shaggy, white head. “Out,” he repeated.
“Down?” she asked. Because down was the only way she’d ever known something like leaving the air. Down, like falling, gravity pulling her faster than the oxygen fighting to get into her lungs and crashing her into breathable water.
Zackery shook his head, faster. “Not down, not up, not left, not right, not in, not really even out. Just leave it.”
Kessa blinked at him again. “That’s not helpful,” she snapped.
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “There’s no way to teach you which way to go. You find it, or you don’t.”
So, Kessa drenched herself in energy, hugged it to her, and spun.
She shut her eyes, and after a while, this pressure against her skin started to fool her. She thought the weight was sharpest against her heels, where she was tethered to this ground, but if something had knocked her sideways and she floated somewhere else, it might not have surprised her. Except when she shifted, and her feet scraped the ground and her hands swung in the air and she stayed exactly as she was. The pressure crept back in. Over and over. Until she could feel it like water, holding her together and playing at crushing her between gentle palms.
And she held her breath for as long as she could, because that seemed the thing to do, and panic curled into her lungs and her head stayed above it, somewhere, balancing thoughts one on top of the other as she tried to decide which way to go.
When she was small, she had hung in the water like an animal in a trap, too weak to throw off the restraints. She thrashed, and she prodded, and she tried to work her way out with reasons that might have worked like lock picks, if she could just hold them correctly. She hung there, and when nothing worked, she screamed, opened her mouth and pressed everything inside her out, panic and air and noise she couldn’t really make. Bubbles rolled from her lips as water rushed in, sour and salty and burst against the back of her throat. She coughed, or would have, if she had enough air left to do it. Bubbles dripped down her chin, catching along her neck and against her shoulder.
Kessa froze. Then she turned and followed them up, breaking into daylight a moment before she thought her insides might break apart.
And Kessa screamed inside her blanket of heat and spark. And nothing happened, but she froze anyway, hoping to feel the tickle and catch of the bubbles against her skin.
But something dragged at her spine. Not down, not up, not left, not right, not in, not really out, and she followed it away.