A Hard Soul To Save

The Warrior

You know something is wrong before you even open your eyes. You are face down in a pillow and you can't breathe. Your muscles seize by instinct and you go perfectly still and ready to leap into action. Something so subtly wrong is a sign of something much larger, surely.

You don't sleep face down. You never have.

Fists curl up tight in the pillow and you slowly raise your head and blink down at your hands. Everything feels muddled in your head, and it feels like you move too quickly. Have you been drugged?

Your hands. Your hands. Something is wrong with your hands. Something so obvious that you don't see it right away, or maybe you're convinced you are still dreaming that dream. You dreamed you were unmade, and now a chill is running up your spine. Perhaps it wasn't a dream.

Your hands. They're white.

Your hands are big and brown and broad, with thick knuckles covered by old scars. These are not your hands. These hands are white and they are slim and they are strong as they clutch into the pillow. The sensation of the cloth processes differently than it should. Everything about it feels wrong.

There's a worried buzzing in your ears, especially when you feel hair slithering across the back of your neck. Your hair doesn't do that because it's cropped too short, but you know someone whose hair is just that length, don't you? And these are his hands. You know these hands. They've grabbed you and they've wielded weapons and they've helped the princess do her hair. You know these hands very well.

Why are you here? How are you in his body?

There's a prickle of sweat springing up under the maddening brush of hair. If you are here, then where is he?

The pillow is released only by jerking your hands away abruptly. You feel out of control. You don't know how to make this body move. So all you do is stare at these hands that are not yours.

No, oh no no no no. You don't know these hands nearly as well as you believe.

Scars.

There are so many scars.

You didn't see them, because they're not on the backs of the hands, where yours are. They weren't formed by countless years of wooden swords cracking on your knuckles, of hard work and lack of care splitting the skin over and over.

These hands only have three fingerprints. Just three. The other seven fingers are nothing but a mess of old scar tissue at the tips. You feel sick to your stomach. To his stomach. You don't know anything, do you? You can barely feel the cloth you rub between two fingers through the thick scars. You have no idea what could make his hands like this.

It never bothered you to think you were arrogant. This is different, somehow. This proof that you don't know him. You're good at reading people but you've gotten lazy if you think you've understood him. You don't know anything.

Is he in your body? Is he looking at your collection of scars and wondering about you? Maybe he doesn't care. For all his charm and gestures, he's never shown much interest in you, not really. You thought disinterest would be preferable, but right here and right now it suddenly irks you.

You finally find your feet and get out of bed. Quick. So quick. This body is as light as a feather. No wonder he always seems to be floating.

First things first: find the others and find out if anything worse has happened. Find out if the mage is doing anything weird while he's in your body, and hurt him for it. Then work on fixing this. The mage is likely to be the only one who will know what to do. That pisses you off. You can't do much when the problem is magic, whereas he just won't. But he will fix this, one way or another. You'll make sure of that.

You nearly trip over your own feet trying to get through the doorway, instinct telling you to duck your head and muscle memory telling you to simply glide. As soon as you enter the other bedroom, where you heard voices murmuring, you stop. You take stock.

Sakura isn't crying, but she either just finished or is about to start, kneeling on the thickly-carpeted floor beside the bed. Syaoran is sprawled out on the floor, his face white and shocked and afraid. The stupid Mokona thing is rubbing herself against his cheek like she's trying to comfort him. It doesn't seem to be working, judging by the panic in his eyes. And then there is you. Or rather, what is usually you. The rules about that seem to have been altered, as has your body. It's lying on the bed in this room, blankets drawn up to the chest. Eyes closed. Totally still.

By the gods. Are you dead?

"What—" For all that you've already accepted what's happening, it still startles you when that smooth, high-pitched voice emanates from you. It cracks on itself. You clear your throat and try again. "What's going on?"

"Fai-san," Sakura gasps, jerking to her feet, dashing the hint of tears away with the heel of her hand and rushing over to you. You are startled when she flings her arms around you, but it makes sense. She thinks you're the mage. The mage is always affectionate with her like this. Since you're not sure what else to do, you accept it. You put your hand against her back and draw her closer. It feels awkward, pointless, but you can manage this much until you understand the situation better.

"Kurogane-san—he's fallen into a coma, or something, we're not sure!"

"Mokona tried everything!" the pork bun wails at you, that voice that grates on your ears. "Mokona tried her special Rise-and-Shine technique!"

It's your worry that ignites your mind, but Fai's heart that speeds up. You can feel the flutter of it against ribs that feel so much less substantial than what you're used to. Is he in that body? Is he trapped in there, or just faking it, or what?

"And Syaoran-kun?" you ask, trying to sound normal. Normal for the mage. In a serious situation, he is quiet but still smooth.

"I . . ." Syaoran starts, then gulps down air before trying again. "I can't move much. It's not . . . I can't feel my leg."

He lifts one hand, and it's trembling. The other hand is dead at his side. Even his face seems to be only half-working: half his mouth is dragging the other half around, and his eyelid keeps drooping shut. Like someone cut him off down the middle.

You turn to Mokona, trying to think, your mind whirling but trying so desperately to put it in order and just think. You were traveling. You were in the middle of a jump to a new dimension. It hadn't felt normal. Usually it felt like you were shrinking and shrinking until you couldn't bear the pressure, and then suddenly expanding and going back to rights again. This time, it hadn't. This time, it felt like you were unraveling. Someone grabbing the loose thread on a weaving and yanking out the rows. You'd been dizzy and sick and scared, but it had ended and you'd thought it was a dream until you noticed that your hands were the wrong shape.

Someone has unraveled Syaoran, too.

Where the hell is Fai? Is he . . . no, you can't think about that. He is somewhere and he can fix this and you won't accept anything else.

"Hey—" You stop yourself in the middle of addressing the creature that is most responsible for this, before you can call her a name or something. You're not respectful to the pork bun because you're not respectful to anybody, because you don't want to be. Nobody can make you do anything, right? Nobody's worth it. But Fai is always respectful (to everybody but you, anyway). You're struck with the thought that you need to be Fai right now.

Sakura is clinging to you and looking up at you with hope. Syaoran is calming down in your presence. And there on the bed is your body, empty and silent. Fai is nowhere, but he's what these kids need. They need magic and answers and calm. They need this, they need the smiles and the hugging. If they don't get it, they're going to be hysterical and it's going to be way too hard to manage or control any of this. You can't do any of that shit, that's not you at all, you can't . . . but maybe Fai can. And you are Fai.

They are already panicking. They don't need to know that Fai is missing. This can't possibly work, but you're going to try. Until you can find the mage, you're going to pretend you're him.

You're doomed.

"Okay," you try in a level voice. The sight of the kid lying on the ground, afraid and broken, is killing you for some reason. "Let's tackle our problems one at a time, shall we?" That sounds like him, you think. Aggravatingly light-hearted in a dangerous situation. Always acting pleasant for the kids. "Let's get Syaoran off the floor."

He goes deeply red and looks down at the carpet as you carefully lift him up. He can stand on his right leg, but the left leg just hangs uselessly, so you have to drag him. The body you're in is strong and wiry, but not quite sturdy enough to lift the boy up into your arms. How irritating. You get his good arm around your neck, and the two of you feebly shuffle into the other room where you woke up. You put him in the bed you just vacated, trying not to thump his disabled limbs against anything. There's a spot of saliva glistening at the corner of his mouth, where it's gone queerly slack. He blushes even harder as he dabs at it with his working hand.

You don't say anything. You'd never tease him about it, but you don't know what kind of comfort Fai might offer in this moment, so you don't risk it.

"Feel better?" you ask inanely. The mage loves inane questions.

Syaoran doesn't answer. That's fair. Maybe you've overshot the usual stupidity of Fai's questions. Instead, those overly-innocent eyes look up at you with fear. Ugh. That goes straight to your gut.

"Fai-san, what's wrong with me?" he whispers.

You glance over at where Sakura stands in the doorway with the white bun cradled in her arms. Mokona. You have to say its name.

"Mokona, did you . . . feel something strange when we moved from the last world into this one?"

The little creature is nodding and bouncing. "Fai-san felt it too! It was interference!"

"What kind of interference?"

"Mokona doesn't know," she says in a more subdued way. "It was magic."

Obviously it was magic. Your thoughts aren't charitable, but you resist the urge to roll your eyes. You try to force a patient smile and hope it looks better on the mage's face than it does on yours. "What kind of magic?"

She seems surprised. Shit, she probably expects you to know this already. You're supposed to be a magician. "The kind from a wizard," she says soberly. "Mokona thinks somebody tried to do this on purpose."

The frisson up your back is not fear and you'd never mistake it as such. You know what you are. You accepted it long ago. It's excitement. There's a mission. An enemy. You're needed.

You have to school your face. He doesn't like fighting, not like you do. He doesn't get meaning from it, and you're supposed to be him right now. Would he be calm right now? Is that right? You never can tell with this guy. Sometimes he's cheerful at the most perverted and inappropriate moments. Sometimes a casual remark breaks that mask on his face for a second or two and you see how deadly serious he is beneath it. He's unpredictable. Hopefully that unpredictability will buy you some time.

"Well, then," you say, and you try to force some of that oh-so-obviously-fake cheer into your voice. "Once we figure out where we are, we'd better go look for this wizard and see about fixing it."

"C-can you— is there anything—?" Sakura's voice is shaky, and you're not sure what she's trying to ask you.

Unfriendly gods, you have to use that idiotic little-kid voice he does. No choice. "What is it, Sakura-chan?" you ask kindly. Except you probably sound ridiculous. Hopefully you'll get better with practice. Fake it until it comes naturally.

"Is there any magic you could . . . I know you don't want to use it, but Kurogane-san is . . ."

"Kurogane-san is fine like that," you answer, more brusquely than you ought to. You might be making it obvious now that you're not the mage. Although you can't help but think he probably would just leave your unconscious ass on its own if there was something more important to do.

"Are you okay, Fai-san?" she asks, her eyes suddenly sharper and fixed on you with concern.

" . . . I don't know."

It has suddenly struck you, and you feel a little tight in the chest, that maybe that's the way the mage is doing it. It seems fake because it is fake. He's playing around and trying to teach himself how to be this person. He's trying to ignore his pain and turn himself into this guy who doesn't have any. And you can't answer Sakura's question because you've never been interested in being a liar and you're not good at it when you try. You don't know if he's okay. He could be in horrible danger.

Where is he?


The Magician

It hurts like nothing has ever hurt, for a minute. Everything is chaos. You are a flurry of ripping paper and someone is screaming. You drift in a bottomless blackness and you've never been so afraid. You're alone and it's dark and there's nothing. No you. No light no warmth no guilt no pleasure no no no

Something tangible nearby is all you need, and you gather the furious scraps of yourself and launch at it. Maybe it's you, but maybe not. You feel like you're being ripped apart, but you've forgotten who you are. Your eyes are trying to look around, they're trying to shut, you want to claw them out of your face. You're not you, but you are, and your hands are going too many places. You can't breathe. Your chest is wrong.

Who are you?

There's someone in your body, but it's all wrong and nothing makes sense.

Who are you who am I where is this what are you help me please help me get out of me no no no

You just want to make both of you less afraid. You wrap your arms around the frightened boy, and you soothe him. It's—where are your arms?

It's all right. Let me just—

A violent wrenching of your brain happens. You swore you wouldn't use magic, but this isn't really magic. It's just . . . organizing.

There. Shhh. There, it's all right.

"What's happening?"

It comes out of your mouth, and you are shocked for a moment. Soft and sweet, but not yours. But it's okay. You've understood now.

I am so sorry, you say to him. I'm not sure I can explain it, but I've somehow been separated from my body. I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to steal yours. I just had to be . . . somewhere. You cannot exist in that blackness.

Your shared body shudders with your fear, and he feels all of it. He feels the pain and the horror of that nothing that was trying to suck you in, he feels everything he feels your guilt your emptiness a tiny echo of the vast emptiness that tried to take you—

"Hey, it's okay," he says with your mouth. His mouth. Whatever. "Don't be afraid. It's okay."

Precious child, he's trying to comfort you. You've hijacked his body, and he's trying to soothe you. What kind of person did you manage to inhabit?

You immediately throw a solid barrier between the two of you. You don't know how you do it, exactly. It feels like you pressed a panic button and slammed a wall of solid steel down between you. He shouldn't see who you are. You can't let him see all of that. You can never let anyone see that. This boy deserves the safety of his own mind.

You felt his own hollowness and pain, but you can ignore it from the other side of this wall.

"I'm sorry," you say aloud with his voice. "I'm working on keeping our thoughts separate. I need your body, but I'm not trying to intrude, silly as that might sound."

"Thank you," he murmurs, as soon as you've finished.

"What's your name?" you ask aloud.

"Subaru."

"I'm Fai. Sorry we have to meet like this."

"You're . . . you're kind of different, aren't you?"

"What do you mean?"

It's already strange, both of you speaking with the same mouth, both of you using his voice. It doesn't sound like you. It's too kind.

"I can barely breathe," he whispers. "You're . . . big."

Your bones are aching, his bones, and your chest is tight. You were too focused on fixing your mental boundaries into place to make note of it, but you felt it somewhere in the back of your mind. You wanted to enjoy your moment of relief after leaving that terrifying shredding blackness behind. But you feel it. This body is straining at the seams to contain you. You have too much magic for this mundane little body.

You always knew you were different, but this was beyond your reckoning. Now you know. Your body has been adapting itself to hold you inside it since you were born, constantly remaking itself into a better container as your power grew. This body can't cope.

You quest around, feeling at the inside of this body. Thin, young. But there is a hint of magic, here. Not like yours, but present. That must be what's keeping him from coming apart completely. There's a warm tickle on your lips, and you brush at it instinctively with your wrist. His wrist. Or maybe he's brushing at it and you're just sitting there like an idiot. It's hard to tell.

"Oh," he mutters. Your shared eyes look down and you each process the sight of the blood smeared onto your skin separately. Nosebleed.

"It's okay," you tell him. You say it aloud and think it at him, hoping it finds a way through the barrier. You blanket him with your assurance because you have none for yourself. One of you should be calm. "I'm working on that. Let's clean this up, okay?"

It's like getting your boot stuck in mud, trying to pull it out with that slow squelch. You are both trying to move his leg, and you're going to wind up falling over or possibly just never moving at all. The only way you can think to fix this is to let go of the barrier.

You can't do that.

Maybe you can make the barrier a little different, though. It doesn't have to be a sheet of metal. It could be a net. You could weave it, just . . . like . . . so. There was a guard at the palace who taught you to make knots and little cat's cradles when you were a child. You feel for a moment like you're playing with him again, crossing through this strange mental space with overs and unders and throughs. There. A net. It will catch the things that you don't want to get through, but now you can think together.

Let's try this again.

You take a step, and then another. You both breathe out carefully, pain shooting through your chest. Your nose still bleeds sluggishly. Your eyes are hot. You let Subaru take the lead. It's his body and his house and he knows where to go. He takes you to a small, sparsely decorated bathroom. In fact, the whole house is sparsely decorated. There's a great deal of black and white, and a series of paintings in the hall that disquiet you in a way you don't have time to analyze.

You look in the mirror together, and you try not to feel sick. He's just a kid. Definitely no older than Kurogane, if that. And blue. Your eyes are hot because they are blue, deep and powerful and no wonder your nose is bleeding. These are your eyes.

You aren't using magic, right? That's the idea. Is there some way you could send your magic back to your body, wherever it is, or is that impossible to do without ripping out your soul and sending it spiralling into the dark again? You could do it if you had your body in front of you, maybe. But if you did, you'd just climb back in that poor battered thing and leave Subaru in peace.

"F-fai?"

He hasn't figured out that he doesn't need to talk aloud anymore.

Hhmm? You try to sound mellow, even in here. You hope he can't tell you're worried. Not just worried; horrified.

How did you get here?

Ah, there, he's got the hang of talking to you. He's quick. And you're going to kill him without even trying.

Those ember-hot eyes are crying. You see the salty tears roll over his cheeks, and you can't tell if he's in pain or if it's you, if you're getting too emotional again. He's not the first and he won't be the last. You kill a lot of people without even trying. You need to get a hold of yourself and figure out how to answer his question, because at the moment you have no idea how you got here.

We were attacked.

As soon as the thought comes to you, it becomes obvious. Something interfered when Mokona transported you. You know how it's done. You take yourself apart, make yourself small enough to fit through all the little cracks in space, knit yourself back together on the other side. Few magicians master it because few magicians have the courage. You're the only one of your party who understands what Mokona does and how frightened they ought to be every time. "It's magic," they think, and simply trust.

And now it's come back to bite you. Something interfered, and it couldn't have been an accident. Some kind of spell that scrambled Mokona's magic. You were ripped out of yourself and cast away into a crack, and you barely managed to fall through it and into Subaru. You don't know what's happened to the others. But you do have to find out. You have a mission to complete, and no time to waste.

Someone attacked us. Subaru, is magic common in this world?

No, he says, defensive and immediate. It's embarrassing to him when he realizes how easily you can read it. I'm not— it's not common. There's a wizard who lives on the side of the mountain. It's about two days away from here.

Subaru, it was probably that wizard that did this to us. I need to get to him.

Okay.

Okay, he says. Like this couldn't go wrong a thousand ways, like he isn't in pain, like arranging to be missing without rational explanation for four days isn't a hardship.

I can find another body, I'm sorry, I shouldn't ask you

It's okay. And he means it, you can feel it. He's already forgiven you. You should take over someone awful. Some criminal in a prison cell. You should force him to do what you want instead. This boy is too kind and good to be ravaged by your magic. I'm an artist, that's what I do for work, so I'm not on a timetable. I can take time off.

This might kill you.

I'd rather have that happen than let it happen to someone else.

You press your hands to your burning eyes. Damn, damn, damn. How did you wind up inside the body and soul of someone who's just as broken as you are? Damn you both to the depths of Gehenna, because that's clearly where you belong anyway. Broken beautiful boy. He seems used to it. Like someone's made him a toy before.

You can't and you don't want to, but you will. You'll use him. You'll fix this so you can find the others and put this all back together. You have to continue the journey. You don't have a choice. You never did.


The Warrior

"Oh, so you're all awake?"

This cheerful greeting is the first thing she says after you open the door to her knocking. You had been wondering what home you've landed in and who it belongs to, so the unprompted words go a long way toward answering some of those questions.

She's a little thing, with wavy wheat-colored hair and pretty bright eyes. She reminds you of a bird or something. But she doesn't act like a small creature, even if she is just as delicate. She's got an assured look, and confidence in her walk as she comes in the door. She's got presence. You usually pity small things. You don't pity her.

You're waiting for someone to answer her when it strikes you that waiting is a dumb idea. Fai does all the talking when you go somewhere new. Fai or Syaoran. Guess who's in charge of that now?

While you're standing there like useless trash, Sakura steps up and addresses her. "I'm terribly sorry for causing you trouble," she says immediately, bowing her head to the girl. "My name is Sakura, and this is Fai. Can you please tell us how we got here? And where we are?"

The woman smiles at her. A warm sort of person. You don't want to look at her anymore.

"My name is Kohane. It's nice to meet you, Sakura. As for where you are, you're in my home. Well, one of my homes. I rent a few to tenants. We discovered you in our yard, early this morning, all of you unconscious. My husband and I brought you here because it's vacant for the next few weeks. We weren't sure if we should tell anybody about you, so we decided to wait until you woke up."

"So where's your husband?" you ask.

Sakura is startled, looking at you with wide eyes. Dammit. You're supposed to be the mage. The mage wouldn't be so brusque. You have to figure out a way to backtrack.

"Sorry." The word feels strange in your mouth. You're not really the apologizing type. "I'm just surprised he didn't want to accompany you."

"He's at work right now," the woman answers, no less warm for your blunt words. "I had some time, so I thought I should come over and see if you had woken up yet."

"Most of us," you say as agreeably as possible. It's going to be hard to hide your unconscious body in the other room, so might as well not try. Mokona is with Syaoran, having stated that he needs her patented snuggling to help him feel better.

"Would you like to come over to the house I live in with my husband? I should be starting preparations for dinner soon, and you're more than welcome to join us for a meal."

The logistics of transporting Syaoran in his condition are frankly not exciting to contemplate, and you are very unwilling to leave your body unsupervised. There's no way you can accept the invitation.

Hey, shouldn't you be starving? You're always hungry. Souma used to crack all kinds of jokes at your expense, saying you were going to bankrupt the empire with your appetite. It was stupid and pissed you off. What did she expect from someone of your size and youth, especially when she was the one putting you through all those physically exerting routines all day?

The fact remains that you're not hungry. It's kind of a freaky feeling, this absence of need.

You've got to playact that you're Fai. You have to do that gracious courtly stuff.

"What a tempting invitation!" you say, and try not to listen to yourself. "I think that we're all pretty tired, though, and we'd rather get some rest tonight. Perhaps we could accept your invitation tomorrow?"

This woman, this Kohane, is nodding along and smiling. "Of course, I understand. I was going to the general store anyway, so why don't you accompany me and we can get a few things so that you can cook for yourselves here?"

That's a better plan, but again you have to think about this from a strategic standpoint. You're not going to leave Sakura here to keep Syaoran calm and protect your body, especially not when she's liable to pass out or something anyway.

"That's a good idea!" you say, before Sakura can say anything. "Sakura, why don't you take Mokona to the grocery store with you? I'll stay here and try to . . ." Something. Anything. You feel so utterly useless and you've got to try to do something. Maybe you can crawl back into your body if you try hard enough.

Sakura is agreeing, but she's turning to Kohane with a little frown. "I don't think we have any money, though."

"It's no trouble," Kohane is quick to say. "I don't mind at all."

"What can we do to repay you for your help?" you ask.

"I'll think of something," is her light-hearted response, and she winks at Sakura. You suppose the mage might have found it funny, but you can't muster up the ability to pretend you do. You've got to start figuring this situation out before it can get any worse.

So you fetch Mokona and send the two of them on their way. Then, lacking anything better to do, you stay with the kid. He's freaked out as hell, and he's terrible at disguising it.

"There has to be a feather in this world, right?" he says. He's staring up at the ceiling and won't look at you. "Mokona wouldn't have brought us here if there wasn't a feather. We have to get out there and find it."

"I don't think you're going anywhere right now," you say. And you're being too blunt again. The mage must naturally be a nice person; for all the lies he tells about himself there's no way he could fake kindness all the time and make it look so easy.

"I know that," Syaoran whispers, fixed on the ceiling like the solution is painted on it. He's blinking too much. "But I have to do something, we have to try to do something. I can't just lay here. I'll go crazy, Fai," he says with honesty. He's probably more used to being honest with Fai than he is with you. Probably because Fai acts like he gives a shit.

His good hand is clenched tight into a fist. All that rapid blinking isn't doing much to disguise how close he is to tears. You feel a lot of pity for the kid. This is his mission, and now look at him. He's supposed to be saving Sakura's life. It's not just that he's afraid over what's happened to his body, he's afraid of what it will mean if it doesn't get fixed. How much good can he do, how many feathers can he track down, if he never recovers the left half of his body?

You want to comfort him. You want to help. And you don't want to pretend to because Fai would. You just want to, on your own. That surprises you so much that you can't find anything to say. You've been helping because it's a way to pass the time. Because you get to keep fighting and doing what you're good at. You didn't know you had started to—

When did you start to care?

Because you do, don't you? You care about these kids. Maybe not so much that you wouldn't leave them in a heartbeat if it meant going home. But you care some. Enough. For now, anyway.

"It's going to be fine," you say. You grasp for Fai's words. "We'll find out everything we can about this world, and we'll find the feather. I'm sure that once we do that, we'll be able to restore you and K-kuro . . . tan." You kind of want to go kill something because you have to call yourself that. "We'll find some books about the magic that exists in this world, and you can do some research while I try to find the feather, okay? Maybe you can find the answer. I'm sure if all of us work on the problem, we'll find an answer."

It upsets you to do this in such a false way. Talking circuitously to pretend you're the more gentle Fai, when it's really you who's talking. Maybe it's better that he doesn't know you're the one who cares. But this is all the plan you've got. Just keep faking it. You'll get the kid some books to try to figure out what happened, and you'll go find the feather, and then maybe all of you can get the hell out of here. You leave unsaid the part where you're going to look for Fai while you're trying to find the feather. You have to find that idiot.

"Yeah," Syaoran agrees, grasping at straws with desperate gratitude.

You probably shouldn't leave him alone in this room the whole time. Yet you can't bring yourself to be the one who stays with him. All you can do when you look at him is feel ill and think about what you're all going to do if you can't restore him. It'll have to be Sakura, and you'll have to try to convince her that the world won't end over the impropriety of a boy and a girl sleeping in the same room.

She and Mokona return then with the groceries, and she starts showing them to you as she unpacks and chattering about her purchases. You're feeling tired and grumpy. Why the hell do you care about onions? And then it strikes you that she's expecting you to cook dinner.

Well, shit. It can't be that hard, right?

You cast around desperately, and find that there is a wood-fire stove in the corner of the kitchen. It's not as convenient as that oven thing you've seen in a few places, but it's better than nothing. First things first, so you stoke up the fire and get it hot, and set a pot of water to boil atop it. You could make soup, maybe. Or maybe there's rice.

. . . you should probably know more about basic food preparation than you do. It's a little pathetic.

There is rice so you make some, and then you decide you can skewer the vegetables and chicken and cook them with the fire. Simple and boring, but you can probably manage it without looking like an idiot and without revealing your utter lack of skills in the kitchen. You don't even know how to use a knife to chop vegetables, but . . . You decide to try just relaxing. Just look out the window, knife in one hand. Just drift. And let these hands do the work. These hands know how to do this. You've seen them do it.

It's still strange and irritating, the way your fingers have lost all the sensitivity you're used to. But you manage, and you wonder how long the mage has had these scars. They've never seemed to trouble him.

Sakura assists you a little, but you're both quiet. You know the mage would chatter with her, but you don't have it in you. You also think the mage would try to bring Syaoran out here to eat at the table, but you can't muster the energy for that, either. So when Sakura takes a plate for herself and one for Syaoran into the other room, you don't follow. You sit down in the kitchen and chew with no enthusiasm.

The food doesn't seem to help your exhaustion. Maybe you just need sleep. You wonder, though. The mage only eats food he really likes, and avoids things he doesn't like even when he ought to be famished. He doesn't sleep that much. He'll go to bed whenever the rest of them are going, sometimes seeming startled that it's gotten late enough for that. He thinks chocolate cake is a meal, and yet somehow he's got this body with all its lean muscles.

Does Fai not need food? It's a strange thought, but you can't shake it. It would explain a lot. Including your current weariness. Maybe this body is missing not rest or sustenance, but its true inhabitant. Maybe what this body needs is . . . magic.

The only thing to do, you decide, is try to get some sleep. It's early, but you have the feeling that everyone is as exhausted as you are. Is it wrong to leave the dishes undone, and hope that Sakura will do them? You cooked, after all.

Maybe you, when you are in your own body, ought to be helping with this kind of thing a little more. There's been a few worlds when you've been all but useless. You could stop holding yourself so aloof from what the rest of them are doing. Maybe. You don't want to, but it's suddenly occurring to you that you've been kind of an asshole to dump all this domestic stuff on the others. It's not like any of them grew up being expected to cook, either. Sakura's a damn princess and she doesn't seem to mind helping. You're a pretty selfish guy. When you're back to normal, you should work on that.

You do not think the word "if." You will get things back to normal. You will find a way.

Thinking about your body makes you realize that asking Sakura to sleep in the same room as Syaoran has left you only one option for your own bed. You'll have to make do with the floor of the room with your body.

It chills you, and you do not want to. You haven't bothered with a mirror in a long time, and you honestly do not know the details of your own face. You're frightened to look. So that is why you head immediately for that room to prepare for bed. You're no coward.

You stare at your own face, and don't know how to feel. You look . . . young. Your face is relaxed and your eyes are closed and your hands are just sitting there with no sword in them. You don't look dangerous like this. You don't look angry, or strong, or anything much. You wonder if this is what you always look like in sleep.

Maybe this is why the damn mage can never seem to take you seriously. You barely look older than the kids. You aren't much older than the kids. Not that anyone needs to know that. You've often thought that for all of Fai's antics, he sometimes seems to have lived a thousand lifetimes to your one, and now that you are realizing how little his physical body means against his magic you are really wondering.

You suddenly wonder if you look like a damn brat to him. You sort of feel like one. Like a scrawny child, the one your father always made fun of.

Your breath stops in your chest, and it hurts. You let it out slow. You haven't thought about your father in a long time, and you hadn't realized until now just how much you look like him.

You don't think about it, what you're doing. You crawl onto the bed. You sit beside yourself. You run a finger over your own nose. You wonder if you're remembering his face correctly. You wonder what your mother would think. Of you.

There's a sound of footsteps in the hallway and you suddenly realize how this would look if Sakura poked her head in. It would look like Fai was caressing you in your sleep. Your heart is pounding. Shit. Obviously it's because you don't want to be caught. It's not because you . . . no. You don't think about things like that. Not with him, not with anyone. You don't have the time. You don't have the heart. You're just worried about Sakura getting the wrong impression, and that is all.

You immediately roll off the bed and to your feet and start the laborious process of taking off unfamiliar clothing. You weren't uncomfortable in it because it was tailored to this body and the body is used to wearing it, but you still huff at how ridiculous it all seems to you. All these damn buckles and hidden catches holding the shirt closed under your armpit. Trying to somehow shimmy your way out of these damn boots.

When it comes time to drop your pants, you stop. And then curse at yourself, because really? The mage has undressed in front of you before. You've undressed in front of him. Close quarters and all. This is just . . . different. Being inside his body, having this privacy and opportunity, is a temptation. And you are an idiot for trying to convince yourself you're not attracted to this guy. You will still maintain that it's impossible because you are trying to get home and you don't like people anyway. But yeah. You want to see what's under these pants.

. . . great. Now you're making yourself aroused thinking about it. Fai's cock is getting stiff because you are a pervert inside his body and thinking about his body, and you are a terrible person. You are using a man's cock without his permission.

In the end, you just leave the pants on. You locate the giant fluffy coat and lay on top of it and curl onto your side and resolutely go to sleep.


The Magician

Sleep that night comes with an ease that worries you. Falling asleep in your own body is a restless and time-consuming affair, cataloguing the day's events and worrying over the image you're presenting and trying to release the tension you carry by slow degrees. It takes time to convince your power to settle down and let natural body function take over.

But this body is already protesting and weary from what you're putting it through. Subaru seems at surprised as you are, when a heavy weight creeps over you, when you can't keep your aching eyes open. You gather it's usually hard for him to sleep.

That's all you have time for before you lose consciousness.

You're even more worried when you awake, sluggish and heavy, with sunlight spilling over you so brightly that you squint and pull a pillow over your face. It's late morning, and you've slept far too long and wasted a great deal of time already. Subaru's body is aching and miserable, but he combines his determination with yours to get it out of bed.

You'll find another body, you think. Although . . . it's not an easy thing, what you've done here, and you're quite certain it could not have been accomplished without Subaru's cooperation and this latent magic he's hiding. You're not sure you can take another body. And you can't afford to waste time looking for yours. You don't even know if it's in this dimension. No, the only thing you can do is find this wizard as quickly as possible.

Shouldn't we eat breakfast? you ask Subaru as he immediately starts packing a rucksack with a few spare items of clothing.

I didn't think we were hungry.

You try to keep the chill contained to your own private place carved out in your mind, but a shiver goes up your shared spine nonetheless. Subaru saying "we" like that scares you, although you can't quite articulate why. And furthermore, he ought to be hungry because you didn't eat last night. It's only you that doesn't get hungry. It's supposed to be only you that could live on cake or nothing just as well as food and it's supposed to be only you that eats just to cover that fact up.

Your magic is already changing him. You are sweeping Subaru up in a flood and he is going to drown if you don't do something about it.

Subaru seems to have guessed it already, since he just calmly continues his packing and you don't make the suggestion a second time. It will mean less to carry up the mountain if you don't have to pack food.

All packed? you ask him as soon as his hands go idle for a moment.

Sure, I guess so. I want to pack some mouthwash though.

You decide not to tell him how long you can go without sleep when necessary and how he might not need mouthwash. But you're only riding in his body until you can find another candidate, a fact you are keeping firmly hidden on your side of this mental web. Yesterday, he said he'd rather take the fall than pass it on to another, and you know that he meant it. But you cannot stand the thought of hurting him anymore than you already have. The first chance you get, you will take.

And then it will be a fight for control. One that will waste precious time that you could be using to find this wizard and resolve the situation. You are trying not to think about that.

In the hallway, you pass by the series of paintings again, and this time you look at them more closely. They're impressive. Minimalist. It makes the subjects that much more striking, that they are comprised of so few colours and such knife-sharp edges and shadows.

A boy, even younger than Subaru, is crucified and his hair hangs in his eyes. The painting is all in black and brown and yellow, even the sky behind him and his blood trickling down his face and pooling at his feet. A girl who looks incredibly like Subaru is laying in a puddle of purple on the ground, purple blooms on her clothes, and her eyes are covered by delicate gray flower blossoms.

My first boyfriend. He died a couple of years ago. Not like this, he was sick. And her. She's . . . no one. I don't know her.

He is lying about her somehow. You aren't sure what to say about his work. It's beautiful and stunning.

They're dreams, Subaru answers a question you didn't ask, or maybe you did. You're not being careful about not sharing thoughts with him, it seems. I don't know why . . . There's a tension drawing tighter and tighter inside him. It's making your body ache. That's the owner of the gallery that shows most of my work. Your attention obediently goes to the painting of a man standing balanced on a wire, bird's wings of white spread out behind him, his mouth a giant bloody red slash that covers most of his face.

Fai, you're not from here, are you? There are other worlds.

It seems he already knows the answer to that. Yes.

You turn your eyes to a painting that is only black and white. A tall, broken tower standing on crumpled, broken ground. There are no people in this painting. Just the building. A white building on a black sky.

Subaru has gone completely still inside your mind, saying nothing. For a moment, neither of you are breathing. He knows you are going to ask what this tower is, and all you can think is that you do not want to know, you could never want to know, you cannot know.

You shiver.

The tension that was winding and winding and winding suddenly snaps, and Subaru loses his half of the control of this body. Startled and caught unawares, you are dragged down with him, and you are kneeling on the floor of the hallway, your hand on the wall just below the painting of the girl.

People have—have thought they were prophetic. My dreams. Some people think I can paint what's going to happen.

You understand some of his sorrow, suddenly, and why he seems so accustomed to being used against his will.

I'm dreaming about something happening somewhere else. I'm . . . I think these are other people's lives. My other lives.

You wish there was a way to hold him, to stroke his hair, to give him that smile that always seems to work on the other children who are now in your care. Some way to make him feel protected the way Sakura does when you offer it to her. Instead your shared body trembles until he collects himself enough to get back up.

Once you're on your feet, you take more dominant control over the body and lead him outside. Which way to the mountain?

You're not wasting any time. He seems amused.

The sooner I find this magician the sooner I can get my own body back. I said this might kill you, not that it definitely will.

For some reason, you think of Kurogane right then. You think he would have laughed.

You don't know why that makes your heart ache.

You suddenly realize how much you'd be willing to give to have him with you right now. A sword in his hand and curses on his lips, and you laughing instead of worrying. Someone strong enough to carry the burdens you refuse to pick up. You're afraid whenever you're around him but somehow the thing you're most afraid of is that he'll do something to make you stop being afraid anymore. You didn't even know you missed him. Now missing him is leaving you short of breath.

You can pretend it's just Subaru's struggling body.

Let's go.


The Warrior

You smell bacon frying when you wake up. A lot of things that you figured out yesterday cease to matter in that moment. You don't run to the kitchen, exactly, but you don't go slow either. You're supposed to be Fai, anyway. Fai can be excited about bacon.

You stop in your tracks when you see that there's a veritable party happening in the kitchen. Sakura and the homeowner, Kohane, are cooking on the little woodstove. The cheerful smell of the woodsmoke fills the air, even if the smoke itself is rising up the thick iron chimney and out the roof. Syaoran is seated at the table, carefully leaning on his good arm to balance and stay upright in his chair. Before you can wonder how he got there, you see a man seated at the table with him and you immediately do your thing. Check the exit is clear. Drop your center of gravity. Reach for your—right, you aren't wearing a sword.

You decided yesterday that it would look weird for Fai to suddenly sport a sword on his hip. You feel inexplicably naked without it. Thinking about being naked does not make you think about what happened while you were undressing last night though, of course. Not at all.

This must be Kohane's husband, you realize, taking in his sleepy eyes and hard jawline. He's not short or tall, not handsome or ugly . . . and Kohane's gorgeous and strong, so he must have some kind of amazing hidden qualities to attract a woman like her. Of course, he managed to win Syaoran's trust pretty quickly, or Syaoran wouldn't be out here. You try to relax. You try.

"Oh, there you are!" Sakura says suddenly, catching sight of you out of the corner of her eye. "Would you like some tea?"

She is going to make it the way Fai drinks it. Black tea with heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of milk. It's a crime against tea.

You nod your head. You wonder if you can even get this out, but then out it comes without even much effort on your part. "Good morning, everyone! I would love some tea, thank you Sakura-chan. Can I help with anything?"

"No, we've got it, it's fine," she says, waving you toward the table with the other men. Mokona, who had been burrowed against Syaoran's chest, chooses the moment to come bouncing into your arms, and you catch her by instinct. You bite your tongue against your urge to remonstrate at her. Fai likes the pork bun.

Besides, you have to use the moment to cover up how horrifying it was to chirp out nonsense like that. You hate that sort of behavior. You hate any kind of falsehood, really. You can't remember why you thought this was a good idea.

"I'm told you've got an unconscious man in the other room." This is the first thing the strange man says to you. It's not a good beginning.

You'd have to let go of pretending to be Fai to hurt him. You're willing to do it, in that moment. What does this man want with your body?

"Ahhh, sorry, Fai-san, I haven't introduced my husband, Shizuka," Kohane says brightly.

You are Fai. You are Fai. You are not you, and you cannot let the bloodlust out. You're barely registering the proper introduction you're getting while you're busy convincing yourself of this. But you've got to— You try to get your head straight— What does Fai always say?

"Fai D. Fluorite," you spit out sharply.

"I'm a doctor."

You don't care. Why is he telling you?

"I've already given Syaoran a precursory examination, and I'd be more than happy to take a look at your other friend," he continues.

Oh. That would be why. You can't tell them that you already know what went wrong, and why that body isn't waking up. You can't tell them, because Sakura and Syaoran already look so troubled and upset, and you just can't tell them that doctors are pointless and that Fai might not even exist anymore. You don't want to deal with that until you've tried to solve this.

"Fine," you say carefully. "You and I can do that after we've eaten."

You wonder if it looks weird for Fai to be insisting on accompanying this Doctor Shizuka guy to examine you. Maybe not. Fai's not stupid or incautious about anybody except himself, really. Now that you're thinking about it. You keep calling him reckless, but it's only himself he treats that way. You think you're still doing a decent job of acting like him. You sound like Fai is in a pissy mood, maybe, but not suspiciously so. Probably.

Oh, hell, you don't even know anymore.

"Syaoran?" you ask, looking at him quietly as Sakura sets a cup of disgustingly sweet tea in front of you.

He shrugs. "He says he can't find an origin for the condition, which makes sense if we believe it's magical, but he says I should try to . . ." He flushes and goes quiet. He also has a cup of tea, but he hasn't touched it. You realize he can't sit himself up in the chair and hold his cup at the same time, and he's chosen bodily autonomy over the drink.

This kid. He seriously messes with your resolve. You're already involved in his life by now and it's not a long leap into admitting you care. You hate all of this.

"I recommend that you try to exercise his limbs as much as possible," the doctor says, either missing or ignoring Syaoran's embarrassment. "He won't be able to do it on his own, so I'll have to show you what I mean and give you a few instructions."

A muffled groan escapes from Syaoran.

"Hey," you say, not sure of what's coming out of your mouth until it's already out. "It's okay. This isn't your fault, and we're gonna fix it anyway, so don't worry about it."

You are really, really bad at pretending to be the mage. Damn. You should just shut up as much as possible, and try to look busy eating.

You don't say a word when you move your chair closer and pull Syaoran against you. You hold him up so he can eat with his good hand. You just don't say anything, and you refuse to look at him because you don't want to see his eyes. This is just something that needs to be done and it's stupid to get sentimental about it anyway.

After you all fill yourselves up on bacon and eggs and porridge, you go with the doctor into the room where your body waits. It's starting to look . . . less alive. It doesn't look dead yet, but it does look sick now. Yesterday it still seemed fine.

Yeah, like you didn't already know you needed to hurry.

"So I'm not gonna waste your time," you say bluntly, the moment you close the door to the room. "You don't need to examine this body, there's nothing wrong with it."

"I could tell at breakfast that you weren't saying everything you knew," he responds. "They told me you're a wizard. I thought you might know more about what happened than they did."

"Look, no, I don't, because I'm not a wizard. I'm not— okay, so here's the deal. The magician is missing. I'm him." You jerk your thumb at the body on the bed. "That's why it's just laying there, there's nobody in it. I'm trying like crazy to keep the kids in there from figuring it out, okay? They don't need to be any more worried than they already are, so you'll keep your mouth shut or I'll cut your tongue out. Okay?"

He nods, not even seeming surprised. Damn, you were right about him having hidden qualities. He must be really good in a crisis.

"So I just need to figure out how this happened, and fix it. I'm still looking for a place to start. Do you . . . this is kind of a long shot, but do you know if anybody or any object around here has gained some really weird or magical powers, recently?"

It really was a long shot, and you're surprised by the quickness of his answer.

"Yes. There's a wizard who lives a couple of days from here, up on that mountain." He gestures vaguely at the window, which has the curtains drawn. Whatever, it's a mountain, you can find it. "He's always been an eccentric dabbler, or so we thought. There've been rumours, lately." He suddenly gestures to your body on the bed. "Would you mind?" He's already got some kind of weird device dangling from his hand. "It's a really unique opportunity."

You don't exactly want to let him, but it's hard to say no when he's taking all of this so calmly.

"Fine," you grunt, and he steps closer to the body and starts feeling for a pulse in your wrist. He takes a very obvious look at the scar on your hand, but doesn't ask about it. He puts one end of the weird device to your chest and puts the other end in his ears.

He fills in the uncomfortable silence with more explanation. "Nobody minded much when he was just experimenting with alchemy and trying to communicate with birds. It's only been recently that things have taken a darker turn. Experiments on animals, they think. Not much wildlife left near his home, these days. And there's a story about a fellow who made him angry. The fellow's house caught fire, and he couldn't get out. There was an invisible barrier around it that was nearly impossible to break through."

"Nearly," you repeat. You twitch uncomfortably when he sticks something in your body's ear. You can't actually feel it, but it makes you itch nonetheless.

"Yeah. I was able to get through. The other volunteer firefighters couldn't do it, but I somehow passed through the barrier and was able to smash a window in to drag him out. It was a close call. We have a few deputies here who are making noise about heading up the mountain to investigate, but they won't. They're too frightened."

"I take it nobody else around here has magic."

"My wife has a little, but it's only good for a few household charms. It's not common these days. I was talking to the other firefighters. Most of us have some kind of defense or combat training. We might go up the mountain ourselves, if things get any worse."

"How about you leave that to me," you say, and you can't help your sharp grin. This is better news than you hoped for. That's where Sakura's feather is. You're sure of it. You go get that feather, and you can get everybody the hell out of here. You don't know how yet, but somehow you will use that feather to get Fai back.

His heavy eyelids give that impression of laziness, of sleep, but when his eyes meet yours they are sharp and intense. "I'll guide you up there."

"No," you say after a moment's consideration. A moment of thinking it would be nice to have some backup, and your usual backup is missing. A moment to appreciate that the universe seems to be throwing you a bone, putting this guy in your path. "No, you'll slow me down. Besides." It takes you a few seconds to gather up the words with your tongue and get them out. "Somebody should be here with those kids. And keep an eye on— on this."

You must be crazy to trust him with the teenagers and your own empty body. But you have few choices left at this point.

His only answer is to nod his head. He understands.

It doesn't take you long to prepare. You just throw on that damn fluffy coat and try to hide your sword under it. You don't want the kids to know you're carrying it. You school your face. You told the doctor the truth, but to the kids you must still be Fai. Just for another few minutes.

You head into the kitchen and grab a few pieces of fruit that Kohane brought over, sticking them in your pockets. The others are still in there.

"Shizuka was able to tell me where he thinks the feather might be," you announce. You see desperate hope in Syaoran's eyes and a strange hesitation in Sakura's. Her mouth is tight. You're noticing a lot more than you usually do, since you're so keyed up all the time. You guess you never noticed how much this all must be hurting her. "I'll have to go on my own, but you shouldn't worry. I won't be gone for more than a couple of days, and these two will be with you."

"Wh-what about Kurogane?" Syaoran asks.

You really, really wish you could understand what the mage thinks about you or feels about you, so you'd know how to answer this. You just don't, though. You can't read him when it comes to you, not the way you can read him with others. It pissed you off, and now it's starting to make you feel something else. You don't really know what. You don't have much practice with any feeling that isn't "pissed off."

"I— there isn't anything I can do, on my own," you say quietly, and wish it wasn't quite so true. "If we can get Sakura's feather and move on to the next world, I'll be able to do a lot more."

That much is a lie. It feels wrong in your mouth, but you just smile at the kids.

"Be careful, Fai," Sakura says, and runs to you and wraps her arms around your waist. Shit. Shit, she must know you've got the sword, now. If she notices, she doesn't say anything. She just holds you like she doesn't want to let you go. Like she's worried you'll get hurt or something. It's . . . cute.

It's not you she's worried about, you remind yourself. Fai's the one she cares about. She's a lot more upset about supposedly-Fai going out on his own than about Kurogane being in a coma. And that's fine. It is.

"Please come back safely," she says. "I want to go with you, but one of us should stay here with Syaoran and Kurogane. If Kurogane wakes up, I'll tell him where you went, okay? He'll want to follow you and help."

You are surprised, and there's nothing you can think of to say. How does she know that?

"I'll come back," you say, and then you are hugging her back. "I promise."

You head for the door, jerking your head for Shizuka to follow you and point out the direction for you to take. Shizuka steps after you, but to your surprise Mokona bounces along at your heels. You take Shizuka's quietly murmured directions, note where his fingers are pointing, and nod. You step off the porch as he turns back inside.

Before the door can close, Mokona bounces into your arms.

"Don't worry about me," you say, putting on a little laugh. "I'll be back."

Mokona has the ability to look enormously troubled, for something that's mostly white fluff. "Kurogane-san," she says quietly.

"What about him?"

She shakes her head sadly. "Why are you pretending? What happened to Fai-san? Mokona is super worried," she whispers, and rubs her head against your chin.

"How long have you known?" you mutter, not trying to deny it.

"Mokona knew since yesterday," she says soberly.

You have been treating this thing like she's not just as intelligent at you are, and you're an idiot for doing that. Furthermore, she's still rubbing against you and acting like she cares even though she knows it's you. That's weird.

"I didn't want the kids to worry."

"Sakura-chan and Syaoran-kun are very worried about Kurogane," she says. "They talked about it for a long time last night before they went to sleep. Kurogane is everyone's friend, too. Syaoran-kun looks up to Kurogane very much."

You didn't . . . you didn't know that. You didn't want to. You still don't. You just want to go home and not care about these people, why don't they seem to understand that?

"They don't want to tell Fai how much they're worried, because they think he already has too many burdens. You should tell them the truth."

You scoop the little thing up in your hands and look her in the eyes. "I'm going after the feather. Then you and I can find a way to fix this, right? If you activate your powers, you can find Fai, can't you?"

Mokona tugs at her own ear in worry.

"It's gonna be fine," you say, and set her down. "I've got to get going. I got a wizard's ass to kick. Two of them, if I'm lucky," you add on. Fai deserves it for randomly disappearing and making you all worry about him.

Because yeah. Your stomach is in knots now. Worrying about him. Might as well admit that.


The Magician

It's not hard, at the beginning. One foot in front of the other.

There are hiking trails and hunting trails aplenty crawling all over this mountain. It's easy to pick one heading up. You find a creek that is running down from the top, possibly a snowmelt, and you decide to just stick close to it. You'll need water as you hike and it's going to take you close enough to your destination to make it a good idea.

You don't realize how frequently you'll need to stop.

You had honestly planned on accosting someone and stealing their body before you even hit the town limits, but Subaru had been crafty. You didn't even know he was directing you away from the busy thoroughfares and taking you in a wide arc around the edge of the town, avoiding any hope of seeing other people. You hit the mountain without running into a single person.

There's less chance that you'll find someone here on the mountain, although you'll still keep an eye out. You want to be angry at Subaru, but you aren't. He knows what he's doing. He's killing himself to keep you from harming others.

You think that you'll just hurry. You'll sprint up this damn mountain if you have to. Your magic allows you to go far beyond the limits of body alone, and you think you can push. You'll get to the top and you'll find the wizard and reverse this spell before it can ravage Subaru too much.

It turns out that you can't. This body can't take it.

Each step you take hurts. Your skin burns. Your joints stab. Your lungs feel like razor blades. Your eyes are still hot in your skull. You stumble over things. You've never done that before. You have to stop every half an hour or so to breathe for a few minutes.

Sticking your head into the cool water of the creek becomes a frequent occurrence. You're drinking so much of it that it feels like you'll drain the thing before you reach the top. The cold water sits in your gut like a rock and that hurts, too.

You're dripping with sweat as you walk.

But you keep walking. There's nothing else to do but to just keep walking.

You talk, sometimes. When you can focus.

I want to know about you, you say to him. You don't, you can't, but it's too late for that. I should at least know whose body I've stolen, right? You cajole and joke. You pretend not to taste the bile that's roiling constantly in your throat.

So he tells you things.

The dreams started when he was only twelve. They've gotten worse. He's in love with the owner of the gallery. He's afraid of himself. He's always alone. He doesn't say all these things in so many words, but it's there in the warmth that wraps around his thoughts of Seishirou, and it's there in the knife wound you can feel in your chest when he tells you how often he dreams of the girl who looks like him. You can feel the stutter in your shared pulse over the times they locked him up and tried to coax truth from his dreams, the fear that they'll drag him back and lock him up again.

You don't mean to share anything back. You don't want him to know how often the things he says feel like memories. You don't want him to know. He has enough pain and he doesn't need yours. You don't mean for the barrier between you to break down.

But it does.

The two of you are unraveling together, both of you at once, and the loose threads are mingling together. Your body's breath hitches tightly in your chest, and the cool water in the stream is the only thing that helps. When you stumble over the path and catch yourself with torn-up hands, it jars loose thoughts and feelings that weren't meant to be shared.

So that first night, when you huddle up into an outcrop of rock and doze off with exhaustion, you wrap your arms around yourself and neither of you is sure which of you is doing the comforting and which is the one receiving. It barely matters anymore.

That's when Subaru lets you see the tower.

run get away no no so much blood scream who's screaming she's so pretty what a pretty girl no no no my brother not again not this we need water we need to save them save all of them no run please just run

None of it makes any sense, but both of you are reeling back against rocks still warm from the sun, and both of you are whimpering in fear and imagined pain. There's no clear vision to what he saw. There was Sakura and there was blood and there was a tower. That's all you know.

What was that? you ask him, although you do not want to know.

A choice, he answers. I don't really understand it. But you'll have to make a choice there.

You were really starting to think you wouldn't have to. You were really starting to believe you didn't have any choices, anyway. You don't want to see this or know this. So you bury it away, and Subaru lets you. He says soothing things in your mind and relaxes so the two of you can try to sleep.

You wish you were the type of person who could just cry. You wish you had someone stronger to lean on. You wish none of this was yours to carry. You wish you were nothing and that you never existed. All you can do is bury your burning-hot eyes in your hands and put your face on your knees and try to fall asleep. The two of you together, you both know that you are beyond saving and that there is no one who would come for you.

Just finish this, you think as you wake up in half-darkness before the sun rises. Just finish this journey and put things where they belong, and maybe you're not talking about a hike up the mountain. Maybe you just want everything to be over.

You wish you knew more, had been told more, about what everything would look like after it was over.

Your nose starts bleeding again, mid-morning, and then it won't stop. You dunk your head in the creek so often that your hair won't dry out all the way, but it doesn't seem to help. You can barely make a fist because the bones in your hands feel like splinters and your skin feels so tight.

I think we're nearly there, you tell him.

There were bird songs, yesterday, but today there's been only wind through the leaves of the trees. You know you are close, because you can feel other magicians, and you can feel him as you approach.

This will be over soon, and then we'll let you get back to worrying whether or not Tall Dark and Handsome likes your paintings, you say.

Fai . . . is his weak response, but no. No, he is going to be fine as soon as you can get out of his body. He will be fine and you will be fine, and you must both get back to your own business.

Half an hour, you guess.

You find new strength, despite the pain. You have to be standing tall when you confront the wizard.

There's nothing special about his home, when you approach. Split logs tightly woven into each other to create a snug little building. Smoke from the chimney. It looks like it was meant to be a cabin for hunters staying the night on the mountain.

It's all but pulsing with rot. You wonder if Subaru can see it.

You bend in half, gagging, and realize it wasn't you and yes, Subaru can see it. You don't vomit, because there's nothing in your stomach anyway. You push Subaru down a little, much as it seems cruel. You need to be in control of this situation.

It's not surprising that he acquiesces and sinks down to quietly observe.

It's like you're seeing double. A snug little cabin in the sunlight, and the same building dripping with blood and stench under a heavy grey sky. You blink, but that just makes you notice the aching dryness of your eyes.

He is not more powerful than you. That much is obvious. So there's nothing to do but go inside and fight him.

You don't knock. He must know that you are here. You just push the door open and go inside.

He's covered the windows, and it's dark inside. Surprisingly, it's clean. The floors are scrubbed, and there's no smell, despite the way blood and death cling to its aura. There's light enough from the fireplace, which is open and blazing away. There's a man seated in front of it, watching you with dark eyes and a frown framed by a thick beard, cupping a wine glass in one hand and . . . Sakura's feather twirls in the fingers of his other hand.

"Knew you'd show up eventually," is his greeting.

You don't bother to close the door. Your mouth is very dry, and the woodsmoke isn't helping. Your nose is bleeding again. You want to throw up when you see Sakura's soul in those blood-stained fingers.

"And how did you know that?" you ask.

You pause to pull the readiness for battle around yourself the way you'd pull on your heavy coat. Your persona. A little quirked grin you always wear, because honestly it is funny, a little funny, when people challenge you. Anyone with brains in their head, especially another magician, ought to know better. You can tear them apart. It's funny when they try to fight you anyway. Kurogane grins that way; you kind of like the way Kurogane smiles when you're about to fight together because you understand him in battle in a way it's hard to understand him otherwise.

You've started getting used to having him at your back in a fight. This one, you'll have to do without him, and you don't care at all. You ignore Subaru, in the back of your mind, trying not to notice the way you lie to yourself.

The wizard seems so calm, and it's unnerving, but you don't show it. You will win this fight, because you have to win all your fights. Losing isn't an option, and therefore you won't. "This doesn't seem like the kind of thing you just leave lying around," he answers, waving the feather a little. "It's not yours, though. I don't have to give it to you."

"How do you know it isn't?" you challenge him. How much does he know? Is he an agent? Whose agent is he?

"I've experimented on it," he answers.

Your eyes flick to the long wooden table. It's covered with papers full of cramped handwriting, and with glass bottles and magnifying lenses and all kinds of detritus.

"I know it's got something to do with other dimensions," he says casually. "I also know it's not got anything to do with you. I'd recognize the owner if I saw them."

"You've tried to use it to amplify your own magic," you guess.

He shrugs. "Couldn't make it transport me anywhere."

"You used it to do what you did to me and my friend."

He eyes you with a little smirk. Like it's funny. "I'm not sure what I did, to be honest," he drawls out. "I was able to notice you coming. I was able to see the way it worked, for a second. I was trying to swap the four of you around. It was supposed to be funny. I figured you'd all go back to normal whenever you left again."

"You didn't do a very good job!" you shout.

You're shaking. You had no idea you were angry, but by the gods you are. He did this as a joke? You don't even know what's happened to the others, and he thinks it's funny and maybe you are shaking with relief just because he seems to have confirmed that the others are here, somewhere. In this world, anyway. Safe enough that you can get to them. But look at what's happened, and he thought it was funny.

He's no one's agent. He's just a complete idiot.

You are seething with anger, and you leap across the room at him before you even know what you're doing. You are getting that feather from him and you are fixing this and Subaru is going to live and you are going to tear his throat out

You're so slow. Moving so slow. Your limbs are aching and heavy. You catch hold of him. You fling him, fling yourself, a bound that's meant to send him sprawling with you on top, but it hurts so much. You scrabble wildly at him, but he's so much stronger than you. Your nose is bleeding and you can't get enough air anymore. You struggle against the burning in your lungs and you struggle against his hands holding you by the wrists. You kick him hard in the groin. You shove him at the chair he was sitting on, trying to trip him over it. You've got the feather pinched between your fingers.

He knocks you off your feet. You catch the table as you fly by it. Glass shatters everywhere. Your back thumps on the scrubbed wooden floor. You cough and gasp and feel with horror a wet gurgle in your throat. Blood sprays from your lips as you cough desperately. Oh no, oh no. You are falling apart now. Your lungs are giving up the fight. Subaru is there, he is yelling at you, but you're bleeding and fuzzy and lying on the floor—

Something has just leapt right over you. Something in a fluffy white coat.

It's . . . me? you think wildly.

You have never used a sword before. You don't know why you're using one now. Or roaring nonsense words. Everything hurts too much to think.

Kurogane. Kurogane. It's the only word that comes to you and that you can get to stay inside your mind. The swap might not have worked perfectly, but the wizard did something right. Kurogane is in your body. That means Kurogane is here to help you. He is fighting. Maybe you can go to sleep now. He can handle this idiotic wizard. He's strong.

Fai! Subaru shrieks.

You focus enough to see Kurogane stumble as he fights. He wears your skin, and your skin is slick with sweat. He is exhausted. He sends the wizard flying, sends a chair into the fireplace. The wizard grabs the burning chair and tries to hit him/you with it. Kurogane uses your arm in your heavy coat sleeve to catch the fire before it can hit him, but the blow sends him to his knees. The wizard hits him hard across the head, and he/you goes sprawling across the ground. Shattered bits of glass are crawling around him, forming themselves into little cuffs that pin him to the ground by ankles and wrists. If he tries to get up, he'll slice your veins open on broken glass.

You know what you have to do now. If you go back into your own body, it'll just be you trapped there on the floor with the broken glass. And you don't know what will happen to Kurogane if you do that. There's only one solution.

You lock eyes with the wizard, and you do not let him look away. It's magic that holds your gazes locked together, but you don't think it's your magic at all. It is, but it's not, like you're not the one in control here and you don't know how that could be. You said you wouldn't use magic and so you don't. Subaru is saying something, but you can't seem to quite hear him anymore. Blood is spilling down your chin, but you don't care about that now. You have to do this. You can. You will.

Subaru is pushing your body. Subaru is snarling inside your mind, with pain and determination. You're crawling over the ground because you cannot stand up. Almost over now hurry it's gonna be okay I don't know anymore hurry The wizard is frozen there with your eyes on his, and then you're pushing yourself to your feet somehow. You touch the feather that he still holds in his hand, and you are looking right into his eyes.

Subaru shoves at you, as hard as he can.

You gasp, and you feel a clean cold burst of air in your lungs. Your lungs expand the way they are meant to. It feels good. You yell incoherently when the wizard shoves back. He's angry and he's afraid, but it's too late. It's very much too late. He's not powerful at all. A hedge wizard. All he has is the feather and he thinks that makes him so mighty. But now it's you in control, and he is very, very small.

You look down at the length of your legs. You scratch a palm over your thick beard. You are inside the wizard. You have his body now. He's shrieking in the background, an unpleasant din.

Get out what have you done get out of me you can't be here I won't let you go away

Shut up, is all you say to him. And he does.

Kurogane is babbling something on the ground, and you can't understand what he's saying. But right at this moment, that doesn't matter.

Subaru.

He's lying at your feet. His chest is heaving, staccato and hitched, and his eyes are screwed shut. He's so small, you think. He seemed bigger when you were inside him. Blood is streaked over his face. He's so pale, and his lips are blue. He seemed older when you were inside him, too.

You kneel down, careful of this new body's center of gravity, and brush your hand through his hair.

"It's all right now," you say to him.

He frowns at you. His voice is small and broken, and you can't understand a word he says.

Kurogane is hollering at you, and you don't understand him either.

You don't know what's happened, for a moment. You—oh. Mokona. You are too far away from Mokona. You could understand Subaru because you were in his mind and you weren't speaking any language, exactly. You could understand what was being said to him in the language he speaks, because you were inside his head. That's how you understood what the wizard said.

You could still understand him, you think, if this damn wizard would just share. You reach back into your mind and slap him. Sort of. It's not like your palm truly connected with his skin, but he reels back in shock just as though you had. And for all that he's an idiot, he seems to finally recognize that it's no good fighting you. He stops trying.

You take his language and pluck it from his mind and feed on it. You keep as distant from the rest of his distorted, ugly thoughts as you can. You feel sorrow for a moment. You've seen too much magic twisted, seen it take too many people from you. You know the lure of its power. You almost feel sorry for this man. But you aren't allowed to think about that.

"Subaru, it's going to be okay," you murmur.

There. He seems to understand you now. He grabs your hand.

"I won't let you die," you say softly. It's too late, it's far too late, but you ignore that because you won't. You won't let this happen. This boy is not going to die for a sick joke played by an idiot who got hold of power that was never meant to be his. You just won't allow that.

"Fai," he whispers, and doesn't open his eyes. "Yes you will."

The wording of that hits you hard, and you feel like you're going to be sick. Not, you can't stop it, but yes you will.

"No, I can— let me try—"

"You don't have any healing magic," he whispers. "And you let me see too much. I know too much. You can't let me live. You know you can't."

You feel like you're burning up. You feel like you're plunged into a snowbank. You don't know what you feel. It's all wrong. It's all pain. It all makes you want to scream.

"It's okay," he says, and opens his eyes at last. They're not blue anymore. They're dark and pretty and kind. "It's okay, Fai. I understand." His eyes flick across the room, and you both look at Kurogane. He's sitting up now, brushing glass off his skin. Your skin. You don't feel too worried about it. Your skin's been through worse. He's watching you, not speaking anymore.

You hope with all your heart that he can't understand what you're saying.

"I believe in you," Subaru says, and he smiles at you. Blood in his teeth. "I do. You'll make the right choice."

You just stare at him. "You know I don't get to make choices."

He coughs. Blood sprays all over the wizard's green waistcoat. "I've seen— I need — try—"

"Subaru, I—"

He closes his eyes, and lets go of your hand, and you know it's over.

You press your forehead against his and you whisper, "I think she's waiting for you. Go."

He smiles. You can feel his smile. And you feel the moment he stops being there, and then you can't hold back anymore and you scream. You scream and you scream and you scream, and then you choke on it and have to stop. That's when Kurogane drapes your coat over your shoulders. The familiarity of it just makes everything hurt even more. It smells so good, and feels so warm. You clutch it around yourself and try very hard to cry but you can't. You're not good enough for that.

Carefully, Kurogane grabs you by the elbow and makes you stand up. It's strange to know what your own hand feels like when it's touching someone. You have cold fingers. You wonder how Kurogane can even tell that it's you in this body.

Your eyes will be blue, of course. He was able to see the wizard's eyes change colour. You look at your body in fascination, the way it looks with Kurogane inside it. Your eyes are still blue. But they are just . . . normal. Just blue, the way some people's eyes are blue. How strange. And he's still holding a sword in his hand. Your hand. It looks huge against your thin wrist and fingers.

His other hand is holding your arm. Is he trying to comfort you?

You don't want to be comforted.

You jerk away from him. He raises the sword, for a moment, wary that the wizard will wrest control from you. That will never happen. You can hear him howling like a beast in a cage, but he is nothing next to you. Still. You need to regain your own body, and you need to send Kurogane back to his. When that happens, he'll be free again and you'll have to deal with him in one way or another.

Kurogane is saying something to you, but you can't understand him. He suddenly grabs your chin and points it to the left, and you see what he's been saying.

The cabin is on fire.

He's dragging you outside, and you don't want to go because Subaru is in there and you can't leave him there, and you shove at him and you scream at him, but he just pushes you into a bush that catches your fall. Then he plunges back in, and comes out with Subaru in his arms. He puts Subaru on the ground, and looks up at you, and you cannot stand the expression he is making with your eyes.

You don't know if you'll feel better after you have your body back, but you can't wait any longer. You won't have a lot of time, you think. He'll be gone, and the wizard will be free, and you will have to move quickly.

You grab your own face in your hands, and you stare him down. It's time to take your body back now. You have the feather and you have the ugly paranoid wizard trapped in here, and all it takes is a look into Kurogane's eyes and an angry twist with your brain.

And then you fall. You didn't expect to black out.


The Warrior

You are thrashing angrily, tangled up in something. You suck in a deep breath, and then you fall to the ground choking desperately.

The air tastes stale and cold in your lungs and your throat. Your chest is seizing up. Your limbs thump to the floor, and you're caught up in sheets and blankets. Your skin is so cold, and you cough and gasp and drag the blankets over your shoulders with aching, clumsy fingers.

It's dark in here.

It's your body. You're back in your own body, and it's mid-afternoon with the curtains drawn, and Fai is alone up on the mountain with a lunatic and a dead boy.

You leap up and locate your boots and shove your feet into them. You are reeling with dizziness, but you stumble down the hallway nevertheless. It feels good to be where you are, even though your muscles are too tight and need stretching. Your belly is rumbling with hunger, but at least the air is starting to taste clean.

"Kurogane!" someone— oh, it's Sakura. "Oh, Kurogane, you're awake, I'm so glad, I'm so glad you're okay!"

You catch her in a hug, because you are used to holding her now. She seems startled, but she doesn't try to move away. Right. You're used to this, but she isn't, not with you.

"Kurogane, Fai is—"

"I know. I'm going."

And she can't argue, because you're already out the door. Running through the streets of the small town, running up the mountain again. It feels a lot better this time. The first time your body was so strained and tired that you could barely put one foot in front of the other. You'd expected to reach the top in a single day, rather than the estimated two, but it had taken you far longer than you expected. Fai's body had been crying out for him and his magic the whole time. You'd spent half the journey just tripping over your feet and taking rest breaks.

This time, your body has been resting for days. It's not limber, and it's not fed, but you don't care and you can run. That damn stupid wizard is probably in control of his body again, and you don't know whether or not Fai is even capable of dealing with him. The death of that boy seemed to have torn him apart, and you don't know if you really left his body in great condition anyway. You almost hope that the wizard is still standing. You won't be too tired to fight this time. You can beat that piece of shit who did this to you now.

You run all night. You run up the side of that mountain in the dark and you revel that you can do this, that you've made your body into something that can run as long as it needs to, to get to what's important. Daylight is breaking in great swathes of gold and orange that annoy you and blind you when you find Fai. The body of the boy is draped over his shoulders, and he is limping down the hunting trail. His big coat is smeared with ash and spattered with mud and blood, dragging around his ankles as though it too is weary.

It's pointless to say anything when you're this far from Mokona, so you don't. You simply jog until he sees you, then slow to a walk while you take in the surprising amount of relief that steals across his face. He is actually glad to see you. That does something strange in your chest, but you shove it aside.

A great cloud of smoke is boiling into the sky over his head, and you suppose that the cabin has completely burnt down. You wonder what he did with the wizard, but he doesn't seem concerned about it, so you suppose it's taken care of somehow. It can wait.

You take the boy from him. It's too heavy a burden for him when he's in this condition, and you can do it for him. You want to. You couldn't save the boy's life life, so you have to just do . . . something. The mage babbles some nothing at you that you don't understand, tries to keep you from taking him, and you think you understand why he wants to do it himself, but you're ready to insist. All you have to do is put a hand on his arm and it makes him go still. You take the boy and turn around and start walking back down this path you just run up. After standing still staring at you for a moment, he follows.

You smelled the sick on him when you took the boy, and you wonder if he could even keep it down if you tried to get him to take a drink from the stream. You won't mock him for being sick, not even when you can speak again. Not everyone has seen as much death as you have.

You know where you will take them, you realize. You don't want Sakura to have to see this, so you'll take them to Shizuka and Kohane's home instead. Shizuka must be on friendly terms with the local police, after the things he said. They'll need to know that the wizard on the mountain murdered this boy.

You wonder if Fai killed the wizard. Not much longer now before you can ask.

But the first thing you say when you get to the edge of the town and think you'll understand each other is: "Who was he, anyway?" Your eyes are on the burden in your arms. He's really young. It's surprising that the thought hurts you.

Fai has barely lifted his eyes from the ground all day. "A friend," he says softly.

"You can't afford those," you mutter darkly. You can't, and he can't. None of you has that kind of freedom.

"I know that," he says dully.

You go quiet again after that, both of you. This may be the longest amount of time you've spent in the mage's company without him speaking, and it makes you feel uneasy and unhappy. He's always smiling. Always talking. You'd wished that he would take things more seriously, but not like this. This wasn't the way you wanted it.

Shizuka and Kohane are surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) calm about the body you bring into their house. Shizuka goes for the police immediately, leaving Kohane in charge of laying extra sheets out so you can lay the body down. The mage goes to sit beside him. He doesn't touch. He just sits.

"I recognize him," Kohane says, looking at the boy's face. "Subaru. People said he was a prophet."

The mage's lips curl into a snarl. "He wasn't a prophet. He was just a boy."

Kohane nods her head at Fai, a sad smile on her face. "He . . . went up on the mountain?" she guesses. "D-did that wizard—?"

The mage is staring at his own hands, so you answer, "yes" for him.

Then you make your excuses and get him out of there. You want to get the feather to Sakura and be gone, out of this crap-hole world and away from this unexpected sorrow. As much as you hate it when the mage fills his day with those hollow smiles, you wish you could put them back on his face right now. So you grab him and pull him away from the boy and take him away. You don't care how the police choose to explain this death. You just want to put Syaoran's body back to rights and hope the next world is better.

"Come on, I want to get out of here," you mutter as you drag Fai from the house.

"Wait," he says. He starts heading in the wrong direction, and you're forced to follow.

He lets himself into a house in the middle of town, and you follow him inside, wondering whether to be surprised or not that he's breaking and entering other people's homes. And then you realize it's probably Subaru's.

There's some paintings on the wall, and the mage is carefully taking them down.

"Help me take these out back," he says, so you do because you can't think of a reason not to.

"What's this?" you ask, staring at a stark black-and-white portrait of a tall tower in a broken landscape.

"Nothing," the mage says, snatching it from your hands and staring at it. He touches his hand to the tower, and then he smiles at you with what has to be the most blatant example of a falsehood you've seen from him thus far. He turns and tosses the painting on the ground in a pile with the others.

He finds matches and burns them. You don't ask him why. He's spent two days in that boy's head, and he's obviously got a reason.

"Those were his and they're no one else's business," he mutters, once he sees they're really blazing, and then he turns around. "Let's go."

You take the lead, since he doesn't know where the kids are and you do.

"Did you kill the wizard?" you finally ask.

"No," he murmurs. "But he is dead."

"What happened?"

"I made him believe the feather was still in the cabin. I thought . . . it would be better, if he believed it didn't exist anymore, rather than knowing who it belonged to. I was afraid he'd— well. I didn't expect him to run back inside after it. But there was nothing to do after that. I stayed until I was sure he was dead."

You already noticed that Fai is keeping his hands tucked up inside his sleeves. His coat is long enough to cover them, but he's been taking extra care to keep his hands hidden away. You were waiting for the right moment to figure out why. You grab one of his wrists without warning and lift his hand.

You grimace at the sight. His hands are a mess. Badly burned. He must have put them in the creek and tried to cool them off with the water, because they look pretty clean for all that they're cracked and red and bloody and blistered.

He tried to get the wizard out of the burning cabin. You don't have to ask. You just know.

You wonder if he'll have scar tissue on his palms, too, and then maybe he won't be able to feel anything at all with these hands. You were just starting to know what his hands were like and you don't want to admit that you feel sick.

Finally, you arrive at the house.

Sakura rushes straight into Fai's arms when she sees him. She fingers his stained coat with a worried look, but all he does is laugh, "Did you miss me?"

It's grating, jarring, to hear that laughter after what the two of you have seen and done in the past couple of days. You'd almost begun to think he would start being honest like that more often.

"We've been so worried about the two of you!" she exclaims.

"Where's Syaoran-kun?"

"In the bedroom," she says, leading him in. "Did you find a way to fix him?"

The noise of protest catches in your throat, and you realize you're too late. You ought to have told him before you got to the house. You were so concerned about the fate of the wizard and this mage's damn hands that you forgot to mention what you'd done.

"Fix him? What do you mean?"

It's too late, and you're an idiot. It was a stupid idea from the beginning anyway.

"Fai-san, did you— Did something happen? You don't remember?"

"What do you mean, Sakura-chan? I haven't been here. I didn't know . . . Kurogane didn't have a chance to explain much. He was here with you while he was in my body, though, right?"

Sakura whirls around and stares. They've already gotten to the bedroom, so of course Syaoran is there and has heard it too. You can see in his wide eyes and tight mouth that he's remembering you carrying him, helping him eat, reassuring him. It makes your face feel hot and you don't know why. But he's quiet and not trying to say anything, and you want to be grateful for that.

"Mokona was right," the pork bun says from her place on Syaoran's lap, tugging at her ears again. "Kurogane should have told the truth."

"Did you . . . pretend to be me?" the mage asks, the truth dawning on him slowly. "And you two believed him?" he adds, more incredulously.

"Kurogane was very kind," Sakura whispers, still staring. "We—"

"Why did you do that?" Fai asks you.

You shrug irritably. "I didn't want them panicking about where you were," you mutter. "Now give the princess her feather and get us off this damn world."

Fai stares at you for what seems like hours before he nods and takes the feather from his pocket. He gives it to Syaoran, who doesn't want to take it but has it nearly forced on him. You wonder why he's insisting, but you remember the feeling of corruption at that cabin. Maybe some is clinging to the feather. Maybe Syaoran can take it away before it gets into Sakura. There are many kinds of magic, after all.

"It's best from you," the mage says cheerfully.

Maybe it's your turn to be sick.

It's his voice. It keeps getting lighter, friendlier, the way he always acted before today. More distant. You have to stop thinking, and you can't be disappointed by that. You can't, because you're not disappointed, because why would you care? You don't want to know more about him. You don't want any closer. You just want to get home without any complications.

. . . don't you?