K. Whimsy’s Books and Et Cetera — Sor’s bookshop — was five stories tall, and topped by a tree growing from the fifth floor balcony. The store looked out of place on the quiet street, surrounded by buildings much shorter than it.
Zebra leaned Sor’s body against the wall as she searched for a key.
“Sor,” he said, bored.
She hushed him. “Keep your commentary to yourself until we get into the lab,” she said. “The last thing I need is one of my employees finding out about this.”
“Right,” he said, and straightened. “Well, while you’re rummaging through my pockets, I’ll just unlock the door, shall I?”
Sor froze. “Oh,” she said. “Right. These are your pants.”
“I would hope so, anyway.” He pulled a keyring from Sor’s jacket: a heavy, crowded thing which looked more at home in a fictional dungeon than the inventory of a bookmonger. He handed it over to her, and she unlocked the door.
The lights were on, but as far as either of them could tell, the shop was empty. Sor hurried them across the floor, directing them to a nook in one corner of the shop. There, hidden from the rest of the shop by two bookcases full of ornithological guides, was an unremarkable wooden door.
Sor still had the keyring clutched in Zebra’s lily-like hand. She’d started sorting through it when the shop’s door swung back open, setting off an electronic chime. Sor and Zebra stared at each other, and listened. Something heavy was being dragged across the shop floor.
“Expecting someone?” Zebra asked, quiet.
Sor shook her head.
He leaned out of the nook, looking for the intruder, but she pulled him back in by the arm. “No!” she hissed. “Don’t!”
“Sor?” a voice, unfamiliar to Zebra, called out, and Sor swore under her breath.
“It’s Hyde,” she whispered. “You’ve got to get rid of him.”
“Me?” Zebra squawked, but she shoved him out of the nook without answering. He wound up standing awkwardly out in the open, face to face with the man he had to assume was Hyde.
Zebra dropped into character quickly, leaning back into an approximation of Sor’s usual relaxed but straight-backed posture. “Good morning!” he said, his voice high and cheerful.
Hyde didn’t respond at first, looking down a long, thin nose at him. “Good morning,” he replied with an accent Zebra couldn’t place. “Did I hear someone else over there?”
“Nobody here but us chickens,” Zebra said.
Hyde had a rumpled look to him, his dress shirt mostly untucked and one sleeve rolled to his elbow. He was standing in front of a large sleeping bag, the bag’s straps in one white-knuckled hand. The bag was full of something that created an irregular, bulbous shape and made the whole thing look very heavy.
“What’s with the bag?” Zebra asked.
Hyde’s demeanour went from cool to cold, and he tilted his head to maximise the glare he now directed at Zebra. “I wouldn’t pry,” he said. He paused, his expression turning thoughtful as his gaze darted up and down Zebra’s stolen body. “Not unless you want me to do some prying of my own,” he said, finally. “Whoever you are.”
“Not Superman, that’s for sure,” Zebra said, and adjusted Sor’s glasses. He returned Hyde’s once-over, taking in Hyde’s polished boots and pressed slacks. Zebra lowered his voice to a mock whisper, “You won’t be spreading any rumours, will you?”
Hyde raised an eyebrow, something that might have been a smile playing around his lips. He gave the sleeping bag some slack and took a step toward Zebra. “You have all the discretion,” he said, “that is mine to give.”
“That could come in very handy.”
They stood like that for a moment before Zebra remembered his lamentable situation.
“It has been an intriguing pleasure,” he said, taking a step back. “And perhaps one that can be repeated.”
“You know where to find me.”
“Or where to start looking, at least.”
Hyde did smile at that. He reigned the bag’s strap back in, taking it in two hands, and Zebra watched as he dragged it to a different shop corner. He disappeared behind a bookshelf, and Zebra retreated back to the nook in which Sor was hiding.
“Hyde?” he asked her, somewhat incredulous.
“In a manner of speaking,” she said, not looking at him. She went back to sorting through the keys on her keyring.
“Is there a Jekyll?”
“In a manner of speaking,” she repeated. She’d found the key she needed, and proceeded to unlock the unremarkable door.
“He didn’t seem fooled by the whole body-swap thing.” Zebra followed her through the door, and down the short flight of stairs behind it.
“Maybe you’re not as great an actor as you think.”
“But no,” she admitted. “He wouldn’t. It’s a long story.”
Zebra considered dropping the subject, but that was clearly what she wanted. “Oh?” he said, as they approached another door. It was dark in the stairwell, but he thought he saw something about leopards printed on the door before Sor ushered them through. “I’ve got time,” he finished.
“You really don’t. Deadline, remember?”
“Right.” He frowned. “I did almost forget.”
Sor turned on the lights. “Well, we can either gossip about my employees, or we can work on fixing this clusterfuck of a situation. It’s up to you.”
They were in some kind of alchemy lab, all stone walls and appropriately dim and flickery lighting. The wall sconces did not have real candles in them — Sor lit them with a lightswitch, after all — but they were a reasonable imitation.
A wood workbench was attached to the length of the far wall, and it was covered in arcane and obscure tools and ingredients. Zebra felt a little lost, looking at them.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said, looking down at himself. Being in the wrong body — it was like wearing all of your clothes backwards. There was discomfort there, but from time to time he found himself able to forget about it. “I’m uncomfortable with how comfortable I’m getting.”
Sor cleared some space on the workbench, shoving unnecessary tools into the corners. “How are you at dancing?” she asked, suddenly.
“What?” He stopped pulling at his shirt-collar. “Dancing?”
“Yeah, you’re going to need to dance a little to reverse this.”
“Why? You didn’t need to dance to make it happen — unless that graceless flailing you did is the new two-step.”
She turned, leaning against the workbench. He had been in his pyjamas when she woke him, and she’d only thrown a peacoat on before leaving. His hair was a mess. He looked tired.
He wondered if that was because he’d barely slept, or because she was tired, too.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s also kind of a long story.”
“Again, I’ve got time.”
“And again, we really don’t.”
He sighed. “This sounds relevant, though. I admit, I don’t know a whole lot about magic — though, I dare say I’m decent at a waltz or two.”
Sor crossed her arms. “Alright,” she said. “You want a quick one-oh-one? I guess giving you a base to work off of wouldn’t hurt.”
Zebra sat down, cross-legged, on the floor with his back against the entrance. The floor was made of stone, and was both lumpy and cold, and did not make a good seat. “Teach away,” he said, trying to sit still.
Sor pinched the bridge of her nose. “Right. Okay, well. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess you know very little about magic use.”
“That may be overestimating things.”
“Great. So we’ll start with the basics — right now, you have a thing living inside you. That’s a magic, and you can’t cast spells or anything without it.”
“That’s very weird.”
She shrugged. “You’re born with it. So, frankly, I think it’s kind of weird that you don’t have one.”
Zebra closed his eyes and concentrated on his — Sor’s — chest, where he’d last felt the thing moving around. It had calmed down since the switch, but still moved occasionally, crawling down his spine or up his throat. He could feel it now as a weight below his heart. Sleeping, perhaps.
“How does it fit in there?” he wondered.
“It’s not a physical thing. It’s sort of existing on top of your organs, like a transparency film. Anyway, so it’s an alive thing, and it has preferences and tastes. It likes some things and doesn’t like others.”
“Okay,” he said.
“If you do the thing it likes,” she continued, “the magic will react and release a kind of energy through you and into the world. That energy starts on that same sort of over-layer to our reality, but it’s powerful enough to punch through and change things here.”
“And that’s a magic spell?”
Sor pointed a finger-gun at him. “Bingo.”
“And I’m guessing your magic likes dancing.”
Another finger-gun. “Another bingo.”
“What happens if you do something the magic doesn’t like?”
“Let’s not worry about that right now.”
He considered. “It sounds dangerous,” he said. “The energy punching through your body. Does it hurt, or anything?”
“It is dangerous,” she said. “It doesn’t hurt, but that kind of power, shooting through your system with enough force to change reality — it can mess things up. Sometimes for good.”
“Mess things up how?”
“Let’s not worry about that, either,” she said, pushing herself off the workbench and crossing to the middle of the room. “Come on. We’ve got work to do.”
“Is this going to give me a third arm, or something?”
“You’re in my body, it’s not going to do anything to you. I think.”
Zebra stood up and winced when his lower back creaked. “I guess,” he said, “I’ll risk a third arm if it gets me back in my own body.”
“That’s the spirit! Now, we’re going to start with something small and simple, to get you used to this whole magic thing, before we try anything ambitious like a whole-body-transplant.” She took Zebra’s hands and guided him to the centre of the room. There were metal circles embedded in the floor, one of them smaller and in the middle of the other. She let go of him and exited the circles, returning to the workbench.
“Dance magic is flashy and energetic,” she continued. “It doesn’t like affecting permanent change, which is what we’re going for, so we’re going to have to coax my magic into working with us on that one.”
“We’ll do a dance it really, really likes, more or less. We’ll also have trouble getting concrete, exact results, so we’ll need to be very careful with the casting. We don’t want to, I don’t know, just kind of launch ourselves out of our bodies and become ghosts.”
“This is sounding like less and less of a good idea.”
Sor grinned. “I never said it was a good idea,” she said, bringing a spiral-bound notebook over from the workbench. “Magic is almost always a very bad idea. But do you have any better ones?”
“I could murder you and hope that undoes every magic you’ve ever done.”
“I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way. If you kill me — or, sadly, if I kill you — we’re stuck like this forever.”
He huffed. “Well, let’s get on with it, then. What do you want me to do?”
“Nothing, yet.” Sor stood just outside the circles, leafing through the notebook. “Just stand there and look pretty.”
“With your face? I’ll try.”
She produced a stick of lime green chalk and crouched over the space between the circles. She started marking the stones there with round and swirly symbols Zebra didn’t recognise. “You’re just going to make fire,” she said as she moved around the room. “It should be a cakewalk.”
“What am I setting on fire?”
“You’re not setting anything on fire, you’re making fire. Ideally it won’t be burning anything, so it’ll go out quickly.”
“What are you writing?”
“Training wheels.” She stopped and leaned back to look up at him. “Normally we wouldn’t need these for so simple a spell as this, but since you’re just starting — each of these symbols kind of reinforces what we’re hoping for the magic to do.”
Zebra frowned. She’d made her way to the other side of the circle, now, and had filled half of it with symbols each a foot apart.
“That’s a lot of symbols,” he said. “For a simple spell.”
“Most of these are instructions for what we don’t want the magic to do.” She shrugged. “There are lots of ways for even the simplest magic to go wrong.” She pointed at a series of symbols on the floor. “This one says we want an ordinary fire. This one specifies that we want a small fire. This one will tell the magic that we want to keep the fire inside the ring, where there’s not really anything for it to damage.”
“You’ll be fine.”
She finished her trek around the room and put the chalk away. She flipped the notebook to a different page and scanned it, chewing on her lower lip.
“Okay,” she said. “Take the jacket off, and think about fire.”
He removed Sor’s jacket, dropping it outside the outer circle. He was left in a tie-dyed tank-top that was not climate-appropriate, given how chilly it was in the stone-walled lab. He was grateful for the instruction to think about fire.
“What, exactly, should I be thinking about?” he asked, closing his eyes.
“Absolutely no pink elephants.” There was a ruffle of pages as Sor flipped through her notebook. “Just think of fire, it doesn’t matter the context.”
He thought about burning Sor’s bookshop to the ground. It would be easy, given all the paper, and maybe he could even lock her inside, first. He thought about standing too close to the flames as they destroyed Sor’s livelihood, the heat threatening to broil his usual, ordinary skin. He thought about the shop toppling as the supports gave way, falling into an explosion of sparks and ash. He thought about the smoke choking him and everyone else on the block, about the fire’s roar masking any cries or screams, about the flames dancing with the joy of boundless, destructive consumption.
“Good,” she said, startling him out of his reverie. “Now bring that fire to the magic.”
“Bring the thought of fire to the magic that is inside you.”
“And how am I supposed to do that?”
“Just do it or we’ll be here all night.”
“We’ve already been here all night,” he muttered, but he found the magic still sleeping in his chest and he thought fire at the thing. It stirred, so he figured he must be doing something right.
Music. Faint, but getting louder. A guitar — two guitars. And a flute.
“Dance!” Sor snapped.
Zebra jerked into motion, his eyes still closed. The music had a definite Latin influence, and he fell into a simple tango, the magic almost guiding his steps. It was as though the magic were his dance partner, though it was invisible, intangible, and — he sensed — had far too many legs to be a good dancer.
It was a good dancer nonetheless. He and the magic fell into a rhythm of give and take as they walked each other around the inner ring.
A pressure was building in his core, hot and weighty. It grew upwards as he danced, like a tree taken root in his guts, branching out into his lungs.
He stumbled, and opened his eyes. The metal rings in the floor were glowing, red-hot, then orange, then white, the air above them wavering from the heat.
Sor clapped. “Focus!”
Zebra brought his attention back to the magic, and the pressure that had started to dwindle re-grew. It was a rod, now, of heat and power, sitting right in the middle of him. It seemed to grow past him, taking up more of his insides than actually existed, and then it vanished.
His skull exploded — metaphorically. He was blinded by pain: a sharp, electric pain that filled the inside of his head, replacing everything else in there with panic. He collapsed, and by the time he hit the ground, the pain was gone.
“Zebra!” Sor, distant, shouting but quiet.
The music had stopped — or, at least, Zebra couldn’t hear it anymore. There was a scrabbling at the inside of his chest, and he knew that must be Sor’s magic, and that it was panicking, too. But he could barely feel it. He could barely feel anything.
Sor was next to him, suddenly, and he tried to sit up. She let him.
“Can you hear me?” she asked, and he nodded.
“So,” she said, “we may need to revise our previous deadline to ‘lunch.’”