Zebra was dying.
At least, that’s what it felt like. A hot, sick feeling sat just below his ribs and spread like fire up his spine and into his throat. He hunched around the feeling. Held himself, fingers digging into his upper arms. His sinuses and his eyes burned, and he found himself trying not to cry.
Only, none of that was really his. It was Sor’s guts that felt too heavy, Sor’s sinuses that felt too raw. Her tears, too, in all likelihood. Blurring his vision. Sticking her eyelashes together.
And her magic, curling around his heart and dragging spindly legs over his lungs.
This was worse than any injury he’d ever had to endure. He had to have been bleeding internally. Ruptured something important. Developed spontaneous, stage-four magic-cancer.
He had to be dying. It was the only explanation.
“Hey, are you okay?” Sor asked him, and he remembered there was more to the world than his pain. There was also his indignity, as Sor stared at him with his own eyes and contorted his face into an unnatural mask of concern. “You look kind of green, all of a sudden.”
“You’re always green.” His voice was weak. Thready. Too high, and it was hard to ignore that, now.
“Oh! He speaks!” She stood back and an insufferable grin spread across her stolen face. “Just in time, too, we’re almost there. You were super-duper fried, friend-o.”
They were outside. Somewhere in North Snowtown, if he had to guess — but he didn’t recognise the empty street they were on, awash with the first rays of the morning sun; nor did he recognise any of the high-end stores looming over them like suspicious bouncers.
They were outside. In public. Where people could see them. How could he have ever let that happen?
“Where — when did—?” he squawked. His rising alarm made his voice rise, too.
“Don’t remember? That figures. Like I said: hella fried.”
His hands rose to his shoulders and his shoulders rose to his ears as he tried to fold in on himself. His unfamiliar claws drew red marks across his bare skin. He hardly noticed.
They were alone, but that could change at any moment. People would soon start appearing, to open the shops all around them — and he would be there, where anyone could see, worse than naked.
“Whoa, hey!” Sor took his jaw and made him look at her. Her grin had faded, but an amused smirk lingered at the corners of her mouth. “Calm down, it’s alright. We’re almost done, here. It’s almost over.”
The forced eye-contact was a catalyst and the panic bubbling in Zebra’s chest boiled over. He shoved her away with such fervour, they both went down — dragging each other into a wreck against the pavement.
He had her pinned, propping himself up with a hand against her throat. Her larynx popped against his palm.
She pushed against his shoulders — tried to kick a leg between the two of them — tried to topple him and get away.
Both his hands clenched. The claws of the left dug into her neck, the right into his palm — and he punched her. His knuckle split against her cheekbone and left a streak of blood running behind it. Her head bounced against the concrete with a hollow thud.
Her arms went slack for a second and she blinked at him until her eyes re-focused, her mouth gaping like she was a dying fish. She redoubled her efforts, shoving against his face, now, her fingers seeking out his eyes.
He pulled back to hit her again — her eyes widened, darting between his and his raised fist — and the sickness in him twisted. Pulled his guts into his throat. Made him suddenly weak and woozy.
He rolled off of her and onto his side, and she scrambled away from him to cough into the gutter. Her face — his face, turning an ugly red, eyes wide and watery — was stuck in his mind. He couldn’t shake it any more than he could shake the nausea sitting on him.
“Jesus,” she hacked. She turned around and sat on the curb, well out of his reach. Her eyes were still wide, her face still red, and she was looking at him like he was a beloved dog that had turned on her. Like she couldn’t fathom why, and she couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t do it again.
She was afraid of him.
The sickness twinged. He wrapped his arms around his head, tucking it down to his chest. He didn’t want to look at her. He didn’t want to see that betrayal painted over his own face.
Sor took a breath, in through her nose and out in a determined huff. “Okay,” she said. “We — we’re both tired. It’s been a long night. But we’re almost out of the woods, and then we can go to our respective homes and sleep in our own beds and our own bodies.”
Talking to herself. Reassuring herself.
His voice was muffled, so he brought his arms back down, freeing his head. The morning air cut cold lines across the tracks his tears had left behind.
“What the hell do you mean, why?”
“Why did you do this? Why did you put us in this position in the first place?”
“I’m dying,” he said, matter-of-fact. “I want to know why.”
She scoffed. “You’re not dying, you’re just being a drama queen.”
“I am dying. Eternity comes for me. Tell me why.”
She got to her feet and stood over him with her hands on her hips. “It’s not like I meant for this to happen. I didn’t mean to put us in this position at all.”
He didn’t move. He lay on the ground, a pathetic but tragic figure, ready to slink off into the great beyond as soon as she actually answered his question. “What did you mean to happen?”
He slammed a fist against the ground. “Tell me, god damn it!”
“You know what?” she squatted next to him. “Fine. It was a bad idea, and a bad plan, and I was hopped up on magic when I came up with it. But you were supposed to find the wand while you were out of the house, and then all of this would have happened with you and someone else, and it wouldn’t have been my or Katters’ problem at all.”
He sat up. “You wanted me to switch bodies with — with — with any random person who came by? And we wouldn’t even know how or why it happened?”
She shrugged. “That’s the gist of it, yeah. I said it was a bad plan.”
“It’s — cruel,” he said, aghast. “You have no idea who the other victim would have been, if they’d have deserved anything like this at all!”
“I said it was a bad plan,” she repeated, petulantly. “Anyway, I mean, if they hang out with you, they’re guilty by association.”
He got to his feet and started pacing. His stomach twisted against itself, again, but his head was too full to worry about that. Spinning with the sheer number of ways her plan could have hurt who-knows-how-many people. “It could have been anyone! They’d have friends, families — and my body — my life — my, my personal information! We could have been like that forever — we’d have never known!”
“Calm down,” she said, turning her squat into a sit. “It didn’t even happen.”
He stopped pacing, whirling on her. “But it could have! You didn’t even stop to consider — the number of things that might have — it was a bad plan!”
“I said that! I’ve said that like three times!”
“Jesus,” he said, trying to ran a hand through his hair and getting his fingers tangled above the braid.
“Look.” She leaned back on her palms. “That’s kind of how this stuff goes. There’s winners, but when you mess with magic, you have to deal with having bad ideas and not knowing how bad they are, until you happen to swap into a brain that hasn’t been fried and see things through a clean paradigm for the first time in like twenty years. It’s, you know, that risk-reward thing, or whatever.”
“What, exactly, was the reward that made this risk even worth considering?”
“Uh,” she said, sitting up again and putting her hands in her lap. “Not — it clouds your judgement, you know, like I said.”
“But there must have been some reward you thought was worth all of this, at the time.”
She shrugged and watched nothing in particular across the street. “Just, you know, your pain, I guess?”
He cocked his head. She had said something, that hadn’t caught his attention at the time but seemed suspicious now. “Katters’ problem,” he said, thoughtfully.
“You said this wouldn’t have been Katters’ problem.”
“Oh. Right. And it wouldn’t have been. I think.”
“Do you mean,” Zebra asked, his voice slow and cold. “That I wouldn’t have been Katters’ problem?”
Her eyes widened — then narrowed, and she looked up at him. “Maybe, you should consider whether or not you’re her problem in the first place.”
He crossed his arms and glared back. “Katters is an adult. She can make her own decisions. And she has.”
Sor got to her feet. For a moment, it looked like she was ready to fight him again — her jaw forward, her fists at her hips. But she turned on her heel and started walking up the street. “We should go,” she said. “We’ve still got that deadline.”