He had been doing really well, right up to the point where he passed out. Sor liked to think it was her magic’s guidance that had been doing all the work — the idea that Zebra could be good at something, something she was good at, something she took pride in, that would be too much for her to bear.
“Zebra!” she shouted into his face, taking his shoulders and giving them a good shake. “Zebra! Are you in there?!”
He didn’t respond, so she slapped him. It was satisfying, loud and violent, even though she was slapping her own face. But he still didn’t respond, and she was starting to get worried. He was still alive, but if he was in a coma or something, there was no way to get to the magic inside him. And that meant there was no way to switch back.
And that was unacceptable. She might have been able to handle being trapped in the wrong body for the rest of her life, but Zebra’s? No. A thousand times no.
Thankfully, he groaned and tried to sit up, jerking to his elbows before collapsing back to the stone floor. Sor resisted the sudden and strong urge to throw her arms around him, to hug him in her relief.
“Zebra!” she repeated, and he groaned again, pain painting his stolen face. There was a pink spot blooming over his cheek, through Sor’s false scales and equally false mouth, but he seemed to have other things to worry about just then. “Can you hear me?” she asked.
He nodded, his head wobbling drunkenly, and he tried sitting up again. This time, he succeeded.
“So,” she said. “We may need to revise our previous deadline to ‘lunch’.”
“What,” he managed. “What was that?”
“That was a backfire. You tried to cast a magic but it couldn’t get out.”
“It was—” He tried to stand, but slipped and fell back to his ass. “It was,” he repeated, fishing for words.
It was weird to see him at a loss, but Sor could get used to it.
“I know. Backfires are intense, even when you’re working small. It can be traumatic. Don’t try to stand up, yet.”
He ignored her, struggling to his feet. “Intense,” he said, trying the word out. “Yes. Intense.”
“Seriously, you should give yourself a minute, at least.”
He wobbled, but didn’t fall down, steadying himself with his arms held out away from his sides. “It was amazing.”
“Aside from the part where it hurt like, like hell. Aside from that part. That was a rush! It was great!”
“Oh, jesus,” she muttered. “Okay, you’re fried. Don’t worry, it’ll pass, eventually.”
Of course, it wasn’t him who was worried.
“There’s got to be a way — it couldn’t get out? There’s got to be a way to get it out. Maybe we can, we can brute force it, somehow, crash through whatever barrier is keeping it inside. Maybe that could work.”
His wide eyes and excited half-grin were an unsettling sight on Sor’s own face, her pseudo-ket features giving the expression a predatory air.
She stood and put a hand on his shoulder, pulling him down to his usual level. “No,” she said.
“But how are we going to fix this if we don’t fix this?”
“I will think of something. Your judgement, right now, is worthless, so we’re not going to listen to anything you have to say. Not that I was super inclined to that, anyway.”
He threw her hand off his shoulder. “But if we could just—”
“Zebra!” she snapped. “The barrier you want to crash through? The barrier keeping the magic inside? That’s you. You are the barrier, and if you break it, you might die.”
“But I might not.”
“Yeah, like I said, your judgement right now is even less sound than it usually is. We’re not listening to you.”
“Uh-huh,” he said, clearly not listening to her, either. Listening to something else, maybe.
“Hey!” She snapped her fingers in his face and he blinked, falling back a step. “That’s my magic in there with you, you know,” she said. “I know how it works, and I know what it’s telling you, and I know what I have to say about all of it: No.”
“And you can stop me.” He sneered. “Can you do anything without magic? Be honest. Have you ever done anything without magic?”
“I’m going to ignore that super cheap attempt to turn this into a fight — seriously, that was weak sauce — because I need you to listen, because I am very serious right now. Okay? Listen, okay?”
He rolled his eyes. But he didn’t argue.
“It’s not just that I know that magic — that magic knows me. I am all that magic has ever known, because that’s how that works. It knows my limits, it knows when trying again will kill me. And what will kill me is way past what will kill you, because I’ve been in a magic-user’s body for twenty-eight years, and you’ve been in one for three hours. Are you following me?”
“I thought that was why we were starting small.”
“Yes, but it turns out, see, that ‘small’ is still too big for you, because it turns out you’ve still got the mind of a plebian. Look — you want to be a big, bad magic-user? The most important lesson you can learn is when not to do magic. You have to know how to resist temptation, kid.”
She knew it was a stretch as soon as it was out of her mouth. Zebra, resist temptation? She didn’t think he could resist mundane temptations, let alone the sweet whispers of a magic in his ear. Or her ear. Their ear. God damn but they needed to get this sorted out.
Zebra looked down at himself, spreading his arms like he’d just realised he was covered in sewage. When he looked back up, his expression was full of disgust and fury. “I don’t — I never — I don’t want to be a big, bad magic-user,” he spat. “I don’t want to be a magic-user at all. I just think this is the best tool we can be using to solve our problem — our problem!” He pointed a claw at her. “Which, need I remind you, you caused!”
“We can debate whose fault this is later. But you’re actually wrong on both counts. The best tool we have right now is finding someone else with better tools.”
His accusatory finger wilted. “Someone,” he echoed. “You mean, get help?”
“You mean, tell someone about this embarrassment?”
“We don’t really have any other choice.”
“But we do,” he huffed. “And I don’t know why you’re being so stubborn. I really think I can get this if you let us try again.”
He hesitated. “I’d need your help, of course.”
“One more go. If it backfires again, we can reconsider calling in some kind of assistance. But I’m sure I’ve got it.”
She clapped her hands on his shoulders and he leaned away from her, discomfort curdling his face.
“You’re a moron,” she said. “And you don’t listen. So, you know what? Fine. Go for it.”
She let him go. “Really,” she said, walking back to her workbench. “You go ahead and try to kill yourself, and while you’re doing that, I’ll see if I don’t have a phone number or something for someone who can help us. Have fun. Maybe it’ll hurt enough that you’ll start actually listening to me when I tell you to stop sticking the fork in the toaster.”
“Great!” he said, his voice pitched up into Sor’s usual range. “Okay.” His voice faltered a little, dipping back into his chest before settling somewhere in between. “You’re not going to — I’m doing it alone, then, this time? Okay. I think we can — I think I’ve got this.”
She left him to his thinking and muttering. The marks she’d made around the circle had burned away, which meant that whatever magic he could manage wouldn’t necessarily be contained. She didn’t think he’d manage much, though. Another backfire, if anything, and then maybe he’d be fried enough that he’d stop fighting her.
She had a lot of notes left loose on the table, and she started going through them. Behind her, Zebra paced.
“Maybe not fire,” he said.
She tried to ignore him. She wasn’t worried. He would absolutely not manage anything catastrophic before she found the contact information of someone who could help them. So she wasn’t worried.
“Maybe something less violent,” he continued. She had to turn at that, raising one of his thin eyebrows as she stared at him. Those weren’t the words of a fried magic-user.
But that didn’t matter. Back to the task at hand.
Wick and Wax might have been able to help, but last she had heard, they were in hiding after an alleged arson attempt. Maybe Zebra was right, maybe fire wasn’t the way to go.
Ferberite was probably a no-go, too. This wasn’t really his wheelhouse. Nor would Jackalope be helpful, nor Gadget Gadget, nor Ashley, nor anyone else she could think of.
They didn’t just need a magic-user, was the problem. They needed a savant. A prodigy. They needed her, or someone as good as her.
They needed Drift.
“Hell,” she muttered.
Meanwhile, Zebra danced with himself — or, her self. Or, her magic. Someone, but no one, all at once.
Sor didn’t get a chance to watch dance magic in action very often. It wasn’t a common speciality, and the limits it imposed on her meant that she used it less and less, herself. But it still brought her joy, even seeing a novice stumble through it.
It was hard to tell what sort of dance he was doing. Something social, with allemandes and changing partners. It was clear this was not the sort of dance he was used to, and he was having trouble keeping a steady rhythm. His feet scuffed beneath him as they tried to keep up with the new things his brain was telling them to do.
There was a lot of turning and twirling. Her skirt floated around his legs as he spun.
Sor missed her magic. Her chest felt so empty without it.
Zebra was taking a while. She had no way of knowing how much magical energy was building inside him, but it had to have been a lot, and she started to worry that he was getting ready to cast something much larger than he could be prepared to handle.
He collapsed again, his eyes rolling back as he dropped to the floor. Sor stepped toward him, and was knocked forward by something that felt like wind, the papers on her workbench flying up and joining Zebra.
And what the hell was that? Sor righted herself and stood back, away from the unconscious pseudo-magic-user. It couldn’t have been a spell, because Zebra couldn’t cast spells, because Zebra’s brain was in the way. But it sure looked like one, like a release of energy that changed something in the real world.
Unconscious again, Zebra wouldn’t know what had happened. That anything had happened.
So she wouldn’t tell him.
Telling him he might have been right would only make him even more stubborn, and then he’d insist on trying to fix things alone, and probably kill himself. And they didn’t have time for that — Sor was getting a serious itch to get back into her own body, and she was sure Zebra would agree if he’d put his god damn pride aside for two seconds.
She was used to changing herself, to being in new and unusual forms, but this was ridiculous. And Zebra — well, he might have some analogous experience in the field, but Sor would eat her hat if he was happy about it.
So she’d lie to him. For his own good. It’s what he would have wanted her to do.
Oh, right — unconscious snob on her floor.
“Zebra!” She didn’t rush to his side this time, though she did get there eventually, and her tone was more one of irritation than worry. She had, after all, told him this would happen, and he didn’t listen, and then he went and got himself hurt. She had kind of been at fault for the first one, but her hands were clean this time and her only concern was that she did still need him alive.
He was breathing, which was a good sign.
She nudged his side with his shoe. “Get up, you lazy ass.”
Drift might still be able to do something with him if he was comatose. Hell, Drift would be able to wake him up if they needed him conscious — benefits to having your magic inside of you instead of in some useless dillweed. But she didn’t want to drag her own body around the city, even if it was early enough that she’d probably get away with it. She was, normally, a good half-foot taller than Zebra and she was positive her new body had no real stamina to speak of.
She kicked him again, harder this time. “Zebra!”
He groaned and turned away from her, curling around his stomach. Sor squatted next to him.
“Have you learned your lesson?”
He groaned again.