Xavier entered the tent to find Rachel and Sumiko facing off across the prone form of the unconscious Sundlin officer.
«Please don't attack one another!» said Xavier in a frantic whisper. «Sumiko, this is Rachel and she—»
Sumiko swiped two fingers in the vicinity of her mouth. It had taken him a while when he'd first gotten to know her, but Xavier had finally figured out the gesture meant "shush." «You be quiet, Zabi-kun. What are you, girl? You can't be a Sunda. You're not human.»
«I'm human,» said Rachel calmly. «I just have…a little extra help. In any case, if you keep your hands to yourself, I have absolutely no quarrel with you.» She looked to Xavier, her expression noticeably softening. "Xavier, what are you doing here? I thought for sure I was going to have to try and track you down in this Confederacy or whatever it's called, but here you are! I would have walked right past you if—"
Sumiko broke in. «Speak a language I understand.»
«Ah, sorry Sumiko-san!» said Xavier hurriedly. «Look, I didn't get a chance to say, but this is Rachel. She's someone I knew from before I—came here. I really don't think she was trying to threaten us. Rachel, what are you even doing here? What happened?»
«What happened?» Rachel broke into a grin. «Your parents bought a new mattress, and after we'd planned things out as best we could, we stuck it on your bed frame and I slept there until I got transported into the middle of this god-forsaken desert. Not that our planning came to much, since all my supplies got lost when Sedgewick showed up, but things worked out in the end.»
«Are you fighting for the Sundlin army?»
«What? No, they've been chasing us around whenever they catch sight of us. Why would I be working for them?»
That was a load off; when he'd taken a moment to think, Xavier had been pretty worried about that Sundlin uniform since multiple transfers into the same world almost inevitably ended up on different sides of whatever conflict was running.
"You're asking the wrong things," said Princess. "Who is Sedgewick?"
That was a good catch. Xavier repeated the question.
«Oh, uh, I guess I didn't really explain that, did I? It's just what I call him, he doesn't actually have a name. I think Bafubani called him the world snake? He's helping me out until we can get home.»
That grabbed Xavier's attention. «Do you know a way—»
But Sumiko interrupted him. Almost faster than he could track, she quick-stepped around the Sundlin officer, and grabbed Xavier's arm. «We need to go, Zabi-kun. Right now. We'll head straight for the northern border of the camp, signal Kahina-san and Yukio-kun, and get out.» She nodded to Rachel, who was watching her warily, that strangely hostile look back on her face. «You can come with us, if you want.»
«What? Sumiko-san, why—»
«Xavier is not going with you, racoon,» hissed Rachel, and Xavier froze. That did not sound like Rachel. Her eyes glinted strangely in the darkness, and Xavier felt as if someone had drawn a finger down his spine.
Sumiko didn't budge, though her grip tightened on Xavier's arm. «Let us go, great kami. We have no quarrel with you or your vessel. We will exit this camp—help you exit the camp, if you wish—and you never need see us again.»
«What? Sumiko-san? No, Rachel—»
«That is not the friend you once knew anymore, Zabi-kun. Now be quiet.»
Xavier was at a loss. The things Rachel had said…could it be true that she'd done something irrevocable when she arrived? Was she really not the person he'd known?
«Talk to your partner, little plant,» said Rachel—or whatever Rachel had become. «What is it that you sense?»
Wait, she knew about Princess?
The mononoke in question slid herself out of his satchel, whipping a few vines around his chest and shoulder to pull herself up to rest next to his head. She turned her flower toward Rachel, and tilted it back and forth twice. "I think Sumiko is making a wrong assumption, Xavier," she finally said. "I've never seen anything like this; as far as I can tell, the great kami is contained inside your friend, but they're working together in concert."
Sumiko gave his arm a tug. «What did the mononoke say?»
«She thinks you're wrong about Rachel, Sumiko-san. She's still my friend, but with something else, too. Inside her? I don't really get what Princess is trying to say.»
«Hm.» Sumiko finally relinquished his arm, dropping back onto her heels. The tent was short enough that crouching was far more comfortable than trying to stand. «What is it you want, great kami, or whatever you're calling yourself?»
Rachel's eyes flattened out in the gloom, losing their shine as she returned her focus to Xavier. Evidently she didn't feel the need to answer Sumiko. «Xavier, Sedgewick thinks he's figured out a way for us to get home. What are you waiting for?»
Well, that completely changed the math. Xavier was surprised; he would have thought if someone showed up with a way home, he'd jump on it, but his first instinct was the feeling that he needed to see through his current mission, make sure his new friends were able to get into the Society of Progress, and then maybe…but this was the trap protagonists fell into, wasn't it? They made new friends. Formed new bonds. Gained new powers. And their old family and friends faded, like those old sepia photographs, so that when push came to shove they always chose to stay in their new, fantastic world rather than return to their ordinary lives.
Maybe he could make a difference here. Maybe his weird, uncomfortable partnership with Princess could lead him to discover some crazy power to directly affect the world that he would never gain in his non-magical reality. His parents, his friends; they'd already lost him. It wasn't like they could lose him more. All he had to do was refuse to leave just yet, help Sumiko and the rest out, and there would definitely be something that kept him just a little longer after that and a little longer again, until years and homesickness passed and he truly could imagine living nowhere else.
It was surprisingly tempting. But… "I'm not a protagonist." He never wanted to be a protagonist, he just wanted to be himself. To hug his mom and dad again. Go to school and learn as much as he could about crazy, non-magical magic in his own world. Fall in love with someone who didn't have animal ears. He'd made new connections here, but this world was sand and pain and struggle, and all of it was plot, not his life, damn it!
«I'm sorry Sumiko-san. I want—I need to go home.»