"Xavier, wake up." Xavier woke groggily to the tapping of a vine against his cheek.
"Finally, I've been prodding at you forever. Come on rise and shine, we need to talk."
He sat up. Although the sky was brightening, it was still mostly dark. Rachel and Sumiko were two indistinct bundles a pace or two away; although the temperature wasn't as bitterly cold here on the edge of the desert, it was still quite chilly.
"What do you want?" he asked quietly, fending off her vine. "Stop tapping me!"
"I don't know when the other two will wake up. I let you sleep as long as I could, but we really need to talk. Come on, you can go feed a plant while we do it."
As euphemisms for going to the bathroom went, "feeding a plant" was pretty high up on the list of things Xavier would never, ever tell people about, but Princess though it was hilarious. "Ugh, fine. Seriously stop tapping me! I'm going, I'm going!"
A little while later, they were alone and the local plants had been fed. Xavier sat down on a rock and huddled around himself. He'd brought his blanket with him, but it had lost basically all of his body heat while he'd been stumbling around in the dark. He was mainly just thankful they'd found blankets in their mad scramble to pilfer the Sundlin army's supplies. Sleeping under a pile of clothing would have been awful. "So spill, what is it you wanted to talk about?"
Princess took a moment to climb down his shoulder and perch next to him on the rock. Xavier pulled the blanket in more closely; she'd let the cold air in. "I think I believe you about the narrative thing at this point," she finally said. "But Xavier, I'm conflicted."
"I know you want to return to your old world, and I understand that. And if this narrative or whatever is messing with your life will go with you, I'd really like that. But Xavier…you can't leave." Her vine, which he usually didn't even notice anymore, tightened around his ear possessively. "If you go, I—I won't be me anymore. I'll just be a mindless mononoke, cutting a swathe through the desert animal life again. Xavier, I don't know what to do."
Well, shit. Xavier watched Princess's flower tremble slightly and realized that when Rachel had told him he could go home and he'd thought about staying it was because of Sumiko, Yukio, and Kahina. He felt guilty and sad about leaving them with no explanation, but Princess's situation hadn't even crossed his mind. Sumiko and the rest would doubtless be hurt by his abrupt departure, but Princess relied on him to function as a sentient creature at all.
"Oh Princess," he breathed, gathering the mononoke up in his cupped hands and brushing her flower to his forehead. "I'm so, so sorry. I didn't think."
"Well," said Princess, an odd burr accompanying the voice in his head. "Well. That's what I wanted to talk about. I thought about—but it doesn't matter. It wouldn't have worked."
Xavier lowered his hands and considered. "You know this is another hold the narrative is using to try and keep me here."
Princess's voice was faint. "But it's still my life."
"I know. Ugh, that sounded horrible. I'm sorry." He stopped talking before he dug himself any more holes. What was he going to do about this?
…There wasn't anything he could do, was there? All he was capable of was relying on others, just like he'd relied on Princess countless times; well, that and siphon off any spare nima that was lying around. He couldn't talk his way out of the fact that she needed to maintain physical contact in order to be able to think at all.
But at the same time, he couldn't stay. He absolutely couldn't stay. Could he? What would he tell Rachel? Hell, what would happen to Rachel if they didn't return to their own reality? She was already like a completely different person; whatever weird melding she'd done with that greater kami was clearly affecting her strongly.
"I don't know what to do, either," he admitted. "I'd send you back with Sumiko-san, but…"
"No. She would be safe from me, but no one and nothing else would. And I don't trust the Society of Progress without you to keep my wits around me."
"Yeah. I don't know what they'd do, either."
"We're going to need help. The only thing I can think of is asking Rachel if that great kami she's combined with can help us. Do you know anything about it? What could you sense?"
"Help us…no, I don't know much. The world snake was more active back when—before we became mononoke, but I never came into direct contact with it. Most people who did just ended up eaten. It wasn't really much in for socializing. I think the closest I ever got was returning to Yggdrasil once when the world snake was way up in its branches sunbathing or something."
"That doesn't sound like something that's likely to even be capable of a helping mood."
"Though…you know, I've been noticing that Rachel's behavior is a lot different than in our world, and I think at least some of that must be the world snake's influence. Do you think that might go both ways?"
"You think your friend could influence the world snake? I seriously doubt that, but I suppose it's possible. Admittedly, I was surprised at the restraint she showed back in the Sundlin camp."
"If that's restraint, I really don't want to be around if she really lets loose."
"Great kami are natural disasters. I know that you've got a ridiculous appetite for nima, but I'm frankly shocked that she was able to contain a great kami without exploding or something."
Xavier set Princess down, and snugged his blanket closer. "What a lovely image. It sounds like all bets are off, though, so it can't hurt to ask her."
"I think you're right."
"Good. Well, we've got a plan, such as it is. We'll talk to Rachel about it today. I think with her help we can find a way to get what we both need."
"I hope so," said Princess quietly, before perking up. "Now that's out of the way, you should probably run back and wake up Sumiko and Rachel, because there's a big ol' pack of Sundlin soldiers doing a quick march in our direction."
"What?! Why didn't you say so earlier?!" Xavier jumped up, scooped Princess onto his shoulder, and sprinted for their makeshift campsite.
"Our talk was more important," said Princess, as she swung herself around to her preferred perch on his shoulder. "Besides, you've got a great kami on your side. It's not like the end of the world if they'd caught up to us." She cocked her flower and considered for a moment. "Well, for us. Guess that might let you see what happens when your friend lets her kami off the leash a little earlier than otherwise, though."