Xavier lay on his back, gazing up at the stars that were multiplying in the sky above as the daylight faded into darkness. He always felt vaguely uneasy looking at the sky here. Not only were there far too many stars compared to his light-polluted home city, but they were just ever-so-slightly wrong. He hadn't realized that he was familiar enough with the night sky to even notice the difference, but he instinctively looked for patterns that simply weren't there.
Something poked him in the cheek. "Ask her!" said Princess. "You've been procrastinating all day!"
Fine, fine. He batted her vine away and looked over toward Rachel, but she was just a dark bump on the ground as far as he could tell. She'd given him space all day and he'd been first too pre-occupied, and then too nervous, to break the silence. Princess snuck a vine in around the back of his head and poked him on the other cheek.
"Rachel, you still awake?"
"Yeah. What's up, Xavier?"
Oh man, hearing his name pronounced properly was still enough to make him happy. He wondered how long it would take him to get used to that—not to mention hearing English spoken outside of his own head. "I had something I needed to ask you."
"So, the thing is, Princess—she's the mononoke—is literally unable to think and control her own behavior without me siphoning off nima."
"What? Really? Sedgewick have you…huh, now that you mention it, you're right." Rachel sat up and Xavier caught a glint from her eyes. That was seriously freaky; he really wished the kami or whatever it was that was possessing her wouldn't mess with her eyeballs. "It's really sucking in the nima, isn't it? So what, like that overloads its ability to process?"
"Uh, I guess?" He hadn't ever really noticed that Princess pulled in nima, despite all her work getting him to sense the stuff. "That's why she's always in physical contact with me. If she's not touching me for too long, she starts to lose the ability to think properly, and then she just acts on instinct and tries to parasitize whatever animal is nearest."
"Excuse me, I do not parasitize things!" exclaimed Princess. "I'll have you know our relationship is entirely symbiotic."
"Yeah, yeah, symbiotic, excuse me. Didn't you say that things you bond with tend to go crazy because of all the nima you pump into them?"
"…well, more or less."
"So if I'm understanding correctly, the mononoke draws in excess nima, bonds with a host, and then shares the excess with the host animal?" said Rachel.
"That's pretty much what she's described to me."
"Huh. Sedgewick says that makes no sense. With draw like he's seeing, your mononoke should have ascended to kami itself a long while ago."
"Tell her it doesn't work that way," chimed in Princess. "That's not how mother made us."
"Princess told me once that she's basically the child of a great kami called Yggdrasil, way back in the day, so that's not how it works for her."
"Ah, Sedgewick says that explains it. Hm, if the mononoke is a construct he thinks he might actually be able to do something about it, but he's going to have to observe it a bit. Might need to have it cut contact with you for a little while so he can see how the nima build up affects it, and what happens when you siphon it down again."
"Oh, I really don't like the sound of that. But I'll do it if the great kami thinks it can help me."
"Princess doesn't like that idea, but she'll do it."
"Great, that should give us something to do besides hunt for food and avoid Sundlin soldiers on the way back."
"Yeah. Right. That sounds like fun. What are we going to eat, by the way?"
"Sedgewick and I can come up with something. Don't worry about it."
"Uh, I saw what's in your pack, Rachel, and we don't have any food."
"Sedgewick is really good at scaring up a meal, Xavier, trust me. We kept three people fed on the way down here, and I can certainly keep you and I fed. Once he figured out that humans can't just eat their body weight in one meal and then fast for a week, things were smooth sailing."
"I'm so anxious right now, you don't even know. And that's not helping."
Rachel laughed and lay back down.
Xavier cast around for something else to say. He was bone tired from all the walking through sand, but not quite ready to go to sleep. It had been so long since he'd actually had a chance to talk to someone who spoke his language, much less a friend from his original world. Darkness had settled around him, bringing with it the cool of night near the edge of the desert proper. Even with Princess cuddled up to him and the invisible presence of the great kami—Sedgewick, he supposed, although how on earth he came by that name, he was dying to know—it felt like the two of them were alone in the desert.
"Why did you come?" Crap, that wasn't what he meant to ask. "Uh, I mean I know sometimes isekai like to pull classmates in along with the protagonist, but my dad must have known to watch out for that kind of thing, and—"
"Xavier," Rachel broke in before his brain could catch up with his tongue. "I'm in love with you, idiot."
"What? No, you're not." Oof, he was on a roll tonight, but seriously, what?
"See, that's why I said you're an idiot." He could hear the smile in her voice, though. "You can't have it both ways, you know. It's unfair to fight against your genre as hard as you do, but then turn around and deny the things people feel for you simply because you think they're part of a narrative."
"Yeah, okay, but, um…lo—I mean, why would you even like me?" This was so embarrassing he was going to die. Maybe he could sneak off into the desert and become a hermit, because he just had to fall face-first into a horrifically embarrassing conversation on the first night they'd set out alone together. Well. Mostly alone. The only mammals, anyway. He flashed back to seeing Rachel—but NOPE, not going there! He refused to let the genre play with his—
"Maybe you don't remember, but a couple weeks after I moved in with you guys, I overheard you and your mom talking. Hana told you she was thinking about asking me to stay even though the Doyles were back in town, but wanted to know if you were okay with it. And you said you wanted me to stay."
Xavier vaguely remembered that conversation, though he didn't think he'd put things quite like that.
"I've told you, I always get passed around. One house after another, and not a lot of people would stick up for me. I was always a stranger. And maybe the genre at the time was nudging me that direction, but what you said still meant a lot to me. I didn't like distancing myself from you when you were busy driving your pseudo-harem off, but at that point I had a pretty good idea that something was going on—I'm pretty sure I was a side character in a previous manga plot-line—and you seemed like you needed it so badly I couldn't say no. But that genre ended, and my feelings didn't." He heard her roll over, likely to face his way. "Look, I'm not expecting anything from you right now, you know? But you did ask. And we're going to talk about this when we get back to Earth, because I'm sick of rolling over backward for everyone around me, and I really hate the way you've been avoiding me."
"Uh, right. Um. Okay."
"Just—look, Xavier. You've been stuck in several manga plotlines now, which totally sucks. I get that. But you're not alone, you know? Your family's been here for you all this time, I've been here for you all this time, and whether you ask for it or not we're going to help you when you need it. Now go to sleep, we've got a long stint of walking ahead of us, and a throw-down with a giant centipede kami at the end of it."
"Yeah, uh, good ni—wait what was that last bit?"