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we hang by an albatross

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"A fake like you doesn't have a place on our vessel."

The gangplank wavered at the corner of his eye, reminding Teshima of the ground waiting far below. He wasn't familiar with clouds - chilly air crystallizing on skin. Crew glanced past the show with their work. He flashed a grin and edged as close to solid footing he could manage with a sword threatening him.

"Come on," he said. "It's not like I pushed myself onto your ship in the first place. If anything, you should be dropping me off after a mistake like that."

The captain sat at the opposite railing, more focused on the bird perched upon her arm. Her long cloak hung over the edge to billow along - statue-still against the vertigo that made him cling to every rope in reach.

"Is that really true," she hummed. The bird's feathers ruffled as it whistled. "Quite right. If I recall correctly ... this gentleman insisted that we were stealing from him! Aya, what do you think?"

A scoff. "I'd say we have a reputation to upkeep, Miki."

"It's fine now, all squared out," and he hopped down the edge, hardly avoiding the first mate's blade. "I was wrong, you're right, I'll be on my way." Hands in the air couldn't defuse the situation. Stars weren't made for this.

The bird squawked. "The gangplank!"

Teshima spat, "You don't get a say in this."

"Didn't you say you wanted to be on your way?" Kanzaki asked. She smiled. "I don't want to keep you any longer than we have to, sir! After all, your wagon might have been stolen by bandits or confiscated by the king. I'd hate to assume, with where you were coming from."

Teshima grimaced. "Right. Thanks." He fumbled with a gust on the edge of his heels. Arms wrapped tight around netting, he yelled back. "And if the fall kills me?"

Kanzaki flicked a finger between him and her first mate, and Tachibana rolled her eyes. She grabbed his leg and dragged him back. Relief was short-lived as she tossed him at her captain's feet.

"Didn't you say you were a star?" Kanzaki smiled when he pushed himself up. "I'm sure you've survived falls like this before. It'd take a terrible star to get killed by something like this."

The bird preened its feathers and flew off. Teshima glared after it. But it was gone, and he was stuck with splinters jabbing through his skin, uncomfortable and inconvenient. Gravity wasn't what he'd been hoping for.

"Fine," he said. "You're right. Thanks for the opportunity! Stars don't really like old-timey contraptions like this." He swung up along the plank, and gave a theatrical bow. "Wait'll you see my name in lights."

The captain waved, plenty cheery, and he waved back. But he stepped back - taking his time - watching the crew turning their eyes to his show. He'd dive off. He'd salute. In his head, Teshima could imagine a dozen ways to part, if he could simply force himself to do them. Shaking legs didn't make it any easier.

"Not every day you get the chance to see a star," he yelled. "Sorry you had to squander the opportunity!"

"We didn't ask for last words," Aya yelled back, and slammed her foot into the gangplank.

Stars weren't made to fall either.

He did regardless.

Tachibana stared over the edge and sighed.

"You're too soft, Miki."

 

 

---

 

 

A few hundred miles west, a village happened to neighbor a crater growing grass at its own edges.

"That? Yeah, some meteor slammed down there a few weeks ago."

Sleeping in wagons - floating along streams - Manami had meandered for months. It was something they couldn't take for granted.  The last time they had tasted air not marked by potion and smoke, they had been a different person all together. Traipsing along a path with wind at their feet, flight returned, bit by bit. Mountains rose in the distance with furious rumbles to welcome them back. They went higher with every step, till it was gliding through air, gratitude and freedom keeping them alight. Pulled along by an irritating chain, they did anything they could to put off their destination. There were many places to look.

Each night, they stared at the sky as a matter of fact. Stars returned their gaze in splintered light till they frowned. Space was full of nothing, too high to reach, no wind to sail upon. It shouldn't have been a home. But no one agreed on what it was. Miyahara had said they were memories. Essentially. Books poured out Manami's ears, but energy flowed galaxies with light traveling to announcement another death.

Though witches didn't take much stock in that nonsense.

Townsfolk were glad for an opportunity to complain about the crater. Useful information was harder to find, but they found an place at an inn between the strange coins Toudou had given them and their smile. Cloaked strangers made most reticent. Manami pulled it away to sit open and innocent. Silver and azure, wide eyes like a bird's, they could set themself at tables and invite themself to other people's meals.

"Have you seen any stars?" they asked, airy and bright.

People laughed.

Strangers took them as young. When people didn't know the answer to their questions - it was better like this. Steeling themself against guards and merchants who ruffled their hair, no hint of suspicion.  They kept an eye on danger, eager for where it might come.

Until - "Yeah." Behind them, one of the workers paused with a jug in hand. "Every day."

"Pulling that again, Teshima?"

Raucous friendly laughter overwhelmed over the sarcasm in his voice. The waiter grimaced and grinned, swiping away hands and meeting others.

"How can I not?" he said. "If someone's looking for a star, I've got a bonafide one right here." And Teshima jabbed a thumb into his chest. "Broke my leg in the fall and everything."

Someone leaned close to Manami. "More like he broke it falling off his horse."

"Ah," they said - judging stare.

Black hair with a violet shine. Gold burning, however faint, under browned skin. Manami filed it away as another quiet fact.

"What was it."  When company dispersed, a stone jug clapped against the table.  "Manami, right?"  A demeanor demanding their attention. "Any particular reason you're looking?"

They held out their cup till he deigned to top it off. Cider settled against their lips but they did not drink. The waiter - the star - up close, there was no buzz of energy. No more magic than there was across the room. Underfoot was the impatient beat of his shuffling feet.

They answered, "For what."

"Figments of your imagination," Teshima said. "Y'know, little impossibles you can hold in your hand. I'm sure most people would be disappointed that I'm not exactly bite sized."

"Is that your biggest worry?" they hummed.

He stopped tapping his foot. Frozen still and straight. "What do you think a star's supposed to fear."

"Oh! Well." Manami laughed. "There's all kinds of danger down here. It seems silly for the average star to risk trouble for no reason."

"I think most stars have plenty reason. Don't worry."

They pressed a coin against the table. Beneath their fingers, copper rose into intricate carving. Being unfamiliar with money was no issue. Toys could be enchanted to remember the look. Emulate the weight. When they drew their hand away, a lion had emblazoned itself across the metal, proud and dangerous. He didn't take it - instead staring until they stood to pull their cloak around themself.

"A wastrel's carrying around the king's currency?" The star pushed their chair up - a sleight of hand to make them sit back down. "People like you shouldn't throw around your savings like that."

"That? It's nothing special," they said. Gauging his grimace. Manami slipped back out, floating enough to edge away from the table, and held up a hand to wave. "And it's okay. I wasn't worried."

Friendly guests pulled at the folds of their cloak. Their wrists. But nothing was so strong as to hold them. Manami granted cheerful farewells and disappeared into the wild night. Nothing could be quite so irritating as the chain dragging them along. Sitting anywhere for too long. Temporary sights. Fire burrowed through their skin in stasis. They used their freedom well, but the end was too close to avoid now.

Witches could wait a long time. But there wasn't much left.

 

 

 

---

 

 

 

Maps and books sat on every surface, the strange space of wooden walls set against night air. It had taken weeks for Teshima to realize that chill was the cause for numb fingers shaking through sleepless work. He rummaged through a trunk, running his fingers along the smooth metal edges.

Feet on the ground weren't so bad. In comparison to the distant question of being seen, time tracked only through stories told, powerless. Teshima liked the idea of it. Less so dragging his feet through people who didn't believe him, through people who took his fortitude as a joke, through joviality and friendliness that left him feeling more alone than before.

But he'd been waiting for a sign.

"Remember that weird kid who was in here?" Casual as he could make it. "How long were they staying?"

Shoving every spare coin he had left into a bag, spells he couldn't make work for him, notes. Too many to carry, sewn up into leather binding with his steady hands. Of course they'd have left already. Of course he'd be that slow. Of course -

Falling at the edge of the country's territory was good and bad, as luck tended to be. A small town with next to no information of import. The very border of magic versus wasteland. Crashing anywhere else, he didn't know what he'd be standing as. But he made it. In making it, he had to follow through.

"Witches," he muttered.

Splinters swelled his palm, unfamiliar burn throwing off his balance. He tripped over the window sill. The roof caught him, rolling metal and loose shingles as he fell to the ground. A cloud of dust rose around him. But no one came to question. No one came to ask why he didn't leave through a door, and Teshima dragged himself up. The one thing he'd gotten good at in these gravity-heavy weeks.

Somewhere, hundreds of kilometers east, stood the capitol city. Royalty in all its blessed immortality stood there - but Teshima had enough to know when something was wrong. If he'd fallen right, he'd have had what he wanted. If he'd fallen right, he'd have been captured already, gutted on a table, flesh held together by the thin tension of magic bleeding light and energy.

Teshima counted two hands, two feet. One glove, three tears, oil and dust built up. And as the trodden path died, and left only grass, lightning buzzed beneath his palms, fireflies curling up in curiosity at a weak star walking the earth. He didn't stick out. He never stuck out. But that was the best magic he had - bugs, and frogs, and wildlife creeping up to stare curiously at magic impossibility.

At least they believed it.

With the fake coin in his pocket, he didn't have any other leads.

As his perfect stranger evaporated in night air, he had picked it up. Magical objects were unheard of in the hinterlands - more civilized than the rustic chaos of borders could leash and control. Teshima hadn't known how easily a spell would break at his touch. How silly a lion looked, melting into cheap copper.

About as much as what they seemed to think of him - but even unicorns didn't shy away from a star's worst thoughts. It meant a steed, despite the need to keep his mouth glued shut, a land-bound force of nature. No matter how weak.

The illusion magic had been dispelled, but it kept the draw of its owner. Energy wanted to go back to where it came from. Loping over the wasteland, there was no one in sight. No fact of a person to track. But Teshima wanted to think he wasn't the kind of person to give up, even when his gut begged him to stop.

The stars were stored somewhere.

The hearts.

And people didn't tend to shimmer silver and blue, walking with boots that ghosted the ground.

A sheer cliff face rose on the unchanging horizon like a last beacon of hope. Standing up in all his excitement, Teshima tumbled to the ground, an unfamiliar crack jolting through his head. Fissures opened in his skin - along his shoulder - heat down the back of his neck. He bit his tongue cursing his luck, his balance, his steed. But his gaze tracked back up. The unicorn was frozen still. As his vision steadied, as bone knit itself back to the facsimile of human, its knees shook, hooves fixed to the edge of the cliff's dark shadow.

When he reached out - the stain of bright blood cooling on his palm - the unicorn bolted.

Teshima forced himself to breathe. "That's a good sign." Ground the red earth between his fingers. "Glad to have that kind of warning." Stood up. "Nothing I'd want more out of a situation like this!"

His voice carried on and on, and he could imagine it crashing into the cliff. Too weak to make its way back to him. He did the only thing he could and chased after it. Coin burning in his hands, the least he could do was find the broken remains. The least he could do.

Along layered stone, colors built upon each other in an array of crushing intensity, was a functional door. He expected lions. Pillars. An encampment, an army to trick and outwit and bring down with luck and nature, if it would just go his way. Teshima swallowed his disappointment and walked through.

Darkness marred his vision, but there was the fact of his feet against the ground, unused to it as he was. Teshima kept his hands at his sides. The image of his fingers cracking and splintering against wall clear in his head. Unsure as to if that was worse than shattering his nose against sandstone, indecision made him keep striding forward.

His eyes adjusted enough to see the tunnel opening up - walking past rooms filled with tables, cages, tools. Beds. The quiet movement of breathing beneath sheets behind a closed off door and an abandoned pipe, still burning. Teshima edged around the room. Too aware of his heart.

If they were a part of this. He kept forward. If they were, then it was a trick. If it was so easy to catch desperate stars. Teshima huffed a bitter laugh. They fell and never came back. If there was a way to get home, he hadn't heard it. Sought out for magic. He'd been warned. Around the corner, he could see a light. He knew what was coming. He knew. He kept walking.

Until the ground shrank beneath his feet - pulling inward and up, as his head crashed down. But he didn't meet stone. Though his face burned, his arms, there was no growing bruise. Nothing more than fiery gridlock raking his cheek. Slow to realize in the shock. But as soft light began to overtake darkness, he realized the trap.

And worse yet. "Oh! You again?"

Struggling in hanging ropes, Teshima tried to look casual, as the same con of a stranger peered around the corner. A small flame danced along Manami's fingertips Skin rustling at the firelight, strange silver lining marking the fiber of their being. It would have been easier to observe if not for one of his arms being wrenched behind his back, into the rope netting, legs awkwardly jutting out of something not made for someone so heavy.

"I guess you didn't know about the nets," they mused, as though he wasn't there.

"I was expecting less underhanded ways of dealing with stars," he yelled. If it made them look at him. "But it seems like the king's men don't know anything about that."

They tapped their cheek. "Well. Yeah." To walk away.

"Hold on!"

"I told you this is no place for a star to be," Manami hummed.

Everything hurt. Home, nothing had. But here, his chest felt like it would catch fire, his ribs would open up like an array of teeth to impale whatever made up survival, his ears would burst and start leaking plasma and ice. Why they believed it when no one else did. How a bird caught on and got to walk around like they weren't tied down. But Teshima had a tendency of picking his battles.

The most pointless ones. "Yeah, and you also thought you could con me out of enough money to rent a countryside inn for six months!" Skin scraped off in the attempt to pull himself straight, Teshima threw the fake coin. It bounced off their head, made them turn and blink. "If you're going to treat me like a mark, I expect a little more work to be put into it!"

They stared at him.

"Or does the king decree that any star that crashes in this place needs to get mocked by a personally assigned bird for at least three weeks before having their heart cut out?"

"I'm not with the king," they said.

"Glad to know that you decided to hang out here for a good time. Where's the funhouse at?"

"What's your name?"

"Looking for stars, and you don't even bother to find out what to call them?" he spat through a toothy grin.

With all the heat running to his head, maybe he could just float out like a balloon. He could get behind that. Behind all the irritation and confusion of gravity and skin. Yelling felt better than serving tables. They faced him, now. Pride and open strength in how their cloak fell behind their shoulders, head held high. Curiosity. Contempt.

"There aren't any left," Manami said. "All they've kept to find is broken pottery on the floor."

He could smell smoke. "What?"

And something exploded outside. They swung their head around, clapping away the fire in their palm. Cannons and strangers.

"Seems like things are about to get dangerous," they said. And walking beneath. Away. Down the hall, to pause near the end, they called back. "Oh! It was Teshima, wasn't it?"

"Now you remember?"

The faint shadow of their grin was all they left as Manami ducked out and away. His eyes burned. Cursing beneath his breath, and louder, as light flooded the halls, as the clatter of armor overtook the sound of blood rushing in his ears. The burn of rope at his arms, he kicked and pulled, trying to reach the knife at his belt. But in all his struggle, something snapped. In it all, he realized where the heat against his skin came from.

His clothes were smoking.

The netting burning, up and out, thinner and thinner, till all he had time to do was prepare for the snap, and the next crash against ground. But Teshima had that down. There was nothing he could do better, and was up in the next, aching and shoving all his complaint away. People were shouting after him. Everyone. Everything. What he'd chased here for. What he could do with a heart, and what was impossible, he left behind, shaking breath keeping him upright.

Soldiers were already outside. But in the chaos, as he flinched to look about him, no one noticed one small faintly burning star. He couldn't find what they were aiming at, till he tracked the aim of smoke and fire, the flight of arrows, far up to the sky. Between the clouds. It blended in, white sails so easy to mistake. But he recognized it from illustrations and word of mouth around inn tables.

A ship flew high in the sky, dropping cannons and hand-made explosives upon the soldiers below.

Good or bad, he couldn't stay. Couldn't focus, eyes darting everywhere but here, and all Teshima had was chasing down that bird. Dragging answers out of them. The clatter of metal behind him made his feet jump forward. He'd find a way out. He could do that much. In the assault, the king's men had pulled out their wagons. Horses already attached, ready to go the moment they could breathe, and too many people looking.

But he took a gamble. Luck was all he had.

Teshima didn't look at the people yelling. At the fire searing his skin. He kept his eyes forward, leaning up so far he was almost thrown out of the wagon seat. The explosions didn't recede, chasing even as he escaped, even as a chorus of wheels followed his own in uncomfortable harmony.

If they were looking for a heart.

If there weren't any left.

The least they could do was rip his out.

 

 

---

 

 

The weight at their ankle was tenable.

Manami had lived with that as long as they'd had a body.  It tore at them, straining the thin stitching that kept them real, but they kept flying onward, and away.  Ribs pulling inward made their heart burn.  The fires were still clear, this far up.  It was too far in the wastelands to touch the forest.  Every explosion rattled thin bones till they glanced back.  It was none of their business what royalty and outlaws disagreed over.  But they were curious - foolish.

Wire net falling over their head was a problem.   Manami fell to avoid it, but only made headway further into clouds, and sails hidden within. They cut through, feeling their head start to pound. In the midst of water and fog, they could see nothing. The rush of cloth and quiet clattering - given another circumstance, this should have been fun.

But as the ship rolled past, it was more inconvenience than not - pirates flickering past on the sky, like old stories about humans who yearned to fly. They were out for more than hearts. Locked down to little more than logic and survival, they knew these pirates were chasing down anyone who ran from the hidden quarry.

They tried, but even Manami couldn't do much about the impossible. Netting wrapped around their legs, arms, and all they could do was fall. So they chose to plummet. It squeezed tighter the further they fell from the ship. As though that would make them stop running, a weaker version of the witches' spells. Tree boughs did little to break their fall, but they broke through - staring at the hole above them, and the faint sense of a ship above. They were skilled. That was something.

Net clung to a branch above - they reached up, blinking at nothing moving. Their arm twitched against the tree, driven deep into a broken stake sticking out the side. It didn't hurt. Strange enough. Last time they'd broken a wing, it had felt like the end of the world.

Last time, they hadn't been able to save themself.

Manami cut through their clothing, staring at the blood pooling out like oil, and the red marks still evident from the netting. Their legs twitched - remembering they were still trapped twice over, and chains. They couldn't pinpoint the direction of the star anymore. A numb fugue kept them between the ship's pull and the witches', pain pulling at every direction.

They ripped their arm up the stake and watched splotches of darkness overtake their vision. Laughing, giddy and sick, they remembered bodies did that. When it was too much. Manami felt sick. They could save themself. If Miyahara wasn't there, they had to. They needed this.

The rush of air felt a million miles away.

The stake fractured bone. They couldn't tell if it was in their arm or not any longer, could not pinpoint the body, or any wire reaching through. When bone broke, wood broke. It was the same to them and they could feel their mind breaking free.

That star should have escaped.

Bitter bile on their tongue. He was a fool to fall. They'd warned him. Nails dug through grass and earth. Every laugh came out in a gasp, frustration bubbling hot to the surface with ever redder blood staining their skin. He deserved it, then. If this was what it came to. Deserved a cage. They wouldn't waste their time.

"You're not looking too good."

They'd managed to move. Barely, pulling themself out of wreckage, staring up despite how their skull rang empty.

A wagon, and a single fool standing atop. Behind him stood the heralding shadow of what they needed to escape.

Manami didn't have energy left to force on a smile.  If there was anything left in them but hollow bones and vibrating colors bleeding from their eyes to the world. They wouldn't have known it. Darkness clawed its way beneath their skin, drawing it out so thin as to snap into nothing.

And there was nothing.

Hopping on a stand. Snapping against mirrors.  Traipsing through bells that hung from the ceiling.  Staring out a metal cage, fumbling over the edge of her window sill when she'd let them out for short moments. There was never anything to do, but stare outside, envious and empty. Wings took a long time to heal. Everything Manami did otherwise didn't much help that. People would drag them back inside, knowing so much more about safety, proper, proper bodies, every time they fell.

They twitched. A lurch of sickness, with their wing out and open, jolting up from the ground, unsure as to how or when they could have fallen, staring through iron bars.

Their chest felt tight. Against their skin, there was no familiar ruffle, and shudder against such cold. It was tight, and teeth clashed together, confusing and wrong in their head, and their eyes focused. No feathers. Rusted metal scratched their cheek as they pushed themself up. Strange bones, too much stabbing into them, before they remembered hands. Pale thin nails. Cloth sticking to them, and they pulled it back. One arm was tied to their breast, bandages wrapped too firm around their chest. Manami pressed their ear to the ground. It wasn't shredded paper or smooth tempered metal. That was wood. Their sight flickered. Vague memories, and footsteps, and it should have been her, but -

"They tried to handle your wounds," Teshima said. "But after you managed to break half their infirmary, they tossed you down here with me."

Manami steadied their breathing.

A human body. That - didn't make sense. Human bodies had never made sense. But they nodded, staring at nothing in particular. Stars falling to earth like people instead of rocks. They didn't like that much more.

"I think they assumed you had some spells that let you fly. Apparently, there are all kinds of magics the army gets taught," he said. "Didn't really believe me when I said you were a bird. Though they didn't believe when I said I'm a star either, so. Two for two, I guess."

"Ah." Manami sat up. His voice was coming from another cage - cell, they reminded themself, sitting on a pirate's boat. "Ah," they repeated, looking for windows.

Their body wouldn't leave the ground. But maybe if they fell from this height, they could find the momentum before they crashed. Willingness could do nothing against no openings, every spot on the hull without a speck of the sky beyond.

"Looks like we're stuck," he said.

Manami hummed. And remembered.

"Teshima," they said.

"What?"

He sounded appropriately harsh - pushing back. They didn't tend to ask questions.

"If you have to know," he said, before they could speak, "I was looking for information. I can't really afford to look a gift horse in the mouth. ...not like I learned much useful, anyway."

That made them laugh, however slight. It hurt like shoving their hand in a flame - if the pain was theirs, so was the body. So they laughed again and breathed it in deep beyond his rambling.

"I don't know why the hearts were missing. All I know is that stars are getting taken up. A lot more than before. But ... whatever they're looking for." He trailed off and coughed. Forced strength carried his voice when he rolled back. "It's not me."

"How did you know," they said.

"It's sort of obvious. ...They're trying to drag a particular star back down. Someone special. And that couldn't be me." A mutter. "Never me."

"Oh, no," Manami interrupted. "I meant me!"

"What?" He sounded like he tripped, in the next room.

They pressed an ear to the wall. "About me being a bird."

"Anyone could tell from looking at you."

Ice dropped alongside their voice. "You said they didn't believe you."

He didn't have quick words or wit for that.

"What do you know," they said.

"Folks back home said not to fall." He fell into a quiet rhythm. "Witches eat the hearts of foolish stars, shining bright with hope and despair." And he chuckled. "People talk. What can I say. The moment I saw you, there wasn't a chance you were human. I don't know why no one else notices. ...Another problem on my long list of mysteries to solve."

"I would have let you go back."

"Yeah. But here's the thing, Manami. It sucks." They could see his hand flare out through the bars, bouncing against rust. "You know how many people believed me? And then the first person who catches on wants to throw me back in the lake like a minnow."

"You'll die," they hummed.

He didn't say anything to that.

And Manami sat in growing curiosity and frustration. Closing their eyes to memories they'd long since lost. Wondering how they were still here.

At least he put on a good show.

Pushed to the edge, anyone could shine brighter.

They stood on the captain's arm, curious stare upon her excited smile. Like a performance alone was worthwhile. Manami spread their wings and flew away. It had been a long time since they'd had a reason to shift back.

Everything processed differently in their body. The real one.  Sound was crisp and endless. Every cage and chain hardly a question. There was the horizon, the distant moon, the untouchable sunrise. Land turned beneath them, falling from the highest point they could reach. Forgetting was easy. Manami could go anywhere if they just let go. Flying around the edge of the ship, they didn't have to have a target at all. But their heart felt unbearably small. That was enough to dive. Something thrashed against the air, and that was a familiar irritation. Digging claws into Teshima's shoulders was enough of a reminder of everything else. They could hear the tone of complaint in his voice, even if they couldn't make out the words.

His weight made it a free fall, but they were confident. There would be no landing, no crash, nothing that would keep them trapped. That was what wings were for, in any form. Clicking back the other way - they weren't quite strong enough with just two fighting against air. If they could have two, four more, and that was enough to start. Remembering how was the trouble. Falling back to empty bones was like closing their eyes. Wanting to be anything else. They had to have better reason for that.

"Any time, Manami!"

Skin instead of feathers, wrapped tight around bones that stretched long and not much better. But it was dexterity enough to hang on. Deep blue sheen became a cloak, billowing around them. He grabbed their arm before they remembered what hands were for, ears still flickering back and forth with proper sound. Twisting through the air, they laughed. That was something they could do in any form.

"Could you -"

"No clue!"

"Listen -"

"Is this what falling was like?"

"And - what?" He had to yell. "No! Yes? Kind of!"

They couldn't make their fingers close around anything, too giddy with laughter and blood and weight flowing deep into their bones. Wind cut against flesh, so different from feathers protecting them, making their eyes burn closed. It was strange. They'd never fallen like this before.

"Are you going to bother to stop us?" he yelled.

He was the one hanging on, tight and terrified and - they could feel a hint of laughter, pressed together like this, see the hint of a terrible smile through the cracks of their eyes. Maybe that was the difference.

The shift was quick. Down became up before they remembered not to let it go too far. Momentum threw them back over the ship like a rubber band. Not fighting anything for that one moment, Manami hung above the ship in frozen time. Something hurt their eyes. Their cheek burned till they had to look. Stars were supposed to stand shining in the sky. A real star, at least. He was right in the corner of their eye and they realized how strange it was to be so close. Glowing bright gold down to his eyes, too obvious in sight. Anyone could have seen if not for a cloak of feathers floating windswept to obscure it all. So it was just them. Still only them. Hanging between up and down like there was nowhere left to go, they forgot about gravity.

The light faded and he looked like any normal terrified person forcing on a smile.

"Manami!"

They blinked.

Air buzzed in their ears. They remembered - pausing above the tallest mast of the ship. Just avoiding impalement. He hung on, threadbare grip, shaky stare at the sharp point at his side.

"Yes?" they asked.

He let go first and slammed into the vessel. Feeling returned to their arms. They'd forgotten they had those, from how tightly he held on, around their neck, fingers digging in. The burn didn't fade with that light. It was their only proof. A fact that a star was simply laying in a crow's nest. Teshima pressed his hands over his face, struggling to breathe and laugh all at once.

"You're too ..." He stopped to cough. "Way too composed." Wry grin following every word.

Manami's face hurt. But they realized it wasn't the burn, teeth cutting into their cheeks. Maybe it was different. Not having to fall alone.

 

 

---

 

 

When the captain had introduced herself, she'd also introduced her first mate with enough endearments and titles that Tachibana had left in a huff - leaving Kanzaki to threaten the prisoners alone.

And when Manami had explained - with helpful transformations - the captain chose to believe.

Teshima didn't let that go, bitter grumbling, but it didn't stop him from grinning through his entire performance either. They kept to their own business on the ship. Not too close to anything or anyone. If they spoke to Kanzaki, he wouldn't have known. If If all the hearts they'd been looking for were gone - if there was only one star left in the room - they didn't point out the obvious.

"Where are the two of you heading?" Kanzaki asked.

Bad feelings were alright to trust. So he believed Manami when they said he'd die. Just as much as they chose to accept he was what he professed to be.

"It's up to them," he said. "Not like a star would know his way around here."

But when he moved to leave, she put her foot in front of the door. Arms crossed over her chest. Too many good questions to ask, with a face that knew he wouldn't tell her the truth.

"How'd you fall?" she asked. Quiet.

There were many excuses. "Just got bored of hanging around." What if there were people he could save. What if he could fix the problem he didn't even know. What if he could do something no one else could. What if - he couldn't stop wanting. "I'm not a fan of doing nothing."

Ultimately - it was an undeniable fact. Teshima had hung in the heavens. He burned as bright as he could. He had the magic, enough to see through glamours and attract magic beasts. But that didn't make a star what it needed to be. Years, and the brightest lights in the night sky were people who had chosen to rise. They hadn't been born into it. He couldn't figure out how to match that and now he never would.

So he was here.

Fingers sticking to the leather grip of a dulled rapier.

"If you're going to be on my ship," Kanzaki said. "It'll be a good idea that you know how to defend it."

"Against what?" he asked.

"Everything," Manami chirped.

"Soldiers," Tachibana interrupted. "If you've got any brains, you'd figure the entire army has our name on their shitlist." She marched down with another blade, handing it to Kanzaki rather than the person it was meant for. "That among every griffin that decides our ship is a good nest, and bounty hunters with more greed than good sense, and other pirates who think they have anything on us."

"So, yes. Everything!" Kanzaki answered.

The blade she handed Manami didn't look much different than his. But there was a hint of rare surprise on their face. Right arm out of commission, he wondered if birds had dominant hands. If it made sense for stars to. But they gave it no hesitation - a flick of their wrist, and the rapier spun blindly in the air, thin blade wobbling more dangerous than not. They caught it and grinned.

"Thank you very much, captain."

"You're quite welcome." Kanzaki puffed out her chest. "No one has an eye for arms like I do."

Teshima stood outside them - almost pathetic. He flipped his sword from hand to hand, and stepped between them. "So what's so special about it."

Nothing - just weight. Just length, and hilt, and pommel, and quiet guard, and a dozen other qualities he barely knew. Having to be told. Teshima didn't like not knowing. But they hardly did either, it turned out. For Manami, it was all sense and guesswork and apathetic optimism, like the result didn't matter as much as the chance to try.

There was no one so gut churningly annoying in the sky or on ground. And in that, they made a good conspirator to spar. Kanzaki forced him to hold his arms straight in defense and Manami pricked at every weakness in attack.

Blunted rapiers didn't damage anything but his pride.

"You're doing really well!" Manami laughed. They spoke like when they flew or fell, wide vibrant eyes that spiraled out into color like any bird's. "Do stars practice fencing all the time?"

"You'd be surprised!" He kept the footwork Kanzaki had shown him, jabbing where he could, constantly hit regardless. "I didn't think a bird would be so dexterous, myself. Did you steal those arms from anyone?"

Some strikes were insults, others weren't. But the more he spoke, the more it became a fact between them. Grinning and spitting and falling all the same. Every hit he landed was another surprise, and twist, and grin on their face, like a pool of excited hypocrisy. The mirror of pride he caught from them in the glimpses of their minute failures. It was another step forward. And when his legs wouldn't keep up - when their healing arm failed them - Kanzaki would drag him to the navigator's table. Maps spread along every surface, she'd run through the sky above. He knew it better than he thought, regaling absurd stories about everyone he knew.

"Are all stars like that?" Manami asked, one day.

"Nah," he said - unsettled by a question from them. "I wouldn't compare myself to them."

And they stared. And they said, "Neither would I."

He didn't need to sleep. But sometimes he wished he could, instead of staring at the ceiling, or over knitting needles, unsure as to what they meant. He wouldn't ask.

"These stars," Kanzaki said, another day. "Are newer on our maps.  Were you close to them?"

He stared over them. Kinjou. Makishima. Tadokoro. Everyone else, but they shined the brightest, leading the pack every night.

"You ever wonder where stars come from?" he asked.

She gave him an even stare and he chuckled.

"I used to think they just appeared." That eventually light got bored of living without ambition and began to want. That a day came when he could breathe and all he knew was what he couldn't be. "I guess you could say ... eventually I realized, some people climb up that high themselves." The maps couldn't express their beauty, but that was alright. It was only paper. "They shine too bright to be anywhere else."

"I see," she murmured. "There are a lot of unknown mysteries. Our astronomers gave up on answering what stars are made of or why they fall like this. They said magic is just what it is," rolling her eyes. Kanzaki pushed books across the table, with age-old dates. "But there are some people who think that the famous figures who disappeared became stars."

He nodded - tried to, at least.

Kanzaki pursed her lips. "My brother's researched it for years, but the king's never let much information get out. He's been on the throne for so long ... him and his people." She was the kind of person who always looked cheerful, but here - creased brow, serious glare at the papers before her - he could see why she was a captain. "There's a lot you can't find out with libraries. I couldn't have done so much if I didn't take this ship. Even when people disapprove."

"Can't let law get in the way of the search for knowledge," he said.

She laughed, agreement crinkling at her eyes, before it died in her throat. He realized from the shock on her face, how miserable his smile was.

"I'm sorry I didn't believe you," she said. "I just didn't think ..."

"That a star would be so stupid." In her silence, he went on. "That a star would ... actively chase someone who has to cut out his heart? Yeah. Yeah." Teshima rubbed his eyes. "I know."

"Most stars get somewhere safe," she murmured. "Nowadays. There are too many people who want them otherwise. And more who'd prefer them dead than in the hands of enemies."

"Like Fukutomi," he said.

"...Maybe. Like the king." Kanzaki closed her books. "He's looking for one specific star. He's been searching for a very long time. The witches and the royals ... they were comrades till this put them at odds. But all the stories are too old. No one wants to believe the nameless past is still pulling us along now."

Staring over her files, and everything she knew - Teshima felt like little more than a pawn in someone else's game. Aimless feet carried him back to his room and the hum of crystal light dotting the ceiling. Manami had disappeared within a pile of clothes and sheets they'd thoughtlessly stolen, sleeping on the floor. He ghosted past them. Wishing he could float like they could. That he could sleep like they could. That this body was just a disguise rather than the reality of what he had lost.

Teshima took to the chair. With the heels of his palms crushing his eyes, he could almost see everyone. And he wondered if any of them had ever been more than pieces in another person's story.

Kinjou had long since left Fukutomi behind. He wouldn't come back. And Teshima had fallen into the same trap as every other insignificant star who couldn't keep holding onto the heavens. Whatever home was. He'd never found it. Letting gravity wrap itself around him till bones kept him weighted heavy to the ground. Teshima couldn't say having to know that was much better.

"It's not fair," he muttered.

"Not much is."

Teshima leaned back. Looking for the source. Trying to find them standing tall and ethereal and fake. He pushed till he slipped out of the chair and fell into the floor. Laying there, he tried to see if they'd spoken at all. But they hadn't moved in that nest. For all the distant voices Teshima thought he could hear, he couldn't be sure if it was Manami out of all of them.

"That doesn't help," he said, finally.

Manami didn't open their eyes. "You do what you want though." Vague mumbling, but unmistakable. "Don't you?"

It really shouldn't have. Their ever-present blunt honesty. He nodded at the ceiling. "Yeah."

They didn't answer. He laid his head down in a mess of yarn. Teshima couldn't allow himself much. He couldn't sleep. But he let his eyes to close.

 

 

---

 

 

"I assume the two of you know your way around the city?" Kanzaki asked.

"Nope," Teshima said.

"Not a clue!" Manami said.

She raised an eyebrow before waving them off, laughing.  As though she had not stopped them a dozen times, hard eyes with questions for everything they were doing.  Everything they would do.  But she knew more about the world around them.  All Manami knew was what they'd been asked to do by the witches, for freedom.  The issues of politics flew over their head.

"Birds have a natural sense of direction, don't they?" he whispered, leaning in while the two ducked incoming cargo.

"Oh yes! I can tell you which way is north or west. That doesn't mean I know what all is that way. But that's the exciting part," they said, grinning as they hopped over a sand bag - he followed, tripping, bounding forward too many steps.

Cities were unfamiliar territory. People came in droves, disconnected chattering keeping messy wheels turning. It was interesting after wilderness and clouds. Manami watched Teshima stare and haggle over useless trinkets, expensive food, almost never coming away with anything out of the time he spent. But it was the banners that drew their attention. Deep blue, and white, with splashes of crimson - lions treading the edges with watchful eyes.

The deep thrum of a town and the rumors carried beneath.

"The king left the castle." Whispers they smiled through. "He looks so young." Keeping the words hidden between their fingers. "Does anyone really think we'll find the old leaders? They'd have to be dead by now."

Manami knew where they were going. It never stopped pulling. Running out of options, they'd heard enough late night conversations to understand what was at stake. Enough to know - Teshima didn't have anything to do with this.

He caught them listening more than most. If he'd believe it more often, he might have had a chance against them. As it was, this far in, there was little left to do.

"Manami?" He always forced a smile, meeting like a challenge. "Trying to run off on me now?"

"Of course not." There was only one loose string left. "Not much longer, now."

 

 

---

 

 

Witches existed in the margins of the world. But Manami did not lead him to a haunted house. No gaps in the ground, no endless alleyway, no dark forest. The city shone around them in clean marble as they walked among the crowds. Celebration hid them away, for once in place by presence alone.

All the noise around, and he knocked his head into theirs to have a chance of being heard. "Looks like the king's out."

"Mhm."

"Are you getting quiet on me now?"

"I just thought you might have a headache." That came with a smile. "Unless it's a rock, too."

"Don't get my hopes up like that," and he was laughing. Jogging to keep up with them, forcing them to keep their feet on the ground when they didn't think. And they didn't, and they did, and it had a way of working on him too. "Unless," he repeated, "I just cracked open your skull. Don't forget to share, I like taking pride in my achievements."

They spun to walk backwards, tilting their head as they tapped their cheek. "Are you worried now?"

"Nah. Never worried about a thing."

Heckling laughter distracted them from their feet and path. The edge of a fountain knocked them over, and he was quick to follow, splashing through before he remembered where his feet were. The chime of their voice brought him back up, where they rolled and floated over themself and the water. Drenched and speechless, there were many options.

But they interrupted, touching down, "We're almost there." Flipping from frivolous to serious in an instant.

At the far edge of the fountain, a small waterfall stood against the wall. Manami traipsed along concrete edge when he trudged through chilly water on principle. Staring up, watching the wall, watching them, they seemed to be humming. Distant and thoughtful, alone in the world. In the next, Manami nodded and leapt through the wall. He stared at the concrete. There was no flicker. It did not glitter and change with them. A palm against stone, through running water, and his blood ran cold. Stars dispelled magic. Broke things. And without their airy nothingness, he remembered how sickening danger was. What waited on the other side, even if it made it. Every fool decision flooded back into his mind with the same water starting to turn him to ice. And he wondered.

And he picked the option he didn't have to think about. Teshima jumped.

"Good to see you."

They were holding back a curtain. He turned around to a mirror and chuckled. Like a switch flipped. "Don't say I never trusted you."

"Of course not," they said, already walking forward. An echo of the city in their voice.

Their steps rang with an invisible chain. They didn't look back at him. Walking past familiar portraits, he recognized almost everyone - stars he'd met and known for so long. The stone felt carved into mountains itself, chilling him to the bone.

The stories went one way. Someone was going to cut out his heart and eat it.

Teshima kept his hands down.

He'd always known that. From the moment he fell. From the moment that there were no more to find. If that was what it took to be a star.

At the end of the road -

"Here we are," Manami said. Short gesture, shadow in their face. He could see the chain at their ankle, now.

"Thanks," he said.

It wasn't like he hadn't been waiting for this.

"Not at all." The words cut through first. "I appreciate your trust."

He saw before the pain hit. Bright scarlet and gold came up against shaking hands. And he'd been expecting it. The tunnel walls flickered deep blue, choking what little light remained. All that was left shining through broken skin, along a blade sinking deeper. It burned. He closed his fingers, recognizing - that old rapier. It wasn't blunted anymore.

"But I didn't say this was your stop, Teshima."

Filigree jammed against his back, and his knees buckled.

He couldn't look away from the blood slowly pooling at his shirt, hot on his skin. They let go of the blade stuck through, to the hilt, and his shoulder cracked against freezing cobblestone. Shock sapped his strength. In the hollow echo of their steps, he had nothing left but the ever burning light searing its way through his chest, and deafening drums pounding in his head.

 

 

---

 

 

Maybe Toudou had known from the start.

They made their way through the chambers, finding the remains - Yuuto long since sent away, Ashikiba's notes, Arakita's furious scribbles half-screaming across the room. Distant echoes rumbled from above. A perfect sanctuary, untouchable, as long as no one deigned to notice. With one person left to guard it, there wasn't much longer. But they didn't have anywhere else to return.

"Sorry I'm late," they said.

"I expected as much." Toudou sat elegant in a chair, not revealing the strain of every new strike to stone. Every hint of magic left to the chamber was Toudou's alone. In most cases, that would be more than enough. It took a cough before - "You fulfilled as much as I needed."

Manami tilted their head. Here, they felt so much less human - speech awkward on their tongue, past mocking repetition.

"You destroyed the star," Toudou said. "You did what needed to be done ..."

There was nothing they had left to say. Manami finished their assignments.

"Fukutomi knows we are here." A sad smile. "I wish I could have spoken to him, but I fear it is too late. ... it has been too late for many years. But I trust ... all of you."

Manami watched without blinking. There was so little they knew. Only enough. There was nothing they could do.

"Yes, Manami. Even you." A hand took theirs. "I am sorry we kept you caged for so long ... but now. You can fly free. They cannot do this without you."

They didn't want to think of people and bodies they'd left behind. It seemed wrong. Toudou knew the kind of person they were. Hardly a mirage.

"Toudou," they whispered. More hoarse than they intended. "What do I do now?"

An ever-weaker hand against their cheek. "Are you not listening?" The only words that made it through - "I trust you."

They caught Toudou's hand when it fell, or - tried to. It fell through, evaporating through their fingers in glittering dust. Clothes sat empty in the chair before them. The weight at their ankle crackled.

And the wall before them exploded. In the dust and rubble that fell to the ground, the cloud billowing through the room, Manami felt the chain break.

"Toudou's defenses finally broke." They looked up, calm, to metal and power and golden light that overtook the room. Fukutomi gauged the empty chair, and them, standing straight. "...I see. Strong to the end."

"Yes," Manami said.

Armor glistened free of the filth flooding the room. The king carried a helmet beneath his arm, over the overwhelming sword that hung at his side. He took confident steps forward. "You are all that is left of this hold. Your comrades have fled."

They glanced around him. "Where's your folks? Did you bring anyone here to take me prisoner?"

"They knew what sacrifice meant," he said, weight deep in his voice, and they knew the source of the light flickering from deep within his armor. "The rest of my force is now tracking the remnants. Stand down. Our judgment will be fair."

The words made them laugh more than they should have. They stood up, ruffling feathers rising from skin, knocking away their cloak.

"There's nothing fair in this world, sir."

Birds couldn't do much against lions.

The magic Toudou granted peeled away from their body, away from every silent word they threw. Fukutomi was stronger. He was older. He was human. Above all, he knew why he was here. Manami danced the motions, but there was no vengeance. Toudou had lived well. They saw no tragedy in that. Too long, even. And so had he - a dozen stars behind him, all in the search for one more. They couldn't have said why they were fighting. Nothing more than the buzz of energy with every near miss.

"Toudou raised you well."

Compliments didn't mean much. Nails weren't as strong as proper claws. Clashing down his armor, their fingers bled in long tracks of unraveling skin, pushing further as their bones ran down and out. And in that came spells - stolen pieces, secrecy, melting it away. Fukutomi held against every piece that fell to swing again. He could stand through the attacks they weren't made to risk. Manami was good at surviving, wearing the blows along their frenzied smile. They didn't need to be human for that.

"But none of you understand what I am doing."

"How many stars did you eat?" Manami fluttered to a rafter. "How many hearts? I'm curious."

He watched, circling below. He had the upper-hand, but that was as it always was. They didn't mind.

"No more than Toudou."

A sword slammed through rock and left them falling, floating away, nails scraping down the walls.

"But Toudou is dead," they said. Nature was what they knew above all else - the inescapable facts. Almost a comfort, this far down the road. "What does that makes you?"

"Toudou did not have reasons like I did."

They should have been more careful. Like he was, maybe, stoic and powerful to his core. Enough to catch them in a foolish bound. The flat blade cut up through their ribs. Their lungs felt hot enough to explode.

Fukutomi went on. "Where the others may have given up." Never cruel. Simply honest. They understood that much. Manami slid down the blade, holding themself up, nails digging into his face as a matter of fact. They'd lost this body. This life. He said, "I have not stopped seeking forgiveness."

"I think there's a point where you just gotta accept that you're not going to get what you want."

Fukutomi's wall crumbled.

And behind the immeasurable height of his shoulder, something shone.

In all his fractured armor, there was space. Barely enough - a needle of a sword burned its way through the immeasurable spot of weakness. Fukutomi lost his grip on them - his weapon - and they fell, bouncing empty into ground. A broadsword was made for damage. Cutting deep through their ribs, slicing open their chest and out the side, they wheezed something of a laugh. Unfamiliar with bodies, so far away, it felt absurd that anything would be built to break so easily.

"How many stars again?"

Supposed impossibility stood on flat earth.

Fukutomi didn't turn. He crouched to settle his knee, and they could see the hint of a rapier's blade buried deep into his spine. They shouldn't have left the sword. Manami tried to laugh, grinding their face against the ground in the attempt to move, tears rolling up in the pain of a torn heart. So many mistakes this close to the end were too easy for him to use against them.

"It has been lifetimes," Fukutomi murmured. "I will accept my judgment."

Teshima let his shoulders drop, panting. He shook his head helplessly. "Stars don't grant wishes."

Floating outside their head, Manami's eyes were better - the quiet flicker of a second blade, and silence. They saw it first. Unfamiliar and broken voiced, they yelled before they remembered themself. Too slow to do any good. Too slow to make anything worse.

Fukutomi flipped the sword. And in all his strength, turned it against himself. Metal warped to follow his blade, deep into his chest. Teshima lit the room enough that it was simple to see the color leave his skin - but blood didn't pour from his wound. Slowly, he sank into his armor, and turned to little more than dust.

"Lifetimes," Teshima said. "Huh." He forced a chuckle. "Kinjou said they couldn't come back. ...Not like it had anything to do with me."

Manami nodded, however faint. Steps resounded against stone.

"Hey, now," he said. "I've got questions. And even you have to admit that was cool."

They couldn't speak, but they could shake their head.

"If you stab someone, you owe them something." Forcing through clothing and old bandages, they could see how pale his face was. "Guess it's not going to be a compliment. That's alright, I've got a long wishlist." Gold shouldn't have ever been so colorless. "You've dealt with worse. How far did you fall last time? This is nothing."

When they laughed, blood splattered on his face. It made them laugh harder.

"Could you just -" They could feel his shaking fingers in the wound. "This is the last -" Fingers jabbing into broken ribs, blood mixed together black and red and gold. "Damn it, Manami." He was always desperate. It was rare that he didn't have a clue what to do.

"I told you to go home," they managed. "That you'd die."

"You say that like it's a bad thing." They stared at the dried blood stain on his shirt. Wondered how lucky he had to be to avoid damage enough to stand up again, when they were so familiar with the agonizing fragility of human bodies. Always lucky. Stars had to be like that. "I've heard that I don't actually make a very good star."

"You've gotten better at it," they said. Eyes closing with their smile, a sharp slap made them open again. "You're making it really hard to sleep. It'll get in everyone's way ..." They tried to push him away. Bloody fingers smeared down his face. "That's why all your friends left you. Sometimes it's for the best."

"Right," he muttered. "For the best." It was hard to see him, even with their eyes open. "Right. Cause that's what's fair. Right. Right? Come on, Manami." He pulled at their lids, their ears, and they couldn't summon the strength to make him stop. Let them rest. "I know I'm an idiot, but you don't think I'm that easy to trick, do you?"

"Yes," they whispered.

"Sure. Okay," he said. "Once is your fault. But the second time is my fault. Like hell am I letting that happen." Digging through the rubble along the ground - they heard rocks. Metal. A quiet chuckle. "What else are stars good for." They caught on.

"Don't."

"You said it yourself, right?" Teshima leaned in, just to show off a contradictory grin. "I can do whatever I want."

Sword driven in, he only shone brighter - and they hated it, unable to let go for how blinding it was. Fukutomi's blade could cut through anything. Carving through bone, the facsimile of what made a human, it was everything that made it so simple to shred through Manami's fragile glamour. Heat poured out his open wound to melt stone and marble around them. He cut it out like it was nothing - like it was not the cause of misery, the end of every story.

Stars had a very particular narrative to avoid. But Teshima held the jagged edges of a broken heart in his hand like he could fix anything.

"I said," coughing more blood on his face - trying for his eyes, if anything could stop it. Death was a kindness at this point.  They'd tried to allow him as much.  But here he stood, trying to rip the same away from them.  "Don't."

"It's just half," he said. Light splattered everywhere, singing their skin, their hair. "Deal with it."

"I don't want it. Keep your time to yourself," they hissed. It was no right of his.

There wasn't anything beating between them, there. They'd already died. A dozen times over, maybe, reborn once into another cage, but they were done. He didn't have to worry about that. He had the choice.

But Teshima held on and said, "If I've got to deal with this, then you don't get to bail out." Hand risen high, they couldn't argue. Their mind bled out, colorless and empty. But their nails dug into his hand. "Besides. Didn't I say as much earlier? Stars don't grant wishes."

They weren't rocks in the sky.

But a heart could have been. He stabbed it through, sharp and molten and impossible, deep into their chest. Smoke billowed up and out their lungs in lieu of sound. Oil poured from their mouth, their nose. The blade made its way through torn muscle. A thousand times worse than any sword or stake. It settled in the shreds of their old heart, till he jerked away his hand as though burned. They ripped off flesh in thin layers, under their nails, sick fire welling up and out. Trying to tear him apart. Trying to do anything. Trying, and falling in and out of that body, wrenched back in with every lunge they took to slam into the rocks.

It was intolerable.

Skin bubbled up, mottled and strange, to cauterize around the heavy weight in their ribs. Blood burned till it dried and flaked away, till they could breathe again. Beat drumming through their ears. And they were still there. Not something made to touch the ground by any witch's measure.

Though patches of skin melted in strange curvature, they could still open their eyes. Gray skin blossomed greater blue in the face of scarlet marred burns. They pressed their fingers to their chest. The slow miserable rhythm. As they blinked around the room, their vision did not sharpen. None of it was quite right. It took his cough before they chose to glance his way. Leaning against rubble, baleful and nursing more wounds from nails than any blade.

Teshima wasn't quite so blinding, now.

"What do you think?" He wore something like a grin, when they shuffled over. "Sharing a heart with some burnt out star."

They sniffled. Kneeling, Manami pressed fingers through the hole in his ribs, tiredly staring at the grimace twist on his face. Magic kept him together even in a form this miserable. That he survived even when he had nowhere left to return to. But - they hummed. When Manami stood, they held a hand out to him.

"Fair enough."

If that was the burden. Mutual. Giving up half a heart to a witch's familiar for his own selfish sake. Hobbling out a tomb of ancients that stood as no business of a dead bird. Together. They could deal with that.

 

 

---

 

 

Manami hadn't been to the wall in a long time.

She wouldn't recognize a bird she'd let free, years ago.

But as they strolled the boundary, it was only natural. Miyahara was just that amazing.

A long stare proved she didn't know or understand. But she played along. "Sangaku," she said. Gentle and sharp, too talented for her own good. "I thought I'd asked you to visit sooner."

"Sorry." They rubbed their head. "Someone else caught me for a few years. But I never forgot! I've always been planning to. I made some friends."

"I met one. I ... can only assume." Miyahara's hair was shorter. The quiet change on her face was an untouchable magic. They'd spent years listening to her. Hardly aware they had heard anything at all. "That girl with wild hair. I thought she came from a fair, dressed like that."

Another debt to live with. "You'd like Kanzaki," they said. "If you got to know her. She was really interested in having a good reason to cross the border! Researching and such ... she's a little like you."

"I doubt that." In that quiet judgment, they watched. Knowing they couldn't argue. But her smile was a good reason to stay. "You look ..." Many things, they could imagine. She settled on, "Well."

"I'm only sort of human," they said in answer to her unspoken question.

"Oh. Yes. That too. ...How?"

They shrugged. "You're the one who used to wish on stars."

"Yes, but I never ..."

"I'm kidding." They wanted to reach across, but could imagine watching their arm tear back to feather. It wouldn't be kind to her. "Stars don't actually grant wishes. It was a witch."

"Oh." Her brow furrowed. "That's something. Then do stars not do anything?"

"No, no, no." Manami's smile thinned. "They just do whatever they want."

Miyahara started laughing and it had been far too long. It was a miracle to stand there, hardly glowing in sunlight.

"Can you fly?" she asked.

They nodded, hovering, ever so slightly.

"...That's all I wished for." She glanced away. "I'm sorry I kept you here for so long. I didn't know how to ..." Trailing off.

"It's okay," they murmured. "I don't think I could have done this without you." Inviting her over would be so simple, but she toed the line with nervous feet. Different worlds. They couldn't go back. It was amazing she could survive her own, when they struggled to fly there. "If you want I ... could visit, sometimes. Up to this wall."

Her nails crackled over the stone wall. "Maybe." She took a deep breath and looked away. "I don't know. ...Maybe."

It was too alien. Manami nodded again. There was nothing they could say.

Miyahara looked back. "Did you find any fallen stars?"

They hummed. "I caught one." And laughed. "Though he didn't give me very much choice in the matter."