I thought I'd posted this long ago, since chronologically it's set mid-series and I posted all the other in-series works first. But I must have put it off because it was in-progress (the same reason I still haven't posted any of Heralds, and why I waited on Family Portrait until I was able to post the final chapter.)
So here we go: The Missing Worlds.
This was a fic that I first started plotting out very early in my time in the fandom, but actually writing it has been a very slow endeavor, since other projects kept getting in the way. I was surprised, when reading through fics in the fandom, at how few stories actually have the characters meet alternate versions of themselves in the worlds they travel through. There are a few, but I would have expected more, and most of them use the alter-selves as a plot device rather than exploring them in depth. So I wanted to write a story that plays with the idea of how the characters might have turned out in alternate dimensions, and how the others in the party would react upon meeting them (without the usual meeting-myself awkwardness getting in the way!)
Missing Worlds has a gorgeous illustration done by the amazing konnichipuu; you can see it here at her account on DeviantArt.
Title: The Missing Worlds - Prologue
Spoilers: This story is set in the uncertain period after Piffle World, but before Recourt; in other words, in the same never-neverland that the second season of the anime mostly took place in. This means that Fai has not yet learned to whistle, Syaoran is still the original Syaoran, and nobody knows anything about Kurogane's childhood.
Summary: While searching for Sakura's feathers, the travelers face a dilemma: in order to move on to the next world, they will have to leave one of their companions behind. What will they find in the new worlds now open to them, and what will happen to the one who stays behind and waits…?
Pairing: Although this fic has both Syaoran/Sakura and Kurogane/Fai (in later chapters,) it is not intended to be a pairing-centric fic; although the relationships are part of the story, they are not the main focus of it.
It was a cold, dripping night when they'd arrived in the middle of a forest with no shelter in sight. That alone would have been an inauspicious start, but then Mokona had told them - for the fourth world in a row - that there was no trace of a feather in this world either.
First there had been the creepy world with the soulless girl where the sun never rose; then the island world with all the pirates, where Syaoran had encountered a young alternate version of his own father. Then of course the world where they had all been transformed into children (which Kurogane had sworn them all on pain of death never to speak of again.) They were all beginning to get a little agitated.
"This is bullshit!" Kurogane was the first to explode, unsurprisingly. "How much time are we gonna waste on dud worlds? Can't you do your damn job right, you useless pork bun?"
"Kurogane-san, please don't yell," Sakura said timidly. "I'm sure Mokona is doing the best that she can…"
"Mokona is trying very hard!" the white creature seconded, bouncing up from between Sakura's hand. "Traveling between worlds isn't easy! You have to be careful not to arrive in outer space, or under the ground, or in the water or anything!"
"You keep taking us to these useless worlds," Kurogane continued to fume, stomping around in the squelching undergrowth. "This wasn't the deal, dammit! You're supposed to take us to where the feathers are! Oi, mage! You know more about this dimension travel magic stuff. Can't you do anything to put us right?"
"Nope!" Fai said cheerfully, waving his hand in denial. "In the first place, even if I could still do magic, I could never transport all five of us on my best day. In the second place, even if I could transport us, I have no way of detecting the feathers. And in the third place, even if I could detect them and transport us towards them, why should I? My wish was only to go to as many different worlds as possible. If we don't find a feather, that's even better for me, because then we can leave quickly."
"That's all great for you, you lazy selfish oaf," Kurogane groused. "But what about the rest of us who are getting cheated? The damned witch isn't keeping up her end of the bargain!"
"Actually," Fai put in with a sly grin. "If I remember correctly, your wish is to return your home world, ne? Why should it matter to you whether the worlds we pass through in the meantime have a feather or not? I'd think you'd want to change worlds as many times as possible, as quickly as possible, so that you'll get home sooner."
Kurogane snarled wordlessly at his aggravating companion; he hated being reminded of his ongoing exile. He hated even more having it rubbed in his face that although he'd started out the journey that way - not caring about anybody's troubles but his own, focused only on the journey's ending. Fai was right, damn him, he shouldn't care about anything but getting home. It shouldn't matter to him how many days or worlds they went without getting closer to restoring the princess' memories.
But it was hard to maintain that tunnel-vision focus in the face of the kids' needs and struggles, hard not to get invested in the search for the feathers that had consumed his life. He spun around and pointed towards them, standing hand in hand in the misting rain. "Well, fine then! But you're the ones who're getting cheated when we don't find new feathers. You should get what you paid for!"
"I - I would like to be able to remember more," Sakura admitted, sounding troubled. "But, I didn't really pay any price to the Time-Space Witch, did I? I was asleep when we met for the first time. Everybody else paid a price, but I didn't. So I don't feel like I really have any right to complain about how long it takes, when she's doing such a huge kindness for me."
Nobody met her eyes. They all knew the truth of the price she had paid, the pieces of childhood memories that would be lost to her forever. But Sakura herself was unaware of the loss, just as she was unaware of exactly what price Syaoran had paid in the same moment.
"I promised that I would travel for as long as it takes, go anywhere, do anything to restore Sakura-hime's memories," Syaoran said sturdily. They exchanged a long, dewy-eyed glance, and Syaoran squeezed her hand tightly and said, "But - but I'd really like for things to go faster. I'm worried about how long it's been since we got the last feather."
"Perhaps you should call the witch, Syaoran-kun," Fai suggested. "You're a paying customer, after all. At the very least maybe she can tell us whether something is wrong."
"Something is obviously wrong," Kurogane grumbled. "Not that I think she'll be a damn bit of help. She'll probably want another price, just to deliver on what she promised the first time!"
"Okay," Syaoran agreed, and he looked towards Mokona. "Mokona? Can you call Yuuko for us?"
"Hmph," the white creature pouted. "Mokona will do it, but only because Syaoran asked! Mokona won't do anything for grumpy Kurogane-mongrel!"
"What did you call me?" Kurogane roared, as the gem on Mokona's forehead began to glow. The beam of light shot out, then expanded into a glowing circular window hanging in midair. Drops of rain fell through it, briefly illuminated in the circle of light, but they did not touch the picture on the other side.
"Mokona?" Yuuko said, turning and looking surprised to see them. She was dressed in a more casual outfit than the last time they'd seen her, with her hair down from its elaborate styling; a glass of something probably alcoholic was resting in her left hand. "Ah, hello, you four! I'm surprised to hear from you again. What's going on with my favorite travelers? Perhaps you have a White Day gift to give me?" she asked with a sly grin.
"Like hell!" Kurogane exploded. "I told you she'd try to extract more out of us! When she can't even keep a simple bargain!"
"Sorry, can you speak up? I thought I heard a feral dog yapping in the background," Yuuko said airily. "Now what seems to be the trouble?"
She continued to ignore Kurogane's grumbling in the background while Syaoran and Sakura explained the problem. Gradually Yuuko's face turned concerned and thoughtful, then resigned.
"Mokona," she asked the creature directly. "Can you tell me what's happening when you shift between worlds? You ought to be able to home in on the worlds that have feathers in them."
"Mokona tries!" the critter cried. "Mokona can sense the worlds that have feathers in them, and tries to go there. But something always gets in the way! Mokona tries and tries, but something is blocking that world, and instead we slide off to the side into another world that's nearby."
"Ah," Yuuko said in a tone of enlightenment. "I thought this might be a problem eventually."
"You know what's happening?" Sakura said, leaning in from the side at the same time Syaoran asked "What should we do to fix it?"
Yuuko sat back and folded her arms, raising one hand to tap a finger against her lips. "This will take some explaining," she said. "I'm sure that you four have noticed, as I warned you you might, that you encounter the same people many different times in different worlds?"
"Yes, we met my brother and the High Priest!" Sakura said in excitement, as Syaoran nodded. "And Shougo-san, and Sorata and Arashi-san, and others as well."
"That's so," Yuuko agreed. "And did any of you ever wonder why it is that you have never encountered alternate versions of yourself, in any world that you came to?"
"Ah," Fai said in a sudden tone of enlightenment. "You think that's the problem?"
"Most likely," Yuuko answered. "It was statistically likely that it would happen eventually."
"What?" Kurogane demanded. "What are you talking about?"
"I guess I never thought about it," Sakura admitted. "But what does that have to do with us not finding any feathers in these worlds?"
"Different people across different worlds share the same souls," Yuuko explained. "As people die in one world, they are born into another in an endless cycle.
"In the course of all your traveling, it was inevitable that sooner or later you would come across a world that has some version of at least one of you still alive. But it is impossible for two people with the same soul to be in a world at the same time. If you were to try to enter that world, both of you would instantly die. Mokona instinctively protects you from that danger, and shunts you into a nearby world instead."
"But what can we do?" Sakura cried.
"Are you saying that we'll just have to give up on those feathers?" Syaoran exclaimed, visibly agitated; the words 'give up' were not really in his vocabulary.
"There is no way to change the fundamental laws of the universe," Yuuko replied. "But, perhaps we can find a workaround."
"Oh, what?" Sakura said.
Yuuko didn't answer her right away, instead turning her dark-lidded eyes on her creation. "Mokona," she said, "bring the family home, if you please."
"Okay!" Mokona chirped, and then leapt from Sakura's hands; bright wings sprang from her back, and the magic circle sprang to live beneath their feet. Before any of the travelers had time to protest, the dreary forest surroundings shifted and warped around them, and they were being hurtled into a new world.
Or - perhaps not so new. When they picked themselves up again, they found themselves in a spacious wooden room, floored by tatami mats. Sliding doors gave way to other, similar rooms, crowded with a multitude of clutter. Something about the design of the building, the dusty smell of the building, seemed familiar.
It was Kurogane, with his keen talent for observation, who made the connection. "Wait a minute, this is the same shop we saw when Tomoyo first sent me to you!" he exclaimed. "Does that mean we're back where we started? In that weird other Japan?"
"Not exactly," Yuuko's voice said; her image flickered back into place. "The shop is its own world, with its own set of rules. Think of it as a sort of waiting room between different dimensions. Mokona was created here, and so it is a place it can always return to."
"Okay, but what good does that do us?" Kurogane demanded in exasperation. "There aren't any feathers here, anyway."
"No, but this is a safe and neutral place," Yuuko said, "where each of you can remain - by themselves - while the others go on to the missing worlds without them."
There was a stunned moment, then several voices burst out in protest. "I can't leave Sakura behind!" Syaoran was saying in a shocked voice, while Fai chimed in "Is that entirely a good idea?" and Kurogane roared, "Like hell I'm going to let you lot go off and get in trouble without me!"
"It's not an ideal situation, but it's the only way," Yuuko said, raising her voice above the hubbub. "Once there is no danger of bringing a duplicate self into a world, Mokona will be able to enter freely. I assure you that this shop is completely safe; you can each take turns staying here, while the others visit each world in turn. Once you have retrieved the feather from that world, Mokona will return you here."
There was a subdued and thoughtful silence, each of them coming to the unhappy conclusion that this really was the best way to solve their dilemma.
"I'll stay behind first," Sakura said, putting on a brave smile. "After all, I'm the least useful. I'm not much good at searching, and if there's any fighting, I won't be able to help at all."
"That's not true, Princess!" Syaoran protested vehemently. "You've always been very helpful to us. Even if all you can do at any given time is wait for us and smile when we return, that's a great help."
"But it seems like right now, I'll be most useful staying here," Sakura pointed out, her resolve gaining strength. "I have faith that you can find the feather quickly and return back here, and I'll be waiting for you."
That had settled the matter, although Syaoran had argued some more before giving in. Unhappy but resigned, he stood with the two older men while Sakura waited off to the side outside of the range of Mokona's magic circle.
Syaoran turned a pleading gaze on Yuuko. "Are you sure she'll be safe here?" he asked for the third time.
"Very sure," Yuuko answered. "As I said, this shop is in a dimension that does not really interact in a normal way with other worlds. Nothing can come in from the outside without my permission."
"Just don't go through any boxes or jars without permission," Fai admonished Sakura with a smile. "This is a magical shop, after all, and I'm quite sure that some of the items stored here could be dangerous if you started fooling around with them."
"I'm not sure it's necessary to tell her that, when it sounds much more like something you would do," Yuuko said dryly.
"I'll be careful, I promise!" Sakura said sincerely. "You have to promise you'll be careful, too! I'll be waiting for you to get back safely!"
"Don't worry so much. We can more than take care of ourselves," Kurogane said in his usual gruff tone, but Sakura knew that he was trying to reassure her anyway.
"Let's go!" Mokona chirped out, and tipped her head backwards as the lines of golden light began to form around them and the edges of reality began to warp.
It was strange, seeing the others prepare to leave and knowing that she would not be going with them. She could understand Syaoran's anxiety at being separated. But it was made easier by the times before that she had watched and waited for them to come back to her, and she trusted Yuuko; if Yuuko said that the travelers would be able to return through Mokona, then she was sure that was true.
Now the only thing left to do was wait, and worry about what kind of world they were going into next. What kind of dangers they might face in finding the next feather, and what kind of people…
"Yuuko-san," Sakura said, after the swirling winds of the transport had faded. "You said that they're going to a world where there are other versions of us, right? So this time, the world they're going to has another me?"
"Yes," the witch answered softly, stepping through the doorway. "If they could not enter it before, but are able to enter it without your presence in the party, then that means somewhere in that world will be another version of you."
Sakura was quiet for a moment, then she asked softly, "Do you think they'll meet? The others, and the other version of me, I mean."
Yuuko raised her eyebrows, and did not answer immediately. "There are many different kinds of worlds," she answered at last, indirectly. "Some, like the world where I was born, are very large, with billions of living human souls. Some are much smaller, with only a few villages, or cities, or kingdoms of people. Large or small, the odds against meeting up with one specific person out of the many thousands - especially in so short a time as they will be in that world - are astronomical."
"Oh," Sakura said, trying to decide if she was relieved or disappointed. "So they won't meet another me, then?"
"I cannot know whether they will or they won't," Yuuko said, "but I do know one thing. There is only hitsuzen. If two people's paths are meant to cross, then they will, no matter how unlikely it may be in the abstract. If they meet with the other version of you, Sakura, it's because that meeting was destined to happen for a reason."
Sakura considered that for a while, then nodded acceptance. "Thank you, Yuuko-san," she said. "For everything you've done for us, I mean. We would never be able to go on this journey without you, or ever find any of my feathers."
"There is no need to thank me, child," Yuuko said softly, and there was an odd pain in her eyes. "You can rest assured that I have received adequate payment in kind for providing the means for the journey. That, too, is hitsuzen."
"Oh, but I'm not just talking about that," Sakura exclaimed. "I mean, you've been so kind and helpful ever since then. Like with this problem - we would have been stuck going to the wrong worlds for ages if not for you. You told us what was going on, and you're letting us use your shop to try to fix the problem. Isn't there anything I can do to help repay you for that?"
Yuuko smiled. "Well," she said. "If it comes to that, I could use some help with the chores around this place! The dust does build up, you know. My assistant, Watanuki, will be here in another few hours, but frankly he grumbles and bangs around so much that he raises the dust more than he cleans it. Would you lend him your aid?"
"Oh, I'd love to!" Sakura exclaimed, perking up more at the thought of dusting and cleaning than she ever would have expected to in her life as a princess and Clow. But at the very least, it would give her something to do other than to sit and wait; and to wonder what Syaoran was doing now, and to hope that all her friends would keep safe.
~to be continued...