Walking was hard. I hadn’t fully learned how to control this body yet. Fenris had told me that it would feel natural in time, but until then I was more or less stuck with it.
Fenris had told me a lot of things. I hadn’t understood most of them. I lacked the context to make sense of them, and explaining things was hardly his strong suit.
I saw the group gathered up ahead. I didn’t approach. Not yet. There were too many unknowns. It had, apparently, been a while. A week for me to regain consciousness, according to Fenris. Another week to begin to grasp what I was, and how to function now that I was…different. He had done what he could to mitigate the time lost, but there were limits.
A lot could happen in two weeks.
I watched, though. It was fun, in a macabre way. And there were plenty of eyes for me to look through.
Not so long ago at all, I would have had a hard time doing so without them being aware of my presence. I tried to use a light touch, but actually going unnoticed? That would have been difficult, probably impossible with some of them.
I’d learned some new tricks since then. This one was simple, although not easy to describe. It was a matter of potential. All I had to do was be something that could be present, rather than something that actually was. It was very hard to detect something that only existed in theory. Doing it that way also made the sensory information I got back fuzzier, but with so many sources to draw on, the resulting gestalt image was still clear.
I doubted I could have learned that particular trick, before I was forcibly separated from my body. It wasn’t a concept that human minds were suited to grasping. Having now given up any vestiges of humanity that might have remained to me, I found it a surprisingly easy thing to learn.
I’d learned a lot, in the past week. It had, on the whole, not been worth it.
I stood there for an hour or so while the funeral wrapped up. No one bothered me. Probably no one even noticed me. There wasn’t a whole lot to notice, really. I wasn’t moving, not even a little bit. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.
Fenris had assured me that it would get to be natural at some point. Eventually I would no longer need to make an active attempt to breathe. Like a lot of the other things I’d always taken for granted, it would eventually become second nature again. Until then, there wasn’t much I could do but keep dealing with the annoyance.
As the group started splitting up, I walked away. It was slow, but I’d given myself time. I was out of sight around the corner before they were anywhere close to me.
I wasn’t sure which direction Aiko and Snowflake were going to go. So I gave them a nudge. It was nothing big. Just a very gentle, very delicate tugging on Snowflake’s mind, a slight preference to walk in one direction rather than another. At the same time, I swept the snow into a slightly different position, one that pointed in my direction.
I was kind of amazed at how easy that was. I remembered when physically manipulating snow and ice had been difficult, even exhausting. Now it was…simple. It was barely harder to do it than to think about it. The hard part was just getting it exactly right, since I had only a vague sense of what I was doing. I had a vague impression of where the snow was, but I couldn’t actually see it. While it had gotten easy to do, I still couldn’t multitask well enough to do it and also process input from animals for my vision.
They started walking in my direction, though, splitting off from the rest. I wasn’t entirely sure how much of that was luck and how much was my intervention. It didn’t really matter.
It took a few minutes for them to reach me. They were moving fairly slowly. I wasn’t surprised by that. It would have been odd for them to move quickly, in that context.
I’d spent a fair amount of time, over the past week, thinking about how to handle this conversation. I hadn’t come up with much. There were some things you couldn’t say well. I could have tried some kind of clever way of getting at it, but that had never really worked out for me. So in the end, I’d settled on the direct approach.
Aiko didn’t look surprised when I stepped out in front of her. Snowflake didn’t either, although she did at least look upset.
“Hi,” I said.
“You have three seconds to explain before I kill you,” Aiko said. Her voice was calm and cheerful, and she had a quiet half-smile playing about her lips. She didn’t sound like she was joking.
“I’m only mostly dead,” I said hastily.
“That’s funny,” she said. She had that same half-smile, the same joking tone, but there was something underneath that wasn’t funny at all. I had seldom, if ever, gotten that much of a feeling of intensity from Aiko. “Because they shipped your body back to us in pieces. I just finished putting it in the ground, in fact.”
“I know,” I said. “I was watching.”
“Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?” she said. “So maybe, if you’re so magnificently well-informed, you can explain to me how it is that you’re still up and walking when your body is really most sincerely dead.”
Rather than answer, I held up my hand, and stopped concentrating on it.
The illusion of flesh faded, revealing what was underneath. The basic structure was ice, with here and there a bit of bone. The “meat” was packed snow, and it was all held together with shadows.
She stared for a second, then said, “Oh.” That mocking little grin was gone.
“Fenris saved me, at the very end,” I said quietly. “But his options for doing so were…limited. He couldn’t get me out as what I was. So he took my…essence, or soul, or whatever word you want to use for it.”
“Your heart,” she said. “It was missing.”
I nodded. “The heart isn’t important, really. But it’s a symbol.” I resumed concentrating, and my hand took on the appearance of a hand. Skin, with flesh and blood and bone underneath. It was an imperfect mask, at best. Apparently that was another thing I’d get better at, as time went on. “He held me together long enough for me to learn how to do it myself. Apparently I can’t go back to my original body, so I put this together instead.”
“And why did you not contact me about any of this?”
I snorted. “Maybe because I was ripped apart down to my soul, and it turns out that coming back from that is actually pretty hard? It wasn’t until yesterday I even figured out how to walk.”
“It’s really you,” she said quietly.
“Yeah. It really is.”
Aiko was silent for about half a second after that. Then she tackled me to the ground, squeezing as tightly as she could. Snowflake pounced a second later, licking my face and wagging her tail and generally seeming much more doglike than usual in her excitement. She hadn’t said a word so far, but now that she was opening her mind to me I could feel her relief, so raw and intense it was almost painful.
It was a bit of a challenge to hold myself together. Snow wasn’t naturally good at holding up under pressure, and it was hard to force things against their nature. It wasn’t a huge problem; this body was a convenience, more than a necessity, and if it were broken I could easily make another. But I figured that hugging me until I crumbled would probably not a great first experience after hearing that I wasn’t quite dead after all.
They didn’t let me up for a solid minute. When they finally did, I sat up, surreptitiously fluffing the snow back out and freezing the cracked ice together again. Once I tugged the casual clothes I’d stolen back into place, I looked as good as new.
“I was expecting it to be harder to convince you,” I commented. “I mean, I was ready to spend an hour exchanging passwords and doing proof of identity stuff.”
Aiko shook her head. “I’d have known if you were lying.”
I paused. “How?”
“Um,” she said uncomfortably. “That’s a long story.”
“I’ve got some time,” I said dryly.
“Well, here’s the thing,” she said. “When I thought those fuckers had killed you, I wasn’t about to let them get away with it. But if they’d taken you down that easily, I needed a hell of a lot more power to beat them.”
“Makes sense,” I said. I’d have been getting a sinking feeling in my guts, if I had any. I’d always known that Aiko might do something reckless if something bad happened to me. I just hadn’t expected to be around to deal with the consequences afterward.
“I didn’t have all that many options for how to get it,” she said. “But…you remember what Scáthach said? About how I had the potential to take her role?”
“I thought we arranged for her to die in a way that that couldn’t happen.”
“Turns out she wasn’t actually dead,” Aiko said. “She just really wished she was. Anyway, I figured that would be enough power to make a decent try at it. So I looked into it, and…well…the position was still open.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said slowly. “I’m a partially disembodied entity that might be transforming into some sort of deity of cold and predation. And you’re the Maiden of the Midnight Court, the youngest Queen of the Unseelie Sidhe.”
“That sounds about right,” she said.
I sighed. “We are so utterly fucked,” I said.
She shrugged. “We’re alive,” she said. “So I figure we’re doing all right.”
“True enough,” I said. “Well, are you about done here? It sounds like I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”
You have no idea, Snowflake said, butting her head against my thigh. Let’s go home.