Life went on as normal—almost as if the demonic invasion had been some kind of bizarre dream.
Johanna still bought cookies every other day, Rolenta went back to heckling Schmitz near-constantly, the younger knights continually caused trouble, and the sun rose and fell. The nightmare had ended, and the world pushed on as though forcing itself to forget.
But the traces still lingered.
Josef was having trouble getting used to his new post. After all, the Grand Marshal’s shoes were big ones to fill. Technically, he was still just a general, and no new Grand Marshal had been chosen (although all of them had the feeling they knew who the king would pick), but being put in command of the entire Second Order was an awfully big leap.
The prince—their beloved prince, loud-mouthed and spoiled and constantly angry as he might have been—no longer strode up and down the halls any longer. In his place, a girl with hair the color of the midday sky now stood at the king’s side—acting as a guard, providing smart remarks, proving more a windstorm than a breath of fresh air in the courts, and generally irritating Alighierie.
The scars of the land had vanished, and the scars of the people were ignored—but they hadn’t yet disappeared entirely.
Diora sat on the side of the bridge, cross-legged and facing out over the water, repeatedly flexing her fingers; her green eyes were very distant. So much so that when Bergmann saw her there, crossed to her vantage point in a light jog, and sat down next to her, he still had to rest his arm around her shoulders for her to even notice he was there.
Even then, she only gave him a cursory glance before going back to frowning out over the water and flexing her hand softly, folding her fingers in one by one and then loosening them all in a stilted movement.
“It’s pretty hard to get used to again, huh.”
Her eyes flicked towards him, and then down to her hand.
“Honestly, this is a pain. I never thought I’d wind up this uncomfortable in my own skin.” She sighed. “Not having a body was annoying enough—not being connected to anything at all, you know what I’m talking about.”
He did, and he felt the same way—it really did seem like a nightmare in the light of day, but when it was dark outside and he was lying on his bunk, his soul recalled the feeling of floating like a dandelion spore on the wind, of knowing everything that was him might blow apart like a dandelion spore, too. Only the mark of the king on his being had rooted him here.
He dreamed—and so must many of the others—of that possibility more nights than he didn’t. And he did his best not to think of what might have happened to them all if the king’s new problem child of an angel hadn’t restored them to their bodies once everything was over.
And yet, there were times when it felt like his soul had grown too large, too used to spreading itself out, to truly become used to being flesh-bound anymore. As if he’d been jammed into his body wrong, and couldn’t quite get it to fit right anymore.
It was a feeling like trying to move your fingers when they were especially cold or numb—only by seeing them move could you be sure that they were doing anything. Not exactly a loss of sensation, but a loss of connection, maybe.
Bergmann closed his eyes and rested his cheek against Diora’s hair. “Yeah, I’ve got you.”
“People say ‘it’s good to be alive’ and you just can’t help but want to say ‘but are we really?’ right back at them.” She sighed, and beneath his arm, her chest rose and then fell, making the top of her breast brush against his palm. He followed it down with his hand.
And waited, but there was no swift retribution, so he opened his eyes to look down at her. Instead of staring absently out over the water, she’d closed her own eyes and had her head tilted slightly.
“I’d’ve thought that you’d be yelling at me by now, actually.”
“Mm, I’m just wondering whether to let you follow up on it or flip you into the river, give me a minute or two.”
He jolted a little as his heart jumped unpleasantly in his chest, then started laughing, tightening the hold of his arm but not his hand; Diora’s shoulder butted against his ribcage as she wound his arm around his waist and gripped. “Well, lemme know when you decide, all right? Either way, I guess you’ll be reminding me what this being alive thing is supposed to feel like.”
She laughed, too, and a few minutes later, her arm gave a sharp jerk—he saw the sky, and the sky reflected on the water, and there was a sharp slap as he hit its surface, a deep coldness and wetness that communicated his own shape through and through his skin and his nerves, down to his burning lungs.
He surfaced in time to see Diora jump, and got a spray of water in the face when her body slipped through the thin borderline of water and air.
It was hard to laugh and tread water and breathe all at once, but he made a clumsy attempt at it, and he and Diora splashed and fought like children, like war veterans, in broad strokes like a blind painter feeling out her canvas.
And that night, as on every other night, they fumbled towards unison, the beads of sweat tracing along her dark skin and the cling of his short hair to his cheeks and the awkward interlocking of their bodies a steady and consistent groping to remember—to judge by the boundaries of each other’s forms what their own must be—to push and struggle back towards their original shape, the way things were meant to have been.