“You're dead,” Harrowhark said, blinking her eyes open.
“Yeah, I know,” said Gideon Nav, stretched out above her in the dark. “I was there.”
Gideon did not look dead. She did not feel dead. Her knees were a warm pressure straddling Harrow's hips; the muscles stood out in her arms in the same distinct cords as she had borne in life. Her hair was the same flourish of living incongruous russet, the only color there had ever been in Drearbruh. Her face was marked with the paint that she had worn so resentfully, done half-assed as she did everything except for the things that mattered. Her breath brushed Harrow's face, bare of paint to sleep.
“You're a dream,” Harrow said. “Or a hallucination.”
“Sure, probably,” Gideon said. “I'm flattered, though.” She lowered her unliving, breathing face to kiss Harrow's throat, wet lips and a sloppy lap of tongue. “I am pretty dreamy.”
“You are a nightmare, Nav,” Harrow said, out of the sheer accumulated habit of eighteen years, ignoring the heat that flared under her skin. Then Gideon kissed her neck again, and the heat kept blooming under Gideon's touch, insistent and insidious. “What are you doing?”
Gideon raised her head, followed by her eyebrows. “Well, Harrow, sometimes, when two people hate each other very, very much –”
Harrow, having no better way to shut Gideon up without a skeleton to hand, grabbed at her hair and yanked. This backfired, because, Gideon being a notorious pervert, she only let out a pornographic moan and threw her head back into the pressure of Harrow's arm. It made her throat fill Harrow's vision: the sharp pull of the tendon leading from her shoulders up, the lazily-smudged edge of black paint under her chin. Harrow gave in to temptation and vague thoughts of reciprocity – as if that were possible anymore, as if it had ever been possible, as if she would not live ten thousand immortal years and never make a dent in her debt to Gideon Nav – and fastened her mouth against the brown flash of Gideon's skin. Gideon's neck tasted of salt and not of bone, and the ghost or dream of Gideon moaned again under Harrow's teeth, sparking warmth deep in Harrow's gut. Harrow had never set her mouth on another human being since she was weaned.
“There we go,” Gideon breathed, as she should not have been able to do, when Harrow at last pulled back. She still had her hand in Gideon's hair, which was not new in itself – she had pulled Gideon's hair often as children, before she was crushed by the dignity of the Ninth House and rebuilt herself to sway under its weight – but her hand was cupping Gideon's head now, caressing her scalp, finding the ridge at the back of her head where skull met spine. “So, are you going to let me get in your robes, Nonagesimus?”
“Why are you here?” Harrow asked, voice tiny in the dark. “Why is this happening?”
“What, nobody ever gave you that talk? Your body changes as you get older, and your dreams –”
“Are you ever serious about anything?” Harrow asked the woman who had gone wisecracking into her own death. “Why are you here, Griddle? Why am I seeing you? Are you real?”
“I don't know, you tell me,” Gideon said, shrugging in a way that made her shoulder blades surge under the worn fabric of her shirt. “You're the one who grew up reading dusty old books, I had cooler things to do. I'm here now." Her fingers traced Harrow's neck, toying with the edge of Harrow's nightgown. "Look, I know you've never done this before, but usually you save the pillow talk for after –”
“As if you're not every inch the virgin I am, Nav, I was the only other soul in Drearbruh –” Technically there had been Ortus, but Harrowhark knew Gideon, had known her even before Gideon offered up her flesh and her soul into Harrow's keeping, had known her like she would never know anyone else in her life, and more relevantly to the current point also knew all the exports in and out of the Ninth House, and thus knew damn well that Gideon's painstakingly-amassed collection of pornography was strictly, as the woman herself would put it, titty-oriented.
(Even more technically, there had been the aunts. But, well.)
“You don't know what I was doing while you were sneaking around in the basement,” Gideon said, and Harrowhark experienced a blindingly potent wish that she had killed Cytherea the First more slowly. Then Gideon laughed, her hands moving in a slow and unsubtle slide up Harrow's thighs. “Don't worry, I didn't actually hook up with the necrosaint," she said. "I mean, unless you count right now.”
“You are insufferable,” Harrow said, “you are a disgrace –” and then her voice cracked, because the truth had shaped itself in her mouth at the edge of death and made her mouth no home for the old contempt, because Gideon was dead, who had been Harrow's other half. “You're not a disgrace, Griddle. I'm sorry. You're insufferable, but you're not a disgrace –”
“I know,” Gideon said gently, stroking Harrow's hair back from her face. “I know. I remember.” And then, softly, “Thank you.”
And then, into the quiet, because she was Gideon, she said: “So, I need a yes or no here, Nonagesimus, are you letting me make a woman out of you? Because, I know, one flesh, one end, blah blah, but I still feel like I need your permission before I get all up in the flesh that started out as yours. Which sucks, by the way, I haven't gotten off since I died –”
“No one has orgasms after they're dead, Griddle, that's a universal problem –”
“Yes or no, bitch, stop blue-balling me here.”
Harrow closed her eyes. “Yes. Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, it could never be anything but yes –”
“Sweet,” Gideon said, and dove underneath the folds of Harrow's nightgown.
Her hands were a warm and live and steady pressure on Harrow's thighs, rough with dry skin and the thousand calluses of two well-practiced swords, and she spread Harrow's legs apart as if Harrow weighed no more than her bones. The touch of her breath made Harrow shiver; then it was her thumbs coaxing Harrow's folds apart, tantalizing and sweet, and then she got her mouth on Harrow's clit and sucked like she was trying to commit an act of cannibalism.
“Augaughaughaugh!” Harrow yelped as several thousand nerves skipped right past pleasure and into tingling electric-shock pain. “Stop, stop, how do you have anything left down there if you like it that rough –”
“Shut up,” Gideon said, extremely muffled, and licked a lingering slow apologetic line up the opening of Harrow's cunt. “How's that, are you happy now?”
“Better,” Harrow allowed, and ruined all pretense of nonchalance by whimpering when Gideon did it again. This lit her up, each long slow exploratory stroke of Gideon's tongue, and she buried her hands in the brilliance of Gideon's hair again and gave herself over to Gideon's mouth. Her entire world narrowed to Gideon's breath, to the flickering pressure as Gideon licked each fold and crevice of her skin: a delicate tracing tongue-tip, the broad flat pressure of her whole tongue, the warm embrace of her lips fitting over Harrow's cunt and sucking (far more gently) in. This time, when she mouthed at the swollen shape of Harrow's clit, Harrow was ready, and the lightning flash along her nerves was welcome and glorious.
“Better,” she panted out again, “better – keep going –” Gideon did, and Harrow buried her fingers in Gideon's hair and rocked her hips up in Gideon's face, chasing the intensity of her mouth, the glimpse of satisfaction that stoked her hunger higher. And Gideon gave her what she wanted, for the first time in history (for the second time in their history, one flesh, one end, and Gideon's lips against her nose, an ally out of the desolation of the Ninth House). Gideon buried her face in Harrow's cunt without apparent need to breathe and worked her over until at last Harrow couldn't think anymore, until her eyes rolled back in her head and her feet curled into the sheets and she came with a sound like it was punched out of her.
She slumped back against the bed, panting. Gideon flicked her tongue at Harow's clit again, and Harrow jerked back, leg spasming helplessly against the mattress. Gideon did it again, and again Harrow convulsed, as helpless under Gideon's tongue as a skeleton under Harrow's own will.
Gideon did it a third time, and Harrow kicked her in the shoulder.
“Ow, since when do you have leg muscles,” Gideon said, lifting her head, but she was laughing, as she had never laughed when she knew that Harrow was there to hear it. Gideon had probably laughed for Cytherea-as-Dulcinea, like that, and she had sounded a little like that when she laughed at her own jokes, when she fought her duels in the training grounds of the Ninth House and made smart remarks to an unappreciative Aiglamene, and Harrow overheard them as she walked her House alone. Gideon sounded happy, truly happy, with her head buried between Harrow's legs, and Harrow's heart was close to cracking. Gideon's facepaint was smeared from the nose down into a swirl of white and black and sticky translucence: a skull with the jaw lost, a smiling girl dissolving into a corpse. Harrow could restore a jaw, at least, for all the good that did her.
“Thank you, Gideon, for the first orgasm of my whole life, I don't know what I would have done without you to show me the ways of sex –”
“It was not,” Harrow tried to say, and absolutely failed, rasping out an incoherent vowel that Gideon absolutely ignored, although, to be fair, she ignored most of the words that actually came out of Harrow's mouth in any case.
“Super glad I came back for this,” Gideon was saying, and levered herself off the bed, and before Harrow could begin to think she had her hands clasped around Gideon's wrists.
“Don't,” she said, and then, attempting the hauteur of the Ninth House at possibly the worst time of her life to do it, “I – I forbid you to go. I command you to stay.” Her voice cracked on the last. “Stay.”
“Okay,” Gideon said, “okay,” and her fingers clasped Harrow's back, for just a second. “Okay, I'll stay.”
Harrow clung to her cavalier's wrist in the darkness of the Emperor's ship, listening to the engines hum, and felt heat under her fingers but no pulse, hyperaware of the tenderness between her legs and the stinging at the corners of her eyes.
“So,” Gideon said, “am I going to get mine, or what?”
“Fine,” Harrow said, rolling her eyes, because graciousness was not and never had been one of the powers of a Lyctor, especially not when that Lyctor's powers were the combined powers of this particular generation of the Ninth House. “What do you –” She was interrupted by Gideon's pants flying across the room, hitting the cabin wall with an unshadelike thwack. The mattress, finely made, did not creak when Gideon flung herself back onto it in a flash of well-toned legs. Harrow had a brief moment to wonder if Gideon's underwear had gone flying along with her pants, if it had been left out of this dream-hallucination entirely, had simply never been worn – underthings had been part of Gideon's allotment as a bondswoman of the Ninth House and had come in her luggage to Canaan, but that, Harrow supposed, was no guarantee that Gideon actually wore the things – and then the question left Harrow's mind entirely, because Gideon was straddling Harrow's face, her knees brushing Harrow's unpainted cheeks and her cunt bright and wet and shining. The hair between her legs was a few shades darker than her face, and thick, and she was wet enough for strands of it to stick flat to her skin.
“Go on,” Gideon said, “I don't have, like, teeth down there,” and Harrow said, “Shut up,” and leaned in, and touched the tip of her tongue uncertainly to her cavalier's dead cunt.
Gideon tasted salty and sour in a way that Harrow wanted to taste again, possibly for the rest of her life, although the hair ticked against her nose. She worked her tongue inside Gideon, finding her slick and hot, and promptly discovered her tongue was not nearly as long as she had thought it was. She went back instead to the long licks that had worked so well on her, starting at the base of Gideon's opening and working her way up, and – there would be a clitoris somewhere around here, surely. It wasn't like Harrow could see anything this close, everything gone out of focus. (Grudgingly, she afforded Gideon a few points for finding her target so early, before). She worked Gideon's folds open, searching, and suddenly Gideon doubled over and a dull thud echoed through the cabin – Gideon's hand slamming into the wall. Harrow worked her tongue where it had been, finding a tiny swollen shape, and Gideon swore so loudly that Harrow half-expected someone else to interrupt the dream to complain.
This wasn't how she had wanted this to happen, in the few moments she had allowed herself to want it to happen. She wanted to hold Gideon down in the hands of a thousand skeletons and explore each muscle and callus at Harrow's teasing leisure. She wanted to shove her whole hand inside Gideon's cunt, up to her narrow wrist, and make Gideon scream and beg for more and mercy until the sound of it filled up the stars. She wanted, horrifyingly and inarguably, to take Gideon into her own bed at the Ninth and work a hand between her cavalier's legs with their foreheads pressed together so she could feel Gideon's living breath against her lips, to she could watch Gideon's eyes lose focus and hear Gideon promise: one flesh, one end, you will never have to be alone. That want was the second-worst thing that had ever happened to her.
Harrow, facing a future without Gideon Nav, clung to Gideon's hips and ate out her oldest friend and ignored the tears leaking from the corners of her eyes, and at the unavoidable and traitorous forefront of her heart, she wished she had let Gideon board shuttle to the Cohort any one of those thirty-three times, and let the Ninth House fall and Gideon live.
At last Gideon's swearing reached an incoherent crescendo, her hand slamming again into the wall, and her body pulsed against Harrow's tongue. Harrow pressed her whole mouth to the rolling muscle like she could swallow the memory of it, and a wet sputter fell across her cheek. Gideon's panting filled the room; the tide of obscenity had stopped, for the moment.
“Kindly get off my face now,” Harrow said, muffled, with curls of red hair slightly up her nose.
“Way to ruin the afterglow,” Gideon groused. Her voice was hoarse and a little breathy, and it sent another thrill down Harrow's exhausted spine and into the exposed places of her heart. But she did climb off of Harrow's head, falling limp again onto the mattress. Harrow grabbed for her, catching hold of an elbow and clinging tight.
“That's an elbow,” said Gideon helpfully.
“I'm aware,” Harrow said, attempting to sound like a sudden interest in Gideon's elbows was the most natural thing in the universe.
“Cool, just, uh, checking.” Gideon rolled her head sideways, paint still a ruin around the insolent shape of her mouth, though it wasn't especially insolent now. “I gotta go back, pretty soon, I think. Wherever I go. Ow. Not, like, right this second, that hurts.”
Harrow reluctantly loosened her grip on Gideon's arm. “I suppose my exercises are doing something,” she said, since grip strength was not among the skills sought out by ordinary necromancers, and then her face crumpled horrifically and she had to screw her eyes shut, because the exercises –
“Hey,” Gideon said, galaxies of discomfort packed into the word. “Hey now, hey.” Her thumb brushed at the corners of Harrow's eyes. “You're going to be fine.”
“Why?” Harrow demanded, swatting at her hand. "Why did you..."
“Oh, come on.” Gideon turned her head away, suddenly intrigued by the invisible shape of Harrow's ceiling in the dark.
For the Ninth. Sometimes Harrow thought if she stared into her own eyes she might find those words written on the iris, in the place where amber-gold bled into brown. (Did she have Gideon's eyes blotting her own, in this dream? She hadn't hallucinated up a mirror). “You hated the Ninth,” she said. “You –” Harrow had roughly five thousand speeches to draw upon regarding everything that Gideon Nav hated about the Ninth, reasons ranging from its population to its lack of sunlight to the fact that 'nine is the worst number,' and yet she opened her mouth and said, “You hated the Ninth because the Ninth never wanted you.”
Gideon only shrugged, not turning her head from the void above them. “Yeah, well. Whatever.”
“You're the Ninth. Asswipe.”
Harrow's vision blotted and blurred, and Gideon rolled over and kissed her, messy lips to messy lips, long and tender and slow.
“I can't be the Ninth alone,” Harrow said. “I need you. I always did.”
“You'll be fine,” Gideon said. “One end. I'm not really gone till you forget me, and I'm pretty unforgettable.” She bent her head again, her lips soft on Harrow's mouth, rich with the animal taste of them both, and Harrowhark slipped out of hallucination, out of dream, and into sleep with no one in it.
When she woke, the gray dust of cremain and bone was caked on her face, on her hands, dry and appalling on her tongue and smeared across her thighs from crotch to knee. Traces of paint mingled in the dust.