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...and a partridge in a pear tree

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on the twelfth day of christmas...

“That’s disgusting,” said Harrow. A beat passed. “Give me that.” 

Gideon offered her cigarette wordlessly. Harrow snatched it immediately and put it to her chapped lips. She took the longest drag Gideon had ever seen, eyes falling shut as she savored the rush of nicotine. 

“Coming up for air anytime soon?” Asked Gideon. 

Harrow’s eyes flew open. She fixed Gideon with that needle sharp glare of hers and released a cloud of smoke, blowing it directly into Gideon’s face. 

Gideon found it much hotter than she should have. 

“I hate this,” muttered Harrow. With a flick of her finger, she sent an arc of burning ash spiraling down toward the sidewalk. Gideon’s gaze followed the embers, if only because it was better to watch it drown in a small puddle than to linger on Harrow’s cold-bitten cheeks. 

“You could always buy your own cigarettes,” said Gideon conversationally. And then, because the interaction was getting too civil for comfort, she tacked a halfhearted, “Dickhead,” onto the end. 

Harrow rolled her eyes and leaned back against the stone wall behind them. Bundled up in her winter coat, she looked like a tiny black marshmallow. As far as Novembers went, it hadn’t been the worst Gideon had ever dealt with, but skin-and-bones Harrow ran cold. She had topped the ensemble off with a dark scarf that could have very well been a blanket for her small stature. 

She should have worn a hat. The thought came unbidden to Gideon as she traced the shell of Harrow’s ear with her gaze, the skin between piercings gone pink with cold. 

“Not the cigarettes,” responded Harrow. She gestured to the parking lot with the cigarette and said, tone locked and loaded, “ That.”

Gideon didn’t have to look to know what she was talking about. The mall’s back parking lot, normally abandoned except for junkies doing heroin and teenagers dumpster diving behind the Sephora, was jam-packed. If someone couldn’t find a parking spot, they made one. In the ten minutes that Gideon had been out here chain-smoking through her break to cope with the trauma of Black Friday weekend, she had been witness to three near-collisions. One woman had backed into a tree, then torn away through the parking lot with a tree branch hanging from her bumper. Maybe if Gideon was really lucky, one of them would hit her and put her out of her misery. 

At her side, Harrow shivered. Gideon reached over and slipped the cigarette from her hand, because if she didn’t have something to do with her hands or her mouth, she was gong to do or say something stupid. She pulled a drag from the cigarette and then (because she hadn’t been raised by feral wolves) politely released the smoke away from Harrow’s face. 

“Gotta love Cyber Monday though.” 

Harrow’s eye twitched. It could have been anything, but Gideon, who had worked in the store opposite Harrow’s Hot Topic for a couple years now, was well versed in the many micro-expressions of Harrowhark Nonagesimus. That was the eye twitch of someone who had been chasing down mobile orders all day and wanted very, very badly to hurt someone because of it. 

The cigarette was still in Gideon’s mouth when Harrow stole it again, reaching over and plucking it from between Gideon’s lips as if she hadn’t been, you know, using it. It was another one of those things that Gideon found hotter than she should have. The list was getting embarrassingly long these days. 

“At least nobody got hurt this year, right?” Gideon didn’t know what in the shadowy, overcrowded annals of Hot Topic could incite a couple of upper middle class white women into an all out brawl , and she probably never would. Harrow didn’t really like talking about The Black Friday Incident of 2018. All Gideon knew was that someone had been taken out on a stretcher. 

“It’s not too late for that,” said Harrow ominously. Gideon didn’t know if that meant that she was ready to hang herself, Gideon, or a customer from one of the upper clothing racks. “Has Sextus spoken to you about his—”

The tinny, cacophonous ringing of a phone cut her off. Harrow’s face drew darker than the skies overhead; she pulled her phone from her pocket and stared at it. Gideon half expected the screen to break with the weight of her glare. “They can’t do anything on their own,” Harrow muttered with the same exasperation of a long-suffering parent who hadn’t taken a piss alone in literal years. “Morons.” And the less-affectionate exasperation of a manager who hadn’t taken an uninterrupted break in just as long. 

Suddenly, Gideon realized the true target of Harrow’s ire: seasonal employees.

After sucking down the remaining half of the cigarette, Harrow stubbed it out on the side of the building and handed the butt back to Gideon. 

“Um, gross. What am I supposed to do with your trash?” 

“Choke on it,” was Harrow’s only response. Again — Unfortunately Hot.

...my true love gave to me,

Black Friday had come and gone, that frenzied period of madness that sent droves of people out into the world ready to throw down over an Instant Pot. For the Spencer’s that Gideon had worked in for longer than she wanted to admit, the damage this year had been: a mountain of unfolded T-shirts that towered so high Gideon wanted to weep blood, twelve broken shot glasses, three stolen vibrators, and one eye nearly lost to a lightsaber in the hands of a twelve year old. 

Bright side: the lightsaber had left Gideon a pretty impressive shiner that had garnered the sympathy of a number of cute girls. Corona, who worked at the noxious smelling pretzel stand in the food court, had even thrown in an extra cinnamon pretzel for Gideon “on the house”. Gideon had taken a bite, chewed through the pain, and dumped it in the trash as soon as she had been out of sight. 

Camilla was unmoved. 

“You look better this way,” she said from her perch on the checkout counter — definitely not allowed, but Gideon couldn’t bring herself to care. She was going to town on a pile of T-shirts with a folding table, pristinely folding shirts with laser-fast precision. 

“Funny,” said Gideon, breaking her motion only to stop and take a sip from the coffee Camilla had brought with her. Gideon’s was a monstrosity of espresso, chocolate, peppermint, coconut, salted caramel, and of course, sugar. Camilla, like any seasoned barista, took hers black. “Harrow said the same thing.”

Camilla paused. “Did she?” She asked in a voice so perfectly level that Gideon couldn’t help but turn to look at her. 

She looked only half as tired as Gideon felt, probably because she had spent Black Friday weekend throwing back shots of espresso between customers. Befriending Camilla, who would run her coffee on lunches and breaks and after shifts, was probably the best choice Gideon had made since starting this job. Much better than fighting the five foot nothing goblin that ran the Hot Topic across the hall. 

“Yeah?” Said Gideon, like it was obvious. “I’m sure her only regret is that she didn’t put it there herself.”

“Who could blame her,” drawled Camilla. She took a sip of her coffee and watched as Gideon furiously folded T-shirts. It was the middle of the day on a Tuesday, and the store was finally, blissfully quiet. Just Gideon and a couple of the newbies, and hardly a single customer in sight. Only a handful of people had walked into the store for the first hour of her shift, and Gideon had wept. 

After a few moments of near-silence had passed — the drone of mid-2000s pop punk never really stopped, and now it was littered with emo Christmas covers — Camilla said, “I thought you two were getting along better?”

Gideon laughed. And laughed. When her stomach hurt too much to laugh much more, she wiped the tears from her eyes with a Nirvana T-shirt and said, “Oh, you were serious?”

Camilla shrugged. “You two were getting along just fine on Halloween.”

“Yeah. There was candy. And substances to abuse.” 

“And Friendsgiving.” 

Pie and substances to abuse.” Gideon half heartedly folded a T-shirt that she was half certain didn’t even belong to the store. “She hates me.”

And it was true. 

Gideon didn’t even know why or when it had started, but she and Harrow had hated each other for pretty much the entire time that they shared their little strip of the mall. Gideon had been a dick, or Harrow had been a dick, and they had been sworn enemies. They didn’t work together, but it was impossible to avoid each other; Gideon could see directly into the Hot Topic Harrow tyrannized across the hall. It didn’t help that they ran in the same circles. Almost three years they had spent cursing each other out in hallways, on smoke breaks, in the food court, at friends’ parties. Gideon lived for the day when Harrow would quit or be fired or die a hideous death, crushed beneath an avalanche of Funko Pops, and she had no doubt that Harrow felt the same about her. 

So what if they had started taking smoke breaks together? So what if Harrow had helped her fold shirts just last week, in a store she didn’t even work in? So what if Harrow had laughed as the two of them did Jagerbombs at Palamedes’ Halloween party, the glint of her fake fangs flashing invitingly in the orange party lights? They hated each other. The two of them would both work in the mall until one of them inevitably strangled the other with her bare hands, and Gideon wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Except that lately, Gideon had started to like Harrow. 

Like, like like Harrow.

It was a real pain in the ass. 

“She doesn’t hate you.” Camilla rolled her dark eyes. She had a way of speaking that made everything seem so obvious. “You’re the only person who can make her laugh,” said Camilla, a direct shot to Gideon’s heart. 

It was a cute laugh, too. More of a snicker, and one that she would hide with a turn of her head, one corner of her mouth quirked higher than the other, and Gideon needed to stop thinking about this right now. 

“At my misfortune,” Gideon said, because although Camilla was her best friend, she sure as shit was not going to admit that she had the beginnings of a crush on someone who she had once referred to as a rat-faced carrion queen. “She’d still pick the eyeballs from my skull and eat them in a martini given the chance. We’re not going to be friends.” 

Camilla’s nose wrinkled. “Gross, Nav,” she said. She took a long sip from her coffee, and then said, “Stranger things have happened.”

Gideon looked down at the Stranger Things shirt she had been folding, and then smacked her with it. 

twelve drummers drumming,

“Okay,” Palamedes said, pushing his glasses up his nose, “That’s enough.” 

Gideon bit off the final word of a laundry list of favors — personal, financial, illegal, sexual — that she was willing to trade for the folded scrap of paper in her hand. She leaned against the Barnes & Noble check out counter, a gossip magazine that she was ostensibly purchasing rolled into a tight cylinder in her hand. She hadn’t quite descended to physical threats, but it was nice to have a weapon if she did. It was also a convenient excuse to hold up the line. 

“Sex Pal — Palamedes ,” Gideon said, hitting the rock bottom of desperation, “I can’t.

Palamedes sighed. Gideon had cornered him during a fairly quiet lull in business, but there was still a line slowly forming between the racks of chocolates and bookmarks strategically placed before the check out counter. Gideon, well versed in zoning out the incessant bitching of customers, had no problem ignoring the small queue of customers grumbling behind her. She was too busy holding Palamedes hostage by opening up an account at a painstakingly slow rate, forking over almost thirty dollars of her hard earned cash for a magazine, a membership she would never use, and a reason to talk to him about the dire situation at hand. 

“Gideon,” said Palamedes with the patience of the saint he had undoubtedly been in his past life, “the rules are the rules. It wouldn’t be fair if I changed them just for you. In a well ordered society—”

“It’s not a well ordered society. ” Gideon knew where that was going, and if Palamedes didn’t have the time to indulge her before a riot broke out amongst the customers idling between stanchions, he certainly didn’t have the time for an extended philosophical lecture about law and justice. She headed him off by slapping a slip of paper onto the counter and saying, “It’s secret santa.”  

And there lay the source of all of her problems: handwritten in a script so neat and precise it could have been printed, Harrowhark Nonagesimus. 

After a white elephant exchange that had devolved into physical violence at Palamedes’ last holiday party, the group of regulars that piled into his apartment for special occasions had almost unanimously voted to return to the classic gift exchange. With Palamedes’ perfect handwriting staring menacingly up at her, Gideon figured the casual violence was worth it. She would dodge Corona’s ringed fingers all night if it meant she didn’t have to buy a gift for Harrow, of all fucking people. 

“Well, technically—”

“Yeah yeah, non-denominational holiday whatever,” Gideon said, entering her email address incorrectly for the fourth time. “Call it what you want, but we both know what this— ” she jabbed an accusatory finger at the scrap of paper “—is.” 

The final nail in her coffin, that’s what it fucking was. Gideon would do anything — literally anything — to pull a different name. Not a single Black Friday she had ever experienced could possibly compare to the agony of having to buy a gift for Harrow. 

“If it makes you feel better,” said Palamedes, relaunching the membership application again after rejecting the email address boobsrus69@homail.com , “you aren’t the only one who wants to switch.”

“I will switch with them,” said Gideon automatically. “I will do anything. I would rather hang myself from the rafters with Christmas lights than be her secret santa. I would rather eat a whole pan of Corona’s nasty ass fruitcake. I would rather—”

“Would you rather buy a gift for Silas?”

Gideon faltered. Palamedes looked at her earnestly from his ivory tower, as if that was any kind of choice. Gideon had no clue when or why the holier-than-thou Apple employee had been brought into their fold, but she had hoped that the holiday season would chew him up and spit him out far, far away from her little rag-tag group. It had seemed promising when he abstained from Palamedes’ Halloween party on some kind of spiritual grounds, but all of Gideon’s hopes and dreams had been dashed to pieces when he showed up to Friendsgiving with a turkey made out of tofu. 

Gideon had nearly flipped the table. And then she had spent half of the night drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and bitching with Harrow on the cramped fire escape. 

Pushing that thought aside (her only option if she wanted to beat the flush creeping up her neck), Gideon considered. She had a sneaking suspicion that Silas lived like a twelfth century monk with an iPhone 11. The only things she could think of were AirPods or a hair shirt and a whip to flagellate himself with. The latter was much closer to the twenty five dollar limit… 

Gideon curled her fingers reluctantly around the slip of paper on the counter. When the membership application popped up again, she entered her actual email with a sense of defeat. 

“I thought you two were getting along better,” said Palamedes as he rang her up, and Gideon wanted to laugh hysterically because, yeah, that was the fucking problem. They were getting along just fine. In fact, Gideon wanted to get along even better, and instead of buying Harrow a bag of coal and telling her to go fuck herself like she would have last year, Gideon had to find something that she might actually like. 

“Like a forest fire,” said Gideon dryly. Palamedes passed her the receipt and a membership card, of which the only thing of even remote importance to Gideon was the buy-one-cookie-get-one-free coupon dangling from the end of the receipt like the entrails of a wounded animal. She crumpled up everything but the coupon and said, “Destroying everything in our path.” 

She left Barnes and Noble even more dejected than she had been when she entered, her only consolation the BOGO cookies from the store cafe. 

eleven pipers piping,

Gideon spent the next day scouring her entire store for something that Harrow might even remotely like. 

It was the easy way out. She had an employee discount and this time of year, she was spending every waking moment either at work or on the way to work, and besides — everyone did it. Palamedes had brought a book to white elephant every year. It had been quite effective last year, when things had started to go airborne. Gideon herself normally brought some kind of gag gift from the store; shot glasses, novelty merchandise, party supplies… on one memorable occasion, a vibrator… 

Gideon wasn’t about to pull that shit with Harrow, though— not if she wanted to keep her organs inside her body, at least. She eyed every item she rang up, hoping the perfect gift idea would just fall onto the scanner. She picked up a skull-shaped shot glass and put it down, unfolded and folded a couple of T-shirts for bands that Harrow liked. Nothing seemed right. 

Heaving a dramatic sigh, Gideon spun the body jewelry rack for what felt like the fifteenth time. She normally sent confused partners to the back of the store, where one could find all kinds of single and multiplayer gift ideas, but Gideon would rather douse herself in gasoline and self immolate in the middle of the mall than try to connect the dots between that and Harrow. 

She spun the rack a sixteenth time, as if that would make a difference. On the other side of the check out counter, Isaac, the only seasonal hire with half a brain, had practically gnawed his own lip off. He fiddled with the plug in his ear, and mumbled something incomprehensible in the soft tone of someone who had not yet learned to shout over the never-ending drone of pop-punk radio. 

Gideon raised an eyebrow. “Huh?” She spun the jewelry rack again, just for something to day. 

When he mumbled again, she pointed to the speaker. 

Isaac took the hint. “Um. Gideon. Are you okay?”

In the strictest of terms, the answer was probably no. But Gideon was not about to start unloading all of her repressed sexual confusion over her former nemesis onto her baby-faced coworker, and she sure as hell wasn’t going to mention the feelings of it all. That was worse. No one needed to know about the way Gideon had wanted to run her fingers through Harrow’s short hair when it was just the two of them on Palamedes’ fire escape, or the way she wanted to pull Harrow’s cold fingers into her jacket pocket when the other girl went for a smoke break without gloves on, or the way that Gideon still tried to make Harrow laugh even when she was being a huge, heaping, flaming bitch. The way she wanted — needed — to find a gift that was perfect, but not perfect enough that Harrow might realize… 

Gideon was spiraling. She was inches away from just throwing herself on the floor and becoming hysterical. She spun the jewelry rack one last time, for the hell of it, and then changed the topic. “Hey, who did you get for secret santa?”

Isaac shifted. He was new, but he was a friend of Jeannemary’s, who Gideon was pretty sure had been breaking a handful of child labor laws when she started working at the movie theater years ago. Barely eighteen, the two weren’t technically old enough to do anything but drink punch and trade gifts at the party, but Palamedes included them anyway. They were brats, but they were their brats. 

“We’re not supposed to tell each other who got who,” Isaac said, and Gideon rolled her eyes. So much for teenage rebellion. 

Gideon ran a hand through her short hair. Her undercut was probably due for a touch up, but the only thing she wanted to do with her free time was face plant into bed. Now she had to scrounge up the time and brainpower for a gift for Harrow. 

It only took a little bit of needling for Gideon to coax an answer out of Isaac. More accurately, all Gideon had to ask was if he had a girlfriend and if so, what he would be getting her. Gideon got about halfway through the second question when Isaac willfully surrendered that he had pulled Corona. 

Painfully easy. Everything looked good on Corona, even the horrid yellow uniform of the pretzel stand that she alone was keeping in business. Her tastes would probably knock Isaac way out of the twenty five dollar limit, but for Corona? Worth it. 

Despite Gideon’s begging, pleading, and vague threats, Isaac was not willing to trade. Gideon didn’t blame him; Harrow was terrifying. 

Isaac was spared Gideon’s wrath when the telltale sound of glass shattering glass rocked through the store. With a sigh, Gideon went to fetch the broom and clean up the remains of yet another broken shot glass, the umpteenth casualty of the season. 

It wasn’t until they were locking up for the night that Gideon got a chance to ask, “What are you going to get Corona?”  

Isaac shrugged from where he stood, attempting to clean up the carnage that had been made of the novelty T-shirts. He glanced around the dark store, eyeing various pieces of paraphernalia suspiciously and said, “Nothing from here.” 

Gideon could think of a couple things she would buy Corona from their Spencer’s, but she sure as hell wasn’t going to talk about that with Isaac the Innocent. She slid the security grille down with a yank of her arm, closing it on yet another horrible day of the holiday season. 

ten lords a leaping,

If playing it cool around Harrow had been hard before, it was nearly impossible now that Gideon's every waking moment was consumed with trying to figure out what the fuck to buy her for Christmas. Everything she looked at reminded her of Harrow, and yet wasn’t quite good enough. 

She was leaning against the side of the building with a cigarette burning to ash between her fingers when Harrow caught her on her break. She moved quietly; it wasn’t until Harrow took the lit cigarette from her hand and flicked away the ash that Gideon realized she had even arrived.  

“I’m starting to see a pattern,” Gideon said, watching as Harrow lifted the cigarette to her lips. Harrow raised her middle finger. 

Cigarettes? Was that an acceptable gift? Judging by the scowl on Harrow’s face, the answer was no. After an unnaturally long length of time, Harrow exhaled a cloud of smoke and glared at it. 

“Still disgusting,” Harrow muttered, as if she hadn’t just sucked down Gideon’s hard earned money and spat out the charred remains. Gideon studied her, scrawny menace that she was. At least she was wearing a hat today, hastily yanked down to conceal her dark hair. 

“Yeah, no one smokes it for the taste ,” Gideon drawled. She eyed the dwindling cigarette pointedly and asked, “If you hate it so much, why bother?"

Harrow paused, back going rigid. She looked down at the cigarette slowly, extending her gloved fingers so she could regard it with an impassive black stare. A somewhat tense silence spun out between the two of them, eventually broken by a careless shrug of Harrow’s thin shoulders. She brought the cigarette to her lips again and took in another noxious lungful of smoke. 

When she was done, Harrow silently passed the cigarette back to Gideon. There wasn’t enough to smoke, so Gideon stubbed it out on the building and shoved it in her pocket, whining the entire time about Harrow’s cooties. Harrow, for her part, just rolled her eyes imperiously and let Gideon gripe. 

“Have you pulled a name for Palamedes’ party yet?” Harrow asked, tone dripping with acrimony. 

Gideon watched an SUV skid over the icy blacktop of the parking lot and considered throwing herself in front of it. “Yup,” said Gideon with false cheer.

“Anyone good?”

“Nope,” said Gideon, popping the P. 

Harrow rolled her eyes. “It can’t be any worse than mine,” she said darkly. Gideon’s heart sank to her stomach and nearly fell out of her ass as her traitorous brain unfolded a melodramatic reel of scenarios in which Harrow might have pulled her name. She was trying to figure out how she could throw herself in front of that SUV in front of Harrow and make it look like an accident when Harrow grumbled, “ Silas. ” 

Gideon’s brain cycled through panic, trauma, betrayal at the fact that Palamedes had played her, and (surprisingly) disappointment before landing on hilarity. She laughed at that until her stomach hurt, knowing that no matter what Harrow gave to Silas, he would probably have it ritually cleansed and exorcised before laying hands on it — which he would only do if it were to throw the gift in the trash. 

“I’m glad my misfortune amuses you,” drawled Harrow acerbically, but there was a slight quirk to the corner of her mouth, the tamped-down beginnings of a smile. Gideon wanted to make it grow. 

And so she did, plying Harrow with a plethora of gift ideas that ranged from asinine to absurd, watching with stupid pride as the smile on Harrow’s face grew behind her gloved hand. The crowning jewel was a surprised snort of laughter at the hair shirt idea that had Gideon’s heart doing jumping jacks in her chest. It was horrible. It was perfect. 

When she made it back into the store from break, Gideon blamed her flushed cheeks on the cold. 

nine ladies dancing,

“Can I help you?”

A dark shadow fell over the case that Gideon was peering into, two waxy, pale hands coming to rest on top of the glass. Gideon looked up slowly, knowing exactly what that nails-on-chalkboard-voice would lead to.

The only thing Ianthe Tridentarius could help Gideon with was a trip to the morgue. Judging by the expression on her face, she would be happy to. The same fluorescent lights that made the diamonds sparkle in a shining kaleidoscope of color washed out the already washed-out Ianthe, her skin and hair dull compared to the shimmering baubles around her. She stood straight and sharp as a knife, and was just as liable to stab Gideon. 

There were at least three other people milling about the small jewelry store, and yet Ianthe trained her attention on Gideon with narrowed, glassy eyes. A pale imitation of her sisters’, they moved from Gideon’s face to her hands as if she expected Gideon to plunge her fist through the thick glass case protecting the jewels and make away with something.

“Uh, just looking,” said Gideon. Her eyes dropped down to the case again, skating from one ugly piece of jewelry to the next. 

Ianthe didn’t move. “I would be happy to help you look at something from the case,” she offered pointedly, her tone implying that she would rather do anything but. 

Gideon didn’t know why she bothered. The only person in their little group worse than Silas was Ianthe, and Gideon couldn’t even say why. Silas was a straight-up prick, but Ianthe was… slippery. The kind of slippery that slid through the floorboards and festered into a noxious mold. Harmless now, dangerous in the long run. 

She also thought Gideon was dumb as a brick and poor as fuck, which was evident in the slow, clear way she spoke as she ushered Gideon toward the discounted case. A shock of indignation surged through Gideon — until she relented that Ianthe was right on at least one count. She meandered toward the discounted case slowly, as if it weren’t her goal all along. 

“For anyone special?” Asked Ianthe, who clearly didn’t give a single solitary fuck. She examined her nails as she spoke, red as blood and sharpened to dangerous points. 

The answer to that was a tangled mess of feelings twisting into an anxious knot in Gideon’s stomach, so she shrugged noncommittally and said, “Uh, a friend.” 

“Huh,” said Ianthe, voice suspiciously flat. Gideon internally cursed — because they both knew damned well that the only friends Gideon had were from work. Ianthe leaned forward over the case, stooping so that she was just taller than Gideon. She rested her chin in one hand. The other drummed a curious staccato against the case. “Palamedes’ holiday party?”

“Can I see those?” Gideon deflected, pointing to a pair of garnet studs. 

Ianthe didn’t even look down at the case. “They aren’t within the twenty five dollar limit, I’m afraid.” Her voice was somehow slick with both apology and condescension. Her nails were still drumming against the glass. “Coronabeth?” 

“Can I see them anyway?”

Ianthe’s pallid gaze finally dropped to the case. She pushed a lock of dull blonde hair from her face and raised an eyebrow. “Not Coronabeth,” she said with finality. Fair assessment. Corona’s tastes tended toward the gaudy. Bright bangles that jingled when she walked and cascading earrings that nearly hit her perfect shoulders. They were probably a health code violation, but literally no one who looked at Corona would care. With that face and body, she could wear anything (or nothing) and still look like a goddess. 

Ianthe finally dipped down to unlock the case, and retrieved the display card for the earrings. Instead of passing them on to Gideon, though, she leaned against the cage and examined them, tilting the card back and forth to watch the way the light lanced through the dark stone. “Camille?” 

Good God , Gideon was going to have to get down on her knees and beg Ianthe to do her job, wasn’t she? For the other Tridentarius, she would have gladly done so. For this one, it would probably end in a Louboutin to the face in the least sexy way possible. 

 “Camilla,” Gideon corrected. 

Ianthe shrugged a thin shoulder, as if that information wasn’t relevant to her. Obviously. 

“She doesn’t seem the jewelry type,” Ianthe mused aloud. “Dulcinea? They aren’t really her color.” 

“Can I just see the stupid earrings?”

Ianthe raised her eyebrows admonishingly and turned the display card toward Gideon. In Ianthe’s hands they looked even more beautiful than they had in the case. Everything seemed to sparkle twice as bright in her wan hands. The opposite was true of her sister — even the most brilliant of diamonds looked meager compared to Corona’s radiance, yet she still managed to outshine the customers. She had been fired from the same jewelry counter years ago due to an abysmally low sales record. 

The earrings looked like earrings. Other than a couple stainless steel rings and studs in her own ears, Gideon didn’t know shit about jewelry. They looked like pretty earrings, deep red stones set in shining silver, but nothing about them really screamed Harrow. Besides, Harrow seemed pretty set in her ways; the only change to her earfuls of metal was the occasional addition. 

But they were nice, and Gideon couldn’t help but think about how nice they would look peeking out from Harrow’s cropped hair...

Ianthe’s calculating voice cut through the air. “Harrowhark?”

Gideon went very still, like prey trying to go unnoticed by a predator. She forced herself to shrug her shoulders, play it cool and say, “You know it’s supposed to be a secret , right?” 

She wasn’t fooling anyone. Not herself, and certainly not Ianthe, who uncoiled herself off the counter and stood to her full, impressive height. She snaked one thin arm forward and plucked the earrings from Gideon’s grasp. 

Harry, huh?” She said, the nickname hitting like spikes to Gideon’s eardrums. Medieval torture would have been kinder. Gideon could use that hair shirt about now. “She does have all those piercings, doesn’t she?” 

“Uh-huh.” 

“They’re her color,” said Ianthe abruptly. Gideon could only begrudgingly agree as much as anything other than black could be Harrow’s color. 

Gideon was still weighing the pros and cons when Ianthe slipped the display card back into the case, and slid the door closed behind it. “It’s too bad you can’t afford it,” Ianthe said patronizingly. She locked the case with a definitive click. 

Gideon, who was half a nerve away from dumping her entire savings account onto the counter to prove Ianthe wrong, asked Ianthe how much the earrings were worth through gritted teeth. 

Ianthe told her. Gideon nearly had a heart attack. 

“With the mall discount?” Gideon asked. She was pretty sure the employees’ paychecks were the lifeblood of the shopping center, their hard earned money circulating from store to store thanks to the reciprocal benefits most stores offered. 

“Unfortunately, we don’t have that,” said Ianthe, positively oozing mock-apology. A sharp smile touched her gaunt features. “But there is a Claire’s, just around the corner.” 

Gideon had never wanted to strangle anyone so much in her life. 

eight maids a milking

The first twin had been useless. A couple days later, Gideon changed her approach. 

Corona looked stunning in the yellow and blue uniform of the mall’s much trafficked pretzel stand. It had been resurrected from the brink of bankruptcy just a year before, when Corona’s string of firings from high-end boutiques and department stores culminated in her finally taking the plunge into food service. Her radiant beauty, which had scared away potential customers and washed out merchandise in her previous jobs, kept pretzels in the oven and paper in the cash register. 

On the busiest of days, a long line extended halfway across the corridor of suitors vying for her attention. During lulls, only an admirer or two lagged at the counter. 

Today was one of the good days; Gideon caught her leaning against the counter and babbling Naberius’ ear off before the lunchtime rush. Her hair was not pulled back into a net, or even a ponytail. It ballooned out from under her visor in golden ringlets. With her long nails and loose hair, the girl was a walking health code violation, but hey — most people who caught one of her long, blonde hairs in their pretzel would probably thank her for it. 

Corona was waving her hands around animatedly from behind the cash register, lost in telling her story. It was Naberius, an Abercrombie cashier who could have doubled as one of their models, who saw Gideon first — he glared at her hard , as if she had chucked up her dinner on his favorite designer jacket. 

Which she had. Years ago, at a karaoke bar. He needed to get over it. 

“Hey, Babs, ” said Gideon with a wink. 

Nav, ” he said, voice as stiff as his over-gelled hair. 

Gideon!” Said Corona with glee. She batted her eyelashes and flashed that megawatt smile in Gideon’s direction, the same one that had once driven a seasonal worker with celiac to buy half a dozen pretzels. He had been taken out by a paramedic, but it had probably been worth it. “Let me guess — Jalapeño cheddar? No, sour cream and onion? No, Pizza?”

Caught under her siren spell, Gideon almost bought the entire menu. Instead, she ordered a cinnamon twist and a side of advice. 

Corona stood upright at that, towering over Gideon and Naberius alike. “Advice? I’m great at advice.”

Bless her heart, she probably believed it, too. This was a horrible plan. 

“I need to buy a gift,” Gideon said. She let it hang in the air for a moment, Naberius sneering at her like she was an idiot for the entire time. “For a girl,” she gritted out after a dramatic pause. 

Naberius didn’t miss a beat. Pouring on the charm that drove hoards of girls — and boys — into the disgusting, cologne saturated Abercrombie & Fitch, he smiled the fakest smile Gideon had ever seen in her entire life, and said, “Perfume is a great option. And if you open an A&F credit card, you can get it for twenty—”

“Oh, Babs, dear, no one wants that junk. It’s Chanel or bust. Besides,” She turned to Gideon from where she stood, pulling a cinnamon pretzel out of the case with a pair of tongs. She waggled her perfectly arched eyebrows suggestively. “I think you’d have a better idea for something more… exciting.”

Gideon’s own amber eyes went to the Hot Topic directly across from her own store suddenly keenly aware that Harrow could come creeping out at any given moment. “Uh, not that kind of a gift.” 

Corona deflated. She twisted a golden lock around her long finger. “I mean, there’s always…” With a grimace, she inclined her pretty head toward the checkered storefront of Bath and Body Works, an explosion of noxious, sugary fumes that bled into the hall. Definitely worse than a sex toy. Gideon could only imagine Harrow’s reaction to a gift basket of Winter Candy Apple lotions. 

“I’m not buying her perfume or lotion. I actually like her,” Gideon said, then froze. 

It was the first time  she had admitted it to anyone aloud, and it had been to Corona , of all people. Funny the way the world worked. She had spent years pining over Corona and hating Harrow right down to her little bird bones. Now she was willing to do anything short of draping herself over Harrow’s bed covered in whipped cream to get her attention. 

Gideon watched as Corona dropped the pretzel into a small paper bag. Her stiletto nails were just as sharp as her creepy sister’s, and covered with at least four different types of glitter. “Well,” she said, leaning over the counter and holding the bag out. The angle gave Gideon an eyeful of cleave, and she was only human. “ I like gold. And fancy chocolates. And fancy champagne. And Chanel.” 

When Gideon reached to accept the bag, Corona’s fingers brushed against hers in a way that certainly wasn’t professional. She didn’t release the bag. 

“You should tell that to your Secret Santa.”

Corona’s pretty red mouth tilted into a pout. “Didn’t I just do that?”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to tell people that,” said Naberius sourly from where he sat at the counter, thoroughly cuckolded. Gideon winked at him again, and he rolled his eyes. 

“Guess you’ll have to wait and find out.”

Corona sized her up for a moment, scrutinizing Gideon with those big, amethyst eyes. Gideon felt a shiver run down her spine when Corona said, in a voice too nonchalant to be casual, “So, it’s for Secret Santa?”

Gideon could practically see her running names through her head. God, these Tridentarius girls were smarter than they looked.

“How much for the pretzel?”

Corona tilted her head at that, still considering Gideon. Gideon didn’t know what she was looking for. At their side, Naberius made an exaggerated cough. 

“You should get that checked out,” Gideon said cheerfully. “Probably all that perfume.”

He scowled at her. Before he could clap back with some half-witty retort, Corona smiled and released her end of the small bag. “On the house,” she said. Gideon had half a second to feel grateful before she followed it up with, “Save the rest for your girl. ” Her eyes flashed pointedly toward the Hot Topic. 

Gideon walked away from the pretzel stand in a cold sweat. Damn twin-telepathy. She didn’t know how Corona and Ianthe did it; you could be standing in the same room as them and they would be having a completely different conversation, right over your head —

“Are you looking for a Funko Pop this holiday season?” 

“Fuck — shit—”

“Watch your tongue, Nav. This is a family establishment,” Harrow drawled, voice husky. She leaned against the fake-brick facade of Hot Topic, bundled in her winter finery. Gideon looked around as if coming out of a daze. In her panicked, terror stricken state, she had wandered to the wrong store, and she looked at Harrow like some kind of fever dream. A good one, but a fever nonetheless. 

Willing her mouth to work, Gideon snorted and said, “Bullshit.” She was relieved that it came out sounding normal. She nodded to the inside of the store, cramped and filled to the brim with band tees, touches of goth couture and, more and more common every day, fandom merchandise. “Aren’t you all like devil worshippers or something?” 

Harrow let out a dark sigh. “Not anymore,” she said, and Gideon was half ready for her to embark on a rant about the fall of the store from a bona-fide alt retailer to convention merchandise room, a topic Harrow generally didn’t give a shit about but grew shockingly passionate for once inebriated. “Now we only do it on Tuesdays.”

She said it in such a cold, deadpan tone of voice that she almost sounded serious. Gideon’s mouth quirked into a smile. 

“Guess I’ll have to mark my calendar.”

Harrow sized her up. It felt simultaneously better and worse than when Corona had done it. Once the silence between them had gone from abrupt to awkward to mildly intense, Harrow broke it with a sigh. “I doubt someone as empty headed as you could pass the initiation.”

“Hey, it’s not totally empty up there,” Gideon protested. Right now, it’s full of your rude ass, she thought, and could feel herself getting sick with the saccharine bullshit of it all. 

“No,” said Harrow, voice dry and brittle with sarcasm. “It’s full of phallic jokes.” 

“You forgot sick pornographies.”

“My mistake.” Gideon would have let the stupid banter go back and forth for as long as she possibly could if it meant she could continue talking to Harrow. Harrow looked from Gideon to the bag in her hand and said, “Are you on break?”

“It’s almost over,” Gideon said. In fact, it probably was over. A good five minutes ago, in fact. She threw a glance over one shoulder. But hell, it was slow, and Isaac would yell if he needed her. “Why? Need to bum a cigarette?”

Harrow gave her a long, hard look. “No,” she said slowly. “No, I don’t.”

“Okay, let me know if you change your mind,” said Gideon breezily. “I should probably get back.”

“You probably should,” Harrow echoed. 

And yet Gideon’s traitorous feet stood rooted to the spot, leaning against a god-damn clearance rack of plaid skirts and Jack Skellington hoodies. For lack of anything better to do — more accurately, for another excuse to talk to Harrow — she held up the bag pretzel bag and said, “Here.”

One of Harrow’s dark eyebrows went up. The one with the ring through it, to be exact. She flicked her heavily lined eyes down toward the bag and up at Gideon. “Oh,” she said. It was genuinely rare to see Harrow so off guard, and Gideon didn’t know what to do with it. She watched as Harrow pulled a small chunk of the pretzel off, examining the cinnamon for a moment. “First you come for my lungs, then my teeth. I don’t know what you’re playing at, Nav.” 

Next, the heart. If Gideon could get her shit together. 

“Thank you.” Harrow popped the small piece in her mouth. She tried to pass the bag to Gideon, who shook her head. 

“Keep it,” she said distractedly. Her eyes darted distractedly to the Spencer’s across the hall. Nothing was on fire and nobody was screaming, so she figured she had a few extra minutes. “Corona gave it to me, but I’m not really hungry.” 

She expected some wise-ass crack about how that had to be a first , or something like that. When it didn’t come, she turned to look at Harrow to make sure she hadn’t choked. 

Harrow’s sharp jawline had gone stiff. She looked like she was ready to spit the pretzel onto the pale tile below — or worse, in Gideon’s face. With a look of great misery, she swallowed the bite down, and then pushed the bag at Gideon’s chest and let go. Gideon fumbled for it. She spared the pretzel at the cost of her black shirt, which was now covered in cinnamon sugar. 

“Keep your garbage,” said Harrow imperiously, and before Gideon even knew what was happening, she had stormed away down the corridor. 

seven swans a swimming,

“She hates me.” 

“So you’ve said.” Cam’s disinterested voice floated above the sound of the espresso machine. She didn’t even bother to look up at Gideon, who was currently attempting to decompose at one of the coffee shop’s small tables. “I thought that was normal?”

“Yeah, but she hates me even harder.

“If you’re going to be in here, you could at least be useful,” Cam said without bite. 

Gideon lifted her head up from the table and looked around the small sitting area. The Lab was probably the only local name in a shopping center bursting at the seams with big box stores. It had the kind of open-concept look of coffee shops in malls across the country, with a cramped check-out counter and rows of small tables spilling out into the front court. Normally, it would be flooded with over caffeinated teenagers or grouchy PTA moms having their coffees remade for the fourth time, but these were the golden hours: that sliver of time when mall employees were filtering in for morning shifts and customers were still locked out. 

“I cleaned the table,” Gideon protested. 

Camilla looked up at her, eyeing the surface that Gideon had just been using as a pillow with disgust. “What, with your tears? You’re going to get the flu,” she muttered darkly, and turned back to work her magic at the espresso machine.

“At least then I wouldn’t have to come in to work tomorrow,” muttered Gideon. Or ever again, if she called in sick smack in the middle of the most wonderful time of the year. “And see Harrow. Who hates me. ” She dropped her head back to the counter, and small shop was filled with the sounds of a whipped cream canister. It continued for a suspiciously long time. 

A paper coffee cup descended in front of Gideon’s face. She could smell it already, a rich blend of espresso and the plethora of flavorings Gideon used to mask the espresso. 

“Camilla, you are a wizard among humans,” Gideon said. “You are a goddess among mortals. You are a saint incarnate, walking amongst us—”

Camilla shrugged. She knew it was true, but she had been raised too well to say it. “It actually hurt me to make that for you. Your teeth are going to rot out of your head.” She paused, considering. “At least the rest of us wouldn’t be able to hear you talk.”

Objectively, things would probably pan out better for Gideon in the long run if that were the case, loathe as she was to admit it. 

Across the table, Camilla was drinking from a sixteen ounce cup that was probably just espresso shots. She wasn’t really one to be lecturing anyone about health with the kind of caffeine she consumed, but Gideon was wise enough to actually keep her trap shut about that one. 

“I thought you didn’t care.”

“I don’t care,” said Gideon, caring deeply. She took a sip from her coffee. It was exactly as she liked it: mostly whipped cream. 

Camilla wasn’t buying it. She took a long sip from her drink. “What did you do this time, anyway?”

Gideon leaned back in the chair, yellow eyes narrowed at her friend. “ I didn’t do anything. Harrow’s just a soulless, cold-hearted, mean-spirited mall goth goblin,” she said without bite. Technically, it was all true — Gideon just didn’t mind anymore. In fact, she found it pretty cute. 

Camilla’s dark eyes bore down on Gideon. Finally, she relented and relayed the events of the day previous. She was recounting the cinnamon roll’s perilous free-fall when Camilla’s face slowly descended into her hands, fingers pushing at her temples as if she had a migraine. A red headed, yellow eyed migraine. 

“Gideon,” Camilla interjected. “Did you ever think—”

She stopped abruptly. Gideon watched her for a moment. “Did I ever think what?”

“That’s it. Did you ever think.” 

Gideon would have kicked her under the table, but she very much wanted to keep her leg. And her coffee. “It was just a pretzel, what’s wrong with a pretzel ? Did her parents die in some freak pretzel accident?”

“Stop saying pretzel.” Camilla massaged her temples. “What on earth would you even go to Corona for advice about?”

There were a number of things one could go to Corona for advice about. Half of them were inane and the other half were probably better not mentioned in even a semi-professional setting. Gideon gave a vague hand gesture and said, “Stocks and bonds?”

Camilla’s foot lightly hit the leg of Gideon’s chair. Not a threat, probably a warning. 

Gideon folded like a house of cards. If Camilla didn’t hear it from her, she was just going to hear about it from someone else. “I need to buy a gift. For Harrow.” 

Camilla, as always, was lethally sharp. She quirked a dark eyebrow and said, “Palamedes’ thing?”

When Gideon nodded, Camilla scoffed. “Consider yourself lucky.”

“Who did you get?”

Babs ,” said Camilla, voice going into that high, California girl babble of Corona’s. Gideon nearly snorted whip cream through her nose. “No clue what to get him. I should just open up one of those stupid cards he’s always going on about. Just get Harrow a gag gift or lotion or something.”  

“I can’t,” said Gideon miserably. The pause before her next statement was like the silence before the descent of an executioner’s blade. “I like her.”

The small sitting area was silent. 

Well, silent except for the sound of Camilla’s fingers tapping against her phone. When Gideon looked up, Camilla’s head was bowed over her phone, her bobbed hair draped like two dark curtains. Gideon really did kick her, a light collision of her combat boot against Camilla’s jean-clad shin. Camilla kicked back reflexively, much harder. 

“Did you hear me? I like her.”

“Yeah, I heard.”

“Like—” Gideon darted her head around manically; mall employees continued to filter in occasionally, sojourning past the coffee kiosk like miserable zombies prepared for another horrible holiday shift, and Gideon would straight up ritually kill herself on the spot if someone overheard this “— like like her.” 

“Yes, I think I understood that without the aid of your sixth grade vocabulary,” Camilla said. The next words out of her mouth had Gideon sure that she was having a full on aneurysm. “Nice. I like Harrow.” 

“Yeah, me too, that’s the fucking problem. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. This is worse than seventeen years of foster care. This is worse than my mom dying. This is worse than that time I almost got arrested for trying to climb through the McDonald’s drive through window on St. Patrick’s Day—”

You what—”

“—it’s not important,” Gideon said. “What’s important is that if I don’t find the perfect gift for fucking Harrow , of all people, she is going to strip my bones from body and use them in Satanic rituals, and—” she dropped her voice as one of the security guards walked by, whistling as he made his way toward the front door. “And I would let her.’”

The whistling stopped, only to be replaced soon by a set of harried footsteps. The first mall customer of the day rounded into the cafe with the hysterical look in her eye of a woman with a sedan full of soccer brats and a purse full of expired Kohl’s Cash that she was willing to go to jail over. 

“Welcome,” said Camilla, rising. She slammed back the last of her coffee, shotgunning about six shots of scalding espresso down in what Gideon could only assume was some kind of  sick display of power. To Gideon, she muttered, “Maybe try something other than a pretzel,” then went to collect a coffee order that included a few too many shots of espresso and very specific instructions on temperature.

six geese a laying,

Palamedes’ holiday party grew ever closer. Gideon was rapidly spiraling into insanity. 

She roamed in and out of stores, concerning friends and seasonal employees alike. She smelled enough perfumes, candles, and lotions to make her lightheaded just at the thought. At one desperate point, she even deigned to stop at a few of the pop up kiosks, the kind manned by overly-friendly, fashionable employees that she would typically rather vault herself across the hallway than be approached by. Alas, this was a problem that no knock-off T-shirt, kiosk hair straightener, or overpriced sunglasses could solve. 

About a week out from the party, Gideon had ascended from anxiety to a full blown panic. She got a gentle nudge from Palamedes, a list of book titles that Harrow might enjoy. Camilla tried pawning a French press and some beans off on her. Even Ianthe dropped a hint that the garnet studs were available — as well as a business card for a bank that could offer her a loan to subsidize them. Gideon told her to fuck off in the most polite way possible, but still pocketed the business card. 

But no matter what she came up with, nothing seemed right. 

five golden rings,

“If you keep doing that, someone is going to think you work here.”

Gideon nearly hurled the Blink-182 shirt in her hands toward the ceiling. Her heart raced, a combination of surprise and anxiety. She flicked her gaze toward Harrow, who had appeared at Gideon’s side the same she always did: in a cloak of silence (as silent as it could get with the store speakers blaring emo Christmas music, at least) with her face screwed up in aggravation. 

“Fuck, how do you do that? You’re a vampire after all?” 

As she said it, Gideon reflexively folded the shirt against her chest, shaping it into a perfect square of fabric. Harrow scowled and, once the process was complete, swiped it out of Gideon’s hands. 

“If that were the case, I would have killed you years ago,” Harrow said darkly. She had to stand on her tip-toes to fit the shirt back onto its shelf, and Gideon watched this display of pridefulness with only a touch of annoyance and a handful of arousal.

Gideon waggled her eyebrows. “Because I look so delicious?”

Harrow stared at her like a monumental dump a customer’s dog had just taken in the middle of the store. When Gideon went to pick up another shirt, Harrow batted her hand away. 

“What are you doing?”

“Uh, shopping for all of the ghosts and ghouls in my life?” 

“You’ve folded half of the wall.” 

That caused Gideon pause. She had slipped into Hot Topic after her shift to see if there was anything Harrow might possibly like in her own cesspool of a workplace. She had shuffled in unnoticed behind a gaggle of teenagers decked out in anime merch — a foolproof plan, as she knew Harrow would never deign to stop and offer assistance to any customer that hadn’t already explicitly flagged her down for her it. She had gone unseen in the store for most of her time there, gently combing through the wall of band T-shirts in search of something that might be of any use. 

And then, the instinct beaten into her through years of retail, she had tidied the shelf as she went. And then the next one. And before she knew it, the mall echoed with its fifteen minute to closure warning, and she had folded over half of the back wall at Hot Topic — and still found fucking nothing for Harrow. 

“Um,” Gideon said, gaze moving up the wall, grazing over the names of bands that she had spent her angry teenage years cussing and crying to. “Merry Christmas?” 

Harrow rolled her dark eyes. In the few days that had passed since The Pretzel Incident, Gideon hadn’t seen much of her. Her smoke breaks were spent alone and in the cold, lamenting her own idiocy and fending off “casual suggestions” from Cam and Palamedes.

 In that dark, dreary span of time, Harrow hadn’t changed much: she was the same slight, somewhat androgynous former goth kid that had clearly traded her TRIPP pants for ripped black skinny jeans with the greatest reluctance come adulthood. She wore a Bauhaus T-shirt over a long sleeved black and white striped turtleneck and had all the curves of a teenage boy. There was literally nothing sexy about her. She looked amazing. 

“We’re closing,” she snapped and, okay, that was kind of sexy. “You can make yourself useful, or you can get out.” 

Work hadn’t made Harrow any more professional or friendly, but it was still weird to see her in that environment. She even had a fucking lanyard around her neck, black and covered with all kinds of pins. The only spot of color on it was a rainbow pride pin, the rest were “ASK ME HOW YOU CAN SAVE 20%” type bullshit or black band pins. Gideon wanted to loop her finger it into it and yank her into a kiss.

 Or maybe hang herself with it. She hadn’t decided. 

Gideon had worked ten hours that day, and twelve the day before. She was half dead on her feet, but still she pulled another messy shirt from the top of one of the shelves. “I can be useful,” she said, folding the five hundredth T-shirt of the day for an excuse to talk to Harrow. 

With narrowed eyes, Harrow watched Gideon. Probably critiquing Gideon’s folding or something equally as stupid. Gideon got through an entire stack of My Chemical Romance tees with Harrow’s beady, dark eyes staring right through her before she said, “You gonna help, or just keep checking me out?”

Harrow gave Gideon a withering glare. There was about a fifty percent chance that Gideon was leaving that Hot Topic in a body bag, but all she did was wink and go back to folding the shirt in her hand. 

Harrow disappeared to the register to check out the last of the straggling customers, a line that included the weeb children, a tired looking employee that Gideon recognized from the Journeys just down the hall, and a pair of rather uncomfortable looking suburban mothers who clearly didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Gideon had to suppress a snort at Harrow’s customer service voice; her tone was flat, her curtness just toeing the line between professional and rude. She had to explain their rewards system three times to the confused mothers, yet somehow made it through the line with just enough time to roll the security gate closed. 

The Hot Topic was surprisingly quiet once void of customers. Sure, pop punk music blared overhead, but even that dimmed a few moments later. With the music turned down, she could hear Harrow plodding through the store, counting cash registers and closing them down. 

She had the entire band tee wall folded when she realized: she and Harrow were alone. 

She moved onto the fan merch next. This time, she swept up an armful and dumped them on the counter beside Harrow. Harrow looked up at Gideon from where she sat depositing twenties into the under counter safe and glared. 

“Scare everyone else away?” Gideon asked. 

Harrow rolled her eyes. Satisfied with the amount of change in the register, she bumped the drawer closed and then locked it. “One closer called in. The other one felt sick, so I sent her home.” 

“Lo! She has a heart!” 

“That’s quite the accusation,” Harrow grumbled. She turned from the cash register to the open counter behind her, and grimaced when she saw a stack of shirts that almost reached her height. She pulled from the top, and started folding. “Whatever. It’s faster without seasonals in the way.” 

Gideon heard that; she swore she spent half the day just training new people on things they had already been trained on. She could only imagine what kind of hell they were wreaking across the hall, a sinking ship of newbies manned by the spectacularly incompetent general manager, Ortus. 

“A week and a half,” Gideon said, folding shirts at rapid speed, “and it will all be over.” 

Harrow looked up. She glared at a rack of Christmas sweaters adorned with Harry Potter characters, as if they were single handedly to blame for her suffering. “Thank God,” she muttered. 

“Any holiday plans?”

Knowing what she knew of Harrow’s family, it was probably the worst question to ask. Harrow took it in stride, though; she gave a derisive snort and said, “I will go to Palamedes’ party,” like it was some kind of final verdict. 

“Yeah?”

“And drink to forget.”  

“Hear, hear,” said Gideon, hoisting an imaginary cup in the air. Harrow’s mouth screwed up in a funny expression; she dipped her head down to look at the shirt she was folding, and Gideon realized she was biting back the faintest hint of a smile. Hey, she’d take it — maybe she wasn’t in the doghouse after all. 

What Gideon didn’t ask about was Harrow’s family, whether she would be heading back home and out of state for the holidays. They had already had that conversation, passing back and forth a bottle of Jägermeister at Friendsgiving. Between Gideon, with no family except for a string of foster parents that she had cut short when she moved out at sixteen, and Harrow, whose family wouldn’t have her back even if she wanted them to, they were a regular after school special. 

Not that it mattered, anyway. There was no way in the coldest circle of Hell that a Hot Topic assistant manager was going to be getting Christmas Eve or the day after Christmas off. Knowing Harrow, she probably preferred it that way. She always had derived a sick satisfaction from telling people Sorry, you need a receipt for any exchange , and Our refund policy only covers the first thirty days, and No, you can’t return your cat-eared Pusheen underwear after they’ve been worn, thanks. 

“Did you ever get Silas anything?”  The T-shirt stack was getting pretty tall, but still Gideon balanced another one on top. It wobbled precariously, but didn’t threaten the structural integrity. Harrow eyed it dubiously, but said nothing about Gideon’s hubris. She left the leaning tower of T-shirts to Gideon, and started sorting through the many go-backs scattered across the counters. 

“Not yet,” Harrow said. She quirked an eyebrow. The one with the piercing, to be precise. “Google Play Store gift card?”

A wolfish grin broke across Gideon’s face. “Genius. Evil.”

“Who did you get, anyway?”

“Is nothing sacred?” Gideon mused aloud. She looked around for a second, considering the store, then back at Harrow. It was worth a shot…

 “Hey,” said Gideon, tone abrupt. Harrow looked up from her pile of discarded items, a Supernatural lunchbox in one hand and a set of rainbow suspenders in the other. “Is there anything here that you would buy for someone? Like for a gift? For a friend?” 

The word friend came out awkward and half strangled, but Harrow mercifully ignored it. The words were out of her mouth almost before Gideon finished her sentence, flat and toneless. 

“I would never shop here.” 

🎶

“Hey,” Harrow said.

Gideon looked up, head bowed over her lighter with a cigarette dangling from her lips. The first embers started to burn on its tip, and the plume of pale smoke mingled in the air with Harrow’s breath. Gideon angled the cigarette away from Harrow, and let out a stream of smoke to the side, the only polite gesture that had ever been embedded into her. 

It had taken a bit longer than expected to clean up the store. Gideon was the culprit; more than once she had become caught up in the angsty thrum of 2000s pop punk that blasted through the store. Air guitar had been involved. Harrow had thrown a T-shirt in her face and spat something about how Gideon wasn’t even being paid to waste her time, but she had said it with a poorly suppressed smile. And that wasn’t even counting the amount of time spent on merchandise tags from stolen items, sussing out the origins of puzzling objects that had either been left behind or had their tags scraped off, and playing Gideon’s favorite retail game with damaged merchandise — harmless food stain, or bodily fluid?

It was nearly midnight by the time the two made their way out, and the cars of employees, junkies, and teenagers making out and doing pot were still scattered across the far end of the parking lot. Harrow and Gideon awkwardly stood outside an employee exit. Harrow had indicated her car was one way, Gideon the other, and then neither of them had moved. 

“Yeah?” Gideon asked. 

Harrow looked at her intently. Gideon found herself wondering if she had something on her face. She looked like she was half ready to chew her own mouth off, clearly considering her next words carefully. 

Instead, she took the full cigarette from Gideon’s mouth and stubbed it out against the wall before Gideon could protest. 

“You shouldn’t smoke these,” Harrow said, the thin white cylinder still clutched between her bony fingers. “Unless you are planning to die choking on your own lung at a young age.” 

“Hey, joke’s on you if you think I’m making it past thirty,” Gideon said.

Harrow’s mouth pressed together into a thin line. “I suppose you’re right. I may just end up strangling you myself.” 

The thought of Harrow’s hands on her neck in any capacity left Gideon’s heart beating rapidly, but not nearly as fast as it hammered when Harrow looked her square in the face and said, “Thank you, Gideon.”

Before Gideon could say, You’re welcome, or, You don’t need to couch anything nice in thirty levels of physical threats, you dick, or, Of course, any time, all you have to do is ask, Harrow turned up the hood of her jacket, jammed her hands — cigarette and all — into her pockets, and stepped off the sidewalk and into the parking lot, leaving Gideon feeling unnaturally warm in the freezing December air. 

four calling birds,

Things went from bad to worse to full-out dumpster fire in the span of a few days. 

“Gideon,” said Palamedes, unfailingly, irritatingly patient, “Don’t you think you are having a bit of an overreaction?”

If you asked Gideon, she was having a reaction that was entirely proportionate to the issue at hand. She stood half slumped over the Barnes and Noble customer assistance desk, repeatedly banging her head on the counter. If she was scaring away paying customers then, hey, at least she was doing Palamedes a favor. 

Dulcinea’s soft hand running soothingly through her hair wasn’t all that bad either. 

“It’s okay, Gideon,” Dulcinea cooed. “I haven’t bought a gift for my person either.” 

Gideon tilted her head up. A red spot was forming on her forehead, which sent Dulcinea into a fit of, “Oh, Gideon, you’re hurting yourself,” and,   “Gideon, you’ll get sick, do you know how many people touch that counter every day?” and “Poor baby.” 

Gideon let her fawn. Even though the torch she had carried for Dulcinea for years had mostly dwindled down to nothing, there were still a few fading embers that might never go away. Besides, she needed comfort from someone, and Palamedes was clearly not going to help. 

“Yeah, but you have Ianthe ,” Gideon said. “I don’t even know if she likes anything. Have you considered roadkill?”

When Dulcinea laughed, it sounded like music. At least, that was probably the kind of shit that Palamedes wrote in his diary at night. Hell, he probably had it right down to the exact frequency and pitch. Normally Gideon would feel somewhat guilty for having Dulcinea falling all over her right in front of Pal— in his own store, for God’s sake! — but in her current funk, it was easier to punish Palamedes by letting it happen than by chewing him out. 

What was wrong with white elephant? Who couldn’t handle some light holiday violence? Was there a better way to let off some of that holiday steam than by fighting over who gets to go home with a new toaster and who gets to go home with a Hilary Clinton chia pet? Gideon thought not. 

Her current spiral had been set in motion by the small, prettily wrapped box that had been waiting on the counter of Corona’s pretzel stand. It had been wrapped in a green, tree patterned paper, tied together with a shiny gold ribbon that had been expertly shaped into radiant curls that seemed to mirror Corona’s own springy locks. From your secret santa, it had said. A small, green box probably filled with like, lotions or perfumes or chandelier-like earrings, and it had been enough to spin Gideon into a major depression. 

Gifts were supposed to be dispersed at any time in the week leading up to the party, at which point they could reveal themselves to one another. Pieces were already starting to fall in place, and the more loose-lipped amongst them were already chatting about who had picked who. For the next week, Gideon was going to have to see festively wrapped little boxes popping onto check out stands and into bags, all the while being reminded that, so far, she had fuck-all to give to Harrow. She wanted to hang herself with a yard of ribbon. 

“You aren’t supposed to tell each other,” said Palamedes in the tone of someone who had already said the same thing many, many times over the last week. 

“Oh, I know what I’m getting Ianthe. She likes some of our bath-melts,” said Dulcinea cheerfully. “I’m just waiting for the next shipment.” 

Gideon dropped her head on the counter and groaned into the dark wood.

Overhead, Dulcinea cooed. Her dainty hand carded through Gideon’s hair, and were it anyone else, Gideon would have asked them if they could repeatedly slam her head into the countertop until she had a reasonable excuse for missing Palamedes’ upcoming party. Someone must have been staring at her, because she heard Palamedes’ apologetic voice overhead. “The next book in the series she wanted doesn’t come out until June,” he said, by way of explanation. “I can help you at the other computer, if you like.”

The customer declined, apparently taking one look at Gideon, with her dark clothes, sleeve tattoo, and half her body laying on the counter in broad fluorescent light, and deciding that maybe her son would like a video game for Christmas instead of a book. Ouch. That one had to hurt for Palamedes. 

Sure enough, when Gideon looked up, he wore a pained expression on his face. 

“Deep breaths,” Gideon said. 

A less patient man would have strangled Gideon with his bare hands, or maybe bludgeoned her to death with one of the stacked biographies sitting on the counter. Thankfully, Palamedes was the kind of person who would prostrate himself on the nerd-consecrated ground of the public library and beg a god he didn’t believe in for forgiveness for the great sin of dog-earring even a single page. Instead, he sighed, force printed a line of receipt paper, and then started writing out a list on the back of it in handwriting so neat it could put Times New Roman to shame. 

Gideon watched his hand work suspiciously. She lifted her head a bit higher; Dulcinea’s hand did not migrate from Gideon’s hair, but instead rose with her head. 

 “Here, if you can’t think of anything yourself—”

“—I can think of plenty of things,” Gideon interjected. “They’re just all shit.” 

“—then take this.” Palamedes clicked the end of his pen with finality, and slid the paper to Gideon. “These are some recent releases that I think she would like. I underlined the ones that she has already mentioned.” 

“Damn, Pal, you’d really do anything for a sale, huh?” Gideon said. Her eyes scanned the list. “Anything saucy in here?”

Palamedes stared at her, slate grey eyes devoid of emotion. 

“Y’know.” Gideon waved the paper. “Steamy? Spicy? Stupendous works of a titty nature? Erotica ?”

Palamedes very much looked like he wanted to follow Gideon’s lead and smash his head against — possibly through — the counter. At her side, Dulcinea was laughing her bell-like laugh, but Gideon was too caught up in her staring contest with Palamedes to acknowledge it. 

She lifted an eyebrow. 

Not a single muscle in Palamedes’ stony face moved. 

She waggled said eyebrow. 

A sigh dragged itself out of Palamedes. He held a hand out. 

Gideon let out a whoop of victory as Palamedes clicked his pen again and scrawled another name down, handwriting decidedly less precise this time.

 He paused. 

His gaze flicked up at Gideon… 

And then he circled the title. 

Gideon let out another whoop, eyebrows fully making a break for her hairline. Palamedes’ stony expression finally faltered, broken by a roll of his grey eyes. Gideon could have leapt over the counter and kissed him except, ew. She yanked the paper back in excitement. 

“There,” said Palamedes, sounding like he had aged years in the last ten minutes. “Now get out out of my store. Oh, no, Dulcinea — you’re fine.” 

🎶

Gideon left Barnes & Noble with Palamedes’ list burning a hole in her pocket and a bag on her arm that held more books than she had probably read in her entire life. The weight of the bag was a fair substitute for the sheer relief of the burden it had relieved, knowing that she had finally achieved something in her quest to find a gift for Harrow. 

“Thank you, Gideon, dear.” 

Yeah, right. 

Instead, Gideon spent the remaining ten minutes of her lunch escorting Dulcinea and a bag of books that was half of her size to the back room of the overpopulated Lush that Dulcinea worked in. Literally everywhere Gideon turned, she was dodging either a customer with a basket that floweth over with overpriced bath bombs or an employee with a forced smile that was almost convincing and a handful of some kind of cream for Gideon to sample. When she had first wandered into the store upon its initial opening, Gideon had relented to that kind of treatment. She had promptly realized that having a complete stranger soothingly smooth lotion onto her hands was an experience that was a bit too intimate for comfort and a bit too erotic for public, and ever since, Gideon’s hands had stayed firmly in her pockets when she went into the store. 

That stranger had been Dulcinea, who had also held her small hand up to Gideon’s much larger ones and said, cornflower blue eyes wide, “ Wow, your fingers are so long.

Dulcinea, after all, liked to play with her food. 

“How will I ever repay you?” asked Dulcinea, leaning against the counter to flirt with Gideon while her coworkers moved like pinballs across the store to make sure that customers were Finding everything okay. 

In another circumstance, Gideon would have taken her up on a round of harmless flirting. Right now, however, she was a few minutes short of asking Dulcinea if she would be so kind as to drown her in one of the basins of sparkly, multi-colored water that they tested the bath bombs in. 

“I know,” said Dulcinea brightly, before Gidoen could get a word in. “A tip!”

“A tip?”

“Yeah,” said Dulcinea, with a wink. She leaned forward on the corner and poked at Gideon’s upper thigh, right where Gideon had jammed the paper into her pocket. “Go with the smut.” 

three french hens,

Presents went round and in circles. Gideon couldn’t even see a wrapped box without wanting to throw her arms up at the sky and scream at whichever capricious, unforgiving, son-of-a-bitch God had given her Harrow for Palamedes’ stupid gift exchange. 

Corona had her earrings. Isaac got a stack of comic books and some candy, and Gideon had been thoroughly jealous. Palamedes got a book, too — a rather puzzling copy of Gray’s Anatomy , and the Barnes & Noble edition at that. Silas did not get a Google Play gift card, but instead a rather nice Air-Pod holder with a key-ring and a tin of tea that he liked, and Gideon could have sworn he almost smiled when he mentioned it (as he was rather pointedly barring Gideon from entering the store, his brute-like nephew standing filling the gap on the other side of the store with ease), but that could have been a facial twitch. Gideon made a mental note to tease Harrow about getting soft, as if she were any better. 

She was dreading the day she came into the store and found one of those boxes waiting for her, the brightest jewel in her thorny crown of shame. 

Which is why she nearly had a heart attack when she walked into the store for her closing shift, and Isaac looked up from where he sat at the counter, shooting the shit with Jeannemary, and said, “Oh, someone left something for you.” 

“Yeah?” Asked Gideon, wondering if they could tell that her heart had lodged itself in her throat. Judging by the weird look Jeannemary gave her, she probably could. 

“Yeah?” Repeated Jeannemary. She was sitting on the counter, clad in her movie theater uniform. She carried the familiar smell of movie theater popcorn with her, the same scent that flooded this entire side of the mall every day after ten in the morning. “Ta-da.”

Thankfully, she procured from the counter behind her not a gift box, but a coffee cup. Relief and gratitude flooded Gideon. She practically wept. 

“Stop making that weird face,” said Jeannemary. “Take it.” 

At another point in time, Gideon might have tried to shoo Jeannemary off of her check out counter using any means available, including the broom they kept around to clean up broken glass. She had been significantly easier to boss around at fifteen, when she had been a wide-eyed high school kid trailing Gideon across the store and asking about her workout routine and her tattoos and did she really know how to fight with a sword? 

Gideon did, a process that had started with her hitting her foster siblings with sticks in one family and then ascended into another family enrolling her into godawful fencing classes to “teach her some discipline”, but that was neither her nor there. One demonstration with a lightsaber, though, and Jeannemary had lost her mind. From then on out, Gideon had been a dual sales associate and babysitter while Jeannemary waited for one of her parents to come pick her up. 

How easy they were to impress when they were young! How quickly they grew up! At eighteen, Jeannemary was on her way to being the youngest manager at that popcorn stand, and Gideon was begging her to get the Hell out. She knew how to pick her battles, so instead of trying to move Jeannemary’s bratty ass off of the counter, she took the coffee and said in awe, “Did you…?”

“No,” said Jeannemary, kicking her feet back and forth? “The scary one.”

Gideon tilted the cup. It did have The Lab’s coffee sleeve. “Cam?”

“No,” supplied Isaac helpfully. He was still shuffling things around on the counter in a very thin pretense of doing some kind of work, even though anything he could actually do would involve a rather rude shove in Jeannemary’s direction. “The one you’re always flirting with. 

Gideon raised an eyebrow. “Corona?” She took a sip, was met with a familiar cascade of sugar. It was perfect. 

No, ” said Jeannemary. “The goth one.” 

Finally, the dots all lined up — Gideon just had to decipher the picture they made up. A small, dark figure came to mind. “ Harrow ?”

“That’s what we said, ” said Jeannemary, and Gideon nearly had a heart attack. Whether it was due to Jeannemary’s revelation or the beverage made purely of espresso and sugar racing down her gullet, Gideon wasn’t sure. The coffee in her hands warmed her heart. 

And her face. She ducked her head as she drank the coffee, praying to any God that would listen that the two awful teenagers terrorizing her shop wouldn’t be able to see her blush.

“Gross,” said Jeannemary. 

Oh, right. God was dead and Gideon was an atheist. 

Gideon gave a light kick to the counter. Jeannemary jolted, as did the spinning jewelry rack at her side. 

“No one is going to want to buy anything with your ass on the counter.” Jeannemary made no attempt to move. “What are you doing here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be at work? Or in daycare?” Gideon asked, disregarding the fact that she had practically been the daycare for years. 

“I came to talk to you,” said Jeannemary, a statement that overwhelmed Gideon with feeling, equal parts trepidation and affection. If you looked past the years of bad home dye jobs and self-inflicted piercings and It’s not a phase, mom! and overall teenage angst, Jeannemary was actually a pretty sweet kid. She was also the kind of kid with a predilection to minor pyrotechnics and arguing with authority-figures. Generally, this had Gideon wiping tears in pride. Occasionally, though, those were tears of frustration. 

“Yeah?”

“It’s about secret santa.”

Tears of frustration it was. 

“I need to get something for Cam. Soon. The party is this weekend,” Jeannemary said, as if Gideon didn’t know, as if Saturday wasn’t looming over Gideon’s head like the blade of a guillotine. 

“Get her a knife,” Gideon said. If she was lucky, and if she asked nicely, Camilla might just stab her with it. It would be nicer than whatever Harrow was going to do to her, anyway. “She can use it on customers.” 

“Camilla has knives.” Isaac muttered it like it was the most obvious statement in the world, which it probably was. 

“Uh, a book? She can read and beat people with it. Multi-use. Very practical.”

Jeannemary rolled her eyes with the charged enthusiasm of adolescence. It made Gideon feel old, the way Jeannemary rolled her eyes. “You’re no help.” She finally pushed herself off of the counter, nearly taking a bowl full of buttons and pins — the kind of useless, last minute purchases pawned off on customers to get the price up so they could earn a coupon they would, realistically, just forget about — with her. Isaac lunged forward to prevent it’s fall. “Who did you get anyway?”

The counter finally brat-free, Gideon rounded the corner and hid behind it, stashing the coffee ( the coffee that Harrow had brought her! ) on one of the lower shelves. “I’m starting to think people really don’t know how this works,” Gideon said. “It’s a secret.”

“It’s stupid.” Jeannemary shook her head. Her curly hair, pulled into a short, bouffant pile on top of her head, swayed with the motion. The tips still held the last vestiges of a bad peroxide job, one Jeannemary had worn with pride and defiance. “White Elephant was fun.”

“Yeah, well, Palamedes doesn’t want any more of his furniture broken over an Instant Pot. You’ll find out who I got when everyone else does.” The sound of glass, followed by a quiet, Oh fuck, rang through the shop. It was a welcome distraction from the Christmas music at least. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” said Gideon, reaching for the broom, “Some of us have work to do.”

two turtle doves,

By the end of the week, Gideon was flat out avoiding Harrow. 

With every little package that appeared on a friend’s desk, with every Secret Santa post on social media, despair rose within Gideon. She walked in and out of stores. She spent hours browsing the internet. She definitely got tailed by a loss prevention agent or two, because there were definitely less suspicious get-ups than a hoodie and aviators, but Gideon couldn’t risk getting found by Harrow when drifting into close territory. 

Palamedes was still hammering her about one of the books. Judith and Marta had laughed — literally, laughed — Gideon out of REI when she had reluctantly let slip who she was shopping for. There had been tears in Judith’s eyes, probably the greatest display of emotion Gideon had ever seen from her. She played chicken with Silas at the Apple store until he eventually relented to let her in as long as she actually bought something, and Gideon left with a charger that was actually useless for her phone. 

In a last ditch effort to get something that felt even moderately right, Gideon had sucked up her pride like a vacuum cleaner and dragged her sorry ass back into the jewelry store that Ianthe haunted. Ianthe had taken great pleasure in fake-apologetically telling Gideon that the earrings had sold. Before Gideon left she had pushed a buttery lock of blonde hair behind her ear, revealing a sparkling garnet. 

 The rush of despair had only been made worse by box she found waiting with Isaac when she got back, wrapped in a dazzling gold paper. A fancy lighter, the front engraved with a skull making a rather vulgar gesture with a skeletal hand. It was fabulous. Gideon wanted to light herself on fire with it. 

The problem with flat out avoiding Harrow was that by now, she knew all of Gideon’s haunts. Particularly, the specific spot on the back parking lot that Gideon spent her breaks, loitering and ruining her lungs — and, today, moping. 

“And I thought you had finally quit.” 

How Harrow moved without making sound, Gideon wasn’t certain. When she finally spoke, tone flat and indecipherable, her words sent a shiver creeping up Gideon’s spine. Or lack of a spine, what with the way she had been avoiding Harrow like the plague over a fucking party game. 

“You wish,” said Gideon. When she turned to look at Harrow, she found that instead of fixating on the parking lot or her phone, as usual, Harrow was looking straight at Gidon, eyes dark and expression inscrutable. “You think they’d let me out that easy? In December ? I’d have to actually die.”

“There are worse fates,” said Harrow, still watching Gideon. A stare like that — direct, intent — might make a girl blush. Thankfully, Gideon had the freezing weather to blame for that. “Particularly this time of year.” 

“Yeah, tell me about it,” said Gideon, flicking her cigarette. Harrow’s nose scrunched up at the smell. “I spent half an hour arguing with a lady trying to return sexy Santa lingerie. Used. ” Gideon shivered. “Definitely used.” 

“That’s foul,” said Harrow. The spell finally broke; she pulled her gaze away from Gideon, cast it out across the parking lot disapprovingly. 

“Yeah, that’s basically what I said. Anyway, I’d tell you if I had jumped ship.” 

It was out of Gideon’s mouth before she realized she had said it. Now, she wanted to walk directly into oncoming traffic, and she eyed the parking lot thoughtfully.

“Would you?” Harrow’s eyes were back on Gideon, not that Gideon had a clue what Harrow was thinking. She watched Harrow as casually as she could, gaze flicking to Harrow’s cold-pinched face. Her hands were in the pockets of her dark jacket, apparently too cold to brave the elements trying to steal Gideon’s cigarette. Gideon resisted the urge to jam her own freezing hands in with Harrow’s. 

“Uh, I mean.” Gideon scuffed the toes of her boot against the sidewalk, attempting to dispel a clump of snow in a vain attempt at saving the leather from further battery. “Yeah.” 

The statement hung in the air for a moment, Harrow looking at Gideon, Gideon looking back. She wondered what Harrow saw. She wondered if Harrow knew that it was all of the stupid little moments like this that kept her from just taking off on the worst of days. 

Fuck , Gideon liked her so much. 

“I’d have to rub it in your face, at least.” 

Harrow scoffed. Her breath, visible in the frigid December weather, curled in the air in front of her. “Please. I would celebrate.”

“Yeah? Throw a big party?”

“Of course,” Harrow said, voice gone inhumanly flat. “You know how I love them.” 

Gideon thought about Palamades’ party, right around the corner, and realized she was truly, utterly, completely fucked. 

...and a partridge in a pair tree.

Gideon arrived at Palamedes' party looking like hot shit and feeling like a bag of ass. 

"Gideon, welcome," said Palamedes cordially. He was wearing the kind of Christmas sweater that might have been worn by an elementary school teacher in the sixties, most likely with no sense of irony.  

"Sorry I'm late," Gideon said. She ran a hand through her short hair, sending clumps of snow flying. "Last minute shoppers, you know how it is." 

 He accepted her holiday offerings with open arms -- a bottle of wine and a tray of store-bought cookies in an unnaturally vibrant shade of green. Gideon had tried the home-baked goods route only twice. The first time had been vastly improved by the addition of a secret ingredient ; the second time had been a bit more tame, and Palamedes had politely requested she never bake anything ever again. “You’re not the only one, but most of us are here now.” He stepped aside, waving her into his apartment and said, “Make yourself at home.”

Palamedes had a pretty nice place, but after the Tridentarius twins were done with it, it looked roughly like Santa’s workshop crossed with a frat party. Breakable items had been swept from the living room with great foresight and replaced by poinsettias and decorative snowmen. Mismatched ropes of brightly colored lights were strewn about the ceiling and around doorways. On the latter, it simply served to frame the real star — sprigs of mistletoe that dangled innocuously from the door frames. Gideon nearly concussed herself trying to bolt through a door before Silas could get to it. She would willingly kiss her way through every other person in the entire apartment before putting her mouth anywhere near that. 

Instead, she let herself get jostled through the apartment, greeting people as she went. Corona stood at a table in the living room, dispensing shots of peppermint vodka and making a Santa suit (poorly fitting beard and all) look glamorous. Naberius and Ianthe were at her side, dressed like very miserable little elves. Naberius was trying to refill tiny red-solo shot glasses as quickly as they disappeared. Ianthe had claimed a fifth of vodka for herself and was currently drinking it straight from the bottle while scrolling disinterestedly on her phone. Once again, she was wearing the earrings. Gideon briefly considered ripping them from her lobes, but she wasn’t sure Harrow would appreciate the blood and viscera. 

Well, Harrow probably would appreciate the blood and viscera. Palamedes, not so much. 

Colum and Protesilaus were in the corner discussing… something. Probably comparing who could rip apart a boulder with their bare hands faster, or whatever it was that men of their size generally discussed. Gideon had half a mind to go join the conversation, but she was dragged away toward the kitchen by Dulcinea, who might have finger fed Gideon one of every single type of candy she made for the event, had Harrow not been sitting on one of counters like the ghost of Christmas present. She was talking to Camilla, who was shuffling things around in the kitchen like she lived there, and wearing a sweater that matched Palamedes’. 

“Gideon,” said Camilla, pulling a tray of snickerdoodles from the oven. She hip-checked the oven door, and Harrow helpfully leaned over and slapped the button to turn the oven off. “Help yourself.” Camilla shot Gideon the kind of carefully expressionless look that implied that not only did she know Gideon’s greatest sins, but also exactly how she was going to be tortured for them, but was too polite to say it. 

Harrow had a red wine glass in hand, the only spot of color on her entire body. She was ostensibly wearing a Christmas sweater, but the cozy knit pattern across her torso featured more skulls and bones than typical. A black Santa hat sat on top of her head, the words “BAH HUMBUG” stitched in white thread, and Gideon could only assume that the hat was someone else’s doing. She wondered if they were still alive. 

Throwing caution and decency to the wind, Gideon turned her back on Camilla’s bland yet accusatory stare and said to Harrow, “Drinking blood in broad daylight now, huh?”

Harrow lifted the glass to the light, an insouciant mockery of a cheer. Her cheeks were touched with color; Gideon wondered if she had already had a few, or if she was just that much of a lightweight. “Careful. Could be yours next,” Harrow said, not realizing how accurate she was. 

Gideon took her sweet time mixing herself a drink and ribbing back and forth with Harrow, until Jeannemary wandered in and dragged Gideon off for some drinking game, holding a two liter of Mountain Dew that she assured everyone in the room was Definitely Not Alcohol. Isaac sported a matching one, because fuck subtlety, Gideon assumed. 

Jeannemary roped Gideon into a few rounds of a game of glorified beer pong including shot glasses and a jingle bell, drinking for both her own losses and Jeannemary’s, since the girl was technically too young to be drinking alcohol. Marta, who had played every sport under the sun in high school and had the alcohol tolerance of a tank, mopped the floor with the rest of them. Gideon had a pleasant buzz going now, though, so was she really the loser here?

She was. When Magnus and Abigail stopped in, carrying enough Tupperware full of sweets to make a bakery weep with envy, Gideon had to very carefully school herself into something approaching sober. It wasn’t that either of them cared — Magnus still would have pulled her into a tight hug regardless — but Gideon felt the same way toward him as she did toward the few teachers throughout her life who had misplaced their faith in her.

 Neither Abigail nor Magnus technically worked in the mall, but they had spent the last handful of years dressed up as Mr. and Mrs. Claus in the mall center, taking pictures with kids and raising money for charity, and were honorary members of their little group. Not once in her childhood had Gideon ever taken a picture with Santa, but Magnus and Abigail had corrected that a few years back. The picture made its way to Gideon’s living room every holiday season — Magnus sitting in her lap, red suit and all, the picture slightly blurry because Abigail had been laughing as she took it. 

The two of them were coerced into sticking around long enough to play a game that included a pair of oven mitts and a wrapped present being passed around a circle more violently than was necessary. Ianthe walked out of that one with an electric kettle. 

A warmth suffused Gideon as she watched her friends, one that wasn’t entirely brought on by alcohol. Her job sucked. Completely, undeniably, massively sucked. She spent her days cleaning up after teenagers and fending off shoplifters and arguing about whether or not returns on sex toys were valid, but she supposed the people — this rag-tag little family she had somehow collected over the last few yeas — were worth it. 

Magnus and Abigail had taken off, probably to go distribute meals at a soup kitchen or carol for charitable donations or whatever it was that saints do on their days off, but the rest of their group was still there. Dulcinea had Silas trapped in a conversation about some new age bullshit or another, and it was fun to watch him try and squirm away. Jeannemary and Isaac had transitioned to openly drinking, and had roped Naberius and Camilla into a drinking game. The room was warm. The smell of freshly baked cookies lingered in the air, mingling with the sharp, pleasant scent of the Christmas tree, and Christmas music (turned down low, for the sanity of those who had been barraged with it for three months straight) played in the background. 

Across the room, Harrow was perched on the arm of the couch with a steaming mug of undoubtedly spiked cider, talking to Palamedes about… something. Something nerdy, judging by the way Palamedes’ hands were moving. The faintest touch of color was smudged on the corner of Harrow’s mouth, a memory of when she and Corona had happened under the mistletoe at the same time and Corona had laid one on her, leaving Gideon hanging in the confusing space between jealous and aroused. 

Harrow looked up. A quick flick of her eyes, and she caught Gideon watching from across the room. Palamedes was too caught up in whatever tangent he was going on to notice that Harrow was no longer paying attention, her dark gaze locked on Gideon’s. Her mouth curved up at the corners, the smallest touch of a smile passing her lips like a secret between the two of them. She held Gideon’s gaze for a moment, then dropped her eyes to Palamedes once more and, yeah. It really was the people that made it worth it, after all. 

And then Palamede had to open his mouth and fucking ruin it. 

Theoretically, Gideon had known this was coming and had tried to brace herself for it, and had spent the entire evening trying to figure out how she could do an Irish goodbye without being intercepted on the way out the door. Still, when Palamades stood up, dimmed the music, and announced that they were going to go around in a circle to announce their giftee, Gideon felt physically sick. She felt like she had been drinking for a month straight. She felt like she had been strung up in the back yard and used as a child’s piñata. She felt like she could not do this. 

She took a step back, only to be met with the wall that was Protesilaus. 

His meaty hands came up to steady Gideon by the shoulders. “You alright?” He asked. Chatty, by his usual standards. 

Fuck no, she thought hysterically, as others began to filter into the room, trapping Gideon in her own personal circle of hall. 

Whether it was a blessing or a curse that they started with Protesilaus to her left, Gideon wasn’t certain. Each revelation hit like a fallen domino in a chain of that was going to result in the absolute destruction of Gideon’s relationship with Harrow. 

Every now and then, her gaze would flick to Harrow’s face. The quietly pleased expression Gideon had glimpsed earlier was wiped from her face, replaced by a mask of stony resolve that Gideon couldn’t quite crack, no matter how hard she tried. Her face showed nothing as they moved through the line; from Protesilaus’ reveal that he had been the one to give Judith her emergency hiking kit to Camilla’s (only slightly barbed) answer that she had given Naberius a cologne from somewhere other than Abercrombie — for his own good, really. She sounded perfectly neutral when she told Silas she had been his Secret Santa, and the two of them shared an exchange of pleasantries that might have been stiff and awkward to anyone else, but was downright warm by either of their standards. And then the moment had passed and the circle continued to move, with each new reveal tightening the noose around Gideon’s neck. 

Harrow wasn’t stupid. By the time it came to Isaac on Gideon’s right, blushing and stammering through his admission that he had given Corona her earrings, Harrow had already melted from her armrest perch and left the room. 

She left a silence in her wake. One filled only by the dulcet tones of Mariah Carey bleating make my wish come truuuuueeee… 

Someone turned the radio off. It was the only mercy Gideon was going to get. All eyes were on her. 

Eventually, Naberius said into the silence, “Wow, what did you get her?”

“Babs,” Corona hissed, precisely at the same moment that Gideon muttered, “Fuck off, Naberius.” 

And then, Gideon took off.

🎶

She didn’t have to go far. 

Gideon pulled the door closed on the fire escape, and then budged it a bit tighter to try and block any noise. No doubt there would be curious faces pressing against the glass behind her in a minute or two, but Gideon would take any kind of privacy she could get. Harrow didn’t need any witnesses complicating things when she drop kicked Gideon into the street below. 

It was achingly cold outside, the December air biting harshly into Gideon’s skin. In her pursuit of Harrow, she had left her coat and scarf behind, and she only had a sweater to shield her from the elements. She folded her arms, tucking her freezing fingers into her armpits to keep them from falling off. 

Harrow apparently had no such scruples. She leaned against the cold iron of the railing, jacket free, staring down at the street as if she could detonate the cars below if she just glared enough. Maybe she could. 

“Don’t jump,” said Gideon weakly, just like she did everytime she followed Harrow out to the fire escape. It was a bad joke. In poor taste, Harrow had told her the first time she made it, when Gideon had stumbled out for a cigarette and some peace and quiet, and found Harrow moping instead. In poor taste, she had said the second time as well, and the third, but the corners of her mouth crooked higher and higher each time. 

Harrow didn’t smile this time. “Go inside, Gideon,” she said, tone flat. Her breath curled in the air in front of her. If Gideon had a jacket, she would have given it to Harrow. She had half a mind to peel her sweater off and present it as an offering, but she wouldn’t put it past Harrow to throw it over the edge and lock Gideon out here in her underclothes to catch pneumonia and an indecent exposure charge. 

“I’m sorry,” Gideon said, and it sounded even weaker and stupider out loud. “I—”

“Fine,” snapped Harrow. A string of multicolored lights had been wrapped around the railing, and they lit Harrow’s cold expression with vibrant hues. She pushed herself back from the railing, and pulled herself to her full (yet meager) height. “If you won’t leave, then I will.” 

“Harrow, I—”

“Move.” 

Gideon stood her ground. The music within the apartment grew louder, the pulse of it practically rattling the glass paned door behind her. Palamedes’ neighbors would be pissed, but Gideon found herself unfailingly thankful — to Palamedes, or Camilla, or one the few others who wouldn’t be jamming together to eavesdrop. “No, we should talk.” 

“I don’t want to talk to you, Gideon.” Gideon flinched at Harrow’s tone. It wasn’t angry. It was empty. It reminded Gideon of the girl she had hated from day one, who had looked through Gideon like she was nothing. Harrow’s eyes were hard. Gideon had forgotten how much it hurt to be on the receiving end of that condescending glare. “Not now. Not at all. Not ever, in fact. Move.” She made to move around Gideon, and Gideon shuffled to the side. 

“I get if you don’t want to talk to me,” Gideon said. “But I need to talk to you. Look, I fucked up. I’m sorry about your—”

“Nav, I don’t care, ” said Harrow, and she almost sounded convincing. “It’s a stupid party game.”

“I’m still — fuck, Harrow, I’m sorry, I just…” Gideon couldn’t think of a convincing lie. What came out was worth. “I didn’t know what to get you.” 

The sheer absurdity of the statement hung in the air between the two of them. After weeks of tossing and turning and pulling her hair out trying to decide what to get Harrow, Gideon was finally aware of how fucking dumb it sounded when she put it like that. 

“You didn’t know what to get me,” Harrow repeated. “I got Silas .

“Uh. I mean, yeah — rough,” Gideon said, for lack of a better response. “Look, I can still get you something, it’s just going to be late—”

“It’s not about getting a present, ” spat Harrow acidly, her show of disinterest finally breaking beneath the weight of her anger, “you giant idiot. I got Silas. The only way for Silas and I to survive a conversation without grievous bodily harm is for us not to speak. I hardly know him at all. What I do know of him, I can hardly stand. And I still got him a gift.”

Harrow paused for a moment, expression hard. She had left her “BAH, HUMBUG” hat inside, and the tips of her ears were going red with cold. Gideon suppressed the urge to press her hands over them, mostly because she would like to keep her fingers. 

Gideon had no idea what Harrow wanted her to say, so she continued to insert her foot into her mouth and chew vigorously. “I mean, yeah, that’s... yeah. Look, anything you want, just—”

“Are you even listening to me? Are you stupid? Don’t answer that. It was rhetorical. The answer is clearly yes.” Angry Harrow was quickly finding its way to the ever growing list of things Gideon was finding unfortunately attractive. “I don’t want anything from you, Gideon, I don’t care about a present, I just—” Harrow’s voice hitched, and then went from very angry to very quiet. “I thought we were closer than that.” She looked Gideon up and down, and then said, in the same small voice, “I guess I was wrong. Now, move.”

And here it was. Gideon thought about the friendship they had, a fragile thing that had been in pieces before it even began. She thought of all the late night conversations and stolen, mid-shift moments, jamming the pieces together and being surprised at how well they fit, at how irreplaceable Harrow was slowly becoming in her life. Whatever she said next was going to fuck it up beyond repair. 

“Look,” said Gideon. Her heart hammered against her ribcage; she might have been tipping over the fire escape railing for the fear she felt. “I didn’t know what to get you for Christmas. I don’t—  didn’t want to get you anything for Christmas.”

“Which you have made abundantly clear,” said Harrow stiffly. 

“Will you let me finish?” Gideon said. “Look, I tried. Ask anyone. Camilla, or Pal, or fucking Ianthe, but nothing seemed right. I don't want to buy you something just because of some dumb game. I want to just... get you things. Not just for Christmas, but for your birthday—” Harrow’s mouth opened, undoubtedly around yet another snarky comment, so Gideon plowed forward “— or, or for New Years—”( “Who gives presents for New Years?” ) “— or Valentines Day. Or just because it’s Tuesday,  and I saw it, and it made me think of you, and I knew you’d like it. I want to give you things. I want to give you a lot of things. You deserve… things," finished Gideon lamely. 

Harrow stared at her. The air between the two of them was still and silent, a complete contrast to the noisy apartment at Gideon’s back. Inside, someone was singing a loud, drunken rendition of “Jinglebell Rock”, while someone else chortled in the background. It sounded a million miles away. It was a wonder Gideon could hear anything at all, with the way her heart was pounding in her ears. 

“I hate cigarettes,” said Harrow suddenly, as if that was any kind of proper response to Gideon pulling her still-beating heart from her chest and presenting it for approval. She took a step forward; Gideon, on instinct, took a step back, and found herself colliding with the door behind her. “Did you know that?”

“Uh,” Gideon said, because it was hard to be eloquent when you were in the early stages of a broken heart. Harrow’s burning gaze flicked from her eyes to her mouth. “Yeah? I mean, you’ve made it pretty—”

She didn’t get to finish the sentence. Harrow surged forward, burying her small hands in the fabric of Gideon’s shirt and pulling her down into a kiss that did rather embarrassing things to Gideon. Instinct alone drove Gideon's hands, which rose to meet the sharp edges of Harrow's jaw. Her fingers brushed at Harrow’s cold skin, tilting her head so slightly to deepen the kiss. 

At the first press of Harrow’s lips — soft, though slightly chapped from the cold — against hers, Gideon wished that they had done this sooner. When Harrow’s tongue entered the mix, Gideon found herself wishing they could do this forever. 

The sound that left Gideon when Harrow’s tongue brushed against the roof of her mouth was downright embarrassing. She kept one hand anchored on Harrow’s face — the tips of her fingers brushed at the freezing shell of Harrow’s ear, as if she could protect her from the elements — and the other one moved to Harrow’s side, pulling her closer against Gideon. In the cold night air, Harrow felt so warm against Gideon’s hands. 

Harrow bodily shivered when Gideon’s hand swept down the length of her spine. She finally released Gideon’s sweater — the neckline doubtless fucked up beyond repair by now — and smoothed her hands forward, up the bare expanse of Gideon’s neck. Her fingers came to rest in the short hair at the base of Gideon’s skull, drawing small circles there that made Gideon melt. 

When Gideon tilted her head back, breaking the kiss for something as stupid as air , Harrow followed, moving forward as if pulled by an invisible string. She wore an expression of annoyance, the kind that implied that she didn’t know why Gideon had pulled away, but that she was an idiot for doing so regardless. God, she was close. Their ragged breath was visible in the air between them. Gideon could see the individual lashes framing Harrow’s dark, half-lidded eyes. 

Harrow was on her tip-toes, Gideon realized. She had to be. That took a moment that was undeniably hot to unbearably, irresistibly cute, and then all of a sudden they were making out again. 

How much time the two of them passed pressed together on the balcony, Gideon didn’t know. She didn’t necessarily care, either. Eventually, Harrow’s head found itself pressed into Gideon’s neck. Gideon had half expected her to approach that expanse of skin with the same fervor she had Gideon’s mouth, but instead Harrow had simply dropped her forehead to Gideon’s clavicle and left it there. Her breath was warm against Gideon’s skin. They were tangled together, Gideon’s arms circled around Harrow’s shoulders, one of Harrow’s legs slipped casually between Gideon’s. Gideon could feel the rise and fall of Harrow’s chest against her own. It felt significantly colder when they weren’t going at it like teenagers, but Gideon didn’t care. Some part of her — some soaring, elated, terrified part of her, one that had ached for this for ages — couldn’t bring her to drop her arms and head inside, no matter how bad the threat of hypothermia.

“So,” said Gideon after a long time, hoarse voice half muffled in Harrow’s hair, “does this mean I’m off the hook for a present?”

Not on your life, ” said Harrow, her own words lost in the shoulder of Gideon’s sweater. She tilted her head back to look at Gideon, hair awkwardly matted to the side of her face where it had been pressed against Gideon’s shoulders. Gideon raised a hand to smooth it back because apparently she was allowed to do it now. Harrow’s eyes, shrewd and intense as always, examined Gideon. They dropped to her lips again. “But I suppose we can sort out something.”

we'll take a cup o'kindness yet,
for auld lang syne

“Saved your life!” 

Credit to Harrow, she didn’t flinch when Gideon’s hands snaked around her waist and into the warm reprieve of her jacket pockets. Gideon didn’t have to look to know that Harrow was probably rolling her eyes. 

 “How fortunate.” Harrow’s tone of voice was that of someone who would have preferred to have been thrown from the balcony headfirst. Gideon rested her chin on Harrow’s shoulder, her thick winter coat providing a welcome padding to Harrow’s sharp, bony edges. She didn’t have to look to know that Harrow was smiling, either — a small quirk to one side of her mouth, imperceptible to one uneducated in the ways of Harrowhark Nonagesimus. 

“You can pay me back later,” Gideon said, and she probably should have foreseen the back of Harrow’s heel coming for her foot. 

“You’re horrible,” grumbled Harrow. It was hard to take her seriously, though, when her cold fingers were slipping from the railing and into her pockets, where they curled against Gideon’s in a gesture that could have been attributed to either affection or malice. Her fingers were fucking freezing, but Gideon folded them into her own anyway. 

A pleasant silence passed between the two of them. Gideon followed Harrow’s line of sight to the world below. The final remnants of last week’s snow storm had started to melt from the streets, only visible in dirty clumps. It made Gideon wistful — the snow had been much prettier a week before, when she had spent her first white Christmas in years marooned at Harrow’s house because, according to Harrow, “Only a complete idiot would drive a motorcycle home in a snowstorm, Gideon.” It had been freezing and frustrating and somewhat awkward at first, but Gideon’s face went warm when she remembered Harrow’s brilliant plans for keeping warm. They had spent pretty much all of Christmas Day in Harrow’s bed, most of it doing literally nothing except talking. Gideon wished she were there now, fun as Palamedes’ party may be. 

At length, Gideon said, “I’m supposed to be bringing you inside.” 

“A marvelous job you’re doing,” said Harrow in the kind of sarcastic voice that chilled Gideon’s bones and warmed her heart. 

“Palamedes wants—” the ear-splitting pop of a firework echoed through the street. A shower of multicolored embers sparkled in the air just over one of the apartment buildings. “Palamedes wants to do a toast or something.”

Harrow let out a bone-deep sigh. Gideon, pressed to her back, felt it in her chest. “He does this every year,” she muttered. Any minute now, her freezing fingers were going to give Gideon frostbite, and yet she still mourned their loss when Harrow slipped her hands from her pocket. “I don’t understand how someone so rational can be so… sentimental. ” She said it like it was a bad word. To Harrow, who found a two second toast to the coming year sickeningly sappy, it probably was. 

Gideon shrugged. She took a step back to allow Harrow the space to move, and immediately regretted — for warmth and for reasons that were… sentimental. 

Another burst of fireworks exploded above their heads. This time, the technicolor display burned purple and gold. Gideon watched as the embers rained down on the street below. She had always enjoyed New Years Eve. Other holidays had been rocky, growing up, but she had always loved to watch as the brightly colored fireworks patterned the night sky, welcoming the new year in a blaze of color. 

“Are you coming in?” 

When Gideon looked up, Harrow had the door to Palamedes’ apartment propped open. Inside, some drunk soul was already incorrectly slurring the words of “Auld Lang Syne” against a backdrop of raucous laughter. 

“Yeah, in a few,” Gideon said, slipping a small carton from her pocket. “I’m gonna have a smoke first.”

Harrow eyed the carton dubiously. Now that she no longer had to use them as a flimsy excuse to talk to Gideon (something that still nearly made Gideon pass out when she thought about it), Harrow seemed to have decided that cigarettes were public enemy number one. She glared at the cigarette in Gideon’s hand as if she could light it on fire with her stare, but wouldn’t because that would be abetting Gideon in the willing destruction of her lungs. 

“Last one,” Gideon said, “before the new year.” Because Harrow — her girlfriend, which Gideon could neither believe nor quit saying — preferred to kiss her when she didn’t taste like tobacco, and because Gideon preferred Harrow ( her girlfriend ) to pretty much everything else in the world right now. 

Harrow studied her for a moment, quiet. Finally she said, “You should hurry. It’s freezing out here.” Her gaze darted from Gideon’s, focusing on another firework overhead, this one as red as Gideon’s hair. After a brief pause, she fixed her dark eyes on Gideon once more and said, “And it’s almost midnight.” 

She disappeared into the apartment alone. A brave move — both of them had spent the last week being bombarded for details by the morbidly curious in their lives. Only overt threats of bodily harm from Harrow had diverted anyone’s attention, and even that wasn’t enough to stop Corona. 

As she smoked her final cigarette, Gideon thought about the last year. She thought about how much work sucked, and about all of the times she had fucked up. She thought about a tattoo she probably shouldn’t have gotten, and she thought about the concert she had nearly lost her job trying to attend, and how worth it it had been. She thought about all of the parties like this one, nights she had spent playing drinking games with her friends and watching movies.

She thought about Harrow — about how one night like this, months ago, they had shared a bottle of vodka on this very fire escape, back when Harrow had been just the bitchy assistant manager of a Hot Topic that Palamedes hung around with for some unfathomable reason. Gideon thought about how that one night had made her realize that Harrow could be a friend, and then about all of the other nights, and the other parties, and the smoke breaks, that had made her realize that Harrow could be something more. She thought about how in a moment or two, she was going to go into Palamedes’ living room and kiss Harrow senseless to bring in a new year full of new opportunities. 

Gideon stubbed her cigarette out on the railing of the fire escape. The last year had been incredible. She had a feeling the new one was going to be even better.