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This Fragile State

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Gideon opened her eyes to find a blurry out-of-focus Harrowhark Nonagesimus standing over her. She blinked and Harrow came into focus, just a little fuzz around her edges. Harrow had her robes on, painted face refreshed. Her expression was soft, a coal-eyed expression of...something that used to be pity but had evolved into something else that Gideon could not understand this close to sleep.

“Not yet,” Gideon mumbled. She closed her eyes and fell back to sleep.


Gideon woke with a start, certain that something had fallen on her face. She slapped it away with her hand and found nothing but the bare skin of her own cheek. She opened her eyes.

Harrow was still there, still standing over here. She looked less inexplicably something now, and more like herself. Which meant she looked impatient and annoyed, but also still soft, which was weird.

“Too early,” Gideon groaned. She grabbed at her blanket and rolled onto her side--and in doing so, she nearly fell right off the edge of the cot and onto the floor. She flailed there for a moment, unbalanced and barely suspended above her discarded rapier and gauntlet, before she managed to pull herself back onto the cavalier’s bed.

Right. She remembered. The pool, the aftermath, the cot. Their world had shifted, and now--

“It’s just me,” Harrow said impatiently, as though Gideon might mistake her for literally anyone else. “Don’t go back to sleep.”

The soft look on Harrow’s face and the tone of her voice felt remarkably similar to a hallucination Gideon once had and she blinked twice and looked back up at Harrow.

Harrow was still there, face still painted, eyes still softer than they were supposed to be. Gideon wondered how long Harrow had been standing there. She decided she didn’t want to know.

“It’s late,” Harrow said.

Gideon rolled onto her other side, toward Harrow’s large bed, the piles of rumpled bedding. Something poked in the crook of her neck and she reached for it. It felt like a pebble or--no, of course. A small nub of bone. She flopped back onto her back and held it up to Harrow. “You’ve been standing there chucking bone at me.”

“I needed you to wake up.” There were no sharp edges to her voice, no barbs beneath her words. Gideon wasn’t sure she understood what that meant. Whatever it was that they’d broken the night before had not fixed itself in the night. They’d shifted their world and the shift had stuck. She couldn’t let herself think on any of it too hard. She might get funny and ruin it.

“You could have just nudged my shoulder or something.”

This time the face Harrow made was easy to read. Harrow could not shake Gideon’s shoulder because that would require voluntarily placing a hand on Gideon’s (clothed) skin. Not that much had changed.

“I thought about placing my alarm clock by your ear,” Harrow admitted. “This seemed kinder.”

Gideon threw the bit of bone back at Harrow. Her aim was good. It bounced off the center of Harrow’s forehead.

“Griddle,” Harrow huffed, and there were those sharp angles, Harrow’s barbed points. Harrow pressed her naked fingers to her forehead, pressed carefully with just the tips so as not to smear her paint. “We have an appointment with the Sixth, and if we don’t start moving now we’re going to be late.”

Gideon twisted in an attempt to see the clock beside Harrow’s bed. The light coming through the gaps between the heavy curtains was bright, blinding, and she squinted.

“It’s late,” Gideon said, surprised. She’d expected to turn and find that it was Harrow’s definition of late, which meant Dominicus just barely peeking over the horizon.

“Exactly my point.”

Gideon turned back to Harrow, a smile stretching the sides of her mouth. She propped her head up on her hand, bent one knee, foot flat against the bed. In short, she lounged.

“You let me sleep in,” Gideon said, except it sounded like an accusation, an accusation said with a smiling mouth, with cheeks that ached with mirth. “Harrowhark Nonagesimus let me sleep in.”

“Hardly,” Harrow said. “I’ve been trying to wake you for the last hour.”

Gideon just smiled wider. She thought she saw the right side of Harrow’s mouth twitch, saw her jaw clench in an attempt to maintain control. When Harrow had to turn away, her eyes turned toward the ceiling and her chest heaving with the force of her sigh, Gideon gave in to her necromancer’s demands and climbed out of bed.

“Give me two minutes,” Gideon said as she backed out of the bedroom. “I’ll be ready in two.”


Gideon’s tongue worried at a clump of bread stuck in her second molar, upper right, as she followed Harrow through the halls of the First. Her mind worried over Harrow Nonagesimus, standing beside her bed, of Harrow’s face watching her wake, of Harrow’s tone as she said, “It’s just me, don’t go back to sleep.”

It felt like Gideon had lived that moment before.

Wake up.

Harrow’s bare face, pale skin glowing in the lights from the landing terrace.

Gideon remembered suffocating, remembered making a bed full of Jeannemary’s bloody limbs.

It’s just me. Go back to sleep.

Gideon stopped walking. She opened her mouth to speak, but found she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. She closed her mouth again.

“Nav?” Harrow asked. She’d stopped walking, was standing in front of Gideon, the look of concern heavy on her face. “What is it?”

She remembered how Harrow had looked, leaning over her in the dark--Harrow’s face, not twisted in pain or terror, but watching her cavalier with a strange and weary understanding, with a softness that Gideon had never seen before and immediately designated a figment of her own twisted mind.

“Were you--after the Fourth, you know--I had this dream that you were there,” Gideon started. “A whole slew of terrible nightmares, just nasty, and then in the middle of all that, a dream that you told me to wake up. I thought I’d hallucinated it. You were sitting next to me and your face was naked, no paint, totally bare.”

Harrow paused, thought for a long moment, and then said, “You weren’t yourself. I thought I’d--she trailed off. “Don’t read too much into it, Griddle.”

“It wasn’t a dream then,” Gideon concluded.


“You touched my face,” Gideon said. She only just remembered it. She’d been going in and out of sleep, jolted awake by repeated nightmares--Jeannemary, her mother, Magnus, Isaac--and there was Harrow with her pale face looming over Gideon. There was Harrow with a dusty duvet slouching off her shoulder. There was Harrow’s shoulder, strange and angular, totally devoid of muscle. There was Harrow’s hand, her long fingers curved as she cupped Gideon’s face, her palm hot against Gideon’s cheek.

“You weren’t well,” Harrow said. “You were shaking, sweating; I thought you had a fever. I had to check your vitals.”

“I’m fine,” Gideon said.

“Debatable,” Harrow countered. “And that’s now. Then you were--you weren’t well. It took me forever to pull out the rest of those bone fragments.”

Gideon stilled at that. She remembered Sextus telling her that Camilla had removed twenty, but there were at least a dozen left. She remembered the nauseating piss stink of the Sixth’s ointment and she remembered stumbling out of Dulcinea’s sick room. She remembered her encounter with the Eight, and then after that--it was all nightmares and interrupted sleep and those few glimpses of Harrow huddled beside her. Harrow telling her to wake up. Harrow saying, “It’s just me. Go back to sleep.”

“You touched my face,” Gideon said again and felt a little stupid for repeating herself.

And then Harrow said the exact words Gideon didn’t want to hear, “You were full of deep shards of bone. I had to touch a lot more than just your face.”

Which was, all right, a little disturbing. A little unfair. But she remembered that now too, Harrow’s fingers pressing at the bare skin of her arm, a drop of blood dripping down from Harrow’s nose. It caught at the defined ridge of her upper lip, slid down to the corner of her mouth. Harrow licked it away and Gideon closed her eyes, fell back to sleep.

“Right,” Gideon said. She cleared her throat. “Sorry.”

Harrow didn’t respond, she just looked at Gideon with those strange soft eyes, dark and a little shiny, a lot unsettling, like someone had removed Harrow’s eyes and replaced them with this new set that hadn’t learned how to hate quite as much.

“You kept screaming their names,” Harrow said. “My entire life, I--I should be used to it, I’ve always known I’d--but these past few weeks. I’ve been too close to losing you too many times.” She was stumbling again, like she had in the pool the night before.

Too tenuous to risk.

Gideon was overwhelmed by the sudden urge to hug her necromancer. She looked away from Harrow, hoped that the feeling would subside. The corridor was empty. They were alone. There was nothing down this way except the Sixth’s rooms, so there was no reason for anyone else to be in these halls. Gideon took a deep breath and pushed the sleeves of her shirt up toward her elbows. She slowly let the air back out of her lungs.

The feeling didn’t subside.

Fuck it. Harrow hadn’t killed her yet.

“Come here,” Gideon offered, her arms held out.

“Griddle,” Harrow said. Her entire body went tight, but she didn’t move away either. She let Gideon take her by the arms and when Gideon pulled, just lightly, Harrow stepped forward. She took two steps toward Gideon, of her own volition, and let Gideon bring her in the rest of the way until Harrow’s face was pressed up against Gideon’s robes and Gideon’s arms were wrapped around Harrow’s back, a careful pressure against the bird-bone body of her necromancer.

It was the third hug they’d ever shared, but it was the first time that Harrow had ever stepped into it willing, knowing exactly what was coming next. She didn’t hug Gideon back, per se, but she didn’t lean away from it either, she kept her face pressed into Gideon’s robes, her forehead firm against the center of Gideon’s chest. Gideon could feel the persistent beating of her own heart in the place where her chest met Harrow’s face.

Once she was in the hug, Gideon had no idea how to get them back out of it again without screwing everything up or making it weird. She also knew that they couldn’t stay like this much longer without screwing everything up and making it weird. She had to do something.

Her heart was beating too fast and Harrow had to feel it. There was no way she wouldn’t notice. Harrow was just standing there, her face pressed to Gideon’s chest, and Gideon was becoming super aware that Harrow’s height placed her perfectly in that flat expanse right between Gideon’s--

She did the only thing she could think to do, which was to simply release Harrow all at once and take one big step back. For a brief second, Gideon thought Harrow might follow, might move in for more. Harrow swayed there, forward and then back, and then she went rigid, her body reverting back to its usual tense state.

Gideon stared at the wall past Harrow’s head. Harrow stared at Gideon’s shoulder.

After a long stretch of silence Harrow said, “There’s paint on your robe.”

Gideon looked down and saw that Harrow was right. There was a smear of forehead paint right at the center of her chest, exactly at Harrow height. Gideon rubbed the fabric together in an attempt to smear it, to dull the streak until it turned into a nebulous grey blob, very Sixth, not at all the size or shape of her necromancer’s forehead.

Harrow watched Gideon do this and did not chastise her or call her names. No pig or slob or moron. The paint on Harrow’s forehead looked thin and faded, but it wasn’t the worst the Sixth had seen it. Harrow’s mouth worked around words that she did not say, but her eyes still had that funny shine to them, that strange quality that made Gideon feel like she might start to shake if she didn’t put all of her concentration toward holding it together.

Eventually Harrow made a noise in her throat and, apparently satisfied by the state of Gideon’s clothes, she resumed her journey to the Sixth’s door.

Once outside, Harrow stopped and turned, a gloved hand on Gideon’s sleeve.

“Follow my lead,” she said. “Do not rush into danger unless absolutely necessary. We’re coming to the end of this, whatever that end might be. We can’t--I can’t risk--”

“I know, Boss. I know. I’ve got this,” Gideon said, and the sharp look that Harrow shot her way almost made things feel normal.

Gideon wasn’t sure if that was better or worse.

Harrow released Gideon’s arm, squared her narrow shoulders, and knocked her knuckles against the door.