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at arm’s length

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It’s the start of a lovely morning in late September, the kind of clear-cut, crisp and cool day that gives all the people scuttling about the city a blissful few hours of peace before becoming an afternoon that’s much hotter than any afternoon in fall ought to be when Gideon gets the call. She’s just shoved her way through the double doors to her gym, bag slung over her shoulder and waterbottle definitely not forgotten in her car- she’s been doing this for months, she wouldn’t forget something so important as her waterbottle, something so vital if she’s to work out in any real capacity- when she feels the telltale buzz of her phone against her leg. Years of ingrained habit have her pulling it from her pocket within the second even though past incidents have proved this a mistake; she’s trying to go to the gym, and if she so much as looks at her phone for too long then she’s going to get distracted and spend the next thirty minutes taking mirror selfies in the locker room and then deleting those mirror selfies because the lighting in the locker room is shit. She should not be on her phone. She should not be so much as thinking about her phone.


But her phone has buzzed in her pocket, and her phone has set off the Gideon that lives in the back of her head and is made of nothing but habit, and so now her phone is in her hand and her concentration’s been snared and her best-laid plans have gone awry. 


NONAGON the screen reads, accompanied by a skull emoji and then the best contact picture on earth, taken at risk of life and limb during a particularly brutal finals week: it’s a shaky snapshot of the esteemed Ms. NONAGON herself, High Lady of Darkness and also Weird Bone Shit (aka Harrowhark Nonagesimus), hunched over the stove, makeup running and hair in disarray, ancient snuggie that she’d dug out from the back of Gideon’s closet draped over her slight shoulders and one sleeve dragging all the way down into the pot of soup that she’s absolutely butchering. The clock in the back reads 3:54 AM. It’s not the sort of photo that should be used for blackmail, as Gideon’s said over and over; it’s the sort of photo that ought to be seen, that ought to be blown up into twenty foot tall exhibits and put in galleries. She’s submitted it to contests before. Got an honorable mention once for her humorous yet deeply relatable depiction of the college experience. Harrow didn’t speak to her for a month. 


But even when Harrow is speaking to her she never calls. She’s got a corner on every other form of communication (so long, of course, as she can be condescending with it), loves to give angry, derisive looks over her shoulder and speaks in clipped, cool tones, but no matter what she never calls. So though Gideon will never admit it, she feels a spike of worry as she looks at the harried, frazzled photo of Harrow blinking back up at her, and it’s a strong enough worry that it must show on her face because the girl who works the front desk- Jeannemary, only four years younger than Gideon but an absolute infant all the same, asks for workout tips and then just sort of stares, glaze-eyed, as Gideon talks- looks over at her, concerned. Gideon gives her a grin and a thumbs up that implies much more confidence than she is feeling. It’s all in the arms. Gideon has gotten away with a lot because of her arms. 


Regardless, the call, the call, the fucking call that may or may not be the herald of some horrific nightmare and therefore require her immediate and undivided attention. With her heart in her throat and her heartbeat in her head, Gideon answers that horrible, horrible call and for a second she waits, tensed and breathless, for whatever it is that’s about to happen.


“Your friend is passed out on my bathroom floor,” Harrow spits from the other end of the line, voice tinny and formless through the phone and nothing at all like her usual cold and colder way of speaking. Immediately Gideon relaxes, feels the fear seep from her and replace itself with her usual chill but also lightly antagonistic demeanor. “Come get him.” 


“Well hello there,” Gideon says, cool as she usually is because she was not in fact terrified only five seconds earlier that Harrow had finally saved them all the trouble and fucked off to die in a ditch somewhere. Gideon does not worry about Harrow, and Harrow does not worry about Gideon, and all is right with the world. “Nice day we’re having, isn’t it?”


“He showed up at four in the morning,” Harrow continues as if she hasn’t said anything at all, “And he was drunk and loud and looking for you, and when I told him that you weren’t here he sat on my couch and cried for twenty minutes straight and then threw up in my bathroom and fell asleep on the floor. I refuse to put up with him for any longer. Come get him.” 


“At four? And you didn’t call and wake me up? Nonagesimus, you’re going soft,” Gideon croons in the soft, vaguely flirty way that she knows makes Harrow angry. It’s not half as fun over the phone, not when she can’t watch Harrow’s face twist in indignation or her cheeks flush or her shoulders jump up around her jaw, but Gideon will take what she can get wherever she can get it and she will not think about the implications of that because she doesn’t want her head to explode. That way she remains intact and their conversation is able to move with the same rhythm that their conversations always have before: Harrow breathes in sharp, staccato bursts and speaks with enough sheer vitriol to level a city, and Gideon doesn’t think about it.


“You’re useless before you wake up and I didn’t want to have to deal with two lumbering idiots,” Harrow growls, and okay, alright, she’s angry angry . Gideon can deal with an angry Harrow. Gideon’s been dealing with an angry Harrow for nearly twenty-one years by now, and god knows that an angry Harrow is easier to deal with than most other people even when they’re happy.


“Well what would you’ve done if I was still asleep? It’s six in the morning,” Gideon says, waving to Jeannemary (who lets out a little squeak and immediately starts tugging on the arm of the other worker at the front desk, a short, equally young boy named Isaac) and turning right back around to walk out the doors and to her car, patting down her pockets for her keys and coming up short. She tries three pockets on her bag before she finds them tucked into the very front, right next to what looks to be a melted Snickers bar and a receipt for a trip to Waffle House even though Gideon has not been to a Waffle House in upwards of six months.


“You were going to be up,” Harrow states, confident as can be. “You’ve gone to the gym at six in the morning every other day for the past six months, Nav. You were going to be up.”


Somebody groans in the background, long and drawn-out. Harrow tells them to shut up. She sounds like she’s thirty seconds from killing a man, maybe whichever one of their ( their, even if Harrow likes to claim otherwise) poor friends deigned to show up on her doorstep, maybe her neighbor who plays music really loudly at night, maybe the next person who looks at her wrong. The world is her oyster, and right now the only thing keeping her from cracking it in two is Gideon, her mysterious Waffle House receipt, and her rock-hard abs. So with the weight of the world- not the metaphorical oyster world either, but the whole wide world, which is much heavier and makes her look much cooler- on her shoulders, Gideon gets into her car, puts the phone on speaker, and heads out. 


“Glad to know you found a use for your creepy stalker tendencies. Well worry not, Nonagon, I’ll be there in like, five minutes,” she tells Harrow, who has begun to swear like she’ll die if she stops. 


“Don’t call me that. And make it three,” she snaps before launching right back into her tirade. Something stirs in Gideon’s stomach and she squashes it right back down because feelings like that are things that she doesn’t think about, right up there with her years-long, intricately-plotted, action-packed daydream (that’s rife with character development, plenty of people swooning over her admittedly amazing biceps, and enough lore for three novels) wherein she’s a kickass cavalier and Harrow’s a necromancer and they’re in space and also coincidentally in die-for-each-other kinda love. That’s not the sort of thing that you think about when going to peel your drunk friend up off the floor of your something’s apartment; that’s second date kind of talk, the kind to slip into after you’ve had one too many glasses of wine at the way too fancy restaurant that your date swung for in a halfhearted attempt at salvaging your weeklong relationship. 


Anyways. Harrow said to make it three, so Gideon makes it two. Several traffic laws are broken and a mailbox lightly grazed, but it’s sacrifice is appreciated and Gideon is sure that it understands. Course of true love and all that jazz, or course of blinding, indomitable hatred or else all-encompassing and unnameable emotion or whatever. Something like that. She navigates the narrow, barren stretch of parking lot, does a shitty job of parallel parking, and then pulls herself from the car and climbs the stairs to Harrow’s apartment with her blood rushing red and a whole bundle of nerves that came out of nowhere prickling at her skin. The building itself isn’t particularly remarkable, nothing strange but nothing special either; bland, drab walls filled with bland, drab people living their bland, drab lives. Normal, perfectly fine human beings, and then among them someone who’s anything but. 


And it is what it is, and Gideon’s got a job to do, so she shakes aside all of the strange little thoughts that had been brewing and she raises her arm and curls her fingers into a fist and then she knocks, shave and a haircut style.


There’s a second where there’s nothing but the sound of footsteps, light and harried and moving very, very fast, before Harrow slams the door open so hard that the walls shake and glares up at Gideon in a way that would be infinitely more frightening if the top of her head reached higher than Gideon’s shoulder. She looks angry, black hair stuck up in flyaways around her sharp cheekbones, chest heaving and small frame shaking with an ill-contained rage. She shoots out a hand and wraps her thin, boney fingers around Gideon’s wrist; she’s colder than a corpse and stronger than she looks, so small that her index finger can’t quite reach her thumb and so determined that she doesn’t give a shit. Even with the laughable disparity in their sizes she manages to drag Gideon inside, close enough that her shoulder bumps up against Gideon’s chest. Gideon tries desperately to think of something to say as Harrow lets her go and turns towards her apartment, something that isn’t hey, you’re kinda strong and that’s kinda hot or I hate you but we should share an apartment and maybe co-parent a cat or if you’d have me, I’d melt into your spine.  


What comes out is: “Damn bitch, you live like this?” 


She wades into the mess that Harrow’s trying to pass off as an apartment, which is ninety percent takeout containers, nine percent absolute lack of anything that may betray an actual personality, and one percent weird textbooks about bones. Harrow wants to be an orthopedic surgeon someday, and it’s all that she’s ever talked about ever since the first time that she smeared red finger paint all over Gideon’s super cool drawing of a dragon back in kindergarten and set them down the path of an epic rivalry for the ages. It’s gotten even messier since she’s last been here, if that’s possible; Gideon swears that she sees the hilt of an honest-to-god sword peeking out from beneath a haphazard pile of papers, and if that really is an honest-to-god sword then Harrow’s been holding out on her, what the fuck. 


She doesn’t get to go investigate, which is the real tragedy here. Harrow, apparently having grown tired of her within the past thirty seconds, grabs her by the elbow this time- which is mostly ow but also kinda woah, because Gideon is a very nuanced individual- and drags her to the bathroom, a little room tucked into the side of an already tiny studio apartment. She wrenches open the door and makes a grand, sweeping gesture at the ground, face impassive.


“Behold,” she says flatly.  


And there, on the bathroom floor, in a wiry tangle of long limbs, bad decisions, and nothing but a pair of light gray boxers, is Palamedes Sextus.


“Where the fuck is Cam?” Gideon asks, bewildered, because Cam is a) one of the coolest people that Gideon knows and b) the only thing that has kept Palamedes from either arrest or untimely death by Weird Bug That He Just Had to Poke. 


“If I knew where the fuck Cam was then you wouldn’t be here,” Harrow says, nudging at Palamedes’ arm with her foot and jerking it back when he groans, opening his eyes to blink blearily up at them. 


“GIDEON!” he bellows when he sees her, and then makes a short-lived but valiant attempt to pull himself upright, skinny arms and legs skittering at perfect 45 degree angles for a moment before he gives up and lies flat again. “I KNEW YOU’D BE HERE. I WAS RIGHT. I’M OFTEN RIGHT.”


“Sure ya are, bud,” Gideon tells him, reaching down to pat his head. His glasses are folded and tucked off on the counter, and there’s a cold washcloth that heaped on the floor beside him that seems to have fallen off his forehead, and Gideon studiously does not look at Harrow. “Can you tell me where Cam is?”


Palamedes scrunches his brow. “Cam,” he says, like he’s thinking it over. “Caaaammmm. I know Cam.”


“Give the man a prize,” Harrow mutters. She looks unimpressed, though Palamedes and Cam have been friends since before they could walk, so maybe the sass is justified. And kinda funny, and completely detrimental to the situation, but, funny all the same.


“Yeah, yeah you do,” Gideon says, glaring at Harrow (just in case) before continuing. “But do you know where Cam is now? Like, right now?”

Palamedes mulls it over, picking at the hem of his discarded shirt. He looks surprised to find it on the floor until he looks down, realizes that he’s not wearing any shirt, and proceeds to take a thirty-second detour to god knows where as he visibly travels through all five stages of grief. 


“Oh no,” he says mournfully. “I’ve lost my shirt.”


And Harrow is about to lose her shit. Gideon’s gotta defuse this situation and fast, but that would be much, much easier if she’d seen Palamedes as drunk as he is more than the once and knew how to handle it; usually when they go out drinking, he prefers to sit at the bar with Harrow and make passive-aggressive comments about passerby that annoy either one of them for any number of arbitrary reasons. It’s supposed to be fun but Gideon wouldn’t know because Gideon is always busy drinking until she can hardly see straight and then doing something wildly stupid and sort of illegal. Regardless, Palamedes rarely drinks and Gideon has no idea how to handle him when he does, so improvisation it is, and by improvisation she means find Cam. 


“So you have. And nobody is more upset about that than me,” Gideon agrees. “But Cam?”


“We were drinking,” Palamedes tells her. “A lot.”


“No shit ,” Harrow hisses. The effect of her makeup, as dark and dramatic as usual, is somewhat lessened when the eyeliner is right there on the counter, right in plain sight. Gideon tries as hard as she can to tell her to shut up without actually having to turn around and tell her to shut up. 


“We were drinking,” Palamedes continues, “In a bar. We were drinking and then I turned around and she was gone and I couldn’t find her so I came here.”


“To my apartment,” Harrow says. Her hands are curled around her narrow hips, hitching up the hem of her shirt- which is oversized, black and shapeless- to show the hem of the pajama shorts beneath it. Gideon doesn’t look at her. Gideon doesn’t think about it.


“You were here,” Palamedes says, shrugging the best that he can when his coordination’s still shot, “And I thought that Gideon might be here too. She’s here a lot. I’ve noticed, because I notice things. I thought you two could help me find Cam, but instead I lost my shirt.”


“Again, a tragedy,” Gideon sighs. Maybe if she sneaks a picture she can add it to the one that she’s got of Harrow and start making a portfolio, The Folly of Man she’ll call it, and she’ll win so many awards and be so famous and so many hot women will notice her and Harrow will have to admit that she’s cool and competent and super talented because the proof will be right in front of her. “Have you texted her?”


“My phone was in my pocket,” Palamedes tells her, “And now I don’t have any pockets, so I don’t have any phones.”


“Right,” Harrow says, and then she drops down to the floor and starts rifling through the pockets of Palamedes’ discarded jeans. She pulls out a number of objects first, a ticket stub and a rock, a balled-up glove and a ring of toy keys before she emerges victorious with a phone that has no case, a big crack across the screen, and what looks to be a thousand notifications. 


“Okay,” she adds as she unlocks it (how she knows his password Gideon doesn’t know) and scrolls through his messages, squinting at the screen. “Cam is alive. And awake, and mad, it looks like. You’ve made some people very angry, Sextus. These are some creative threats .


She looks genuinely impressed, like she’s filing them away for later. Gideon shudders at the thought of Camilla Hect’s threats being known and handled and very probably executed by Harrowhark Nonagesimus. The world isn’t ready; Gideon isn’t ready.


“Nooooo,” Palamedes groans, doing a fantastic impression of both Jeannemary and Isaac from way, way back when Gideon first met them. He buries his face in his hands. “I don’t like making Cam angry.”


“Smart. That woman could eat you alive,” Harrow says. She squints at the phone for a second more and then shoots off a text, lip twisted between her teeth. Gideon does not look at it. Gideon does not think about her. “Lucky for you she seems more worried than anything. Says that she was heading down to Gideon’s apartment to see if you’d somehow ended up there.” 


“She was close,” Palamedes muses. “Gideon’s apartment. Harrow’s apartment. Apartment. Apartment. Apart-ment.”


Gideon coughs into her fist and nudges Harrow in her side, which isn’t warm of course and isn’t quite soft either, but the contact sets alarm bells ringing through Gideon’s head, in one ear and right out the other. She doesn’t think about it. 


 “Tell Cam to hurry up,” she mumbles, and then tries to situate herself far enough away from Harrow that they won’t touch again without making it seem as though she’s deliberately trying to not be near her which she is, but like, for good reason (though any reason to be away from Harrow is a good reason, any reason to be away from Harrow is a good reason, any reason to be away from Harrow is a good reason ), so she doesn’t deserve any of the snide comments that Harrow would make if she noticed. She doesn’t.  


“I’m trying,” Harrow hisses back through gritted teeth. She mashes her thumb against the screen of the phone. “She said that she’ll be here in a minute. She’s taking him back to their apartment so he can sober up in peace.”


“Apartment,” Palamedes says. He flops a hand against the tile. 


“Fuck yeah, man. Apartment,” Gideon replies. Then she takes out her phone and snaps a picture because that portfolio idea has merit and she needs a backup in case this whole jock thing doesn’t pan out. She could be into all the weird, artsy hipster shit. If nothing else she’d still be hot. 


“You two share a brain cell,” Harrow grumbles. She locks the phone and drops it on top of the heap of clothes with a flick of her wrist and a curl of her upper lip, making that face where her eyebrows arch until it’s almost comical and her eyes get all scrunched up and the little point that her chin comes to juts out into what can only be described as a pout. She’s pouting, honest to god, and Gideon doesn’t think about it.


“You wanna take a blackmail photo?” she asks, to be nice. “You could get him to like, do your laundry for a month. Maybe two if you play your cards right.”


“I refuse to take part in this any longer,” Harrow says, and then she sweeps from the bathroom and leaves Gideon with nothing but one very drunk friend, a pile of tequila-soaked clothing (what the fuck, Palamedes), and a sort of ache in her chest that’s hollow and hungry and lodged right beneath her sternum. 


Gideon doesn’t think about it. Gideon stands in the yellowish light of the bathroom, looks at the bland, drab walls and the bland, drab tiles and all of the products in various shades of black and goth that are lined along the counter, and then she claps her hands together, resigns herself to her fate, and sets about trying to get Palamedes to put his fucking clothes on, you motherfucking stickbug-


It’s an ordeal, a whole thing, and Gideon’s just managed to tug his shirt over his head- it’s backwards and inside out but it’s the thought that counts- when there’s a knock at the front door and a moment or two of muffled voices before Cam comes bursting into the bathroom, eyes blazing and looking nothing at all like somebody who’s probably still at least a little drunk. 


“PALAMEDES SEXTUS,” she roars. 


Palamedes makes a sound like a dying cat, and Gideon launches herself up and out of the bathroom because that’s Cam’s problem now and if she decides that Palamedes ought to make it out of this apartment alive than she’ll have much more luck getting him out the door than either Harrow or Gideon ever would. As it is she stands next to Harrow in her room, doesn’t comment on the sheets that she’s had since their second year of high school (only because she’s mocked Harrow to hell and back for that already, but her restraint is still admirable), doesn’t look at her face in profile, and doesn’t think about it. 


There’s the sounds of a scuffle from the bathroom, a yelp or two and a long, drawn out grumble, but Cam has Palamedes dressed and out of the bathroom in record time. She hustles him past them and to the front door next, hunched down so that his arm can drape around her shoulder and they can half-shuffle their way through the mess, like the only two participants in the world’s lamest three-legged race. 


“Thanks guys,” Cam huffs once they’ve reached the entryway, sharp eyes darting between them. “Lunch tomorrow? It’s on him.” 


She elbows Palamedes in the side. He’s not paying attention, having pulled the toy keyring from his pocket and become absolutely enamored with it.  


“Right,” Cam sighs. She reaches out to clack two of the plastic keys together and watches on in disbelief as Palamedes giggles and then mimics the action, whooping in delight. “He’s still fucking hammered . God, I was gonna go to brunch today, you know? I was gonna get waffles. Dammit. Maybe- maybe we can order in, maybe I can get someone- shit, Palamedes stop that, they’re plastic you shouldn’t fucking- shit, hey, we’ll see you two later, yeah? Yeah. Call me about lunch.”

And off she goes, still muttering about brunch and with Palamedes slung so high up on her shoulders that she’s practically carrying him, slamming the door behind her and leaving Gideon and Harrow alone. 


The silence afterwards is stale, has the wrung-out feel of a house after a party; Harrow has her arms crossed over her chest and she’s tapping her foot, one-two-three, one-two-three, the sound harsh and grating as she draws it out from the warped old hardwood floors. There’s dust gathering on the wineglass that’s sitting near the center of the counter, the one that’s teetering precariously over a pile of important-looking documents and seems to have been filled with orange juice on a day long, long ago. A sheet of paper falls from the coffee table and drifts to the ground. The neighbor next door drops something and it shatters, and their voice rises in a swell and a crash as they swear for ten seconds straight without stopping once. It’s livid. It’s vivid. There are some words Gideon doesn’t know in there. 


“Should I-” she starts, at the same time Harrow says, “Are you-”


They stop and look at each other. Harrow’s got big, dark eyes that take up more of her face than they ought to; Harrow’s got collarbones poking from her skin and hair plastered to her forehead and long, lithe fingers with their nails painted pitch black. Harrow’s got a bizarre fascination with bones and no sense of humor and wit sharp enough to kill, and Gideon- 


Well, Gideon’s got a number of emotions that she doesn’t understand, a pair of sunglasses that she may or may not have accidentally stolen, and an unholy amount of tank tops that she wears everywhere no matter the weather. Make of that what you will.  


“Should you,” Harrow says, and this time Gideon’s said, “Am I?”


They stop. They stare. Gideon clears her throat and looks away, and the neighbor next door decides to drown their sorrows about whatever it is that they broke by playing really bad music really, really loudly and giving the odd erratic sob. 


“I should go,” Gideon says. Harrow nods. They stare some more, and the music plays on, something heavy with a baseline that rattled the walls and the light wail of guitars screeching high above some singer’s scratchy, pitchy vocals. It’s really, really bad music.


It feels like hours before Gideon finally gets herself moving; it’s probably more like a few seconds, but reality feels slow and suspended and Harrow’s looking at her all weird and they just peeled Palamedes of all people off of Harrow’s bathroom floor, and things are feeling a little unreal at the moment, shifted slightly to the left. Like the usual tilt and tumble of the world has been thrown off, not enough to bring them all crashing down but enough that things have been shaken out of place, enough that when Gideon fits her hand around the doorknob she nearly stops, cracks her head around and places one shaky foot in front of the other and lets whatever may happen run its course regardless of the consequences. 


She doesn’t, of course. She does what she always does: she opens the door


“Nav,” Harrow calls suddenly. Gideon’s muscles seize and then she turns back, and for a moment her and Harrow’s eyes lock and for a moment she feels the locked-up emotions in her stomach run wild, and she nearly gives the game away then and there. Harrow considers her, drags her gaze from head to toe and then swallows, throat fluttering and hands twisting into the hem of her shirt. 


“Thanks,” she says, like it physically pains her, and it shocks Gideon right to the core.  


Dazed, she gives a two-fingered salute and turns around, walks into the doorframe, rights herself and then walks out. 


The door slam shuts behind her. She nearly trips twice on the stairs and once on the sidewalk, finds that her legs feel like they’ve gone shapeless and her muscles seem to have given out on her, and when she reaches her car her hand flops around on the door handle for a minute before she finds the strength to move herself as she’s meant to move, to open the door and slide into the driver’s seat with the same sort of numb detachment that’s marked this whole day so far. The sun’s starting to come up now and it’s orange-red-pink behind the behemoth that is Harrow’s apartment building (which looms like a giant or a vulture or perhaps a giant vulture) and the clouds are breaking into wisps over a sky that looks like a shell, and Gideon thinks that she might just be dying.


She pitches her head forwards against the steering wheel and takes some petulant satisfaction in the sharp sound of the horn and the way that Harrow must’ve startled at it, able to let her guard down for just a moment because she’s safe in her apartment, high, high up and locked fast behind her door. Gideon thinks that it must mean something, that she’s so desperate to make an impression; Gideon thinks she could figure it out, if she really tried hard enough.


But Harrow is Harrow and Gideon is Gideon, and there’s so much to say there that she doesn’t know where to start and there’s so much to think about that she doesn’t know where to start and there’s so much to touch and feel and say and shout and stutter that she doesn’t know where to start. So cross her heart and hope to die, Gideon starts her car and drives off into the sunrise, and she doesn’t think about it.