Gideon never learned how to swim.
She never even imagined what it might feel like to drown. There was so little water on the Ninth that drowning was hardly a feasible childhood fear. Getting gored by skeletons, sure. Suffocating to death huddled in her cell after the Ninth’s ancient systems failed? Yeah, all the time. Freezing to death huddled in her cell after the Ninth’s antique systems failed? Absolutely! Murdered by Crux, murdered by Harrow, another round of the creche flu, poisoned by Crux, poisoned by Harrow, poisoned by the great-aunts, tripping and falling from one of the upper tiers, attacked by the zombified Reverend Lord and Reverend Lady, pushed into the Tomb with the rock rolled shut behind her--all of these were reasonable fears on the Ninth. Drowning? Gideon would have to stick her nose and mouth into a cup of water and try not to think too hard about how the water used to be some decrepit old crone’s piss. So no, Gideon never imagined it, never even thought about how it might feel until she stepped foot onto the First, until she stood on a terrace and looked out at that endless blue sea, until she stepped off the edge and into a pool at Harrow’s bidding.
Even then, she didn’t really think. At least not very seriously. Harrow said jump and Gideon jumped, simple as that. She felt a little unhinged in that moment, jumping into a pool with her clothes on, her heart pounding hard in her chest. There was a brief moment of panic when she plunged into the water and remembered that she technically didn’t know how to swim, but the pool wasn’t that deep; she could stand.
Harrow plunged in after her, splashing and sputtering, her arms and legs flapping until she found her footing. Gideon watched the paint melt off Harrow’s face and she lifted her feet and discovered that treading water was easy, and she could float without much effort at all. She thought about saying so, but could hear Harrow’s retort ready and waiting: Of course you float, Griddle. Your head is a buoy, full of hot air.
The first time Gideon really imagined what it might feel like to drown was when she pulled Harrow into that hug, when she wrapped Harrow tight, felt all of Harrow’s sharp points, and plunged them both beneath the surface. Harrow went perfectly still in her arms, so calm at the thought that Gideon had chosen to end her, so accepting. After that, pressed into the corner of the pool with Harrow’s head tucked in against her shoulder, and Harrow’s fragile frame pulled tight against hers--that was when Gideon really started to think about it. She imagined what it must be like, the salt sting of the water in her nose, in her mouth. She imagined how it would fill her lungs and her throat, how together they would sink to the bottom of the pool, entwined in death the way she always new they would.
Fuck. Harrow had been ready to welcome that.
And then. Then.
Living (well, not living) inside Harrow was a lot like that moment in the pool. It was difficult for Gideon to imagine herself as a disembodied soul, re-bodied within a body that already had one soul stuffed inside it. It was a difficult thing to envision, but her stubborn consciousness envisioned it the way one might envision themselves in a dream. When Gideon thought about her situation, when she was able to think about it and understand it--she was herself as she always had been--hot, gorgeous--with her associated body, somehow squeezed up inside Harrow, in a frame that was way too small for the both of them, Gideon’s body twisted up so that her face was squashed against Harrow’s left armpit.
Other times, it felt just like those minutes (hours?) in the pool, floating on the surface, touching each other in ways they never had before--no, shut up. Not like that. This time it was Harrow doing the holding, Harrow with Gideon pressed up against her, with Gideon’s big hot-air head on a bony shoulder that bounced and jerked in an attempt to knock her off.
And then Harrow grabbed her, fingers sharp and pointed, hooks that dug in and wouldn’t let go. And then Harrow grabbed her and Gideon was forced down, and she drowned and she drowned and she drowned.
Sometimes as the waters pushed up past Gideon’s ears, she swore she could hear children laughing, a crowd of them, two hundred at least. Sometimes they screamed. Sometimes she screamed with them, two hundred and one.
Harrow latched on and yanked her down, and each time Gideon hoped it would be the last, each time she hoped that Harrow would end it, finish it, but each time Gideon realized that even though it hurt, this was not a murder; it was an embrace. And she accepted it. Sometimes she even offered herself, and then she sank and she sank and she sank.
At the bottom of Harrow there was a tunnel and if you swam through it and up, you surfaced in a cave. The ceiling dripped and crawled with those glowing worms that only seemed to live in the deepest recesses of the Ninth, the ones they chopped up and then sprayed around the eaves and beams of the great halls of Drearburh, that glowed even after they’d died and been ground to dust. There might be necromancy involved there, actually. Gideon had never thought to ask. It was hard enough to get past the idea of dead worm flecks dusting her shirts and her hair and her skin. No wonder the creak of those doors was a scream.
When Gideon pulled herself out of the water, she was not at Harrow’s surface, but locked away inside a tomb. It didn’t take her long to realize it was the Tomb, chains and all, the stuff of so many of Gideon’s childhood nightmares. Sometimes she stayed there for days, shivering but never freezing, and she wondered whose fucked up vision this was, if she’d pulled this from a nightmare or if it was an accurate recreation from Harrow’s childhood, forged by a truly fucked up memory bank. It didn’t matter. There was space to breathe there. There was space to take big gulping breaths without the hairs of Harrow’s metaphorical armpit getting sucked up her nose.
Problem was, the place was haunted. It was stuffed with ghosts that never really wanted to see Gideon, never wanted to introduce themselves, but they were there, and sometimes Gideon would catch a glimpse of one out of the corner of her eye, a child peeking around a pillar, a head surfacing in the moat of icy water and then disappearing against beneath the surface. Sometimes she would feel a hand on her arm or her back and she’d turn to find no one there.
It was also boring as hell. There was nothing to do but lay on the altar and ignore the ghosts, to imagine Harrow’s frozen girlfriend and to wonder what could be so special about an iced up dead chick. The chains were huge, mega thick, which--if an accurate rendering--said something. Maybe Gideon was developing a crush too. Maybe this was the start of a proper love triangle.
Sometimes Gideon sat at the edge of the little island and she dipped her toes in the water and shivered. That never lasted long, but it wasn’t because of the cold. She inevitably started imagining the creepy children that watched her from the dark recesses of the cave, from underwater and once from a ledge above the altar, grabbing at her feet and pulling her in. She could take a couple kids no problem, come on, but she wasn’t sure how many there actually were and she didn’t know what might happen if they all grabbed hold.
Occasionally Gideon could see things in the ripples on the water, glimpses of the actual surface, of Harrow’s face smeared with blood, of tea and biscuits, of Ianthe Tridentarius with her--what the fuck?, was Harrow actually--
Gideon went back to the altar after that. She preferred to stare up at nothing, at ice and rock, than to watch Harrow shove her tongue into Ianthe’s mouth. Fuck.
No, she had to watch.
She had to know. She spent most of her time right there, huddled at the edge of the water, her arms wrapped around her knees, ghost kids be damned. Sometimes she held her sword, terrified that someone or something would come surging out at her. Sometimes she felt no fear at all and she conjured up interesting publications to occupy her time.
If she tried to get back out of the tunnel while Harrow was active, she’d hit a stone wall, and no amount of hammering on it with her fists, no amount of screaming, would push it aside. Harrow had rolled the rock shut behind her. Harrow had locked her in.
Eventually Harrow passed out, or dozed off; never for long, just a few minutes. Sometimes Harrow left entirely and when she did, she released Gideon and Gideon floated back toward the surface, pushed up with her arms and remembered that swimming wasn’t so hard.
Those were the times that Gideon got closest to the actual surface, those brief moments when Harrow slept and the longer moments when Harrow left the building entirely. She’d get so close, and then find that there was something there, some barrier, a thick layer of ice, and Gideon would press up against it, try to push it aside, and it was only then that she struggled to breathe, that she panicked, and her mouth opened and her lungs expanded and all the water of Harrow’s innards rushed in.
And then Harrow disappeared and Gideon was sucked from her cave, pushed up toward the surface where the thick layer of ice had thawed and cracked. She was up and out of the water, no longer allowed to drown. She had a rapier in her gut and a necromancer who would not or could not return. And all Gideon wanted were Harrow’s fingers, sharp and pointed, hooks that dug in and wouldn’t let go. All she wanted was Harrow there to grab her, to force her under and hold her down. All she wanted was to drown, to drown, to drown.