After Lyctorhood, after leading them to the triumph of all their efforts and subsequently passing the fuck out, Harrow had ended up sleeping on Gideon’s lap for hours. That throat-cut sleep of hers. Bone-cocoon mode. As if she should have expected anything else, Gideon thought. They were going to have to work on this.
Once it became obvious that Harrow was going to be unconscious for a while, the cavalier in Gideon had wanted to carry her to a real bed— but for some reason she had not moved. Nightfall had left the cathedral so pitch-black that it felt like they’d fallen through a hole in time and space, alone in a starless universe. Something about that was comforting to a Niner girl, and Gideon had wanted to keep it, had wanted to stay in the limbo between what they’d done and what came next, where the only sensation was the uncomplicated softness of Harrow’s hair.
More to the point, she hadn’t known which room Harrow had meant for them to occupy— and not that it mattered really, but it kind of mattered a little bit.
In the end Cam had returned to check on them, candles in hand, her halo of sepia-light drawing Gideon back into the real world like a fish to a lantern. The light had also roused Harrow, barely. They’d all stumbled through the covent grounds, shivering, to the dusty silent dorms, whiffs of sulphur from the bathing-yard and Camilla’s wet hair carrying over on the breeze. Harrow had tugged Gideon’s hand down the hall in one direction, and Cam had nodded once and gone the other way.
The room Harrow had picked appeared to have been intended to host convent visitors, because by nun standards it was luxurious in the extreme: fully twice the size of Gideon’s old cell back in Drearburh, a spine-breaking fainting couch, and a chipped washbasin, a small mirror. All this in addition to a bed for one occupant, which was at least, to give Harrow credit, unquestionably bigger than the ascetic's cots in the other rooms.
As Gideon fumbled with the door latch, Harrowhark passed out again, slumping against her; Gideon had managed to hoist the poor girl onto the mattress. She had then raided the adjacent rooms for more of the rough brown blankets with moth-holes in them, piled them over Harrow in her preferred nest-like arrangement as best she could. Then she shoved the couch against the foot of the bed and, before she could overthink it, kissed Harrow on the cheek.
Wrapped up and settled into her makeshift cav cot, in the dark with her back already protesting, Gideon had blushed hard, which was so stupid. None of what she was feeling, joy and confusion both, made any sense. She should really be keeping watch. Harrow hadn’t set any wards...maybe now that they were Lyctors, there was no need. Cam didn’t seem to think so. But what if...
She could hear Harrow breathing. It was so quiet, here in the mountains; no gunfire, no vehicles, no bombs.
Gideon promised herself she’d try to stay awake a little longer, but despite the evils of the couch she was out in mere minutes, out so hard that nothing short of a second Resurrection could have woken her.
The next thing she was aware of was the whitewashed light of midday. She peeked over at the rumpled bed with a groan, but Harrow had already left the room, probably hours and hours ago.
Gideon rolled off the couch with her spine more twisted than Crux’s, and slouched painfully around the place until she found Cam in the kitchen, humming to herself while opening cans. Between the two of them they opened all they could find, triaged them into inedible and possibly-edible clusters. The possibly-edible lineup was depressingly skimpy. Cam took a long sniff of one can that was some type of preserved meat, and decided they might risk it if it were cooked. Birds had nested in the kitchen chimney, so Cam took her matches and a borrowed iron pot outside.
Gideon left her to it and went to find Harrow. She knew where to go. She would have anyway, but there was something about Lyctorhood that gave her a homing instinct, that had been nudging at her since she’d woken up. As she yielded to it at last, she thought again of Harrow in her bone cocoon, and wondered, in the sober light of morning, if they would ever think twice about what they’d done.
The sky was clear today, but despite the inexorable tide of spring, the atmosphere had a snap to it that Gideon had learned might mean snow. She was glad to enter the cathedral again, where she could convince herself it was fractionally warmer. Harrow was lying flat on her stomach in the pattern of their ward (how did she stand it?), surrounded by the stained-glass light and pieces of chalk, clutching a metal ruler. With every measurement she muttered the results under her breath, a nearly unbroken incantation. Gideon could sense her concentration like a hammer.
Gideon sat down and stayed quiet, watching. Harrow eventually whispered her final figure to herself, clambered painfully up, and came to stand in front of her.
“Cam made soup,” Gideon greeted her.
Harrow’s eyes were bright despite the lines of exhaustion still on her face. Gideon hadn’t felt awkward, at all, but as her spine twinged she suddenly wondered if she should feel awkward. Which immediately provoked that very feeling.
But then Harrow leaned forward and kissed her, hands perched on Gideon’s shoulders. Gideon’s mind went quiet. Her fingertips grazed against Harrow’s outer thighs.
Harrow pulled back, blinked, and asked, “Is the soup actually ready yet?”
“Um.” Soup? “No, not yet. I have no idea when it’ll be done?”
“Do we have any salt?”
“I...don’t think so?”
Harrow nodded as if that made sense. “That’s probably for the best.”
This seeming to satisfy her, Harrow took the two steps up to the center of the chancel and lay down in her River repose, which Gideon, now that she thought of it, very faintly remembered as being different from that preferred by God’s imperfect Lyctors. There was no soft, defensive C-curve to Harrow’s spine. She just stretched out like a queen lying in state.
“Going to see SexPal?” Gideon asked, picking absentmindedly at the decaying rug over the stairs.
“Yes,” Harrow said, folding her fingers together as she shifted. “I can only memorize so much. I need to report and work with the data we have so far, before I can usefully take any more measurements.”
“Okay.” Gideon wanted to reach out and touch her, so she did. Just a brush against Harrow’s temple. “Be careful, please? I never feel good about it when you go down there—”
“Griddle,” Harrow cut her off, mercifully. “Your worry is misplaced. I am a perfect Lyctor. I can manipulate the River, now.”
Gideon cocked an eyebrow in skepticism. Twelve hours of Ninefold Lyctorhood and Harrow was already pretending she was an expert. “That savors strongly of hubris, gloam dutchess— and also you should know it does things to me when you say ‘manipulate’ in that deliciously suggestive tone.”
Harrow’s mouth knotted in irritation. “You do realize you could come with me, if you’re so concerned?”
This shut Gideon up for real, her mind blown. Even though she’d followed Harrow into the River just yesterday, it would never have occurred to her...the whole thing with saving the planet had been, well, a special case, a one-time desperate last stand, or so she’d thought. And now Harrow was claiming she could waltz back in at any time?
After an embarrassingly long pause, Gideon coughed, “Should I?”
Harrow appraised her, considering. But shook her head.
“No— not yet. I’ll need to teach you some things, I see that now. And I will. But there isn’t time today.”
“I get it,” Gideon said, brushing Harrow’s temple again. “I am your willing River apprentice, night captain. I shall wait upon your command.”
Harrow sighed a little, then beckoned Gideon over. Her gesture was curt, but her expression was open, solemn. Obeying without question, Gideon bent down with hands on either side of Harrow’s face, kissing in a strangely liminal way: chastely, almost chivalrously, yet once they started they could not quite bring themselves to stop.
After an immeasurable period, Harrow dodged the next kiss, and said roughly into the side of Gideon’s face, “I’ll see you when I get back. Find something to amuse yourself with until then.”
Gideon could only watch in adoration as Harrow closed her eyes and slipped her soul away. It was on the tip of her tongue to ask, do you really have to?, but Harrow was already gone, a dart of silver beneath the surface. The Lyctoral compass continued to point true. Gideon knew then that if it came to it, if she really had to, she could find Harrow anywhere, even in the River. It was not exactly comforting, but she was glad of it— fiercely, ardently, bared-steel glad.
Her necromancer would be all right alone: she was sure of this now. Gideon went to see if she could find Harrow some paper.
After mutually surviving a bowl of soup each, and after Gideon had gone to leave another bowl of it and five crumpled sheets of old paper and a pen by Harrow’s vacant body, she and Camilla started sparring. There was nothing better to do. They chose a flat piece of ground between the convent outbuildings and the woods beyond: empty shattered hives, weed-choked gardens. Their footwork scuffed martial patterns into the dirt for the entire afternoon, the metallic waterfall of their swordplay nearly unbroken, tireless. This was another revelation for Gideon, to begin to map the limits of her Lyctoral abilities. Now she was beating Cam seven times out of ten. It felt like cheating, or would have, if Camilla had been anyone else: the Sixth cavalier still had an endless list of criticisms to make of Gideon’s rapier technique, and every one of them was correct.
It was getting closer to sunset by the time Cam called a halt, claiming she wanted to start a survey of the area. It would soon be too dark for surveying, but Gideon was more than happy to agree with this fiction, to allow Cam the solitude she’d earned a hundred times over.
It did, however, leave Gideon at loose ends. She wanted to go back to the cathedral— but she talked herself out of it, and decided to try out the hot spring.
This totally turned out to be the right move. It was incredible— life changing— so far superior to her only other bathing experience, the tepid Canaan house tub, that it wasn’t even in the same category. She was nose-blind to the smell in minutes, and then it was just the hot water drawing aches out of her body she hadn’t even known she carried.
Fully converted, Gideon tried hard to indulge, relax. She submerged herself to scrub at her hair, drifted blissfully in the deep center of the pool where the water reached her shoulders, and when she finally got too warm, rested at the edge where a rough stone bench allowed a bather to sit waist-deep.
She felt happy, or should have felt happy. Thinking about Harrow (and she was never not thinking about Harrow) provoked such acute happiness it was almost painful, but without anything else to distract her, Gideon could see how the feeling was fertile ground for other types of pain, too. The sorrowful relief at how close they had come over and over to losing each other; a kind of bitterness at what this happiness had cost them.
Gideon had never in her life given so much as a passing thought to innocence, or mourned her own infant loss of it, but now she felt a little betrayed by fate. It wasn’t fair that she should be so... restless, or— grieving, or melancholic. Not after being bound so wonderfully tightly to the person she treasured. This was supposed to be the easy part, she thought, kicking at the water with a halfhearted splash as if this solitary pleasure was to blame. She and Harrow ought to be, like, idling in a bower somewhere and feeding each other fruit. Or whatever. Laughing like loons. Totally besotted without any idea yet of why that might make them sad, someday. Not exhausted and waiting to be captured and surviving on maybe-rotten food out of scavenged cans.
She threw some water into her face, then tilted her head back to regard the deepening blue-grey sky of evening. There were flickers of motion here and there against the rising curls of steam: bats. So much life in this place, she’d never get used to it. Even the musty blankets were made of animal hair, Cam had said. And the candles were real wax, which apparently came from insects. And Gideon had returned from the dead to see all this. And Harrow with her. Bloody hell.
She wanted to keep soaking, but could no longer resist her yearning to be closer to Harrowhark. Gideon was already getting a handle on what her Lyctoral connection could tell her, and knew in her bones that Harrow was not yet out of the River. But so what? The bath wasn’t going anywhere. She got out, dried herself with mixed success using an old blanket, and got dressed.
For the remainder of the night, she practiced rapier guards in the nave of the cathedral while two honey-scented tapers burned to stubs, glancing up frequently to watch Harrow’s silent form in the candlelight, smiling fondly with every glance. Her swordwork might have been a bit sloppy but hey, Cam wasn’t around to point it out. When Harrow came back, Gideon was there to kiss her in welcome, to help pull Harrow to her feet again, to rub the circulation back into her arms. And when Harrow nearly tripped down the steps with tiredness, Gideon did not have to work very hard to persuade her to go to bed.
Halfway across the courtyard Harrow really did trip, on the edge of the sunken grave where the convent’s dead were buried, and Gideon just barely managed to catch her fall. “For cripe’s sake, Nonagesimus,” she murmured as she picked Harrow up, part of her astonished that Harrow didn’t protest the treatment. “Should I tie you to that bed to make sure you sleep a full eight hours?”
“As you would have it,” Harrow conceded, which neatly disarmed any jokes Gideon might’ve had lined up to follow. “The last time I was a Lyctor,” Harrow added petulantly, “I did not need such an appalling amount of sleep.”
“Yes you did,” Gideon said, “You just ignored it. I was intimately aware. Not this time, sugarlips. And no juicing your brain for hormones or whatever, there’s no excuse for it when you’ve got me to watch your back.”
Harrow didn’t reply, but her arm snaked up over Gideon’s shoulder, and she turned her face into Gideon’s chest, and on the threshold of the dormitory hall Gideon had to pause just to savor the indescribable feeling of Harrow’s weight in her arms. Given their history, nothing about holding Harrowhark so close to her should have felt this new. But it did. It was bright-copper new, it was dazzling.
When the pause had gone on a minute too long, a crease formed in Harrow’s brow, of confusion, and Gideon whispered, “Sorry,” and kissed her on the crease of that frown, and walked them the rest of the way to the room.
Harrow was fast asleep by the time Gideon set her down, so for the second day in a row she heaped blankets over her necromancer before curling up on the couch at Harrow’s feet.
It took Gideon a longer time than the prior night to fall asleep herself. The couch did not improve on acquaintance, but it would have been impossible to sleep even in a feather bed, with the fresh memory of holding Harrowhark thrumming through her body as if she were a plucked guitar string. She didn’t know where she stopped and her Lyctorhood began, where any part of her stopped belonging to Harrow, and she would have chosen this in any of a thousand or thousand million timelines, but she didn’t know what it would mean in the end. Would Harrow notice?
The next day was pretty much the same, until it wasn’t.
In the morning, Gideon and Cam wasted some time attempting to snare rabbits. They absolutely sucked at it. Even Camilla’s all-knowing competence apparently had limits. Gideon didn’t blame her, progeny of the Empire as they were— but then on the way back to the convent they scared up a fat, pear-shaped bird out of pure luck, and Cam got it with a split-second knife-throw. Gideon renewed her private vow to remain on Cam’s good side at any cost.
Cam was elbow-deep in feathers by the time Gideon had filled their cook pot with water. Fresh food being a thrilling prospect, she then hovered, trying to think of another way she could help. But Cam leveled her with an absolutely flat look of disbelief and asked pointedly,
“Haven’t you got anything better to do?”
At which Gideon had sidled off, annoyed that she had somehow missed the joke.
She was back in the hot spring, lounging with her arms draped along the edge of the pool, when her Lyctoral compass told her that Harrow was approaching. That, and the faintest clacking suggestion of bone-filled pockets, the sound of which made Gideon grin like she hadn’t in weeks. You could take the nun out of Drearburh but you couldn’t take the weird creepy bone-obsession out of the nun. Harrow was such a witch.
From behind the gated hot-spring entrance, Harrow cleared her throat, and for a second Gideon felt a little caught out— wasn’t sure what to say. She cleared her own throat, for different reasons.
“‘Morning, shadow commander.”
There was a tiny snort from beyond the fence, but Harrow acknowledged her with a crisp “Griddle.”
“Taking a break from your dark arts?” Gideon asked, presently, when Harrow did not speak further.
“One might say that,” Harrow said, sounding aggrieved.
“Did you and Pal get in a spat, or something?”
Harrow mumbled something too low for Gideon to hear.
“He kicked me out.”
Gideon tried not to snicker audibly.
“It’s not funny, Nav,” Harrow complained in clipped tones.
“Oh my God, yes it is. What do you mean— out of the whole River?”
Harrow hesitated, and then, with begrudging admiration, “He ejected me from his theorem bubble. And locked the entry. I didn’t realize he had the means, or the ability. He’s been playing that close to the chest.”
Gideon eased herself deeper into the water, closing her eyes. Fucking hilarious. “Sounds like the man wanted some privacy.”
Harrow sighed the pained sigh of a woman forced to suffer fools, and confessed through gritted teeth, “He said I was to tell you this verbatim: ‘Consider us even. You’re welcome.’”
“He is such a goddamn busybody,” Gideon said, grin widening.
“I’m not going to assume I know what he meant, and you shouldn’t either.”
“He probably just thinks you need more sleep,” Gideon said, “and he’s right, by the way.”
“Hardly. You’re projecting.” Harrow sighed again. “However. Your point is...not without merit. Lyctorhood— our Lyctorhood— well. I am not as immune to physical needs as I was previously.”
Gideon awarded herself a little gold star for passing right on by the phrase physical needs, and chose nagging instead.
“Does that mean you’re going to take a nap?”
“...I need to wash,” Harrow admitted, tightly.
Her Lyctor-given sense of Harrow’s emotions would have tipped Gideon off to the real anxiety behind this statement, if she hadn’t already known. Harrow still had a reluctance about water, which was itself a deep source of frustration for her. But there was probably no getting around it. They had all been desperately in need of a wash many times over after the last few weeks. Apparently Harrow was the only one who hadn’t used the bath yet.
“I think there’s a bucket in here,” Gideon said. “You can do a sponge-bath. I mean, there’s no sponges, but you can tear off a bit of blanket, or something. And we found a piece of soap, it’s rock-hard but it’s better than nothing.”
“That will be adequate,” Harrow agreed, sounding resigned, making no move to get it over with.
“Want me to wash your back for you?” Gideon teased, trying to distract her.
“This isn’t a scene from one of your skin mags, Nav.”
“Not with that attitude it isn’t,” she said, but without any barbs in it. She sat up, sending the water sloshing. “Don’t worry, I’ll get out.”
“No,” Harrow said quickly, surprising Gideon so much that she froze halfway to standing. “I mean,” her adept continued, “there isn’t a need for you to rush. I was intending to wait for you.”
Gideon remained crouched with indecision for ten whole seconds, wondering how they could have possibly ended up here, and then, bracing herself only a little against her own daring, said, “Look, just come in then.”
No answer. But nothing that Harrow was feeling, inscrutable though it was, suggested offense. Gideon coaxed. “This pool is huge, you won’t have to take a bath with me. I won’t stare. I’ll be so mature and chaste. I won’t even joke about how I don’t bite.”
The silence from beyond the gate was withering.
“Harrow,” Gideon said, more sincerely, “You hosted my soul for nine months. I had custody of your body for months on top of that.” We've been making out, like, a lot, she almost said, but that would have made it worse. “It’s just me. Don’t be butt-touched.”
For another second there was still no response, and Gideon expected only some cutting remark in reply, but then the gate squeaked in protest as Harrow swept it open, and again as she closed and latched it firmly behind her.
“I am not butt-touched,” Harrow said, looking at Gideon, glancing away, then back, face reddening. Gideon caught the note of embarrassment following the remark, which it deserved, entirely scripted as it was from the am not, are too of their childhood.
“Luckily, a curable condition,” Gideon said, adding a wink, just for the fun of seeing Harrow glower at her, but also a little bit for the lifeline of staying on script. Because Harrow was stripping her clothes off with a grim efficiency, casting them into a heap next to the fence, and unlike back home, on this planet she didn’t have all that many layers to lose.
As promised, Gideon did not stare. This was easy; after all she’d seen Harrow naked before, once when alive and countless times after death, and she could pretend that this was easy. For the months when she had piloted Harrow’s body, it had proved impossible to care for it without growing calloused to the biological reality of it. And caring meticulously for Harrow’s body had been the only way Gideon had found to survive the terror she’d had to live with then, the fear of the loss she’d thought she’d avoided when she chose the railing.
But the view of Harrow’s nakedness now, from the other side of resurrection, was different. And maybe Gideon was breaking the spirit of her promise to be chaste, but holy shit, she hadn’t been fool enough to promise not to look.
Every passing glimpse offered some new priceless detail she had never allowed herself to notice before. The daintiness of Harrow’s feet. The bones standing out of her wrists. The smooth indentation of her ribs under brown skin, like sculpted sand. Her legs were reedy, but her breasts were lovely— small, rounded— another indulgent embellishment on a work of beauty otherwise severe in character.
Gideon knew that their Lyctorhood would be broadcasting exactly how she was feeling, but maybe that meant her straight face was worth something.
Harrow located the bucket, but discovered that it was cracked. Thus with her mouth in a resigned press, soap in hand as if it were a weapon, she descended into the pool, made her way to the shallow corner where the water drained out, and began to scrub.
Gideon struck out for the deeper end, where the steam was thick enough that she could pretend it obscured her view, where she could float on her back and allow the sound of her own blood in her water-stopped ears to steady her.
So she didn’t hear when Harrow softly called, “Nav,” but the Lyctoral bond carried the summons anyway. Gideon dropped out of her float and answered, hoarsely, “You rang, night boss?”
“Your service as a cavalier, please. I’d appreciate some help washing my back after all.”
She was holding out the pathetic little shim of soap. The humidity gave her silhouette the muted quality of a watercolor. Not really the medium for the stoic pall Harrow’s frown cast on her features— the perpetual dark shadows under her eyes, the raven-black eyelashes that looked blacker against the new gold in her face. With those irises, Harrow really looked like a Lyctor: she looked lit from within. Gideon tried not to swallow any water.
She treaded her way over, collected the soap out of Harrow’s hand, and gently, with a push to one shoulder, turned Harrow around.
Working the bar between her hands until there was at least the suggestion of a lather, Gideon began at the highest segment of spine, moved out to the shoulder blades, and down again. There was more than enough dirt and sweat to demand some concentration on the favor. Evidence of survival.
It wasn’t even all that erotic, which surprised her; she had feared it would be torturously so. But Gideon suffered a different kind of undoing altogether, the plain soap smell bringing a lump to her throat in an instant. She at once understood why she had always envied the domesticity in the work of other cavaliers: Camilla’s handkerchiefs, even Colum’s adroit french-braiding. It was on such mundanity that love was really founded. The railing, and the Ninefold Theorem, all of that meant something too, but this was a microcosm of forever: the nerve-wracking and wonderful probability that she might wash Harrow’s back for her every day, for the rest of their lives.
She repeated the process twice, which was as many times as she thought she could get away with, although if she had paid more attention to her Lyctoral senses she might have known better. When finished, she leaned around to pass the soap back, taking care not to touch— but when Harrow’s head turned fractionally, Gideon bent toward her, and kissed the small shell of her ear.
Harrow flushed darker, to the very top of her neck. She went still: a pause before motion, the apex of a pendulum swing. In the breathless silence broken only by the burble of the pool drain, Gideon could no longer resist, and made an armpit fart.
Harrow startled away like she’d been electrocuted.
Gideon almost drowned laughing, helped along by ankle-high bone constructs that tripped her into the shallows with a resounding splash. When she was back under control she fully planned to apologize, but one look at Harrow’s scandalized expression set her off again, until she was sprawled over the poolside gasping in mirth.
“Your face,” she wheezed. “You are so butt-touched, Nonagesimus.”
At that Harrow bore down on her, a jewel-hard glint in her eye. “I have made a hog into a saint,” she lamented, fingers finding purchase around Gideon’s jaw, legs straddling her where she sat. Gideon’s hands in turn found Harrow’s waist, blinking in disbelief while her heart rate soared. “I would feel blasphemous,” Harrow continued, leaning to kiss her, “if I still believed in anything holier than you.”
Something about the sulphurous air made Harrow taste sweeter. Even as her mind shorted out, Gideon could appreciate how fucking good this was; their fledgling kisses were getting better and better. Their hands tangled in each other’s hair. Harrow surged forward, and Gideon’s arms went around her. They were crushed together, chest to chest.
There really had been three or four magazines in her old collection about this specifically. Necking in a steam bath, sweating and naked. Classics. Clichéd, even. Fuck the fucking magazines. The sensation of skin against skin in the warm water was branding itself onto Gideon’s nervous system; the way it felt to have Harrow’s tiny frame clinging wetly against her was going to haunt her every waking hour forever more. The pool edge was digging into her back. The water crested just under Harrow’s navel. Gideon felt sick with desire, as if she’d come down with a fever.
“Harrow,” she whispered, nosing into Harrow’s clavicle, running a hand along the outside of her hip, slick under the water. “Honey. Firmament lady. Oh, hell.”
Harrow made a soft sound, as if there were words she couldn’t get out. She drew Gideon’s head up, fit their lips back together again.
It was a sharper kiss, this time. Gideon groaned into it, and pulled Harrow down, seating her more firmly into her lap. This backfired, because when Harrow bucked her hips in response, the yelp Gideon made was so embarrassing it derailed the moment.
It was so much. She didn’t want it to be too much. Instinctively, eyes closed in shame, Gideon did what she’d done under the cathedral dome while drowning in Lyctoral power, and reached for Harrow soulward.
The bond between them resonated. Her heart calmed a little. Gideon was able to look up, and take Harrow’s measure: somehow the soap or the kissing had wiped away most of her fear. She still looked careworn, hunger-worn— but Harrowhark Nonagesimus did not look diminished. Rather, with her divine irises and the glowing flush, she was every inch the blazing woman Gideon remembered from all the moments when Harrow had refused to take shit from the universe.
Harrow was staring back, biting her inside cheek, and under this mutual scrutiny Gideon wondered with a start, for the first time, how her own face had changed. She would have Harrow’s eyes now. Shit, she’d had them for two whole days and hadn’t thought to look. What if they were weird on her? What if Harrow didn’t like them?
Harrow lifted her hand and traced her fingers around Gideon’s eye socket: down the curve of the eyebrow, over the shelf of the cheekbone.
“They remind me of your knuckle-knives,” Harrow said.
“How did you know what I was thinking?”
“I don’t need Lyctorhood to read you like a book,” Harrow demurred. She ran her thumb across the cheekbone again. “Obsidian...Volcanic in nature. Ablative.” She swallowed silently, as if trying to hide it. “They’re...striking.”
Gideon was finding it hard to breathe evenly. “Then you don’t regret it,” she said, then wished she hadn’t. She knew Harrow had no regrets. The bond itself could tell her as much. But—
“I haven’t been trying to avoid you,” Harrow said in a rush. “I was— stymied. I felt that, surely, I could not ask for this, too, after everything. I never thought beyond Lyctorhood— I feared it, and I wanted it, and I did it like I had the right to it, with no idea what I was really demanding—”
Gideon kissed her softly, to stem the flood, and then took a deep breath, to say what she should have said plainly a long, long time ago.
But in this pause Harrow brought Gideon’s hand up to touch her breast, watching intently with the kind of hunger she devoted to new theorems. There were no words Gideon could have uttered while caressing the sweet palmful of Harrow’s tit for the first time; it was as much as she could do not to bite her tongue.
Harrow scrunched her face up when Gideon stroked her nipple, and Gideon found enough breath to blurt out,
“Penumbral mistress, I’m starting to think that you’re trying to seduce me.”
She just couldn’t help this final deflection, and she hoped that Lyctorhood would tell Harrow the truth about it. That she was only afraid, not backing down. Harrow was the only source of true fear she’d ever had.
She didn’t expect a straight answer, either, and when she got one, the punch of arousal it delivered knocked the wind out of her.
“Yes,” Harrow said, almost sounding surprised. She cracked an uneasy grin. “You make it so easy, I’d hardly call it seduction. You’re a pushover when you’re hot and bothered, you always have been.”
“And you’re not?” Because Harrow could use however much bravado she liked, but her hips were subtly shifting, and she didn’t appear to be doing it consciously. Gideon leaned forward, utterly a supplicant before the bow of those lips, pinned by the golden shaft of Harrow’s regard.
“Not to you, unfortunately.” And now there was a discernible crack in that bravado, but Harrow’s hand was on Gideon’s inner thigh, under the water, moving up suggestively, no, intentionally, fuck, right there, resting motionless at the apex of Gideon’s leg.
Harrow leaned yet closer, and said,
“I cannot believe you’ve been sleeping on that fucking couch.”
They almost didn’t make it back to their room. Putting clothes on seemed to take forever (Harrow insisted, why though), and not just because they were both still wet (ha), or because for every item either of them donned, the other would shove it halfway off again the next minute, stealing searing, desperate kisses from each other. Somewhere in the endless dormitory hall Harrow looked over her shoulder with such an impish, irresistible smile that Gideon yanked her back that one half-step right into her arms, and Harrow’s shirt was off for good before they managed to move on, one nipple newly wet from Gideon’s lips and tongue.
Gideon kicked the door closed behind them after they tumbled through it. They were in bed together, pants wretched off, Gideon imposing with her thigh, parting Harrow below her, when the pendulum of nervousness swung back and she was suddenly out of ideas. She kept her mouth against Harrow’s anyway. Harrow was nipping at her, scraping teeth and bruising kisses over her lips, then her throat, enticing out noises like she was drinking Gideon’s soul up by the spoonful. She could have it. She could have it: everything she took was returned to Gideon ninefold. Feeling Harrow run one tiny hand down the curve of her ass added a myriad of years to Gideon’s life.
Through her pounding pulse she tried to reciprocate, to start a journey southward over Harrow’s body. One thing at a time. More tit-sucking would do for now. Couldn’t go wrong with tits. But Harrow got a fist in her hair and pulled, and Gideon was undone— felled. She rolled over at the slightest shove after that, hit the mattress to the arresting vision of Harrow leaning over her, touching her, as if Gideon’s breasts were Harrow’s own masterwork.
Gideon did not know what to do with her hands. She made a fist, and then bit it to stifle another moan.
Harrow collected Gideon’s un-bitten hand, smoothed the fingers open like it was one of her constructs, and guided this hand around the dome of her head. Then she held it there. Their overlapping fingers threaded into black hair. The world tilted; Harrow was bending lower.
But she knew what. Gideon’s hips betrayed her as much as their Lyctorhood did, lifting to meet Harrow’s descent. She felt like crying. The hand on Harrow’s skull was latched as if to a live current, seized there. The greater part of her was panicking to let go. And the deeper smaller part of her, the part of her that was Harrow’s strength and sword, wasn’t.
Harrow’s tongue opened her, and Gideon shuddered.
She had always been so fearless, Harrowhark— she never flinched, not from anything, and Gideon would’ve thought she might have then, but never. Harrow explored her fully, hungrily. Devot, even— letting the wetness cover her face like paint. There was an endless loop of longing through their bond, with Harrow fanning the flames of it, and just, God, the feeling of this, Harrow’s unbelievably long licks, from the center of her all the way up, the pressure and joy of wanting, Gideon’s legs falling further apart as she gave in, fuck—
“Fuck,” she growled, and then in a voice close to breaking, “Fuck, Harrow.”
She was going to come. She was holding herself against that exquisite mouth, using and riding, and Harrow must have known she was close, sucking against the swollen ridge of her clit. Gideon could not stop it. How dare she, how could she— Something was going to break when it happened, Gideon was going to be left in the wreckage with her heart all over the place and everywhere, and she wanted it so blindly she couldn’t even think.
She begged in the softest voice she’d ever used, “Please,” having no idea what she meant by it, or why she had to say it at all. She said it again. “Please—”
She felt Harrow’s other hand on her hip tighten, and her tongue flatten into a gorgeously demanding stroke. Harrow’s feelings were a thousand shades of triumph. Gideon went under. She pressed herself into Harrow’s face and shouted, wordless, alive.
When she recovered her senses, Harrow was still pillowed against her thigh, eyes closed beatifically. Gideon pulled her up, leaned over, offhand arm under Harrow’s neck, ignoring the slight sound of surprise Harrow made when she was kissed.
“You don’t have to,” Harrow murmured.
“Sugar,” Gideon breathed, sucking the taste of herself off Harrow’s mouth, fingertips alighting tremulously over the spare curves of Harrow’s body, “I’m asking. I’m begging you. Please let me. Whatever you want.”
Harrow wrapped her long fingers around the wrist of Gideon’s wandering hand. At her halting guidance, Gideon carded the rough hair between Harrow’s legs, traced lower, skimming her entrance. She was so slick— holy fuck. Harrow pulled, and Gideon was two fingers inside her to the second knuckle before she could stop.
It was like being in the eye of a storm. They were each quiet, tense, panting. Harrow tugged harder, a thin whine in the very back of her throat, and Gideon buried her fingers to the hilt, pressed. Her thumb rolled over Harrow’s clit, finding her way.
“Tell me what you like,” Gideon pleaded. “Tell me.”
Harrow’s eyes were still closed, her brow lined deep with concentration. For a long while she didn’t answer, finally gritting out, as Gideon began to slow down just in case, “Don’t stop.”
In the magazines women said don’t stop quite often; Gideon could work with that. She kissed open-mouthed at Harrow’s jaw, and along the side of her face. She tried to settle into a rhythm, with certain success. Harrow’s grip slackened, her back arched, and she breathed the echo of Gideon’s earlier plea. “Don’t stop. Griddle. Please.”
“Not stopping,” Gideon promised. “Not until you say.”
“I shouldn’t— I haven’t attempted orgasm in— years,” Harrow admitted, her voice small. Making the word orgasm sound clinical, as if she hadn’t just passionately authored one of the best Gideon had ever had. “It’s an aptitude that— that I never cultivated. If you want to stop—”
“Harrow,” Gideon said. “The hell I’d stop. I will make you a deal, which is that I will stay here forever,” she hooked her fingers a little harder then, for emphasis, “and you tell me when you’re done.”
Harrow tightened her grip again on a gasp, holding Gideon inside her. She was tense, anxious, but Gideon could also feel the desire, and so she let herself be held. She savored it.
“You know I want this,” she murmured into the warm space between Harrow’s neck and shoulder. She wanted to move again, but Harrow’s fingers were vicelike, iron. “You read me like a book, right? You know exactly how bad I want you.”
“You need to know I belong to you, too,” Harrow said, urgently. “Gideon? You know that all you ever have to do is ask me.”
“Yeah,” Gideon said, swallowing. “Yeah.”
She didn’t know how long it took, but when Harrow’s death grip eased, Gideon pulled out slow, not all the way, just enough to tease in a third finger. “Can I fuck you now?” she whispered, and Harrow made the most beautiful broken-off noise, a faint but discernible nod. “May I, Nonagesimus? Because I would like to.” She pressed in again, and Harrow’s astonished sigh of pleasure immediately became Gideon’s main new reason for living. “I’d really, really like to fuck you until you can’t name all the bones in my hand.”
Her forearm started to burn at some point, but she didn’t need her Lyctoral endurance to want to push through it. In the end she stumbled on a pattern Harrow seemed to like: shallow strokes, thumb rubbing firm, down and up again. Harrow was making tiny, diamond-perfect sounds. And after a blissfully timeless interval of that, there came a moment without warning, when Harrow said, “Gideon,” as if she had only just remembered a thing she’d forgotten, and Gideon felt Harrow’s cunt flutter around her hand.
Maybe that was an orgasm. Maybe it was just the promise of one. But Harrow kept moaning her name— “Gideon, Gideon,”— and pulsing with her hips, and bringing her hand up to drag her nails through Gideon’s hair.
“Quick, how many bones in the wrist?” Gideon said, grinning, and when Harrow just gasped, “Shut up, Nav,” Gideon felt a flush of victory from head to toe.
It felt right to slow it down after that, to take a few kisses from Harrow as her panting eased into deeper breaths, and eventually, with only a little reluctance, to pull out.
Harrow was sweaty. They both were. Gideon could taste the salt of it when she turned Harrow towards her, lips to brow, and gathered her girl into her arms. She breathed in, breathed out— she felt as if gravity had forgotten them, felt strangely aware of herself as a creature of atoms and electricity— as if Harrow had managed to break her down into her component parts. Which, to be fair, she had always threatened to do.
Gideon’s right hand had returned to its now-familiar landing place, to the base of Harrow’s skull. Their legs twined. The bond between them was singing.
“Griddle,” Harrow said, her voice in pieces. “What now?”
Gideon thought she understood what she meant. The answer to that question was no answer at all: now we just get to keep living. But what she said was, “What do you mean, ‘what now?’ We stay here and do that again, and again after that. Harrow, I don’t know about you, but I’m not leaving this bed until BOE kicks the door down.”
“I’m not leaving,” Harrow said, as if Gideon had suggested anything else, and the hands they were running over each other, Gideon could hardly tell them apart. “Hedonist,” Harrow added.
“I do two hundred push-ups every morning, but sure,” Gideon’s voice hitched when Harrow’s fingers examined the her pectorals, and then the softer flesh of her nipple, “since— yikes— your idea of fun— used to be to bleed out your ears and faint inside a bone, okay, I’ll let you call me a hedonist.”
“Did you have any idea it would be like this?”
Gideon could only shake her head.
Harrow closed her eyes, the way she once had in prayer. She gave up talking— pressed her face into Gideon’s chest, a kiss that flattened her nose, trying to hold in the way her body wanted to cry. Gideon could tell. But it was ok. It was so much more than ok. Gideon rocked them closer together, arms tightening, and finally, finally made herself start talking. Don’t fuck it up now, Nav, she thought, as if she could. As if the mess they’d made of themselves wasn’t absolutely perfect, as if they were fragile.
“You were right,” Gideon whispered, “when you said I didn’t understand Lyctorhood, of course you were. How were we supposed to know? But it doesn’t matter—” The words were still sticking inside her, somehow. “Maybe I didn’t know the, the real depth of it, and I’m still not sure I see the breadth of it even now, but you know that I love you? Harrow, you know I’ve been so in love with you— That’s all this is. As high as my soul can reach with your soul, call it what you like, Lyctorhood, whatever, it’s just me being in love with you. On purpose. I’ll always love you. Even if all I do for the rest of my life is breathe, that’ll be me loving you, all the way through.”
“I know,” Harrow said, her voice faint with something like awe. “You’ve told me.”
“Not really,” Gideon managed. “I should have. I told you in every other way there was, except to say it.”
“For half my life, I believed I knew exactly what it meant to be in love,” Harrow answered. “Until I loved you. And even then, not, I think, until now. Until it could just be this. When there was nothing, all of a sudden, to hold me back.” Harrow fixed her Lyctoral gaze upon Gideon, and intoned, “I had no idea that love could mean anything other than an ending.”
The sweat on their skin was drying, cooling, by the time they could speak again; Gideon piled up the blankets. Harrow was running a finger along Gideon’s neck when she frowned, and said, “Hect might try to look for us.”
“I will bet you my sword that she will not,” Gideon assured her, recalling Cam’s pointed exasperation. “I have it on good authority that she had plenty of friends in the Alexandrites, if you know what I mean.”
“I’m not sure I want to,” Harrow muttered.
“If you really need to get back to work,” Gideon offered dutifully, “you can. Well, obviously you can. Maybe not right away? But if—”
“No,” Harrow said. “If Sextus has locked me out, on his head be it. In any case, I must change my mindset. When Eden does find us, they’ll wait as long as I make them. To wear ourselves out in preparation for them meanwhile, only gives them an early advantage.”
“Good.” Gideon indulged in a squeeze to Harrow’s butt. “Because I would pay cash money not to get dressed again. I think some of my clothes are still back by the pool.”
“And I-- would rather stay.” Harrow bit her lip. “Personally I am hoping they’ll find you tits-out like this,” she continued, as if this had always been her plan. “I can’t think of a better way to start our negotiations with the upper hand.”
Gideon giggled. It bubbled out of her as if she’d never had the opportunity to laugh before, and only got worse when Harrow giggled with her. The sound of Harrowhark Nonagesimus, the Saint of Redemption, giggling— a sound never before heard in the whole fucking universe— was more than enough to explode Gideon’s heart in her chest. There was no stopping after that, not in any case until their caresses turned back into sex, but for minutes on end they were helpless: laughing at nothing and at everything, shrouded in moth-eaten wool as if by honeysuckle, passing kisses with smiles in them back and forth like wild grapes.