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“Gideon.”

It is Gideon now. Not Griddle, not Nav. Gid-e-on. It comes out of Harrowhark’s mouth tasting bad, like her tongue isn’t sure how to form the sounds. Gideon takes it anyway.

“Yeah?”

“Come here.” A pause, then, “Please.”

Gideon complies, because the novelty of please is still astonishing.

She lies down on the four-poster next to Harrow, at least a foot and half apart from her, and stares at the drapes. It’s awkward, and she tries not to tap her fingers or fidget while she loses her eyes in the grey smudges of night and contemplates whether she is supposed to go to sleep now, or what. And whether Harrow is asleep. Her necromancer’s breathing is regular but not deep, and the mournful whisper of it brushes over her.

She isn’t asleep when Harrow shuffles close, and Gideon’s every instinct tries to drag herself away from the encroaching body and off the bed. But she holds still, because today has been interesting enough that Harrow might not be trying to murder her right now.

But still the recollection of Harrowhark, Reverend Daughter, makes her inwardly recoil when Harrow, pathetic penitent, slips even closer. They touch where their arms are bare and the cold contact of skin on skin makes Gideon shiver, but she doesn’t jerk away and neither does Harrow, which is the most interesting thing of all.

Gideon can hear her chewing on the inside of her mouth and pulls a face. Oh, good. That means there’s more emotional outpourings, more confessions of villainy, and even yet more ragged clumps of self-loathing still to come. She’s tired, but it’s not really about her, never really been about her, and she sighs.

“Spit it out.”

“I never hated you. I hated the idea of you, and what you meant. You have to know that.”

Misunderstanding begets fear. Fear breeds hate. Hate has bonded them better than friendship ever could.

“Glad we’ve cleared that up, my sepulchral monarch. For the record, I still kind of hate you.”

Harrow huffs, because she knows she deserves it. Then she does something that makes Gideon want to slough her entire skin off and wash it in acid.

She draws herself even closer. Pressing into Gideon, settling her tiny twig of a body into the thick crook of Gideon’s shoulder and resting her head high on her chest. Not exactly pillowed on her tits, but close enough to hear her heartbeat thundering dangerously loud.

“I know, Gideon.”

Gideon’s arm automatically goes round her and tugs her tight.

They stay like that for what could be forever or could be five minutes. It’s difficult to tell, but she knows they don’t sleep because every once in a while Harrow shudders like she’s going to be sick. She’s long worked out that Harrow hates being touched. Harrow isn’t used to being touched, because who is left on the Ninth that would touch her? The murderous aunts? The decrepit, obsequious nuns? Her skeleton playthings? Crux? Miss Sleeping Beauty of the Locked Tomb?

Certainly not the parents who would rather kill themselves over their child’s blasphemy than examine their own culpability, or soothe the guilt-smeared psychopath they spawned. Oh no. Lots to unpack there, and not a task for tonight.

Gideon isn’t used to being touched either, but she’s had a lot more chances at it than Harrow. Granted, it was mostly touches like Harrow stepping on her or being sent to the mat by Aiglamene, but actual physical contact doesn’t bother her half as much as it does Harrow. In fact, she reckons she rather likes it, remembering how she’d leaned into Dulcinea’s gently wilting fingers without a second thought.

And with biceps like hers she knows she must give great hugs, and maybe one day she’ll get a chance to prove it without earning a beating or being treated like a great oaf committing some casual atrocity.

But when she hugs Harrow - and she’s hugged her like, three times now by her count - it’s similar to poking an animal with a stick while the animal plays dead. Gideon muses on that. That’s Harrow’s reaction to a lot of things, to play dead. It’s very on-brand.

Except earlier in the pool, where she’d thrashed with her body and her words to the point of exhaustion. Gideon has never seen her so animated, so wounded, so feral. Didn’t know she’d had it in her.

Harrow plays dead in her arms tonight but Gideon doesn’t release her because Harrow initiated this for a reason, and there’s got to be more shit ready to pour out of that perfectly horrid little mouth. And while Gideon quietly despairs at the prospect of what that could even entail - of what could be worse than war crime - her heart’s doing weird flexes, like it’s getting ready for an extended bout of tenderness.

So she’s pumped and ready when Harrow lifts her head and looks at her. They are close enough that even in the barely-there light Gideon can see the creases in her forehead and the liquid sheen on her black eyes. Most of her paint came off in the pool and she’s made a cursory attempt to clean the rest, but there are still flecks of muddied grey about her hairline and around her eyes and caking her nostrils.

It occurs to Gideon that she’s one of maybe a half dozen people to have ever seen Harrow’s unpainted, unveiled face. It’s frighteningly intimate.

“Gideon?”

“Yes, o’ benighted one?”

“Would you kiss me?”

What?

Gideon blinks, once, twice, and then because she doesn’t really know what else to do, and because Harrow asked, she presses her lips to the bridge of her necromancer’s pointy nose, like she did before.

And then again. And once to her forehead. And tries not to think about how warm Harrow’s skin is beneath her lips, because Harrowhark Nonagesimus is supposed to be an ice-cold bitch.

Harrow’s frowning at her. She can feel the crinkle of her brow as she pulls away.

“Oh.”

What the fuck is that supposed to mean? It seems like Harrow is going to settle back down into her chest without any further explanation, but her mouth is turned downwards in a sad slump that looks a little like disappointment. Gideon’s brain likes this idea, because it feels like winning.

But she’s so far beyond the pale now, and probably going to be eviscerated by revenants or impossible constructs in the morning anyway, so being killed by Harrow for making assumptions or crossing a line - that was until a few hours ago a comfortably wide chasm complete with caution tape and big warning signs - doesn’t seem so scary.

She dips her face recklessly, and kisses the bitch right on the lips, and waits to die.

But Gideon doesn’t die, and Harrow explodes into life. Hesitantly, like the first flower after the frosts, or something equally insipid from Gideon’s comics.

Harrow kisses Gideon back, closed-mouthed and firm, and Gideon’s arms curl about her even tighter and oh, okay, they are doing this.

Harrow slithers on top of her fully, and it’s strange how she fits snugly into the bow of Gideon’s body, stripped of most of her necromantic accoutrements. The corslet of bone, the exoskeletal stays are discarded for the night along with their outer robes and it’s just a few thin layers of rough black spin pressed between them. There’s still some ossiferous material clinking at her wrists and studded in her ears, but the only sharp edges are Harrow herself.

It’s shockingly, perilously trusting of her. Gideon finds herself disarmed and not even rueful about it.

It’s not going to end well.

If they were anyone else they could pack this all away neatly in the morning, without a thought to what it means. Some minor awkwardness and a bit of mutual stress relief, a natural reaction to an emotional ordeal.

Maybe they would even have a normal, adult conversation about it. With normal rules and normal boundaries and normal things that Gideon is assured that normal people do, like not poisoning each other, or not working bone dust beneath a person’s eyelids until they scream.

But they aren’t normal; they are burdened with one flesh and one end and one lifetime of misunderstanding. Gideon’s carried their baggage all the way from the Ninth to the First; it’s too heavy with shit to stuff this in too.

They are just them, same as always, and they’re still only a single conversation past saturated loathing and Harrow’s lips are spent on remorse and Gideon’s not quite shaping forgiveness.

What it means is that they’ve only gone and snarled up whatever tenuous thread of understanding has lingered between them all day. It flutters wildly, like the cords on a parachute pulled far too early.

They are past the point of go-no-go, and all that’s left is to crash horribly.

Harrow leads their fall, open-mouthed now and with an uncomfortably soft and curious tongue.

Naughty Nuns of the Ninth never prepared Gideon for this. She’s never had to consider how many teeth she has before, or where to put her own tongue, or if she’s somehow producing too much spit. The models in those pages just seemed to get on with it, perfunctory, before getting on with other stuff.

And while Gideon might have practised with a pillow, once or twice, she’s pretty sure that Harrow’s never even thought about kissing before tonight. Either way, they clearly have no idea what they are doing and the kiss is terrible, and wonderful.

Gideon’s large hands roam aimlessly on Harrow’s back, between salt-crusted hair and scapulae that are as horned as bone knives, before settling light as dust above the hard jut of her hips.

She doesn’t go any lower, doesn’t dare to brush that barely-there curve. And every now and then Harrow shivers, or flinches and squeaks a bit, and Gideon stops every action of her hands and her lips until Harrow starts kissing her again.

They are both breathing heavily and there’s definitely something worrisome going on in the deep pit of Gideon’s gut, amplified ten thousand times when bony fingers breach the barrier of her clothing to splay across her abdomen.

And it’s her turn to flinch and squeak, embarrassingly high-pitched. Harrow withdraws her hand, but it isn’t long before it’s back and this time Gideon is ready and curves her body up into it a little bit, and into the unknown space of her necromancer’s intention.

Harrow curves into her too, scarcely, before pulling back onto her knees and staring down at Gideon as she straddles her muscled thighs. Her blessed torturer is flushed, which looks all kinds of wrong on her otherwise bloodless skin, and she’s biting her cheek again.

Her fingers are still on Gideon’s abs beneath her shirt, brushing over them with an absence akin to enrapture - despite evidence to the contrary Harrow is still human, after all - then she pushes her hand upwards a little, slowly rucking up Gideon’s shirt.

Gideon gets ahead of the idea and lifts herself enough for four sets of fingers to wriggle the garment up and over her head, then collapses back into the bed.

Harrow is looking at her carefully in the gloom, mouth pursed and eyes shrewd, and Gideon wonders if she’s idly counting her ribs or calculating the weight of the bones beneath her skin. But when Harrow puts her hand respectfully on Gideon’s left tit she realises it’s just that Harrow is, clearly, a boob girl.

“You are magnificent, aren’t you, Griddle?”

“Gid-e-on.”

“Yes. Yes, you are.”

Gideon grins, and the necromancer perishes back into the bulwark of her cavalier’s arms. They kiss some more, only now it’s with the distraction of Harrow’s mean skinny fingers squeezing handfuls of flesh and pinching at her nipple. It’s making that warmth in her gut spark dangerously, deliciously.

The memory of a thousand agonies scream at her to stop, but she chooses not to hear it over the blood boiling in her ears and the tiny victory bell of Harrow moaning into her mouth.

Harrow, who kisses her with strange appetite and then breaks from her lips to investigate the full line of her neck from earlobe to clavicle and back again and back again and back again. She pauses over Gideon’s pulse point, like she’s considering a career switch into blood magic. And mercy, Gideon would give Harrow every drop of it right now if she’d stop deliberating and do something with her mouth.

Then her mouth is doing something, whispering an invocation so insubstantial that Gideon thinks it’s only partly for her.

“Let me unmake you, once more.”

Gideon is Gideon, and simply says, “Try me, creep.”

Just like that, Harrow is moving again amidst humid breath and a drag of teeth. Down past the divot of Gideon’s throat to the hard ridge of her sternum, and then to the gravity-flattened curve of her right breast and to her taut, unmolested nipple, where that mouth closes about her hard.

And Gideon lets out an ungodly moan.

And Harrow mumbles, “Oh, Gideon.”

It’s an exclamation of surprise and it comes dripping with pity, and Gideon doesn’t have time to understand what that means before Harrow’s mouth is on her again.

Gideon moans even louder, unrelenting and unrepentant.

Harrow’s shoulders shake and her breath comes in stutters before she attacks again. The laugh is low and rich and evil with triumph and not at all like Gideon had imagined it to be - she’d imagined a hag’s cackle, like the dry wheezing of the ancient nuns or the rattling of knucklebones in a pouch - and it exists but for a moment that Harrow will never admit to.

It brings understanding that this is how Gideon’s going to die; far from her old dreams of the Cohort, far from the familiar grimness of the Ninth, locked away in this ancient murder house with her necromancer tugging and nipping at her fucking tits.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus has found her weakness and it’s not a bad way to go, really.

Harrow’s fingers are soon creeping across her abdomen again, and further down. She’s not waiting for permission, because Gideon gave that years ago and in every way she knew how. By taking the oath, by refusing to die, by refusing to make each escape attempt the one that counted. Harrow was right in one thing; she came here as a slave, but she’s remade into a willing one every time their animosity reveals its truth.

It’s strange, inverted, something she has begged to call guilt or even sympathy but it’s always just the silver at the back of the mirror. They got it backwards.

Unconscionably, Gideon thinks it might be love.

And then Harrow’s in her pants and nothing seems to matter any more. She groans and rolls her hips into it, and she’s not even embarrassed about how pathetically wet she is down there.

Harrow’s fingers stutter when they find the slick, and her mouth sags open in a moan of her own. She swallows hard to contain it; Gideon can see the small muscles working in her throat. And then the smaller, rarely-used muscles that pull a smile.

It makes her beautiful, and Gideon rolls her head back to avoid being blinded.

Not that she should worry, when she is going to die anyway. Kissing is one thing, but Gideon is very aware that they are getting on with the other stuff now, and the things the flimsy has told her seem suddenly, wildly incomplete. Those dirty comics were wrong about a lot of things.

Like how she can only whimper when Harrow’s fingers drag across her. Like how those touches she craves can be too much and not enough at the same time, and how she feels them all the way to her toes. Like how she aches with a hunger that makes her needy - and she’s starved before but this is something else - and makes her body refuse her commands.

She’s spreading her legs without a thought, as much as she can with Harrow’s small weight pressing down on her, in a vain plea for more, now, please.

The fingers on her won’t give her what she needs. They skirt about, circling slowly until she’s twitching, then drawing back and pressing in a way that makes her gasp and swear. There’s no pattern, yet still a certain cursed predictability to it.

Gideon has the feeling she’s being mapped, learned. Understandable.

If this is new to Gideon - who has at least tried her own fingers on for size from time to time - then it’s doubly new to Harrow, and a quick glance at the necromancer’s shadowed face confirms it. The macabre, intimate knowledge that comes with being a student of the dead can only take one so far and there’s a slight pinch between those rodent brows. It’s familiar; an appearance of almost disdainful concentration, like she’s working out a theorem that refuses to obey her.

One flesh.

Harrow is testing her, and if they were ever inclined to be affectionate about it, it would be called teasing.

And oh, with the way Harrow’s got her thumb stilled over her clit right now, it might be torture too.

The tools of torture stroke lower. Gideon keens, and Harrow pushes into her with her cruel, clever, long fingers and it’s like every bit of ecstasy she’s ever earned has been saved for this moment. She gulps too much air. Starless eyes lock to hers, and there’s that awful, atrophied smile again, the tiniest concession before her destruction.

Harrow drags her fingers down and almost all the way out, and then presses back in without pause. Again and again, for minutes on end. Stroking inside her more than thrusting, the heel of Harrow’s small hand pressed firmly against her. Finding a pace steady enough to make Gideon squirm, an angle that makes her moan and flutter and fuck, practically pour with arousal.

It’s a relentless assault of rapier sharp and pointed bliss and Gideon succumbs to each and every strike and feint. Takes her defeat and bends for her branding; a scourge of white-hot pleasure that makes the whole line of her body arch into it, shoulder to hip.

Her necromancer certainly seems to have perfected her theorem. Harrow might be a bone adept - and there would be so many jokes flying right now if only Gideon could form words - but the unnerving precision of her fingertips is making even the most revered flesh adepts look like clumsy novitiates.

Gideon can’t form words, only work her throat into louder and louder noises and nonsenses and Harrow.

Harrow pushes her other hand roughly over Gideon’s mouth to quiet her. Gideon promptly bites it, because even on the brink of death there are some habits which go to the grave. Harrow hisses and draws her hand up as if to slap Gideon, but she arrests herself at the peak of her draw and brings that palm down slowly to caress her cheek instead, and it’s like being flayed alive.

And Harrow quiets Gideon with her mouth instead, swallows her whole, Harrow and all.

She was wrong. It’s not like falling, it’s like drowning.

The fingers within her move faster now; harder, with far less attentiveness but no less care. And there’s a bite to the touch, like lactic burn or the too-sweet drippings of dessert, every time Harrow rocks her wrist. It builds, sensation piled atop sensation, pressing against the limits of Gideon’s experience. Her nerves split with it, taking everything but the pressure and her fingers grapple desperately into Harrow’s shirt for something to ground her.

Harrow’s hips are nudging into the thrusting motions, and she’s making breathless little panting noises into their kiss - the witch is so out of shape - and then mumbling something that might be her name, might be blasphemy, might be the blasted litany of the Tomb for all Gideon cares.

And then she does say Gideon, and God, and please, and crooks her fingers like it’s a command, and Gideon comes like a fucking rocket beneath her.

If Gideon is not blasted into the sun, to be burnt up and reborn as a shooting star, then at the very least she achieves orbit with all of her little fragments streaking incandescent about her. She lives for her doom, in a way she’s only ever lived once before, lying shattered on the steps of the avulsion chamber. But here the certainty does not drain, it affirms, and if Gideon’s heart had a brain to think with, she’d think that Harrow was pushing everything she ever took back into her.

Don’t be a sap, says the fried detritus of Gideon’s actual brain, and her heart eventually shrugs and agrees. She just had a stunning, mind-blowing, soul-punching orgasm, that’s all. Courtesy of her necromancer. Fuckity fuck, Harrow.

When she returns to her body, and checks her throbbing aorta is still in one smooth piece and her frontal lobe hasn’t been ejected from her skull, she opens her eyes. Harrow is staring at her, slack-jawed but not idiotically, and wiping her fingers a little too zealously on the fabric of Gideon’s pants.

The fiend nods as if to herself, as if settling an idea carefully into place. She leans in to press her lips to Gideon’s forehead, just below her sweat-tangled hairline. It’s unexpected. It’s nice. Harrow must see Gideon’s surprise as she pulls back and she lifts one eyebrow, archly.

“Don’t ruin it, Nav.”

“Harrow. If my heart had a bean you would flick it.”

“Cretin.”

Gideon grins, pleasure-drunk and sloppy. She raises her own brows in what she assumes is a seductive quirk and runs one hand slowly up Harrow’s back, beneath her shirt, taking in the still-surprising warmth and softness of her.

Harrow grunts and rolls her shoulders inwards like she’s trying to curve her skin away without springing completely out of Gideon’s grasp and Gideon stops, completely.

It’s okay. She won’t make this go further, ever, if her necromancer doesn’t want her to.

By the way she prickles atop Gideon, it’s clear that Harrow doesn’t want her to. And it could simply be that her skin is remembering to revolt at another’s touch, once more. But her eyes - odd, glassy, wet - turn aside as though in shame.

In taking off the paint and baring her soul in the salt Harrow has been bold and it shouldn’t be such a step from that to this but perhaps the frightful intimacy of what they are doing, of what the Reverend Daughter has just done, is the step where she stumbles.

Gideon’s seen Harrow naked before, of course. She’d been busy trying not to vomit at the time, to buckle down the pain of two-hundred-and-six broken bones and being boiled alive. But the flaming misery that had scorched through her nerves had also seared the image of Harrow’s uncovered body into her memory, where she’d dumbly filed it in a box marked ‘ammunition for later’ and nothing more.

But even as Gideon noted how skinny and wasted the necromancer was, she’d also seen how delicately formed she was, with fine bones and perfect little handfuls of flesh. And when viewed through the aura of agony rather than the severity of Ninth House paint and voile, how vulnerable she looked.

How afraid. That odd tenderness as she gathered her cavalier to her, and the first inkling of something other than carefully constructed revulsion in Harrow’s impossible black eyes. And that something grew bolder in fits and starts, and burst free in writhing paroxysms in the pool. Bleeding out of her as salty as the water that enveloped them.

Harrow’s chaining it back down now, smothering the shame of it. She schools her face as she always has, like she’s laying her paint on in great, thick layers until they no longer exist beneath the sad crush of duty and no, no, no, Gideon thinks, not like this. If they are going to be all filled up with regrets then this won’t be one of them.

She palms Harrow’s cheeks.

“Say it, Nonagesimus. Say it.”

“One flesh, one end.” It’s petulant, but coming softer on the next breath, “You’re unbelievable.”

“That’s right.”

She kisses Harrow’s hardened face; her brow, her nose, her lips. She lets Harrow kiss her back however she chooses, until Harrow’s body is held in a single long shiver that finds her both recoiling from and pressing against Gideon, all wound up with noises of frustration leaking from her.

“Gideon. I want-” A groan, and then, “Can you-”

It’s broken off, because Harrow has only just learned how to ask and she doesn’t know how to ask for this. And it smacks Gideon as something tragic, that she would sooner say strike me down than show me kindness.

Gideon guides Harrow to her thigh, with hands on her narrow hips and then cupping her non-existent ass through her pants, as gently as she has ever handled anything.

“Here. Try this.”

Harrow withers into her.

Even through layers of cloth Gideon can feel the heat immediately, suggestively damp. Seems that screwing her cav to Dominicus and back has left Harrow so turned on she’s dripping through her pants, and Gideon feels weirdly smug about the whole thing.

But Harrow curves her body slowly against her at first, hesitation stealing the impetus of her arousal. Gideon holds her eye, and that might be the thing that does it. Harrow shudders, but it’s a good shudder, and her mouth drops and she releases a moan that has no business coming from those bloodless lips, and she starts to move.

And where Gideon’s undoing had been a particular deconstruction, Harrow’s is wanton carnage.

She’s a torrent of unleashed energy and yet it is wholly repressed within a single tight band. A focus that Gideon has only ever seen accompanied by blood sweats, and the hairs on her neck standing on end, like she’s drawing the thanergy from every last shard of matter about her and ensorcelling it in her most audacious displays of necromantic power.

She’s pulling herself to pieces by sheer force of will, and it’s the most glorious thing Gideon’s ever seen.

Harrow’s sharp features are intense, raw, and she rocks down on the ungiving press of Gideon’s thigh until she’s shaking, her elbows and all three of her muscles about to give. And Gideon’s there to catch her, when her arms do give and her rolling motions deteriorate into spasmic jerks and her small moans crumble into gasps. Gid-e-on.

Her release is a blasted storm of relief and Gideon just holds her through it, her protection and her folly.

Gideon scavenges for intelligence in the aftermath but Harrow is flopped down, with her face scrunched against Gideon’s upper chest and her breaths coming hot and quick, for what seems like a very long time. Her hands ball at her sides and then nothing. Playing dead. Gideon wonders if her necromancer is even trying to put herself back together, but she waits it out.

Once they’ve cooled a bit and before they become permanently stuck together, Gideon rolls the limp form to one side and dredges the sheets for her discarded shirt. She pulls it on quickly. It’s inside-out and possibly back-to-front, but the comfort she needs to give will be less skin-crawling this way.

Harrow watches her through heavy eyes, inscrutable. But she seems to appreciate it, and lets herself sink back into Gideon’s arms.

It’s not forever but it’s longer than five minutes when Harrow starts to shift again. Tiny motions, distasteful; tiny nudges of her thighs and tiny twitches of her hands, and her nose huffing out a tiny sniff of displeasure.

Gideon gets it. They are sticky and sweaty and still bearing the salt and crusts of paint from the day, and their pants are ruined and she probably stinks - and though Harrow seems to smell only of books and bone ash, as always, there’s the barest hint of humanity beneath. Of sex. Wow.

Harrow lifts her head.

“Gideon? I’m taking a sonic.” She peels herself away. “You should too. I mean. After me. Don’t join me.”

“Wouldn’t think of it, my mortiferous lady.”

It had, in fact, been the first thought to pop into Gideon’s head. She goes with the second.

“Hey, Harrow? Try out the bathtub.”

“The what?