The pale, early morning light wasn’t bright, but it stung Gideon’s eyes as soon as she opened them, sending a hot jab of pain through her head like a bullet and, a second later, a wave of nausea to her stomach. She clamped her eyes shut in an attempt to fall back into blissful unconsciousness. The throbbing behind her eyes persisted, in fact, getting more insistent every second. With a small groan, Gideon rolled over. She intended to bury her stupid, useless, throbbing head in the crook of her girlfriends’ neck, earn a few sleepy kisses to the top of her head, and, maybe, if she was very lucky, catch a precious few more hours of sleep, maybe even wake up refreshed. What she found instead was a cold mattress and absolutely no Harrow in sight. Shit.
It was Friday, which meant eight AM Anatomy lab for her, apparently masochistic, girlfriend and a shift at the cafe for her, perpetually working, self. Gideon felt a bit like screaming. Maybe kicking her legs for a second. Potentially punching something. Not that any of that would help the nauseating pounding in her skull, nor would it magically transport Harrow back here to baby her in the way she always pretended to hate and Harrow always pretended she wasn’t doing. Ignoring the swooping feeling in her gut, Gideon got up. Their apartment was small, a cheap one bedroom where everything was a little too old to function properly, but to Gideon, who had rarely had anything to call hers growing up, it was everything. It was crowded and all of their furniture was from Goodwill or IKEA, but it made her heart swell every time she got to call it her own, or better yet theirs, affirming that they were a unit.
The small bathroom counter was messy, and Gideon had to move a makeup wipe to get to the toothpaste. This was clear evidence of an early morning Harrow who had probably woken up an hour before she needed to and left in a hurry anyway.
She got ready for work without turning any of the lights on, trying to move her head as little as possible. This was an unfortunately common routine for Gideon, who thought it was very possible that banging her head full force into a concrete wall until she passed out would hurt less. Harrow had told her that, in her clinical opinion, it probably wouldn’t. She’d explained the theories behind why migraines happen once and, although Gideon had followed for the most part, the overall point of them seemed to be ‘yeah your brain’s a little fucked up. Good luck lol’ which wasn’t exactly comforting or helpful. Harrow had solemnly agreed.
Her shift passed in a dreamy haze of white hot pain spurred on by too-strong smells, too-bright lights, and too-loud voices. Her manager, Camilla, had (albeit rather begrudgingly) offered to let her clock out early, clearly able to see that Gideon was not operating at max functionality. She’d turned down the offer. She couldn’t afford to skip class, anyway, and she certainly couldn’t afford to lose the hours. Camilla, who was a grad student and who Gideon wasn’t entirely sure ever slept, seemed to acknowledge and respect the sheer determination.
By the time Gideon sank into her regular seat, the voices of the 200 other people in her afternoon art history lecture were an almost welcome buzz in the background of her pain-addled thoughts. She tried her best to take notes, but the two Excedrin she’d downed with a—truly inadvisable—amount of cold brew seemed to have done nothing. She managed to stay upright through the rest of the lecture, muddled her way through a criminology quiz that she was fairly sure she’d failed miserably, and counted down the seconds to her stop on the bus ride back to her apartment.
Harrow wouldn’t be home until later that night. Gideon wanted very badly to text her and ask her to skip her last lecture, to cheat out on a night of studying at the library, to come home and sit in a dark room with her so she wouldn’t have to be alone with her stupid split open head anymore. She wouldn’t do that, though. She knew late nights in the campus library with Ianthe were an important part of Harrow’s strict study plan, a plan that would culminate with an exceptional MCAT score, a perfect science GPA, and acceptance letters to multiple competitive medical programs across the country. Still, she would have very much liked to beg Harrow to come home for her own selfish reasons, not to mention the simple pleasure of pissing Ianthe off.
Instead, she opted for a quick text asking Harrow how her biochem quiz had gone and tucked her phone into her jacket pocket.
The cool almost-winter air felt nice against her over-warm skin as Gideon climbed the two flights of stairs to their apartment. She realized, distantly, that her hands were shaking as she unlocked the door and stepped inside the—wonderfully dark and quiet—apartment. She tried for dinner, but the thought of cooking seemed like far too much effort, and even the granola bar she tried to nibble on made her stomach lerch unpleasantly. She rested her forehead against the cool surface of a cabinet door and closed her eyes trying to focus on breathing, trying to shut out the pounding, screaming pain behind her eyes and the rocking in her stomach. In and out and in and ou- fuck . The wave of nausea hit her and she stumbled her way to the bathroom. Puking was an unpleasantly common part of Gideons’ life. On particularly bad days, it felt like her entire world narrowed to cool linoleum underneath her and the sharp taste of stomach acid in her mouth.
After she was done reliving her morning coffee (much worse the second time), Gideon slumped against the bathroom wall. She was much too tired and in too much pain to move from her spot on the floor, but she reached up to flick off the overhead light. She floated in a grey fog of near-delirious, throbbing pain. It seemed like only minutes had passed, but it must have been longer because when she came back to mostly-consciousness, it was to footsteps and Harrow’s cool fingers against her cheek.
“Hey,” she said, looking blearily up at Harrow.
“Fuck, Griddle,” Harrow said by way of greeting. She was in trouble then. Not real trouble, but the kind that Harrow was in when she didn’t eat for too long or stayed up all night studying, the ‘please don’t hurt someone I love’ kind. The childhood nickname still made appearances, usually when Harrow was teasing her or if they were in a low grade fight, but she was generally ‘Gideon’ now. She knew Harrow wasn’t actually mad at her, she was probably upset that she hadn’t gotten a text about Gideon’s infirmity though. “What did you do?”
“Mmm…nothing. I had a bad day. My head hurts.” Gideon replied, this all felt a little dreamy, if the dream involved someone driving a pickaxe through your temples.
“Ah, I can see that,” Harrow gently brushed Gideon’s hair back from her forehead and pressed her cool fingertips against her temples, “did you take your medication?”
“Out.” Harrow cursed softly.
Harrow was sitting on the floor in front of her, so Gideon took the opportunity to rest her head in Harrow’s lap, curling in on herself.
“Did you eat?” She winced a little and shook her head slowly, so as not to make the throbbing worse. “Okay,” She was stroking back the hair by her ear, and Gideon relished the touch, “let’s get you to bed. You can’t take anything on an empty stomach, I’ll make something.” She had a way of laying out information, of detaching herself and forming a reasonable plan of action. Gideon knew Harrow was going to make an amazing doctor, but she did hope that one day she wouldn’t be the one in need of treatment. Harrow helped her off the bathroom floor as best she could—the height and resultant weight difference between them made this a little challenging—and down the hall to the bedroom. She tucked the blankets up around her chin. Gideon pulled her arm out of the covers to find Harrow’s hand and loosely gripped her fingers. She felt like a petulant child, but she said,
“Don’t go, please.”
“You have to eat, I’ll be right back.” Harrow kissed her forehead, her cheekbone, and, for good measure, her lips. She left the bedroom and Gideon closed her eyes. It felt good to be horizontal on a soft surface, but she longed for Harrow to come back. Instead of becoming fully, truly pathetic and calling out for her, she settled for listening to the soft sounds of Harrow moving through their apartment. Moving in together had been a long time coming by the time they started their third year of college. Coronabeth had finally put her foot down somewhere in the middle of sophomore year and told Gideon that she either needed to move in with Harrow or make her start paying rent due to the amount of time they spent tucked together on the couch of the apartment that Gideon and Coronabeth shared. Although Gideon liked living with Coronabeth and enjoyed her friendship very much, it had been an easy decision. Now, listening to Harrow make what sounded like toast, Gideon felt warm and bubbly inside despite the splitting headache. It was easy with Harrow. It hadn’t always been, and she tried her best not to take the current state of their relationship for granted. They both knew all too well that good things could be ripped away in an instant.
This train of thought was interrupted by Harrow coming back, now bearing toast, a glass of water, and what were probably painkillers. She set the items down before crawling into bed with Gideon and pulling her in close.
“Are you feeling any better?” She asked.
“A little,” Gideon wasn’t fully lying, something in her had quieted as it always did when Harrow held her, but she also knew that wasn’t the question, “well, I guess not really.”
“Can you eat?” Gideon made a noise of assent and took the toast when it was offered to her. She ate it in small bites, focusing more on where Harrows’ thumb was stroking her shoulder. The touch was grounding and the toast was very close to being nauseating. When she sat up fully to take the pills, the world spun awfully around her, and she swallowed them as quickly as she could. A small crease formed between Harrow’s brows as she watched her, and she pulled her back in, resting her chin on top of Gideon’s head.
“I hate it,” Gideon said, resenting how small her voice sounded.
“I know, love.” Love . Pet names were a rarity, and still difficult for both of them. Gideon tried to focus on the liquid warmth that spread through her chest at it instead of the fact that her brain felt like soup.
“I feel so trapped and helpless and, god, it hurts so fucking bad, Harrow.” She was rather horrified to find tears pricking the corners of her eyes. Fuck, she really did sound like a petulant child, and she couldn’t make herself shut up, “It hurts, and I just want it to go away.” There were tears on her face now, not a lot, but definitely there. Harrow brushed them away, painfully gentle. Gideon turned her face in, hiding in the safety and comfort of the crook of Harrow’s neck. She smelled like soap and salt and home .
“I know, I know, I’m sorry,” her voice was quiet as she worked her fingers through Gideon’s hair, massaging her scalp.
“I’m just so tired.” Gideon didn’t mean she needed to sleep, she didn’t need rest, although it probably wouldn’t hurt. She needed a moment when her head wasn’t being carved open by invisible swords, when her stomach wasn’t rocking, when she wasn’t fighting against light and sound. Harrow seemed to understand this, too, because all she did was make a soft humming noise and plant a kiss on her forehead. The hands in Gideon’s hair felt nice, the firm and gentle touch easing some of the pressure in her skull.
“Tell me about your day.” Gideon said. She needed a distraction, a lifeline to follow. Harrow obliged, keeping her voice low and steady.
“Anatomy lab sucked,” Gideon let out a soft, amused breath, “the TAs kept us the full time. Ianthe was pissed.”
“Of course she was,”
“We were learning about the endocrine system, I thought she’d be happy. Well, then I had to practically sprint to biochem, it was raining, my eyeliner got smudged,” —“tragic”—“yes quite upsetting.” Harrow’s voice continued, but it eventually became background noise. A comforting presence more than a sound. Gideon couldn’t pinpoint the moment she fell asleep, but when she woke it was with the triumphant realization that the ache in her head had dulled to a distant nuisance. She looked up at Harrow, who seemed to be watching a recorded lecture on her phone with one earbud in and the brightness all the way down.
Bless her stupid dedicated considerate soul. Harrow set her phone down and wormed herself down until they were face to face on the pillow.
“How do you feel?”
“Better. A lot better. What time is it?”
“9:40ish. You feel up to eating something other than toast?”
“Hm, absolutely ,” Gideon said, wiggling her eyebrows up and down in what she hoped was a suggestive manner.
“Oh, that is not what I meant.” Harrow said, but leaned in to kiss her anyway.
Harrow went to pull away after a quick, chaste kiss, but Gideon pulled her back in with a hand on the nape of her neck. When they met, Harrow was the one to part her lips and deepen the kiss. Gideon pulled her impossibly closer, reveling in the uncomplicated closeness. They had been dating for almost two years, but every kiss was sparks and warmth flooding her heart. She was still amazed she got to do this, that she was allowed. She rolled over and straddled Harrow, kissing down her jawline and neck. Harrow was laughing, that giddy, unrestrained, easy laugh that Gideon so rarely got to hear. That she would fight every single one of their demons and suffer a billion migraine ridden days to hear one time. Harrow gently pushed her away from her neck, cupping Gideon’s face with both hands. Her dark eyes still crinkled in the corners from smiling. She pulled Gideon down for a last kiss before wrapping her arms tightly around her.
Gideon relaxed, letting her head rest on Harrow’s collar bone. It had taken Harrow a long time to convince her that, no, she would not suffocate, nor would she crack any important bones if Gideon lay on top of her; that she liked the pressure and warmth it provided. Gideon had found that she liked it because it generally meant comforting circles were rubbed on her back; she was pleased when this pattern continued.
“I hate seeing you like that,” Harrow said, quite vehemently. Gideon sighed.
“It’s not great for me either.”
“Mm,” Harrow mused, “you know you can always text me, you’re more important than studying with Ianthe.” This phrasing stroked a very particular part of Gideon’s ego, but she figured it would be best not to mention that. Harrow and Ianthe had never officially been together , but Gideon had walked in on a rather sober Ianthe trying to kiss a rather intoxicated Harrow during their freshman year, and, even though Harrow had turned her face away, Gideon had never quite been able to look past it on Ianthe’s part. They had been roommates, after all, and she was unsure of whether or not the almost-kiss had had precedent.
“It—studying—it’s important to you,” she said, “not to mention, I’m a grown up. I should be able to take care of myself.”
“You can, but you don’t have to.” Gideon released a small breath. This had been an area of, if not tension, then debate, between them and it spanned multiple contexts and areas. Gideon was self-sufficient to a fault. Being raised as an orphan between several foster and group homes had taught her to rely on herself and only herself. Harrow was not exactly one to aspire to in the field or asking for help, but had become more quickly open to the idea as time went on.
“I know…I…I’m trying to ask, to know when to ask but…”
“But it’s hard. It’s difficult and vulnerable and terrifying to let someone know you want or need anything.” She spoke quietly, and Gideon knew Harrow was speaking from experience. She knew that, although Harrow had grown up in her early life with parental figures, they had been distant at best and completely absent at worst. And, when her father had hung himself when Harrow was eleven, her mother had disappeared into herself so completely she may as well have been dead too. Gideon would never forget Harrow dutifully getting her mother dressed and ready for church every Sunday, snapping at Gideon for the mere suggestion of assistance. So, yes, Harrow spoke from experience, which made her right, which meant Gideon might have to actually concede, damn .
It had never been a fight, but Gideon let Harrow win as she said,
“So, I’ll text you, then.” Her stomach chose that moment to growl, and Harrow, who apparently found either this, Gideon’s wording, or both, very funny began to laugh again. Gideon kissed her to shut her up, which only made Harrow laugh more.
“Okay, okay,” Gideon nuzzled against Harrow’s ear and, in her most seductive voice, whispered, “I want Indian food.”
“I love you.”
Gideon sat up and stared down at her. They had said it, after two years of dating of course they had. A million times in a million different ways and touches and looks. They had even said the exact words, but so few precious times that it still felt like the first time every time. It was certainly the first time it had slipped out of either of them so casually, like she couldn’t hold it back. Harrow looked just shy of mortified, her cheeks and the tips of her ears were pink.
“I love you too, you dork. So much.” Gideon didn’t struggle to say it. She didn’t stumble over the words and, to her great surprise, she didn’t feel even a slight twinge of fear at them.
The last time they had exchanged the words had been on a night that Gideon would rather forget. She remembered the sick twisting horror of being completely helpless as she watched Harrow’s carefully constructed veneer crumble. Some distant part of her brain had registered it as a panic attack, a response to stimuli, but she didn’t have Harrow’s ability to detach. She was watching numbly as Harrow clawed at her skin, creating angry red lines, as she gasped for breath. Some part of her brain had finally jump-started, allowing her to hold Harrow’s hands as tightly as she dared and whisper whatever thoughts crossed her brain, anything to get Harrow to breathe. Later, Harrow had said she loved her too.
This was nothing like that night. She would do anything to prevent that from happening again. Harrow, who, after 20 years, could read Gideon without even trying, seemed to sense the shift in her mood. It was quite possible that she even knew the memory Gideon was thinking of, because she let the shadow of a crease form between her eyebrows before she sat up and kissed Gideon’s temple.
“What’re we thinking, delivery right? Chicken tikka masala or tandoori?”
Gideon took the assignment of picking out dishes very seriously, and pored over the menu until Harrow threatened to choose at random if she didn’t hurry up. They trudged their way out to the living room to await dinner, and Gideon shuffled her way through at least three streaming services before she found something suitable to watch. Harrow curled up next to her, her head on Gideon’s shoulder. Gideon wrapped one arm around her, pulling her in.
“You love me.”
“You loooooove me,” this earned her a jab to the ribs, albeit a half hearted one.
She rested her head on top of Harrow’s and tried her best to focus on the TV.
Saturday morning was easy. It was waking up warm and comfortable. It was kissing Harrow until she made a vague threat involving the phrases “touch me now or” and “eye socket”. It was pancakes with entirely too much syrup for Gideon and entirely not enough for Harrow. And, most importantly, it was whispered “I love you, I love you, I love you”s with every breath.